This March I went on a package holiday to Tunisia, by myself.
I’m no stranger to solo travelling but I’m normally on the move, staying at small hostels or Airbnb. I’ve only been on two package holidays in my life, and I’ve never gone alone.
I did invite a friend, but she baulked at the pictures of big, impersonal-looking hotels. I needed a rest though, and a cheap deal with breakfast and supper included sounded just the job. I opted for a hotel with a lovely garden, two km along the coast from Hammamet’s old town.
Monday 6 March 2023
Up at 4 am for a taxi. I was at East Croydon in no time and got straight onto the Gatwick train.
Smoothly through security and plenty of time for shopping. Impressive ear-plug selection at Boots with models for sleeping, snoring or swimming. The latter was what I needed. I boarded the plane last, along with a Scottish woman who was doing a mosaic course in Sousse.
The first thing you notice when you get to Tunisia is that your phone doesn’t work. Before leaving, I’d discovered my hotel was closed for maintenance, meaning I’d be moved to the sister hotel next door. I didn’t know which hotel to report to so, with time to spare before the transportation left, I tried to google the hotel’s phone number to find out. There was no signal. I then got out my reservation to call the travel agent in London for the number. The phone didn’t connect. I kept trying and eventually got through, only to be given the wrong number. Rapidly coming to terms with ten years of reliance on the phone for almost everything, I eventually asked the driver what to do. Turned out he already knew about the new hotel. Also turned out I’d just wasted over £100, as I discovered when my EE bill landed. None of my research had alerted me to the sky-high cost of phone calls to and from Tunisia.
I couldn’t call the hotel welcoming. Unsmiling check-in staff in dark suits attached a wristband showing I was entitled to half-board only, gave me a form to fill out and told me to pay my tax. No matter, my room was on the second floor with a fantastic sea view. I unpacked and then went out to explore – first the original hotel next door (we were allowed to use its gorgeous gardens) and then along the beach to find some lunch.
Supper in the hotel’s huge dining room was a bit of a mission. It must have been about 100m long and 50m wide. There was a vast array of food, including a table halfway along with a sign saying ‘Traditional Tunisian’, which was a bit congealed and looked unappetising. There were no trays, so multiple forays were needed to get your selections – and it was a bit like a cognitive memory test finding your table again. When I eventually sat down and asked for a beer, I was bluntly told I would have to pay for it, the half-board did not include alcohol. After a few days, I got used to the waiters’ brusque manner, but when I got the same treatment near the end of the week, the guys at the next table were surprised. ‘Bon Appetit’, they said, ironically.
Tuesday 7 Mar
I’m always saying how I’d like to go somewhere without many English tourists, but this does make life more challenging. My first job for the day was to check out any tours on offer – but not a single brochure was in English. More research revealed quad biking, a two-day desert trip and a day in Sousse – none of which appealed. I decided to look for the Tourist Info in town.
‘Be careful! Men will come up to you and ask if you remember them.’ A shopkeeper on the walk to the centre was staking out passers-by.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I’ll be careful.’
I eventually found the Tourist Info. They didn’t offer tours but they recommended the Tunisian Travel Service (TTS) in the commercial centre, nearby.
I was out on the street, wondering which way to go, when a young man approached me.
‘Hi – don’t you remember me?’ he asked.
‘No, definitely not!’
‘Yes, you do! I work in your hotel (he named it correctly). I was serving supper last night.’
Omg. I felt so rude. ‘I’m so sorry!’
‘So, how can I help you?’
He introduced himself as Karim and took it upon himself to help me to find the TTS office. When we did eventually find it, it was closed.
‘It’s closed, madame.’
‘But I have a friend with an Uber.’ (By now he knew I wanted to visit a small town called Korbous on the other side of the Cap Bon Peninsula.)
He proposed we met the friend at his brother’s shop in the medina.
Round and round we went, me trying to keep up as he charged ahead, until I eventually said, ‘Oi – where are we going?’
‘Do not worry madame. This is not Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; the mosque is right there.’
We eventually reached the shop. The Uber guy would arrive in 20 mins. They told me I must accept a drink of tea, juice or water, and hoped that I’d find something nice to buy.
‘You’re very lucky, because tomorrow all the shops are going to shut for two weeks while the new parliament is convened.’
‘Really?! How do the shopkeepers feel about that?’
‘It’s fine for us – we do most of our trade between June and September – but you’re very lucky because today is your last chance to buy anything.’
There was nothing remotely tempting in the shop, but I opted for a cheap-looking fake wedding ring in a box of rings from China, which I thought might come in handy, and a bar of soap.
‘How much does that come to?’
‘Are you sure you don’t want anything else? A belt for your boyfriend?’
‘No, sorry… how much for the ring and the soap?’
‘150 dinar!’ About £40.
‘The ring is silver, and we dyed it gold.’ He looked in vain for a hallmark.
‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ I said. ‘15 dinar!’ (I’d seen the soap for 30p a bar elsewhere).
We eventually agreed on 25 dinar with another bar of soap thrown in, but they looked crestfallen.
I went to collect myself in a nice café on top of the kasbah, and then tracked back to the Tunisian Travel Service, happily open again after lunch. They had a variety of reasonably priced tours and could offer a chauffeur to take me to Korbous for around £50.
‘I think you should book just one group trip, and the chauffeur, but go away and think about it first,’ said the travel agent, in a very un-Tunisian kind of way.
Before walking back to the hotel, I popped into another shop. The proprietor was calm and non-hassling, so I asked if it was true that all the shops were closing for two weeks.
‘No – why would you think that?’
I told him about Karim.
‘Ah, he is a ‘businessman’. He doesn’t work in any hotel. He gets a commission for bringing people to his friend’s shop!’
‘But how did he know which hotel I’m staying at?’
‘The taxi drivers tell him.’
‘But I walk everywhere.’
‘Ah, but do you have a wristband from your hotel?’
I pulled up my sleeve ruefully.
‘Ah yes, he would have known where you’re staying from that.’
Back at the hotel, the gatekeeper came to life when he realised I was English. ‘I’ve been teaching English for 23 years,’ he said, surprising me. ‘Tell me, how are your people now, after the separation from Europe?’
It was 4.30pm. Just time for a swim in the beautiful infinity pool. It was absolutely freezing and took three laps to warm up enough to put my face in to do proper breaststroke. Eventually, I plucked up courage to float on my back. I looked up at the deep blue African sky and thought how marvellous life was. Bobbing around with a freezing cold head, I started feeling a bit high. When I got out, I was quite giddy and had to sit down.
Wednesday 8 March
The weather was glorious, so it was time to explore the beach. I settled down on a sun lounger and enjoyed the sight of a big brown man having the time of his life in the sea. He’d been in three times (I’d spied him earlier from my room, too) and he swam about for about 30 minutes at a time, like an exuberant sea monster.
When he got out, I went over and asked if he had any idea what temperature the water was.
‘No, but it’s not cold!’
I decided to give it a go. He was right – it must have been 17/18 degrees C – not the 15 degrees I’d been led to expect.
Turned out Sammy the swimmer was a Tunisian living in Birmingham, back to visit his family. He was a former member of the Tunisian rowing team.
After my swim, he came over for a chat. ‘Flipping Nora!’ he said, at various intervals, offering me pastis from a bottle hidden in his beach bag.
I tore myself away to go back to the TTS and buy my tour tickets. The Carthage/Sidi Bou Said trip was in the morning, leaving at 7.20am. An early night was called for.
Supper was improving. Going early meant the traditional Tunisian fare looked less sad. In fact, it looked great. I helped myself to a big plate of couscous, chicken, beef and big slices of boiled carrot and other veg. It was delicious.
Thursday 9 March
Early breakfast was good, too. Everything freshy cooked; the sun just coming up. I was getting quite used to the three-course breakfasts and suppers.
By 9 am our minibus was crossing the enormous Lake of Tunis to take in the Roman ruins at Carthage. We were the first visitors of the day, so it was lovely and peaceful, with a view over the Gulf of Tunis to the Atlas Mountains with Italy just 40 miles behind.
Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians around 814BC. It grew into a multi-ethnic empire spanning North Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, the Balearic Islands and Southern Iberia, before being destroyed by Rome and rebuilt as a Roman city between 49 and 44BC.
In their heyday, the Phoenicians were skilled traders and mariners. They developed an expansive maritime trade network that lasted over a millennium. Incredibly, Phoenician remains are still being found. Today’s Tunisians have a big variety of ancestral roots, and it is something many are proud of. I was only in the country briefly, but I somehow felt that the Phoenician spirit lives on.
After Carthage, we visited Sidi Bou Said, five minutes away. The blue and white houses and distinctive architecture are a mix of Ottoman and Andalusian, the result of an influx of Spanish Muslims expelled from Spain in the 16th Century. More recently it’s been home to artists such as Paul Klee, August Macke and Louis Moilliet, and is still known as an artists’ town.
We were back in Hammamet by lunchtime. On the way out, I’d noticed that the neighbourhood across the road from the hotel was quite quirky, so in the afternoon I went to explore. I’d been considering a haircut and, when he saw me looking in the window, the local barber invited me in. My ‘hair chop’ took about 10 minutes and cost about £5. I rather like it.
I was feeling a bit unwell (I think the cold-water swimming gave me a chill on the bladder), so it was time to take some paracetamol and have another early night.
Friday 10 March
After a fair amount of persuasion, the kindly afternoon concierge, Souheil, deviated from the hotel’s official ‘you take taxi, madame’ mantra and told me where I could catch a bus to Nabeul, 12km away, for the weekly market.
The market wasn’t much like it was when I went 33 years ago. Back then, there were traditional coats and tasselled blankets (the two I bought are still as good as new today). Now there were mainly second-hand clothes, mostly spread out on the ground.
There was fruit and veg, too, and stalls selling seeds of all shapes and sizes.
In one corner there were some slightly more upmarket goods. I eventually found a great stall (more of a shop) with three lovely ladies selling a range of clothing including some cute tasselled jackets. I tried one on. The price was very fair, no bargaining involved, and I felt quite flattered because the women asked if I was a local.
I returned from Nabeul in a louage – a shared minibus. I alighted two km too early, so walked the rest of the way after getting directions. It felt nice to be out in the real world, away from the tourist spots. People treated me more normally.
It was windy, so I spent the afternoon in the bar working on my monthly radio show with a beer and rather impressive Tunisian tapas of cheese puffs and pizza bites.
The Tunisian Handball Team
Over the week, our section of beach was gradually taken over by the Tunisian handball team, and then the Swedish and French teams, too, training for the championships on Sunday.
In order to score a goal, the player has to do an amazing flying twist, launching the ball into the net while in mid-air. The Tunisian team was staying on my floor, and I went down to supper one night to find them practicing flying twists on the landing.
Saturday 11 March
Chatted to Sammy on the beach before meeting my chauffeur at 1.30pm. Azim was a lovely guy in his 60s, very informative and interested to hear about my previous Korbous trip in 1989 for a sulphurous spring bath I’ve never forgotten.
The drive took an hour and a quarter, and sadly the bathhouse was no longer in use – there was just a hammam with a plastic bath and jacuzzi option, supposedly running with spring water. I wasn’t so sure. Azim had arranged to pick me up three hours later, so I had a bath anyhow, followed by a massage.
At least I timed it right – the afternoon call to prayer rang out while I was bathing, just as it had 33 years ago. Back then, climbing into the pungent water had induced a state of deep relaxation, almost a trance, but this experience had nothing like the same effect and the water smelt suspiciously of nothing at all.
After the massage, I set out to locate the original bathhouse (the shell is still there, backing onto the beach). Hair dripping wet, I then went for a walk around the town – happily bumping into Azim. He offered to take me to a nearby mineral spring where boiling water pours into the sea, and off we went, but not before he’d shown me the original bath house from the road. The original grilles were still on the windows, through which you could see the plain tiled rooms. ‘Perhaps this looks familiar,’ Azim said, presciently pointing out a room which might have been the very one I was in all those years ago. I looked back at the hill on the other side of the road and suddenly it all came back. I could almost feel myself lying there with the hill behind, at what had felt like the end of the world.
The bathhouse was being gutted, but Azim said he thought it would be modernised and reopened, which was excellent news.
If the lack of the bathhouse was disappointing, the hot spring at Ain Atrous made up for it.
The road above was lined with smoky barbecues pitched outside big bare cafés with ramshackle back terraces looking over the sea. As we approached, Azim slowed the car.
‘No, I don’t believe it!’
By the side of road and trotting out in front of us was a wild boar with two ‘teenage’ boar, rooting around for leftovers from the cafés.
I lived in Spain for four years where wild boar are something to steer clear of. Not here though – they seemed almost tame.
Azim stayed in the car while I went down to the sea to join other jovial visitors, quickly dipping our feet in the scalding water. Then I had a mint tea on the terrace of one of the cafés, the sea crashing below.
It felt exhilarating, wild and free – the old Korbous magic seemed to be at work again.
‘Do you like Korbous?’ asked the proprietor when I went to pay.
‘I love Korbous!’
‘Are you going back to London for trabajo?’
‘Why are you speaking in Spanish?! Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I am.’
‘I speak many languages. My name is Dali Dali Turki. Look me up on Facebook!’
As I left, a whole sounder (group) of wild boar arrived for scraps, accompanied by few tiny baby boar, leaping about. I realised I was feeling just like I had after my first visit to the baths – properly happy for the first time in ages.
Azim drove us back the scenic route through small country villages, a bit reminiscent of the Andalusian countryside where I used to live; pink lenticular clouds over distant mountains until the light faded.
Sunday 12 March
Last opportunity for a peaceful day on the beach. No chance. The handball championships were on, played against a backing track of thumping techno music. Tunisia beat Sweden and then France beat Tunisia. I lounged around all day anyway and had a couple of long swims. I ended the week with a beer in the quiet bar behind the infinity pool, watching the sun go down and wondering why I hadn’t found this spot before. It was a fitting end to a lovely week.
Monday 13 March
A large group of bohemian English women poured into the departure lounge at Enfidha Airport and settled down near me. One looked and sounded familiar. And she was – a friend from a few years ago, a mosaic artist from down the road in Catford.
I went over. ‘Wendy! I know where you’ve been – a mosaics course in Sousse!’
‘What?! Becca! What are you doing here! How did you know?’
‘I met a Scottish lady on the flight over who was doing the same course.’
‘That’s Katie – she’s right here!’ And sure enough, there was the Scottish woman from the flight out, a week ago.
We spun out our holiday stories on the train home.
Am I glad I went? Yes! The week was full of characters and colour, and I even reconnected with an old friend. The hotel may have been impersonal, but it was full of life – almost like a small town. It was nice to be fed. As the weekend approached and more people arrived, the quality of the food ascended to almost gourmet levels. Having the handball teams in residence was a laugh, people-watching was fun and despite the sometimes-unfriendly staff, there was almost always someone nice to talk to.
Postscript – Monday 20 March
Thinking about Karim inspired me to research the Tunisian parliament. I had a shock.
The opening session was on March 13, the day I left, but the press was banned. In recent months, security forces have imposed a sweeping crackdown on President Saied’s political opponents, many of whom have been arrested without charge.
Even worse, the country’s small population of undocumented Sub-Saharan migrants are being subjected to a campaign of violence after the president made a racist speech, accusing them of being part of a plot to change Tunisian national identity.
His words have led to Africans being driven from their homes, and vicious attacks by vigilante groups. Reports from human rights organisations tell of night-time raids and daylight stabbings. Hundreds of terrified migrants, now homeless, are encamped outside the International Organisation for Migration’s offices in Tunis. In recent weeks there have been big anti-government demonstrations and marches in the migrants’ defence.
It made me think about the ethics of going on holiday to a poor country like Tunisia, where wages range from around £200 to £760 a month, and where not just Africans but some Tunisians attempt to escape to Europe. No wonder not everyone feels like being friendly.
That said, it’s a beautiful country with a proud history and reputation for open-mindedness. I wish it well, and reckon I’ll be back – for the music festival in the desert, maybe, and the re-opening of the sulphur spring baths in Korbous.