We get our first glimpse of the Med in northern Tunisia.
21.04.2012 - 25.04.2012
Squeezed between Libya to the east and Algeria to the west, Tunisia can easily be overlooked on a map of Africa. But the people of Tunisia grabbed their time in the international spotlight in 2010 as they kicked off the 'Arab Spring', holding anti-government protests which inspired the region. But with successful elections held in October 2011, Tunisia seems to have once again slipped into relative obscurity, eclipsed by the more volatile situations in its fellow North African states Libya and Egypt. So, where does that leave Tunisia in 2012? We were uncertain at best. As we disembarked from our flight, we were stepping into the unknown.
Tunis-Carthage international airport feels like it belongs in 1980's Soviet Russia rather than a budding North African democracy. The immigration official, lighting up a cigarette, casually stamped our passports and waved us on our way. We continued on, past the large 'No Smoking' sign, to a point where we were required to walk through a metal detector. The security guard manning the post seemed too intent on the conversation with his friend to care when I set off the detector alarm. Bemused and a little bewildered, we walked off, collected our bags, and exited the airport. We had decided to begin our journey in northern Tunisia, so we boarded a bus headed for Bizerte, a small coastal city on the north-east tip of the country. Tourism in Tunisia is a boom and bust affair, focusing almost exclusively on European beach-goers, who arrive every summer to soak up the sun. With the summer still a few months off, and not a tourist in sight, we were able to land a nice hotel room overlooking the sea for a bargain price, and we fell asleep that night to the sound of crashing surf.
Jutting into the Mediterranean, and under 500km from Sicily, Bizerte, and much of north-east Tunisia for that matter, feels very much like the coastal towns of Italy or Greece. Beautiful white-sand beaches, bordered on one side by white washed buildings, and dotted here and there with the odd wooden fishing boat. The mesmerising deep blue of the sea stretching out to the horizon. Taking a long walk along the beach, it is easy to forget that you are walking along the coast of North Africa. But the beach is not Bizerte's only draw card. The old port, used in medieval times, falls in the middle of the city. The port is flanked on one side by the impressive old 'Spanish Fort', begun by the Spanish in 1570, but finished by the Turks. The calm waters of the port reflect the tall walls of the fort like a mirror. On a weekend evening, restaurants and cafes along the waterway come alive, with local families coming out to watch the sunset across the water. The small size of Bizerte belies the culinary wonder hidden within. With Bizerte's proximity to Italy, and its past as a French colony, the city is full of good food. Small patisseries serve up freshly made croissants until late in the night and posh restaurants plate up delicious seafood. Our nights in Bizerte were mesmerising and delicious, a wonderful first impression of Tunisia.
Exploring around Bizerte showed us a different side of Tunisia all together. We had chartered a car from our hotel out to Ichkeul National Park, a UNESCO listed park and wetland. Our trip fell on a Saturday, and the park was filled with local families, bringing along their picnics and some even riding their mopeds along the trails! We endeavoured to escape the crowds, so we started out on a path around the wetland. Rising and falling, but never far from a view of the surrounding waters, the walk was a pleasant, alternating between stints in the beating sun and cool meanders under tree cover. We had read that the wetland area was often a haven for migratory birds, but with temperatures rising the birds had moved on, leaving an almost eerie stillness across the park. None the less, as we sat down for our lunch (mostly food we could salvage from breakfast) under the shade of a tree, we were glad we had made the trip out of the city. The trail seemed to follow around the wetland for many kilometres, and we would have loved to continue walking, but we realised that we were behind schedule and had to race back along the path to meet our driver at the agreed time. Although the day ended hurriedly, overall Ichkeul park was definitely worth a visit.
After a few days in Bizerte, we moved further south towards Cap Bon. At the epicentre of Tunisia's tourism industry, the beaches and old medinas of Cap Bon are a beautiful area to explore. The largest city on the cape, Hammamet, attracts many of the tour groups, but we spent our time in Nabeul, a smaller town further along the coast. Although the beach of Nabeul paled in comparison to those we had seen in Bizerte, the town was a perfect staging point for exploring the surrounding area. On our first day we took a fantastic day trip out to the small town of Korba, further east along the beach. The town itself is uninspiring, but the flat wide sand beach is stunning. Separating the beach and the town is Korba lagoon, a long shallow water body which is known as an excellent site to spot migratory birds. Unfortunately, just like Ichkeul, the timing of our trip meant there were few birds, just a lot of mosquitoes. Despite this disappointment, we were still able to enjoy some tranquillity on the long expanses of beach, watching a few little shorebirds run up and down looking for food. Of course, we still encountered the 'rubbish monster', a term we had adopted after the amount of litter we had been seeing on our trip, but the beach was beautiful nevertheless. Our day wasn't over yet though. As we were leaving the beach and walking back to the bus stop we were accosted by a group of young students; dancing, singing and playing music. Through the language barrier we determined they were celebrating, but what they were celebrating we didn't know. They pulled us in to dance with them, laughing hysterically to watch two random foreigners attempt to dance like a Tunisian, and talking to us in French and Arabic, which fell on deaf ears. Their happiness was intoxicating. Eventually, we were dragged over to somebody who spoke some English. We discovered they were all high-school students, celebrating the end of their exams. After showing some interest, we were whisked away and given a guided tour through their school, sitting in the classrooms and drawing on the blackboard. We were thrilled to get an insight into the life of people our age in a different country. Eventually, 3 hours behind schedule, we got on a bus headed back to Nabeul, tired but thrilled to get an insight into the lives of real Tunisians. Unplanned, unexpected but unbelievable.
Our new Tunisian friends had told us that Hammamet was beautiful and we had to visit. Appreciating the local advice, we planned a trip out there the next day. Less than an hour from Nabeul, it wasn't our most intrepid excursion ever, but still enjoyable. Hammamet is noticably more accustomed to tourists. In Bizerte and Nabeul we were stared at, but very rarely approached or hassled. But with our first step into Hammamet we were accosted for taxis, postcards and all manner of knick-knacks. Having been isolated from this type of behaviour for so long, we were taken a back at first, but our experiences from Marrakech had taught us well, and we were soon batting them away with ease. We made our way down to the beach, which provided some respite, and enjoyed our lunch. Out in the distance we could see sailing boats cruising the waves of the Mediterranean, their white sails reflecting the rays of the mid-day sun. Further along the beach, local fisherman cast their lines out into the water, seemingly oblivious to the crashing waves. Eventually we wandered our way into the Hammamet medina, which was a beautiful place to explore. White washed walls and blue window frames, reminiscent of a Greek town, were covered in flowering Bougainville. The winding streets, dotted with tourist shops selling kitsch postcards, were fun to explore. After a little while, we made our way out and got back on the bus to Nabeul. Hammamet may have been beautiful, but we were happy to leave all the tourist stores (and owners) behind.
Northern Tunisia is something of a paradox, balancing the cultural influences of Southern Europe with the traditions of its people. Without knowing much about the area, we were pleasantly surprised to find a welcoming and beautiful part of the world, and we embraced the fun of getting off the beaten track for awhile.
Some observations from Northern Tunisia:
1. Come outside summer, you'll have a whole hotel to yourself!
2. Look out for delicious Italian food...at a quarter the price you'd pay in Italy.
3. The beaches are beautiful, though the locals don't seem to swim at them!
Next stop...The Sahara