KARIM had the best chat up line in fake Longchamp foldaway travel bags this side of the Champs Elysees (with a detour en route to China) praising their “good stitching, strong straps and zips”, plus “authentic colours” while we haggled on the cobbled laneways of Sidi Bou Said.
Lauded as Tunisia’s most beautiful village the brochures neglect to mention ‘Tourist Trap’ when describing its maze of whitewashed buildings and bright blue doors, overhung with dazzling pink and purple bougainvillea on steep narrow streets that ooze charm. Caught in the grip of a bag that looked just like the ‘real thing’ modelled by a handsome sloe-eyed stall holder who claimed that haggling was so OUF (out of fashion) one could only admire his attitude and buy.
Set high on a cliff with stunning views overlooking the gulf of Tunis about 17 kms north of the capital, Sidi Bou Said is as good an indicator as any of Tunisia’s slow comeback as a tourism destination.
The visitors are trickling back but uncertainties since the Jasmine Revolution at the beginning of 2011 persist.
Package holiday travellers attracted by some of the Med’s best weather, beautiful beaches and exotic culture and history at knockdown prices are still somewhat nervous about choosing Tunisia, which is a pity because they have little to fear.
Sunway, the only Irish tour operator that continued to offer Tunisia during and since the Jasmine revolution, reports that sales are up on last year already and they are hoping to grow the Tunisia market for 2014.
“You could hardly move in these streets with all the tourists before our peaceful revolution,” Karim says. To my mind there was a healthy enough stream of foreigners about in Sidi Bou Said browsing among the souvenir stalls, buying ice-cream, taking in spectacular views from the Cliffside cafes.
“Business is bad, there are not enough visitors and our lives these days are so hard,” he shrugs. “Tunisia is a safe country for visitors. We are friendly people and we need them to come back.”
No wonder, given the hard times they are enduring that on the main square of Sidi Bou Said where all the tourist buses and taxis arrive, hawkers lurk ready to pounce with tons of tiles, hub cap-sized painted dishes and attractive wrought iron birdcages impossible to conceal as carry on board luggage.
After running the gauntlet of the jasmine sellers (it is the sacred flower of Sidi Bou Said and the village is awash with the scent) we adjourned to admire a Cote d’Azur-like vista from Café Delice sampling cool fresh melon and strawberry juices.
It was a bit early to join some of the locals who were sucking meditatively on chichas — Tunisian water pipes that draw tobacco smoke through flasks of perfumed water.
Earlier we pass a heavily guarded shell of a building. It was once the luxury villa of fugitive former President Ben Ali’s brother-in-law and was demolished during the Jasmine Revolution.
On the way to Tunis airport the headquarters of the National Guard looms in the distance. Our driver explains that behind the high railings relatives-in-law of Ben Ali remain under permanent house arrest.
The island of Djerba, known as the Tahiti of Tunisia, lies off the southern coast of Tunisia but is easily accessible by causeway with inexpensive flights from Tunis.
Sipping delicious Tunisian rose wine and enjoying the scent of fragrant jasmine after a blissful flotation in a hot seawater pool at the island’s Radisson Park Inn Ulysse Resort wefelt like we had succumbed to the lotus eaters nirvana.
There is no better way to explore the white sands that go on for miles on Djerba than on horse back, A surly looking camel was a poor alternative. My early morning gentle meander along the shoreline aboard Emir, a gorgeous chestnut thoroughbred with manners to match, as a slight cooling breeze came in from the ocean was wonderful.
The action-filled fish auction in Houmt Souk, a browse of the old market spice and pottery stalls and visits to a few impressive museums specialising in heritage and old customs and artifacts are just some of the attractions here. Tunisian families were queuing up at Djerba Explore, a pleasant park with a open air heritage museum and a impressive collection of Berber jewelry. It also boasts an immense Crocodile park where you can gently pin baby crocs to your shirt ‘Lacoste’-style if you dare.
Armed with only a shovel a crocodile keeper vaulted over the railings and got up close and personal to a line of enormous crocodiles who reared up snapping fearsome jaws before slithering into the water.
He bent down and picked up a crocodile tooth from the ground a few feet away from a man eater and handed it to me as a souvenir. It was a memorable example of Tunisian generosity and graciousness during a rediscovery of this country with so much to offer.
Sunway (01-2311800; www.sunway.ie) have launched a campaign called ‘revisit Tunisia’ with holidays including flights from Dublin and 7 nights B &B from as little as €299. The 3* Samira Club Hotel Hammamet is all inclusive (with drinks) from €399 in April/May. In Sousse the 3* star Marabout hotel costs from €369 to €479 for a week B&B. The 4 star El Mouradi Hammamet Yasmine April/May offers half board from €399. All holidays, inclusive of flights transfers and taxes. Sunway also offers extensive golf and wellness holidays in Tunisia. Connecting flights from Tunis to Djerba costs from €60 return www.tunisairexpress.com.tn. Excursions to Sidi Bou Said and Tunis from Sousse and Hammamet cost approxs €40.
I stayed at the five star Regency Tunis Hotel www.regencytunis.com and in Djerba at the beautiful beach side Park Inn Radisson Hotel and Spa www.parkinn.com/resort-djerba. We visited Dar Dhiafa, a charming boutique hotel, highly prized by Trip Advisor, hidden away in the village of Erriadh where the oldest synagogue in the world can be found. www.hoteldardhiafa.com
Guellala for pottery on Djerba, Houmt Souk market for jewellery, textiles and spices. Sidi Bou Said for imitation designer bags, luggage and decorative bird cages. Be warned, they will try to flog you monstrous stuffed camels and unwieldy waterpipes (chichas).
Try a Briq, an egg deep fried in a triangle of wafer thin pastry and couscous made from Semolina, served with a spicy meat or fish stew. Tunisian Wine, especially Magon red and rose is excellent. Alcohol is more expensive than in non-Muslim countries, Beer is cheaper than wine, around €2.50 a pint. A cappuccino is €1.50 and a bottle of water costs €1. Restaurant Le Haroun near the harbour in Houmt Souk has fantastic sea bass and Tunisian starters.
See www.cometotunisia.co.uk and www.tunisair.com
Burma is becoming an increasingly popular destination and Discover Travel have put on offer a series of guaranteed 12-day tours in June and September, with prices pitched at €2,889 a head. Extended stays can be arranged. Details on www.discovertravel.ie or 021-4635440.
A new “Sleep and Shop Cork Style” package has been introduced at the River Lee Hotel to feature two night’s accommodation and breakfast at €160 per person sharing, with a €100 Brown Thomas voucher. Visit www.doylecollection.com/cork or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A May 31 departure has been set aside by Sunway for a 10-day jaunt to Eastern Canada to include a number of evening meals and a pretty full sightseeing itinerary, including a visit to Niagara Falls. It’s priced at €2,315 per person. Details on www.sunway.ie or by phone on 01-2886828
Project Travel has introduced escorted group tours of the fjord region of Norway for Summer 2014. A seven-night package (ex-Dublin) comes in at €1,995 and a shorter five-night tour is pitched at €1,595. Visit www.Project-Travel.ie or call 01-2108391.
Scandinavian Airlines have cut prices to Copenhagen, Oslo or Stockholm, but the sale ends Tuesday. Up to then there’s a fair chance of picking up tickets from €45 one way for travel between April 15 and February 28 of next year. Details on www.flysas.ie.