MY ROUGH GUIDE : Seek out that Douz magic and get egg on your face
Sunday 24 August 1997
I've a few favourites, none of them de luxe. At the 20 Mars in Douz (nothing to do with chocolate bars: it's French for the date of Tunisia's independence), the staff and their friends play music and dance every night, the guests joining in. It's all part of Douz's easy-going friendliness and a trans- Saharan music tradition going back to the days of slavery. In the Hotel des Ghorfas at Ksar Metameur, on the other hand, you can stay in what was once a nomadic tribe's fortified grain store and, if you're an artist, get free use of brushes, paint and paper at the hotel's art centre while the gregarious proprietor fills you in on local culture. Finally, there's the Htel de la Liberte hidden in Nefta's old city, Tunisia's only real travellers' hotel, set around a patio with a grapevine, and one of the best places in the country to drink too much of palm wine tapped from date trees in the local oasis.
Forget haute cuisine: Tunisia's speciality is the brik l'oeuf, an egg deep-fried in a pastry case. Like most apparently simple dishes, there's a knack to getting it just right - some places have it, others don't. The stalls outside the Roman amphitheatre at El Jem usually do a good brik, with just the right runniness. There is also a knack to eating it, unless you don't mind literally getting egg on your face, and your clothes too.
In this sometimes rather too French ex-French colony, there are plenty of places where you'll get posh French cuisine at very un-French prices. But my vote goes to that classic North African dish, couscous, and the best place to eat that for my money - and it's not a pricey establishment - is the Restaurant Ali Baba in Douz, where it's succulent, aromatic and in massive portions. Follow it by joining the restaurant's staff and customers for a Turkish coffee and a chat in the Bedouin tent they've put up out back. It's that old Douz magic again...
Tunisia is rather tame by the standards of North Africa - you don't get shot at by fundamentalists or offered hashish on street corners, for example. The biggest let-down, though, is the tea. This is made by boiling the leaves and leaving them to stew for hours on the charcoal stove that every Tunisian household, rich or poor, possesses for the purpose. Because it's so bitter they add massive amounts of sugar and serve it in a tiny glass. Refreshing it ain't: I stick to the coffee, which is excellent.
Popping into Sfax's regional bus company to ask for a timetable, I was shunted up to the boss, who told me to come back that afternoon. When I did two secret policemen arrested me, seized my passport, and wouldn't allow me to leave town until they checked me out. That meant sending my details to Tunis, where they lay on a pile for a week, after which time someone picked them up, asked: "What the hell have they arrested this foreigner for?" and told them to let me go. I'll stick to copying out the departures off the noticeboards at the bus stations.
One consolation of being stuck in Sfax for a week was that it has the most interesting walled old city in the country, where they make no attempt to cater for tourists, and which is therefore more "authentic". The shops sell food, clothes and household goods, with barely a souvenir in sight. Built into the walls themselves, the Cafe Diwan is the only traditional cafe in the country where women can relax in what is usually a very male environment. The views are great, the shade is pleasant, even the tea is good. An excellent place to read a book, chug away on your hookah pipe, and sip an aromatic cup of green mint tea with almonds.
Nicest city square
Set on a peninsula, the city of Mahdia was compared by the heretical Fatimid rulers who founded it to a dagger pointing at Egypt and the heart of the Arab empire they coveted. Eventually they did conquer Egypt and left the city. The swashbuckling pirate Dragut then made it his base, causing the Spanish, who eventually took it, to knock down its defensive walls, so Mahdia now has the most time-worn Old City in Tunisia. Sea brine seems to have permeated every stone of the houses, and it gives the place a unique charm. In the middle of this is a tree-shaded square called Place du Caire (Cairo Square), after the city the Fatimids went on to found in Egypt. There's a cafe by a mosque where old men play chess over a leisurely tea and hookah, following the shade as the sun passes overhead: it's the only reminder of time passing.
Daniel Jacobs did research for `The Rough Guide to Tunisia'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter `Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
GB Airways, a BA franchisee, flies three times weekly (four in summer) to Tunis from Gatwick.Tunis Air has four flights from Heathrow. The cheapest scheduled tickets are pounds 190-pounds 220 plus departure tax (pounds 10 in the UK, about pounds 3.50 in Tunisia). Charter flights to Tunis and Monastir (for Sousse), from operators like Thomson and Airtours, are pounds 150-pounds 220 (before tax).
The best package specialist is Panorama Tunisia Experience, 29 Queens Road, Brighton, Sussex BN1 3YN (01273 206531).
The main mode is the bus: the national operator, SNTRI, runs services from Tunis to all places in this article except Chemtou, which can be reached in a louage (shared taxi) from Jendouba. Other places are served by local buses and louages. El Jem, Sfax and Mahdia have rail links to Sousse and Tunis.
Visas: UK and Irish passport holders need no visa for a stay of up to three months.
Language: the main language is Arabic. Most educated people speak French: Tunisians working in tourism may speak English. Road signs are in French and Arabic.
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