Travel: Fezzing with city life

Alongside the tourist hotels at Sousse, Tunisia, is a teeming North African town with good-natured bazaar traders and a natty line in headwear, writes Annie Bennett

Annie Bennett
Tuesday 20 May 1997 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Sousse is a big package tour destination, but don't let that put you off. This is a proper Tunisian town which just happens to have a resort attached. The touristy bit is quite straightforward, with a strip of hotels based with varying success on the vernacular style - you know, lots of arches, fountains and tiles, that sort of thing. As you saunter along the pristine promenade towards the town centre, however, the carefree holiday atmosphere is rudely brushed aside by the mayhem typical of a North African city.

The clash of cultures comes to a head at the Place Farhat Hached, a vast space bombed into existence by the Allied Forces. The lack of planning is painfully obvious: the square looks as if the pieces of several different jigsaws have been jammed into place by a recalcitrant toddler.

The bottom end skirts the harbour, but there are no fancy yachts to gawp at or colourful fishing boats to photograph. This is a working port, full of cargo ships that dwarf the neighbouring buildings. The centre of the square is a chaotic mass of tooting cars and filthy buses, which have to give way to the trains trundling to and from the main station plonked at the top end. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a plane swooping out from a gap between the buildings, Hong Kong style. Now this is the kind of challenge Richard Rogers could really get his teeth into. Not just an urban hotchpotch to hammer into some sort of shape, but loads of historical references for Lord Rogers to play with too.

It is quite a relief that one side is what you'd expect to find in the main square of a large town: a broad pavement lined with cafes. Although the ubiquitous cappuccino has frothed its way on to the menus, it is much more traditional to drink a capucin, the doll-sized local version.

Opposite is the ancient stone wall of the medina, where the bombing of half a century ago has left a broad gap in the fortifications. I wandered in and came upon the Ribat, built a thousand years ago for the warrior- monks who used to defend the town. Displaying a singular lack of monastic tolerance and restraint, the brothers used to dissuade their enemies from entering the fortress by pouring boiling oil on to them through slits in the walls.

Nowadays, the locals have different ways of dealing with foreign visitors. As you walk through the souks you get bombarded by shopkeepers desperate to draw your attention to their stuffed camels and gaudy kaftans. Unlike in Morocco, however, there is no aggression and they take your lack of enthusiasm in good part, shouting "Cheap and nasty!" or "Cheap price, Asda price" as you pass by.

Something that is cheap, but neither nasty nor available in Asda, is the Tunisian fez - or chechia as it is called here. While a lot of older men still wear the traditional dark crimson felt hats, most young people regard them as seriously naff and you rarely see anyone under 40 wearing one.

Unsure of how to ask for the one I wanted in French, I eventually ventured into a tiny workshop and blurted out the unequivocal words "Colonel Gaddafi". I emerged with a black chechia that feels a bit like a damp dog, but fortunately does not smell like one.

Sousse is in the heart of the fertile region known as the Sahel, which means Sea of Olives. Strangely, however, it can be rather difficult to buy olive oil here.

With so many tourists around, you would think some enterprising soul would have packaged it in dinky little bottles with fancy labels, but it is not even sold in supermarkets, just in unmarked shops called huileries (there is one to the left of the main entrance to the medina). A litre of dense, fragrant extra-virgin oil costs about pounds 1 - recycled pop bottles are provided free - and is a much more evocative souvenir than a stuffed cameln

Sousse facts

Getting there: GB Airways, an affiliate of British Airways (0345 222111), has flights from Gatwick to Tunis each Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Tunis Air (0171-734 7644) flies from Heathrow on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. From 3 to 24 June, Tunis Air has a special fare of pounds 178.60 return, including tax. BA has a World Offer of pounds 192.70 (plus pounds 5 each way if you travel on Saturdays). You must book before 4 June to get this fare.

From Tunis, there are frequent trains south to Sousse.

Cheaper deals may be available on charter flights between the UK and Tunisia, in particular to Monastir - only a few miles from Sousse, and accessible on the "Sahel Metro"

Further information: Tunisian National Tourist Office, 77a Wigmore Street, London W1H 9LJ (0171-224 5561). The best map is Michelin sheet 972, covering Algeria and Tunisia. The most recently published guidebook is Tunisia Handbook (Footprint pounds 10.99), which appeared in January this yearn

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