A north African winter's tale

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The Independent Travel

It was the last day of Christmas. The first day that the majority of our party, vicars by trade, could get away. Every year after the Christmas celebrations they headed off for North African sun. They spoke of sunny days on the beach and boozy sunsets.

It was the last day of Christmas. The first day that the majority of our party, vicars by trade, could get away. Every year after the Christmas celebrations they headed off for North African sun. They spoke of sunny days on the beach and boozy sunsets.

When we arrived in Sousse, our hotel felt a little on the chilly side, but it was late at night and we were tired. At breakfast the next day, I was greeted by the sight of 50 or so well-muffled pensioners - the only other guests in the hotel were "Young at Heart" travellers. Lounging on the beach was out of the question. So I had no option but to sight-see while wearing the entire contents of my suitcase.

We bounced down an impressively straight road for an hour before a huge arena rose up before us at a crossroads. El Jem is the sixth-largest ancient amphitheatre in the world, rivalling the Colisseum. In its heyday, 30,000 people piled into the arena to watch gladiators fight.

Today you can clamber around the stands, wander across the killing fields and explore the dark enclosures where gladiators were kept prior to their performances.

Emboldened by our sunny but chilly trip south we decided to head west. Five of us made for the louage (taxi) station. We approached various drivers until we found one willing to take us to Kairouan for a not too-outrageous price. We piled into the battered estate car and headed for Islam's fourth most holy city.

Back in 670AD, Oqba Ibn Nafi led an Arab invasion of Tunisia. In the desert, a gold cup he had lost in Mecca was found. Shortly after, a spring was discovered.

The two events lead him to conclude that the site was sacred as the spring was clearly connected with the holy well of Zem in Mecca. The Great Mosque still anchors the northern corner of the city of Kairouan, its massive plain walls looming above you.

Once inside the vast courtyard, the simplicity and beauty of the building becomes apparent.

The prayer hall, closed to women and unbelievers, stretches away supported by a mass of graceful pillars. Outside, the tunnel-like souks of the Medina appear little changed since the city's heyday. Carpets are woven and knotted and metal workers bash away.

Slowly, the weather got worse. We huddled in Turkish baths for warmth. The hotel trip to the Capitol at Dougga began to look attractive. For hours we shuddered along in an ancient bus heading for the ruined Roman city.

Just before we arrived, the first flakes began to fall. "Is this snow?", asked our young guide. It was, we assured him. He gazed out at the rapidly whitening scenery in rapt amazement. At Dougga we bought postcards of parched and sunny ruins. My message?

Always take a thermal vest when heading off for winter sun with a vicar.

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