ROUGH GUIDE: Great Roman ruins, shame about the vandalism
Daniel Jacobs, author of the 'Rough Guide to Tunisia', can still taste that perfect fish couscous
Sunday 15 November 1998
The La Sirene restaurant by the port in Sfax offers a meal of freshly caught fish that is hard to beat. Seafood starters include an octopus salad so huge that after eating it, you will be hard put to get through your main course. On the other hand, you will want to try, having selected the fish yourself and had it barbecued to perfection while munching your way through the starter. And with beer or wine to wash it down, you will still pay only around pounds 12.
Should you fancy something a bit more North African, your best bet lies just up the coast in the brine-battered ancient port of Mahdia. There, in the Restaurant de la Medina, the perfect fish couscous will be brought to you by a waiter wearing a handlebar moustache and a canary-yellow three-piece suit. And this time, you will get change from a tenner.
In the south of Tunisia, the town of Ghoumrassen is known for its doughnut- style fritters called ftair which are sold by Ghoumrassinis nationwide. But the real sweet treat of the south is kab el ghazal, or "gazelle horn", which comes from the nearby town of Tataouine. These sticky pastry horns filled with honey and nuts are sold at cake shops everywhere, but the best, naturally, are to be found in Tataouine itself.
Most bizarre sight
Tataouine is actually a very pleasant little town, off the beaten track so far, but due to be marketed in a big way by the tourist authorities very soon. It is the best base for exploring the bizarre fortified granaries called ksour (singular ksar) which are scattered over the countryside in this part of the world.
The local people here, traditionally nomadic, moved with their flocks according to the season and stored their grain in small cell-like silos called ghorfas. Each tribe's ghorfas were built together, around a central courtyard, with their doors facing inward and a solid wall on the outside for protection against raids by other tribes. It is this structure that is called a ksar.
Many ksour are now in ruins: eerie, stark and almost gothic against the rocky desert; but one or two still function and serve not only as grain stores but also as meeting places where members of the tribe gather of a Friday to pray and exchange news. The two best examples are Ouled Zoltane and Ezzahra, reached on a newly surfaced road that loops through both of them before returning to Tataouine.
Best Roman site
Tunisia has no lack of Roman remains, but the most impressive site by far is Dougga in the north of the country, chock-full of ancient theatres, triumphal arches and massive temples. The biggest temple, the Capitol, is reckoned to be the most impressive Roman building in the whole country, but I must admit a greater interest in the town brothel. Not that it is still functioning, I hasten to add - indeed, even the stone phallus that once advertised it has been discreetly removed - but a beautiful row of sit-down loos remains there, showing that the Romans had no qualms about doing their business communally.
Meanwhile, just down the hill stands an even older monument, a pre-Roman Punic mausoleum dating to the second century BC. Unfortunately, the mausoleum was destroyed in 1842 by the British consul, Sir Thomas Reade. He had it pulled down to remove the inscription, which he sent to the British Museum. The mausoleum has since been rebuilt, but even today, Reade's act of vandalism hardly inspires patriotic pride.
The Romans had a quarry at Chemtou, in the north of the country, where they hewed a red-veined yellow marble that was renowned across the empire and used to decorate all the best houses in ancient Rome. Alas, the quarry no longer functions, despite a brief revival in the last century, because the marble is considered too gaudy to sell nowadays. A pity, as I rather fancied a tabletop made out of it.
Tunisian beer is weak and flavourless. Some of the wine is not bad, especially the dry muscat produced in Kelibia. But my favourite is laghmi, a palm wine milked from date trees. Fresh laghmi is sweet and non-alcoholic, but it ferments in a day, and must be drunk within the next two unless you want a seriously upset tummy. It is an acquired taste and available only in the south of the country in season, from April to October.
GB Airways, a franchisee of BA, flies three times a week (four in summer) to Tunis from Gatwick. Tunis Air has four flights a week from Heathrow. The cheapest scheduled tickets, with pre-booked and unchangeable dates, cost around pounds 200 to pounds 220, plus departure tax. Charter flights to Tunis and Monastir are available from operators such as Thomson and Airtours, from pounds 140 and pounds 260 before tax. The leading package specialist, and the best, is Panorama Tunisia Experience (tel: 01273 206531).
The main form of transport is bus, with regular services run by national operator SNTRI. Buses connect Tunis to all the places mentioned, except Dougga - which can be reached on foot or by taxi from Tebersouk, 6km away - and Chemtou, which can be reached in a louage (a taxi carrying five passengers on a fixed route) from nearby Jendouba. Sfax and Mahdia are also connected to Tunis by rail.
Tunisia tourist board (tel: 0171-224 5561).
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