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Amendments to the Lonely Planet PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

TUNISIA: Amendments to the Fourth Edition of the Lonely Planet Guidebook

Margaret Williamson
April 2010

During March 2010 we made a 3-week 1,800-mile independent tour of Tunisia, arriving in La Goulette by Grimaldi Lines ferry from Sicily (Trapani) and staying in mid-range hotels where possible. It was our second visit to Tunisia, the first being a 2-week bicycle tour from Monastir airport many years ago. This time we covered most of the country, with the exception of Tunis and Cape Bon, and our van still has fine sand everywhere to prove how far south we went! Overall, it was a much much pleasanter experience than our visit to Morocco a decade ago, or as reported more recently by several friends (all experienced travellers). Great people, the Tunisians - working their very minor scams with great dignity! Here are some updates and feedback, taken in the order they appear in your book. Page numbers refer to the 4th edition (2007).

Carthage (p 91-97): The multiple entry ticket is now TD9, still excellent value covering all the ancient sites, though not the (in our view hideously inappropriate) French-built Acropolium atop Byrsa Hill. You can park by the Acropolium without paying its extra entry fee. The various locations around the town are very poorly signposted, so you need a good map if not taking a taxi or local guide. We're pleased that you include a respectful note about the US War Cemetery. For accommodation, we found the Hotel Amilcar decidedly closed (locked and empty) on 11 March. We were surprised how few hotels there appear to be in most towns (including Carthage). Stayed at Hotel Sidi Bou Said, the most expensive of our tour for a double including an excellent buffet breakfast, with fresh orange juice, cornflakes, cheeses, eggs, fruit, croissants, cakes …. It also had free WiFi in the Reception area.

Bizerte (p 124-129): The new motorway from Tunis to Bizerte has one service station and was very quiet, with a small toll of TD1.90 for the whole journey or TD1 for part-way. In Bizerte we used La Muse Internet Café, charging TD1.50 per hour on their computers or TD2 per day for WiFi with your own. The staff were very helpful, the toilets disgusting! We had also tried Cyber House, which you list but should not recommend - it was small, all terminals taken, no WiFi, and an extremely unfriendly proprietor. The rooms at Le Petit Mousse hotel are excellent, though the included breakfast was just coffee, toast and jam. The French restaurant was expensive by Tunisian standards (TD18.50 for a bony overcooked coq au vin).  

Lake Ichkeul (p 133-134): A great disappointment. There was no entry fee, nor was there any wildlife or birdlife, apart from a few ducks! Your direction that 'the Ecomuseum is up the stairs' is somewhat misleading - it's a very long hot climb up many flights of steps to the top, only for the young and fit! We did see plenty of storks nesting and cattle egrets in the fields of northern Tunisia - but not in the National Park! Maybe we were just unlucky with our timing and the birds had flown, or the salinity level is now critically high?

Tabarka (p 138): We didn't stay here, as all the mid-range hotels you list claimed to be full when telephoned during the last week of March (with the exception of Residence Corail Royal, whose number was unobtainable).

Ain Draham (p 141): Glad that we stayed up here in the cork-oak forested hills instead of down in busy Tabarka. At Hotel Beau Sejour, the restaurant and reception are in the former hunting lodge, while accommodation is in a different building in the street behind. They included coffee, toast & jam for breakfast, while a good 4-course evening meal cost TD15 each. We still remember the chocolate mousse!  

Beja (p 143): Again, pleased that you mention the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, though the directions should make it clear that it is next to the colonial-era Christian cemetery, across the road from the railway line. Far from being a 'serene field' it is a small lawned graveyard in a built-up area, in the shadow of a block of flats, though beautifully tended - as are all CWGC sites.  

'The Price of Victory' (p 144): We used this information to find and visit most of the military cemeteries. It would be easier to locate Tunisia's largest Commonwealth cemetery if the wording '3 km outside Mejez el-Bab' were to read '3 km south-west of Mejez el-Bab, along the El Kef road'.  

Bulla Regia (p 145): Admission is now TD5 per person, plus TD1 for a camera (as at all the individual Roman sites we visited). The museum was still closed. Note that the official 'guardians' who appear at these sites, keen to show you round, do expect a small tip - well worth it here, where the mosaic floors at the House of the Hunt and House of Amphitrite were washed over with water and fully explained.

Dougga (p 156): Admission TD5 pp plus TD1 camera. Coming from Le Kef, we parked at the SW entrance (4 km from Nouvelle Dougga), where there was an empty car park by a restaurant. The NE entrance near the site café/shop was much busier, full of coaches from Tunis. If you only have time or inclination for one Roman site, this should be it!

Le (or El) Kef (p 163): A poor choice of hotels here - all listed in your guide. The Hotel Sicca Veneria was not just 'boring' - it was grim - and we didn't stay. The Hotel Ramzi was much nicer, with lovely tiled rooms, but extremely noisy, being directly above a busy thoroughfare, with no parking except on the road outside. We found the Hotel les Pins, 2 km outside the town, by far the best with free WiFi in Reception. The breakfast included eggs, croissants and orange juice and a good set evening meal was available. We were lucky to get a room, being the last weekend in March - an annual international musical festival in Le Kef, with several musicians staying at Les Pins (from Brazil, S Africa and the USA).   

Sbeitla/Sufetula (p 180-182): The Complexe Touristique (with café and toilets) is now open all day, summer or winter. Entrance tickets for the Roman site can be bought here, at the small adjacent museum (included) or at the site gate across the road (admission TD5 pp plus TD1 camera). The Hotel Sufetula was full, while the Hotel de la Jeunesse hostel offered a double en-suite room, asking an extra TD3 for parking and TD3 each for breakfast.

Monastir (p 197-198): Entry to the Ribat fort is again TD5 each plus TD1 camera, but well worth it for the views of the coast or the Mausoleum of Habib Bourgiba. It was great to see a group of friendly Tunisian schoolchildren enjoying a day out there with their teachers - so much livelier than the bored/tired foreign tourists we'd seen at the archaeological sites! For accommodation, we went to the Zone Touristique, west of Monastir at Skanes, and were made extremely welcome at the first mega-hotel we tried - the Primalife Hotel - which you don't list. We had an excellent double room, dinner and breakfast. Both meals were substantial all-you-can-eat buffet affairs, with plenty of choice (including pancakes or omelettes cooked to order for breakfast).

El-Jem (p 208-209): Didn't revisit the magnificent colosseum (seen on our first tour of Tunisia years ago - by bicycle) but friends recommended the museum as having better mosaics than the Bardo in Tunis. We prefer seeing mosaics in situ, where they mean so much more, rather than gathered at a distant national museum.

Sfax (p 218): We intended to stay in Sfax and visit the Medina but couldn't find a suitable hotel in the extremely busy city. The Hotel Syphax was too expensive but the helpful manager directed us to another hotel nearby. This proved to be full and they directed us back to the Syphax, at which point we decided to drive on to Gabes! We'd already visited the Kerkennah Islands on our previous cycle tour.

Gabes (p 226): The Hotel Chems did nothing to tempt us to stay longer - especially as the price was about to rise after our first night (a higher rate applying from 15 March!) The place smelt as bad as the town (we nicknamed it the Chemical Hotel) and the manager was unhelpful. In fact he was a liar, saying the hotel was full for a wedding when we asked for a better room (one that didn't have a view of drainpipes). Eventually, a sea-view room was found - and there was no sign of a wedding. The only evening meal available was an extremely expensive buffet, which we declined.

Matmata (p 228-229): Sadly spoilt by tourism, we can't agree that there is an 'excellent' choice of accommodation - it's actually quite limited. The Hotel Matmata provided the worst room and the rudest staff of our tour, though admittedly the set dinner of chicken couscous was excellent. The arrogant young man on Reception lied blatantly when (seeking peace) we enquired if any tour groups were booked in. He must have forgotten that a huge school party (3 coach-loads) was due that afternoon from Jordan! When asked about the rooms with vaulted domed ceilings, described in our LP, he denied their existence, adding 'these guide books get things wrong'. We didn't mention the absence of 'rose petals scattered on the beds'. We were lucky to have a bed - there was no other furniture in the room at all. After three requests for a chair were ignored, we carried a plastic one up from the poolside. We avoided the underground hotels and were glad that LP made us aware of the little Museum run by local women in a pit dwelling, which we eventually found (it's not easy) after asking around. Please add that it is behind the Hotel Sidi Driss and that there is a fixed entry price of TD3 (and well worth it).

Haddej (p 229-230): 4 km from Matmata. We saw signs for 'Chambres d'Hotes Troglodytes' here but didn't investigate.

East of Matmata (p 230): What LP refers to as 'the back road to Medenine' via Toujane is now sealed all the way, and a very good surface it is, so you can omit the note that a 4WD is needed from Toujane to Medenine.

Tataouine (p 232): The Hotel Mabrouk, opposite the Dinosaur Museum (Musee Memoire de la Terre), was our base for visiting the Ksour. A good deal except that - perhaps because there were only a couple of other guests - the set meal did not vary over the 3 nights: soup, mutton stew and an apple, orange or banana. On our last evening the waiter took pity and offered an egg briq (delicious) instead of soup, though the mutton was a given! The Hotel Dakyanus, further out along the Ghomrassen road, was considerably more expensive.

Ksour around Tataouine (p 235-239): At Ksar Haddada the hotel has re-opened, at least as a restaurant, (rooms may follow). At Ksar Ouled Debbab the restored part is now a restaurant with a tacky museum (model dinosaurs, etc) and an entry fee, though you can wander freely round the crumbling parts. At Ksar Ouled Soltane our visit was spoilt by a couple of artists outside the café, doing a hard sell on their paintings of the highly restored ghorfas. Ksar Ezzahra was certainly the most atmospheric - the road is now sealed all the way and we had the place to ourselves, apart from a few local Berber men asleep in the doorways, wrapped in their cloaks. Ksar Joumaa (26 km SW of Medenine) was another favourite, accessed on foot (or 4WD) up a rough track, signposted from the main road.  

Douz (p 246) : We didn't stay at the small Camping Desert Club campsite in the Palmery but it had good facilities and we stopped by to use the automatic washing machine. The guardian was happy to let us picnic on the site while our load was washed and spun for TD7.

Kebili (p 250): We called at Hotel les Dunes (the phone number given in LP was unobtainable) and found it had changed its name as well. It was packed with intrepid 4WD package tourists, all sunbathing round the pool, who helped us decide to cross the Chott to Tozeur, rather than stay!

Tozeur (p 258-259): The access track to Belvedere Rocks has been diverted by the building of a thirsty new golf course (just what a desert environment needs!) Ask the horse-drawn carriage drivers near the Ranch Equi-Balade the way if you want to walk, though they'll try to persuade you to take their transport. The Hotel du Jardin, about a mile before town, was a bargain with a reasonable restaurant. There was no off-road parking but a pair of hotel watchmen took turns sitting on a stool on the pavement through the night. They seemed puzzled when we gave them a tip and a packet of cigarettes. The town centre itself was very touristy but we managed to avoid the crowds by entering the covered fish and produce market, to buy local dates and other fruit.

Chott El-Jerid (p 261): When we cycled across the Chott many years ago there was just one extremely simple café/stall half way across. We still have the sand roses we bought there and remember the welcome complimentary mint tea. Now there is a long row of shacks, all offering the same drinks and souvenirs, all looking very desperate. They do detract from the sense of utter remoteness we experienced then but we hope there is enough custom at busier times of year to keep them all afloat (so to speak).  

Gafsa (p 265-267): Sadly, the Roman Pools have been drained and look much less attractive. The local boys we remember diving in to retrieve willingly thrown coins have now been replaced by pesky kids, who follow you round demanding money - unusual in Tunisia, though very common in Morocco. Nor could we find suitable accommodation here. The Jugurtha Palace was full, the Hotel Maamoun was closed for renovation and the only other place, Hotel Gafsa, was frighteningly grim and the staff far from friendly. We left.

Seldja Gorge (p 268): The Red Lizard train is not running at present - in fact, no trains can travel that line since the tracks were washed away in a landslide after heavy rain in September 2009. Track repairs are underway and may be completed by the end of this year (2010). With your own transport, you can drive to a car park near the tunnels (look for the turning signed to Seldja, a couple of miles south of Metlaoui, off the road from Gafsa). The car park has a dignified old guardian, who will emerge from his cabin and offer to walk you through the tunnels to see the Gorge (and the ongoing repair work). We agreed on TD20 for an hour's thoroughly fascinating tour, plus a tip to cover parking and mint tea! What he didn't know was that we once cycled here and walked the bikes through the tunnels to visit the Gorge, assured by the hotel-owner in Metlaoui that there was only one train a day, which had already gone. Luckily, this information was correct!  

Jerba Island (p 271-277):  The ferry from El-Jorf is still TD0.80 per car, with all passengers free. There was a long queue with a half-hour wait. Returning to the mainland, we used the free causeway to Zarzis, impressed that the original was Roman-built. In Houmt Souq we used the Cyber Planet for internet, next to Café Les Arcades (TD5 for 2 fresh orange juices). Cyber Planet had 8 modern machines and a queue for the one terminal to connect your own laptop (all at TD1.5 per hr) but no WiFi. For rooms, we checked out Hotel du Lotos near the Marina - reasonable enough but it only had on-street parking.

Sidi Mahres (p 281-282): The Zone Touristique, starting 6 miles east of Houmt Souq, has a larger choice of hotels (emphasis on large), with more being built. After looking at the simpler La Pacha (cheap but very dinghy) we found the best accommodation of our tour, near the Casino. It deserves a place in LP's list:  

Apartment Hotel Rodes,  Sidi Mehrez,  4179 Djerba,  BP 95.

Tel: (+216) 75757300     Email: .

The Rodes is not a huge hotel for foreign package tourists but a small complex of self-catering apartments of different sizes, mostly used by Tunisians. There is also a restaurant, shop, outdoor pool and coin-op phones (though no internet facility). Our 2-person apartment had a bed-sitting room with a/c, TV, settee, table and chairs; a kitchenette with fridge, sink, 2-ring electric hob and a few pots and pans etc; a bathroom with bath; and a small private courtyard. A cleaner called daily with fresh towels. The low season price included breakfast in the restaurant (with croissants, honey, eggs, cheese and yogurts, as well as the ubiquitous bread and jam) and we were able to cook other meals, thanks to an excellent supermarket (with its own ATM for cash) less than 2 km west. Just 10 minutes' walk in the other direction was the classy Royal First Haroun Hotel, with free WiFi in its Café Maure (for the price of a drink). All in all, the Rodes made an excellent base for exploring the island of Jerba on our bicycles.  

Additions to the Directory

Hotels (p 285): Breakfast was always included in the rate at all the hotels we used (even at the self-catering apartment on Jerba). It was rare that it only consisted of coffee, toast and jam. Most of the places had a small buffet, including cheese triangles and hard-boiled eggs (useful for pocketing for lunch!) and sometimes yogurt, fruit or cake. For those with their own vehicle, safe off-road parking was a problem at budget places.

Dangers and Annoyances (p 289): (Note: this topic needs to be added to the index.) We never felt at all threatened or in danger and encountered no stone-throwing children. The only (mild) annoyance was with hotel staff, who frequently said they were full if telephoned in advance but usually found room if we actually turned up! It was also remarkable how often the credit card machine at Reception was 'out of order'. Once (near the market in Houmt Souq on Jerba) a young man greeted us warmly: 'Don't you recognise me? I'm a security guard at your hotel - it's my day off.' When asked which hotel it was, he smiled in defeat and mingled back into the crowd. However, most people we met were friendly and helpful, communicating in French. We were never short-changed when shopping at markets and saw almost no begging - less, indeed, than in some West European countries we know.

Maps (p 294): In addition to the Lonely Planet guide, we used a good road map printed on rip- and water-proof paper by the German publishers 'Reise Know How', scale 1:600,000, price €8.90 (obtainable in the UK through Stanfords Map Shop). The LP maps of town centres and ancient sites, throughout the book, are extremely useful, but a larger print size for the names (on map and key) would be most welcome. Even wearing glasses, they are difficult to read.

Money/ATMs (p 294-295): Cash is obtainable at ATMs, though many had a TD100 limit per withdrawal and some (eg Amen Bank next to Monoprix in Carthage) only accepted credit cards, rejecting debit cards. We found that most hotels - and all petrol stations - wanted payment in cash.

Time (p 299): Tunisian standard time is indeed one hour ahead of GMT in winter. However, we found that in Tunisia clocks were not put forward one hour at the end of March (as happens in the UK and the rest of Europe), meaning that from April to October Tunisia is on the same time as the UK, and one hour behind mainland Europe!

Toilets (p 299): Worth noting that all the museums and ancient sites we visited had clean free toilets.

Entering the Country (p 302): Arriving by ferry with our car at La Goulette at 5.30 pm, it was dark by the time we emerged into the traffic after the many passport and customs checks. This did indeed take over 2 hours, requiring a great deal of patience. It helps if you speak French. The vehicle papers (originals, not copies) and passports were scrutinised and stamped by one official after another; the van interior was searched twice. Spotting our SatNav/GPS, an officer brusquely directed us to a special office where the offending instrument was examined, its batteries removed, its serial number noted. We were given a document stating that we brought it into the country - a paper which had to be produced, along with the SatNav, on leaving. This performance took nearly half an hour - and of course when we left no-one asked for it.

Leaving the country was just as frustrating, with multiple checks and van searches. Our ferry left 2.5 hours later than scheduled but there was no word of explanation or apology as we sat waiting in the long queue of cars, with no accessible toilets or refreshments. A great deal could be done by the Tunisian authorities to streamline these processes, making it pleasanter for the bewildered foreign tourist, whether arriving or departing!

Sea Crossings: (Note: 'Civitavecchia' is mis-spelt on p 306 as is 'Grimaldi' on p 307). We crossed with Grimaldi Lines, boarding the weekly ferry (that had come overnight from Salerno) in Trapani on the west coast of Sicily at 9 am. Due in La Goulette, Tunis at 4.30 pm, it arrived an hour late. We had booked a return ticket, for a ferry back to Trapani (which continued to Civitavecchia). In the event, Grimaldi phoned us just 2 days before our departure date to say that the boat would not call at Trapani, offering the option of a later date if we didn't want to go straight to Civitavecchia! In compensation, the company didn't charge any extra and gave us a free cabin for the overnight voyage. We had paid a total of €204.40 for the 2 return tickets Trapani-Tunis (including €10 per person each way for a reclining seat). There was no charge at all for the van, as the company had a Super Bonus offer of free transport for vehicles under 6 m long. See www.grimaldi-lines.com for the latest times and fares - and always give your mobile number to the ferry company in case of change.

Grimaldi had the cheapest crossings (compared with Grandi Navi Veloci) but you do get what you pay for! Our boat 'Sorrento' was very busy, with passengers camped everywhere. With only one small room of reclining seats, those without a cabin filled the corridors and dining area. There was a tiny bar and a self-service restaurant with a fixed price meal at €10. Only Euros were accepted on board - no cards or Tunisian currency.

The return ferry was scheduled to leave La Goulette at 1.30 pm. It finally sailed at 3.30 pm - as far as the container dock at the other side of the bay! Here, without a word of explanation or apology, it proceeded to load containers to the limit until 10 pm, before setting off for Italy. Obviously, a last minute cargo of containers had taken precedence over calling at Trapani. We arrived in Civitavecchia at 3.30 pm next day, after a morning disturbed by a fire alarm ringing in the kitchens. Grimaldi? Never again - but we'll be back in Tunisia.