Sun, Sea and Souk
It was our first visit to Tunisia; to Africa.
We didn't know what to expect. We had read the guidebooks, surfed the
web-sites, talked to pioneers but what would the people be like, the
food and drink, the climate, how would we fare in the markets ?
In a mere three hours we are in a different world.
We flew from Manchester to Monastir in March with Thomson /
Next day, waking in the Royal Kenz Hotel, Port El Kantaoui, the idea of
March seemed to be a mirage. 20 degrees centigrade, azure skies and the
sight and scent of orange, lemon, olive, palm, date, fig and almond
and that's just the hotel garden ! This is a climate so welcoming that
the regional orange festival takes place at the end of March.
Dipping into Tunisian culture at the Royal Kenz is a gentle process. If
you wish you can culture commute for the whole of your stay -
Arabic/Berber/ French / English. The waiters are unfailingly polite,
rounding off exquisite turns of phrase with a Gallic shrug or a "
cheers, mate" or " just the job"!
The hotel dinner buffet made your belly dance with delights and
surprises every evening. Here are all the delights of the
Mediterranean: I was hooked on the grilled white fish, there is
octopus, the local speciality brik roll, soups fresh with local herbs,
refreshing Celtia beer and zingy fruit juice drinks ! You can be as
adventurous or conservative as you like.
Clouds can cross the horizon, climatically speaking, in March. After
days of living like kings in and around the Royal Kenz, the buffet
balanced by tennis and swimming, the wider Tunisia calls out like
loudspeakers on a Mosque tower. Immediately beyond the hotel the beach
is so white, the sea is so indigo it makes a film set seem dull. Here,
again, you can be as active or still as you wish. This is so typical of
a Tunisian holiday - desert treks, camel rides, scuba diving, jet ski -
it's right there. Parascending is so exhilarating you gasp as you shoot
upwards like a James Bond extra and expect to be congratulated by M as
In the stylish, chic Port El Kantaoui itself a flotilla of craft ply
pirate ships, catamarans, glass hulled boats and a Yellow submarine
Facing the marina restaurants tantalise: try La Daurade for a
celebratory evening of excellent cuisine culminating in Thibarine
liqueurs, or Les Emirs for a mezza lunch while watching the
Yet beyond the hotel, the beach and the Port more experiences await
The capital, Tunis, the original salt lake city, is the perfect example
of Europe meets Arabia meets Africa. Here the medina is not
claustrophobic but exhilarating. The sun still permeates the narrow
alleys, glancing off the colourful tiles, mosaics , pots and cloths.
Tradesmen accost you zealously from all angles. A heady mixture of
exotic aromas wafting densely across from the perfumeries blends with
the earthier smell of raw wool, leather and cottons from the tailors.
This is your chance to pit your commercial wit against the tradesman,
bantering away in a mixture of pidgin English and schoolboy French,
savour the insouciance of your own body language as you march away from
an object you really want and the salesman (hopefully !) pursues you
into the alley and offers you upto 60\% of his
" bon prix ".
From the souks you emerge victorious into the Place Victoire, from
narrow Maghreb lanes to wide Parisian style boulevards.
Only a few kilometres north of the capital by coach or train is the
famous resort Sidi Bou Said, perhaps the St Tropez of Tunisia, but
unspoilt and unpretentious. Here you can sip mint tea at the legendary
Caf? des Nattes
while gazing almost hypnotically at the calming blues of the buildings
in front of you and the deep blue of the sea next to you.
At Carthage we gaze across settlements of the BC millennia to the
modern political centre of Tunisia - the Presidential palace. Our
charming, erudite, and witty, lightly opines about the spectacularly
wide spectrum of the government of Tunisia from conservatives to social
democrats to communists: " that's why we have no problems with the
opposition, Tony Blair should try it !"
The sun is setting on our day out in Tunis, Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.
I reflect on this day full of Tunisian culture, colour, and contrasts
as I gaze out of the coach window at the shepherds tending their flocks
in the fields.
High on haggling and culture we arrive back at the Royal Kenz in time
for the evening folklore entertainment. Exactly how should an
Englishman react to belly dancers: leer, feign indifference or wait and
see what your girlfriend does ? A voluptuous beauty emerges from the
shadows and gyrates freely, rhythmically, proudly. It is a Tunisian
spectacle to be enjoyed by men and women.... and the dancer.
Our final excursion is north again to Hammamet and Nabeul on the aptly
named Cape Bon. Building regulations poetically state that buildings
may not be taller than a cypress tree.
Nabeul market is raw Tunisia, definitely unadulterated for tourists.
The haggling is fiercer, sheep wilder than even those from the
Yorkshire Dales await their fate. We meet charming local
schoolchildren, still innocently fixated by camera wielding north
is the home of festivals: oranges in spring and the international
cultural festival in summer. This resort is a year round attraction to
so many visitors, including separately Churchill, Rommel and Sophia
Loren; if only they had all been there at the same time !
Enough of these sun-drenched musings: it is time for final
Tunisia is an experience both exciting and soothing. There are so many
cross cultural eye openers a camel could pass through them. In the
souks haggling seems a strange experience at first, but then we haggle
over the biggest purchase of our lives: houses. There is fascination in
the detail - the baskets of fresh oranges on your caf? table, the
Aladdin's lamp shape of the litter bins, the donkey tethered to the
satellite dish antenna.
It was my first visit to Tunisia, the first of many - je reviens!
John F King
Fact Sheet R
John F King travelled to Tunisia in March staying at the Royal Kenz
hotel in Port El Kantaoui.
Flights, transfers, half board, fortnight ?250
Thomson Direct ( 0990 502 555
Lunch at Les Emirs, Port El Kantaoui 15 dinars (1 dinar= approx. ?1.80
Excursions available locally e.g.
2 day Sahara Explorer: 120 dinars (children 60 )
1 day excursion Tunis (including Bardo Museum), Carthage,
&; Sidi Bou Said: 48 dinars
photographic pass required 2 dinars
please do not take photographs of the presidential palace.
Temperature guide: March average max.day 19 C July 32 C Oct 25C
Information / publications
Tunisian National tourist office
* 0171 224 5561 (UK) 341 077 (Tunis)
Morris, P and Jacobs, D Tunisia: The Rough Guide
London: Rough Guide 1998
Raine, P Rough Guide to Mediterranean Wildlife
John F King
Post 'Arab Spring' update:
The Observer Magazine 19.5.2013
ENDS 1,200 words total