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MagBaz in Tunisia 2010 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

TUNISIAN TOUR 2010

Margaret & Barry Williamson
March 2010

Introduction

During March 2010 we made a 3-week 1,800-mile independent tour of Tunisia, travelling in our Mercedes Benz Sprinter van, complete with our Paul Hewitt touring bicycles. We arrived in La Goulette, the port for Tunis, by Grimaldi Lines ferry from Sicily (Trapani) and drove clockwise round the country, staying in 12 different guest houses or simple hotels. It was our second visit to Tunisia, the first being a 2-week Easter 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!

We had left the UK on Sunday, 20 December 2009 and returned on Monday, 26 April 2010. In the intervening 127 days (4 months), we travelled 8,500 miles through 17 countries in 70 stages, using 12 ferries.

Links to parallel articles include the following:

UK-Tunisia-UK Summary
Lest We Forget (WW2 in Tunisia and Italy)
Greece to Tunisia 2010
Greece to the UK 2010
Images of the Tour of Tunisia

Map of the Route 

                             

Tunisia_B_2.jpg

 

General Information

Climate: It was perfect for walking, cycling and site-seeing in March/April. The winter is cold, with rain (or even snow) in the north, while the summer months become extremely hot, especially in the south. The Sahara goes for years without rain but desert nights can be chilly.

Dangers and Annoyances: 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 well 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.

Health: There are no particular problems and we had none. Mosquitoes do not carry malaria in Tunisia, though a repellent is useful to avoid itchy bites. Tap water is supposed to be safe to drink (except on the island of Jerba, where it can be saline). We took no chances with this, boiling tap water to make tea or coffee and buying bottled water for drinking fresh. Take out medical insurance, as there is no reciprocal health care arrangement – and look out for snakes if camping!

Internet: Several of our hotels had free WiFi in the lobby area, for those carrying a laptop. Public internet centres can be found in the towns, under the sign 'Publinet', though they are usually small and busy with slow connections. For example, in Bizerte the Cyber House was full, with a queue for terminals and no WiFi. We had more luck at Bizerte's 'La Muse' Internet Café, which charged TD1.50 per hour to use one of their computers or TD2 per day for the use of their WiFi. The staff were very helpful, the toilets disgusting!

Language: Arabic is the official language, apparently using a dialect similar to that in Morocco and Algeria. However, every Tunisian who has been to school has learnt French and we had no problems conversing in this language. Some German and English are spoken in the tourist spots, but don't depend on it. Road signs and place names were always given in both Arabic and French. A French dictionary or phrase book would be useful if you don't know the language.

Maps & Guidebook: In addition to the Lonely Planet guide (4th edition, 2007), which Margaret updated, 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, though a larger print size for the names (on map and key) would be most welcome.

Money/ATMs: Local currency is the Tunisian Dinar (TD), divided into 1,000 mills. The exchange rate in March 2010 was approximately TD2=£1. Cash is obtainable at ATMs, though many had a TD100 limit per withdrawal and some (eg Amen Bank next to Monoprix supermarket in Carthage) only accepted credit cards, rejecting debit cards. We found that most hotels - and all petrol stations - wanted payment in cash. Prices in tourist areas were often expressed in Euros and we found it useful to carry some in from Italy.

Telephones: As so few people have their own phone, rows of coin-operated telephone booths are common in every town and village. Look for the sign 'Publitel' or 'Taxiphone' (not just for taxis!) and take a large supply of small change. You need 100-mill or 500-mill coins for local calls, 1-dinar or 5-dinar coins for international dialling. There is always a guardian on duty, who will give help or change if needed and might have a phone directory. Tunisian numbers are 8 digits, with no local code. Calling the UK or Europe this way cost much less than using our UK mobile. Had we been in the country longer, we might have bought a Tunisian SIM card.  

Time: Tunisian standard time is one hour ahead of GMT in winter, as in Western Europe. 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 Western Europe!

Toilets: It is worth noting that all the museums and ancient sites we visited had clean, free toilets. Otherwise, you need to find a bar/café but probably you need to buy a drink (defeating the ultimate purpose of the visit!).

Visas: Citizens of the UK (see the Foreign and Commonwealth Travel Advice for Tunisia) and most West European countries do not need a visa for a visit of up to 3 months (or 4 months for USA nationals) in Tunisia. This does not allow entry into the neighbouring countries of Algeria and Libya, both of which require a visa, organised well in advance. They are not available at the borders!

Getting to Tunisia by Ferry

Click: Images of the Grimaldi Lines Ferry

Ferries cross year-round between Tunis (La Goulette) and France (Marseilles), as well as the Italian mainland ports (Genoa, Civitavecchia, Naples or Salerno), some of which call at Sicily (Palermo or Trapani) en route. The longest crossing, from France, is obviously the most expensive but saves driving time and fuel from the UK.

As we were coming from Greece, we took the shortest and cheapest crossing from Trapani in north-west Sicily, with the advantage of a daytime sailing. All the ferries can carry motorhomes but there is no 'camping on board' option (the open deck facility offered on summertime ferries between Italy and Greece). If travelling overnight, you can book a cabin, or a reclining Pullman seat (a 'poltrone'), or join the many passengers sleeping wherever they can.

We chose Grimaldi Lines, who operate from Civitavecchia calling at Trapani, or Salerno calling at Palermo. We booked a return passage with reclining seats on the weekly ferry 'Sorrento', departing Trapani at 0900 hrs on Thursdays (after leaving Civitavecchia at 1600 hrs Wednesday) and due in La Goulette at 1630 hrs. Grandi Navi Veloci also sail from Palermo but are more expensive.

We spent the night before embarkation at an excellent motel, 'Le Saline' at Nubia, less than 4 miles from Trapani. As well as rooms, a café, free WiFi and a petrol station, the motel has a safe overnight parking area for motorhomes (a 'sosta'), its price dependent on whether the water, waste and hook-up facilities are used. It even has its own toilet and shower block for an extra fee. 

In Trapani the quayside was packed with Tunisian workers returning home for a holiday, their motley collection of Italian- or Tunisian-registered vehicles piled high with all manner of luggage and furniture, bikes and mattresses. Roof racks groaned and car boots hung open: it was quite a sight to behold! We joined the queue at 0700 hrs - the only Europeans to board, apart from one French family in a 4x4 – and set sail at 1000, an hour late.

Grimaldi may have had the cheapest fares but you do get what you pay for! Our boat 'Sorrento' was very busy, with passengers camped everywhere. With only one small room of 62 reclining seats, those without a cabin filled the corridors and dining area. There was a tiny bar and a self-service restaurant with an overpriced fixed price meal at €10. Only Euros were accepted on board - no cards or Tunisian currency. The coffee from the bar was so strong that we broke out in a sweat! We found that our 'reserved' Pullman seats were not together, and were already occupied.

Arriving at La Goulette, an hour late at 1730 hrs, it was dark by the time we emerged into the traffic after the many passport and customs checks, which took 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's interior was searched twice. Spotting our Magellan Meridian 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 the country no-one asked for it.

Leaving from La Goulette at the end of the tour was just as frustrating, with multiple checks and searches. The ferry left 2 hours later than the scheduled time, without a word of explanation, 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!

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 Sicily, 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.

This return ferry was due to leave La Goulette at 1330 hrs. It finally sailed at 1530 hrs - as far as the container dock at the other side of the bay! Here, again without a word of apology, it proceeded to load containers to the limit until 2200 hrs, before setting off for Italy. Obviously, a last minute cargo of containers had taken precedence over calling at Trapani. We arrived in Civitavecchia at 1530 hrs next day, after a morning disturbed by a fire alarm ringing in the kitchens. Grimaldi? Never again - but we'll be back in Tunisia.

The Vehicle

Our short wheelbase Mercedes Benz Sprinter van performed remarkably well. It never hesitated, started eagerly first time, every time and took the varied roads and gradients in its stride. Motorhome Medics of Cheltenham had bought the van on our behalf in November 2009 and prepared it well for its life on the wrong side of the road. They had paid particular attention to security, with a Cobra alarm supplementing the van's own coded key. This gave two immobilisers and alarms on all doors and any movement within the cab.

They also added two very heavy duty locks to the rear and sliding doors. They looked good and acted as an obvious deterrent. Inside covers for the windscreen and cab door windows added to the general feeling of a fortress. Although we always looked for a safe overnight place, the van often had to stand in the street, sometimes with a hotel 'guardian' in sight.

It attracted a great deal of friendly attention. There were relatively few 'white vans' in Tunisia and few of these were Mercedes. Right hand drive was also a fascination for some, although police and customs officials carrying out roadside checks were sometimes embarrassed to find themselves at the window of a female passenger rather than the driver.

Diesel was plentiful in the north of the country; in the south we always made sure we had plenty in hand – and cash (not cards) to pay for it. At 1 TD per litre (around 50 pence), we also made sure we left for Italy with a full tank! Some petrol stations also sold LPG, used by taxis in the major towns.

As for vehicle insurance: as we couldn't get any before entering the country, we assumed we'd buy a 'green card' on landing. But none were for sale at the port and no-one took any interest in the subject. Although we were stopped on occasion at roadside police checks, we were usually waved on with a smile when we were recognised as eccentric foreign seniors (to say the least). Where papers were asked for, it was just our passports and the van's Registration Document that were needed. So we drove without insurance – very carefully!

Driving standards were somewhere between those of Greece and India. That is, it was very enjoyable and much more relaxing than being constrained by rules, white lines, traffic lights, speed limits, junctions, roundabouts (there were a few, thanks to the overall French influence) or any false notions of 'courtesy'. In other words, the Tunisians are good drivers and somehow always managed to avoid the collision that starts out to look inevitable.   

The Roads

Click: Images of the Roads in Tunisia

The road network is of surprisingly good standard, with all but the most minor roads tar-sealed. It has clearly been a recent priority, as several roads shown as unsealed on our map are now hard-topped. For example, the Lonely Planet refers to 'the back road' from Matmata east to Medenine as needing a 4WD from Toujane to Medenine. In fact this beautiful route is now sealed all the way - and a very good surface it is.

We used the new toll-motorway ('peage') from Tunis north to Bizerte. It passes one service station and was very quiet, with a small toll of TD1.90 for the whole journey or TD1 for part-way. The same motorway runs south from Tunis to M'saken, near Sousse, and will eventually reach Sfax and Gabes.  

The main driving hazard, apart from congestion in large towns, was the speed bumps along the approach to every settlement! We never heard a horn or saw any 'road rage'.

Food & Drink

Breakfast was always included in the rate at all the places we stayed (even at a self-catering apartment on Jerba). It was rare that it only consisted of coffee, toast and jam. Usually there was a small buffet, including cheese triangles and hard-boiled eggs (useful for pocketing for lunch!) and sometimes juice, yogurt, fruit, croissants or cakes. Pork is of course taboo in a Moslem country and anything resembling sausage, ham or salami at breakfast seemed to be non-pork meat dyed pink – and not to our taste.

It was easy to buy fresh bread ('baguettes') daily, direct from a local 'boulangerie' or at a general store. Markets and stalls sell fruit and vegetables, and fish near the coast. The larger towns have French supermarkets (eg Monoprix or Carrefour) with a wide range of food, including hot roast chickens and tempting 'patisserie'. We carried a camping stove, tea, coffee and a small variety of tins (including ham!), so that we could make lunch in the van.

All the hotels and guest houses we used had a restaurant, where we often took an evening meal. Sometimes there was a rate for 'demi-pension' (bed, breakfast and a set dinner), which was always good value. It could be described as Mediterranean/North African cuisine (using local produce, olive oil, couscous) with a French influence. The starter was typically soup, salad or the delicious 'briq a l'oeuf'. This is a hard-boiled egg, often with the addition of onion, tinned tuna and herbs, wrapped in a triangle of filo pastry, deep fried and served piping hot. Much nicer than it sounds! The main dish would be chicken, lamb or mutton stew, with couscous, pasta or potatoes. Dessert was simply an apple, orange or banana – or perhaps a chocolate mousse at a more upmarket restaurant.

Unless you like food hot – very hot – and spicy, beware of the little dish of bright red harissa that is served as a side dish with most meals. One dip was enough for us!

Alcohol is more difficult to find. Cafes have coffee, mint tea or soft drinks. Bars serve beer but are very much smoky male preserves. Wine is available only in the more expensive restaurants, or in a totally separate section of major supermarkets. Our preferred drinks of fresh orange juice or bottled water were much less of a problem.   

Accommodation

Click: Images of Tunisian Hotels

Accommodation could be described as budget, mid-range or top-end. Budget hostels and cheap hotels, often inside the old quarter of town (the Medina), were generally unsuitable if you had your own vehicle. It was difficult or impossible to access them via a warren of narrow streets and there was no parking space.

Mid-range hotels and guest houses (one or two star) were fine for us. A double room with private bathroom, hot water and breakfast cost between £25 and £30, with 'demi-pension' up to £40 (for 2 people). This was low season rate – it rises considerably in high season, especially if air-con is used. They usually had a safe car park but at a couple with no off-road parking, the hotel had a night watchman who kept an eye on any cars parked outside. For example at the Hotel du Jardin, about a mile out of Tozeur, a pair of hotel guardians 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.   

We were surprised at how few hotels there were in Tunisia, with the exception of coastal resorts near package holiday airports. Assuming that the Lonely Planet just described one or two per town as an example, we soon discovered that they listed them all! We rarely saw a hotel that was not in the LP. Finding some of the hotels closed and others full, especially at weekends for weddings, we usually phoned ahead to check, using a public phone box and speaking French. Deposits were not required, as few hotels took credit cards, and a room might be held until a certain time – or the receptionist might say they were full to avoid the bother!

The package tourist coastal areas each have a 'Zone Touristique' development, consisting of a string of huge self-contained luxury resorts designed for pre-booked groups rather than walk-in guests. However, looking in vain for a room near Monastir we tried the 'Zone Touristique' by the airport at Skanes and were made extremely welcome at the first mega-hotel we tried - the Primalife. 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).

We only found one self-catering place to stay, on the holiday island of Jerba. Its Zone Touristique starts 6 miles east of Houmt Souq, along the Sidi Mahres beach, with a large choice of hotels (emphasis on large) and more being built. Avoiding the palatial resorts on the sea front, we found the best accommodation of our tour, near the Casino and one block back from the beach. We can recommend:

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 cycling on the island of Jerba. 

Camping

On this occasion we were not motorhoming and so not seeking camping places. We only saw 3 motorhomes on tour (a pair of French camping cars travelling together and a lone Dutchman) - and no caravans. This was a pleasant contrast to Morocco, where French convoys tend to fill campsites and overnight spots and attract too much attention.

We saw the motorhomers free-parked without apparent problem by the fishing harbour at Houmt Souq on Jerba island, and later by the Ksar (fortified Berber settlement) at Old Douiret near Tataouine. Some hotels allowed 'camping' on the car park, perhaps with use of a bathroom, for a small fee.

We did call at the Camping Desert Club campsite in the Palmery at Douz. Open all year, with a seasonal bar/restaurant, it had good facilities including hook-ups and an automatic washing machine. The guardian was happy to let us picnic on the site while our load was washed and spun for TD7. It made a nice change from hand-washing in hotel basins using shampoo sachets! The only campers here were intrepid Germans in 4WD + roof tent outfits, preparing to cross the desert by sunbathing and writing postcards.

For more information on campsites and overnight places, see Jane and George Swindails' list and the Homewoods' advice.

Archaeological Sites

Click: More Images of Roman Sites in Tunisia

Ancient history is a particular interest of ours and Tunisia has a wealth of sites, having come under the rule of all the great empires of the Mediterranean basin, from Hannibal's mighty city-state of Carthage, through the Romans and Byzantines to the Ottomans. We found all the sites well kept, open all day every day until dusk and tended by French-speaking guardians, keen to guide visitors round and point out hidden features (for a tip). Signs and labels were usually in both French and English. There was normally a free car park, perhaps a café/shop, and sometimes a small museum included in the entry fee.

Carthage: The multiple-entry one-day ticket at TD9 per person is excellent value, covering all the historic sites except the (in our view hideously inappropriate) Acropolium atop Byrsa Hill. We began by parking at the Acropolium (a cathedral built by the French in 1884 and now deconsecrated) to visit the Punic (pre-Roman) ruins on the acropolis and the Museum of Carthage, housed on 2 floors in the former cathedral seminary.  The other various locations around the town are very poorly signposted, so you need a good map if not taking a taxi or local guide. It was a full day getting round them all.

We found the Sanctuary of Tophet, a Punic site of sacrifice and burial dating to the 4th-2nd century BC, later taken over by the conquering Romans. Nearby were the Punic harbour and dockyards which brought such wealth to Carthage, destroyed by Roman Scipio in 146 BC, only to be rebuilt in the 2nd century AD to house the fleet for shipping wheat to Rome. There is a small Punic Ports Museum on the site.

There are also several impressive Roman sites - the cisterns (an incredibly large 2nd century AD water pipe network, supplying the whole Roman city); the Roman theatre, once seating 5,000, where Churchill gave a speech to the British Army; reconstructed Roman villas; and the Antonine Baths (the largest outside Rome itself). See also Carthage.

Click: More images of Ancient Carthage

Bulla Regia: Admission was TD5 per person, plus TD1 for a camera permit. Coming from Jendouba, 5 miles to the west, there is a parking area opposite the site by the café and museum (the latter closed for renovation). We walked among the wonderfully extensive remains of a Roman city noted for its lavish villas, built partly underground to escape the heat. Many of the splendid mosaics are now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis (the world's largest collection, housed in an Ottoman palace) but some fine examples were still in situ here. Personally, we prefer seeing mosaics in context where they lay, rather than gathered at a remote national museum. The 'guardian' who appeared to show us round was well worth his tip, washing the mosaic floors at the House of the Hunt and House of Amphitrite to bring out their colours and explain the detail. See also Bulla Regia.

Dougga: Admission TD5 pp plus TD1 camera. Arriving from Le Kef, 40 miles south-west of this hill-top Roman city, we reached the SW entrance 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. We spent half a day wandering among the many temples, baths, theatres, forum and houses – all on a hillside overlooking olive groves and rolling wheat fields. A stone quarry behind the site was still being worked. If you only have time or inclination for one Roman site, this should be it! See also Dougga.

El-Jem: We didn't revisit the magnificent colosseum (seen on our first tour Tunisia years ago - by bicycle) but remember the stunning sight of this 3-tier 30,000-seater, the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, completed in 238 AD. The museum has a collection of mosaics to rival those in the Bardo in Tunis. See also El-Jem.

Sbeitla/Sufetula: In the middle of nowhere, 24 miles east of Kasserine, lies the Roman town of Sufetula. The Complexe Touristique (with café and toilets) is open all day, summer or winter. Entrance tickets for the site can be bought here, or at the small adjacent museum (included), or at the site gate across the road (admission TD5 pp plus TD1 camera). There are the remains of a theatre and baths but the highlights are the remarkably preserved temples. The landscape was green, with wheat, olive groves and other trees, spring flowers, birdsong, grazing sheep, even a nesting stork or two. See also Sbeitla/Sufetula.

Gafsa: Sadly, the twin Roman Pools in the midst of the modern town 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 followed us round demanding money - unusual in Tunisia, though very common in Morocco. Disillusioned, we didn't linger to visit the museum (more mosaics). See also Gafsa.

Lest We Forget – The Military Cemeteries of World War Two

Click: More Images of War Cemeteries in Tunisia

A series of cemeteries mark the progress of the Allied victory in the North African Campaign of 1942-43, which cost them more than 15,000 lives. There are 8 Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWCG) cemeteries in Tunisia (as well as others in Algeria and Libya). We visited 5 of these along the line of advance of the British First Army out of Algeria towards Tunis, to meet up with the Eighth Army out of Egypt and Libya. This is in the north of the country, along the road between Tunis, Beja and Tabarka. We also visited the single US War Cemetery in Carthage, where all the Americans killed in North Africa rest. For more information, including inscriptions and our comments, see our separate article 'Lest We Forget'. For images of two other CWGC cemeteries in Italy, click: Anzio and Monte Cassino.

Five CWGC Cemeteries

Bordj El Amri: The large 'Bigger-Massicault' Commonwealth cemetery is 17 miles/27 km SW of Tunis, along the road to Beja. The personal dedications on each white headstone, chosen by the next of kin, are a poignant feature of every CWGC cemetery – brave words that transform the dead soldier into a much missed and loved family member. We were also moved to see the graves of air crews, groups of 3 or 4 men together, with the same date.

Mejez el Bab: Tunisia's largest Commonwealth cemetery (38 miles/60 km south-west of Tunis) lies about 2 miles/3 km SW of the small town of Mejez el-Bab, along the El Kef road. It contains the graves of 2,903 soldiers, with a memorial to a further 2,000 men killed in Tunisia and Algeria with no known graves. The surrounding trees were alive with bird song, the sky swooped with swallows. Sadly, there was no supervision today and the large areas of level grass had proved too tempting for a quartet of local lads with a football. They ran away as we shouted but, timidly returning to retrieve the ball, they did apologise and we parted as friends once they learnt we came from somewhere near 'Manchester United'.

Oued Zarga: A serene little Commonwealth cemetery lies 50 miles/80 km SW of Tunis near Oued Zarga. Turn left (signed) off the Beja road and follow a rough country lane for about a mile to the dammed Lake Sidi Salem. The walled cemetery lies at the water's edge by a ruined church tower and we guessed that a settlement had been flooded to make a reservoir. The sun shone, birds sang and poppies studded the cornfields – it was impossible to imagine the carnage here 67 years ago. As we stood, lost in thought, a small woman wearing Wellington boots and headscarf ambled across from tending her flock of sheep and explained that she was the 'guardian'. It was a hot day and we were glad to give her a bottle of chilled water and something to eat.

Beja: This tiny Commonwealth cemetery on Rue Mohamed ben Kahla is in the shadow of a dingy block of flats in a built-up area of the city, across the road from the railway line. The small lawned cemetery with 396 white headstones is beautifully tended, a stark contrast to a derelict overgrown colonial-era Christian cemetery nearby. Most of the men died in the offensive of spring 1943. As always, those unidentified rest under the inscription 'A Soldier of the Second World War, Known unto God'.

Tabarka: The little 'Ras Rajal' Commonwealth cemetery is 8 miles/13 km east of the port of Tabarka, about a mile before the airport which serves the 'Zone Touristique'. It's on the left of the main road, opposite the local produce and clothing market. There are 500 neatly tended graves of men who fell in spring 1943: 495 British, 1 Australian, 1 Canadian and 3 unidentified.

The remaining 3 CWGC sites are at Thibar (19 miles/30 km south of Beja, towards Teboursouk), Enfidha (59 miles/95 km south of Tunis near the Gulf of Hammamet) and Sfax (2 miles/4 km south of the city on the Gabes road). There is also a French military cemetery at Enfidha, and another at Gammarth (near La Marsa, NE of Tunis). The Germans buried their dead at Bordj Cedria on the Gulf of Tunis, about 15 miles/25 km SE of the capital.

The US War Cemetery in Tunis

In Carthage on Rue Roosevelt, a mile or so north-east of the Acropolium, is a huge graveyard and memorial to all the American war dead of the North African campaign. There are 2,840 graves, their white crosses laid out with military precision, and a Wall of Remembrance for the 3,724 never found: 'Some there be which have no sepulchre. Their name liveth for evermore'. In the small chapel a statue bore the words: 'He has outsoared the shadow of our night' but the gravestones did not have the personal dedications that are found in CWGC cemeteries. The office had English-speaking staff on hand, and a film of all the US War Cemeteries (about a dozen world-wide, this being the only one in Africa).

The Great South

The southern half of Tunisia, the reverse side of our map, is largely desert - the Sahara, its vast sea of sand lapping north into Tunisia between Algeria and Libya. We couldn't penetrate the true desert of the Great Erg but did explore its fringe: from the 'ksour' (Berber hill villages) in the less arid regions around Tataouine, and the troglodyte dwellings of Matmata, to the oases of Douz and Tozeur, separated by the vast salt lake of Chott el-Jerid.   

Ksour around Tataouine

Click: More Images of the Ksar of Southern Tunisia

'Ksour' is the plural of 'Ksar', a fortified Berber hill village, the remains of which can be seen in several locations around the town of Tataouine. We based ourselves here, at the Hotel Mabrouk 'Perle du Desert' up at 890 ft, about 2 miles SW of town towards Chenini and opposite a small dinosaur and fossil museum (which we never found open). It's also possible to camp at the hotel, in a walled garden compound.

A characteristic of each Ksar is its grain store ('Ghorfa'), where the precious harvest of grain and oil was stacked. These medieval Ksour are now in ruins, perhaps used to house livestock; others are partly restored for tourism. Natural caves were extended by tunnelling into soft rock along hillside terraces to form refuges for the Berber tribes, forced off the less arid plains from the 11th century. All are very photogenic and popular for film sets (eg 'Star Wars', 'The English Patient' and Monty Python's 'Life of Brian'). They are all freely open to visit and were largely deserted, apart from an occasional tour group.

We began with the large Ksar at Chenini, 10 miles from Tataouine. It was a steep walk up from the restaurant and car park, past several souvenir stalls, to the partly reconstructed village. A dignified old woman, wearing Berber dress and facial tattoo, beckoned us into one of the simple cave-houses to take her photograph and make a contribution, though we doubted she actually lived there. It's best to visit Chenini early, as tourist buses were filling the car park when we left mid-morning.

A newly sealed road continued to Douiret, where a mile or so above the shabby modern settlement, the 'ville nouvelle', is a Ksar in a more remote setting. It was empty, apart from one motorhome settled on the small parking area. We scrambled round, climbed the tower of an old mosque for a superb view of the valley below and had a quiet picnic. The only restored building was marked as a 'gite' (simple guesthouse) called 'Chez Raoul'.

At Ksar Ouled Debbab the restored end is now a restaurant with a tacky museum (model dinosaurs, etc) and an entry fee we didn't pay, though we wandered undisturbed round the crumbling ruins under the evening light of a wonderfully clear blue sky.

Our second day in this area began at Ksar Ouled Soltane, whose highly restored 4-storey Ghorfas, pictured on every postcard, are featured on the walls of our hotel's restaurant. The visit was spoilt by a noisy French tour group, not to mention a couple of artists outside the café, doing a hard sell on their paintings.

The next site, 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. The only shop was a tiny 'alimentation' selling bread and provisions, rather than Sand Roses (the ubiquitous desert souvenir).

As we drove between the Ksour we saw a few working camels, including a baby being transported in the back of a truck. Hay and straw were being delivered to the sparse dwellings that dotted the sandy scrub, for their sheep, goats and donkeys – still stored at Ouled Soltane, though not in the original Ghorfas.

Leaving Tataouine, to drive north for Matmata, we visited Ksar Haddada near Ghomrassen.  Part of the Ksar, restored as a hotel, featured in two of the 'Star Wars ' films and has now reopened as a restaurant. Apparently Luke Skywalker's home planet was named after Tataouine!

Ksar Joumaa (16 miles/26 km SW of Medenine) was the last we saw: another favourite, accessed on foot up a rough track, signposted from the main road. From its small collection of 2-storey Ghorfas, there was a magnificent view of the oases scratched on the surface of the desert plain far below. Very peaceful until a small French party arrived by 4WD and their guide began the usual 'Spiel' (not a French word!)

Matmata's Pit Dwellings

Click: More Images of Matmata

The dramatic road (maximum height 1,900 ft) which winds its way up from Medenine to Matmata has recently been sealed, transforming the tiny village of Toujane, 15 miles/25 km SE of Matmata, into a tourist trap. Driving through, the road squeezed between the picturesque stone houses clustered below the Kasbah, was like running a gauntlet. Every villager seemed to be selling carpets, tea or rooms – if not all three.

Matmata itself was much developed since our first visit, some 20 years ago, and is now sadly spoilt by tourism. The Hotel Matmata (look for the camels parked outside) provided the worst room and the rudest staff of our tour, though admittedly the set dinner of salad, 'briq a l'oeuf' and chicken couscous was excellent. A tout tried for a tip to show us the way from the car park to the extremely obvious entrance! 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 in that afternoon from Jordan! When asked about the rooms with vaulted domed ceilings, described by the Lonely Planet, he denied their existence, adding 'these guide books get things wrong'. We didn't bother mentioning 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 took a plastic one each from the poolside. It's cold at night, up at 1200 ft, and there was only one blanket  - our complaints filled a page in the book (probably torn out afterwards!)

We 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. It's behind the underground Hotel Sidi Driss, with a fixed entry price of TD3 (and well worth it).

Next day in the village of Haddej, 3 miles/4 km from Matmata, we saw signs for 'Chambres d'Hotes Troglodytes' but didn't investigate.

The Palmeries (Desert Oases) round Douz and Tozeur

Click: More Images of the Chott El Jerid and the Desert

From Matmata we drove west on a dusty hazy windless day, descending to the lowland oasis town of Douz, the largest palmery in Tunisia, on the edge of the Great Dune. Almost half a million date palms grow here, along with a variety of other fruits and vegetables. We didn't visit the 'Zone Touristique', 2 miles/3 km SW of the town beyond the palmery, but found Camping Desert Club, a campsite hidden among the  palms. Open all year, with a seasonal bar/restaurant, it had good facilities including hook-ups and an automatic washing machine. The guardian was happy to let us picnic on the site and take a walk while our load was washed and spun. See an account on this website of Christmas at Douz, by motorhomers Jane & George Swindail.

From Douz we headed south-west on 8 miles/12 km of newly sealed road to the tiny oasis of Zaafrane, where a fleet of camels stood ready outside the only hotel. Preferring saddles to be on bicycles, we continued another 18 miles/29 km to El Faouar, a larger oasis town: the origin of most of the sand roses sold all over Tunisia. Truly the end of the road (unless you have a camel or 4WD).

Returning to Zaafrane, we risked a back road to Kebili via Nouil and Blidet, along the eastern shore of the vast salt lake, Chott El Jerid. Reaching Kebili, we crossed the Chott (see below) and turned south to Tozeur, stopping for a meal and a room at the simple Hotel du Jardin, less than a mile before the town centre. Lovely garden, no car park!

Next day in Tozeur (home to Tunisia's second largest palmery) we walked round the atmospheric Old Quarter, with its distinctive architecture of patterned brick. The town centre was very touristy but we managed to avoid the crowds by entering the covered fish and produce market to buy deliciously sweet local dates and other fruit. We then made the mistake of driving to the horrifically developed 'Zone Touristique' in search of the access track to Belvedere Rocks, where the LP described a pleasant walk and a spectacular view over the oasis and the chott. After a hot dusty trek we realised that the path had been diverted by the building of a thirsty new golf course (just what a desert environment needs!). The horse-drawn carriage drivers near the Ranch Equi-Balade tried to persuade us to take a ride but by then we needed some lunch – and some shade.

Chott El Jerid

This vast salt lake covering nearly 5,000 sq km is dry for most of the year, its flat salt-crust surface shimmering white in the heat. Totally silent and desolate, barren as the moon, it made another perfect 'Star Wars' location. The Kebili-Tozeur road was built by the army on 60 miles of raised causeway across the north-west corner of the chott, and it is freely open.

When we cycled this road over 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). 

Seldja Gorge

Click: More Images of the Seldja Gorge

About 31 miles/50 km north of Tozeur (and 26 miles/42 km SW of Gafsa), in the hills near the drab phosphate-mining town of Metlaoui, lies another hidden gem: the Seldja Gorge. Until recently it was accessible on the 'Lezard Rouge' (Red Lizard) train, built in 1910 and restored to carry tourists on a 2-hour return trip from Metlaoui to see the stunning scenery. The track (which comes from Sfax via Gafsa) continues beyond the Gorge, with other trains serving mines near the Algerian border.

However, no trains can travel the line from Metlaoui at present, 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 our guide didn't know was that we once cycled here and walked our bikes through the tunnels, assured by the hotel-owner in Metlaoui that there was only one train a day, which had already gone. Luckily, this information was correct!

In the hills around Metlaoui we were astonished by the sheer scale of the phosphate mining operations: conveyor belts running continuously and every leaf white with dust. The French developed the port of Sfax to export the produce of the mines here and around Gafsa. For more, visit the Museum of Mining in Metlaoui itself.

The Coast

Tabarka (and inland to Ain Draham)

We couldn't find any suitable rooms in the north coast port and resort of Tabarka, just 14 miles/22 km from the sensitive Algerian border. We looked at the fishing harbour and saw the Genoese Fort on Tabarka Island, reached across a causeway from the marina and now occupied by the army. The road eastwards to the CWCG cemetery and Tabarka airport is backed by pine-clad hills and lined with stalls selling honey. The road south to El Kef was stunning, climbing for 19 miles/30 km to Ain Draham, once a French colonial hill station up at 900 m (nearly 3,000 ft) in the cork-oak forests of the Kroumirie Mountains. At the Hotel Beau Sejour (in Ain Draham's colonial hunting lodge, complete with wild boar heads etc) we had an excellent dinner, bed & breakfast, surprised that we were the only guests (though the adjacent bar serving beer was busy). It was much cooler than down at the coast and the steep-roofed houses are built for winter snow.  

Bizerte and Lake Ichkeul

Just 55 miles/88 km north of Tunis, linked to the capital by a new motorway, Bizerte lies at the north-east corner of Tunisia. Nearby Cap Blanc is the country's (in fact, the African continent's) northernmost point. We spent our last couple of nights in Bizerte before taking the ferry from La Goulette (Tunis) to Italy, staying at 'Le Petit Mousse' hotel on the Corniche, about 3 miles north of the centre. All rooms had an excellent sea view, the restaurant was French (very good expensive food) and the breakfast also French (minimal toast, jam and coffee – the only place that didn't serve us eggs!).

The city centre has a picturesque old port and medina overlooked by a fort, though the traffic was hectic. The single bridge over a canal (linking the port with Lake Bizerte) is a serious bottle-neck, providing the only access to the motorway apart from a long detour round the lake. The 'Zone Touristique' is along the Corniche (promenade), which leads to Cap Bizerte, where there is a lighthouse and a popular strip of beach 'La Grotte'. We cycled to this point, where a few people were fishing from the shore.

Bizerte was the only place we visited that did not have signs in French. It was easy to get lost, with only Arabic signs and street names to follow! We eventually found the cultural centre and internet café 'La Muse', inside a deconsecrated French cathedral, which charged TD1.50 per hour to use a computer or a very reasonable TD2 per day for the use of their WiFi. The staff were very helpful, the toilets disgusting!

Checking on the city's long history, we soon understood the anti-French feeling. France held onto the strategic naval base here after Tunisia gained independence in 1956. In 1961 Habib Bourgiba (the first President, a Sorbonne-educated lawyer and national hero) demanded that the French evacuate their military enclave. They didn't, Tunisian troops invaded the base, French paratroops flew in from Algeria and more than 1,000 Tunisians were killed in the fierce fighting. Bizerte finally became independent in 1963. Bourgiba remained in power until 1987, dying in 2000 at the age of 96.   

Our excursion to Lake Ichkeul and its national park, 30 miles SW of Bizerte, was a great disappointment. There was no entry fee - but nor was there any wildlife or birdlife, apart from a few ducks! The 'Ecomuseum' above the huge lake was a very long hot climb up many flights of steps to an exhibition at the top, where the café was closed. 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 (the last week in March) and the birds had flown, or the salinity level is now critically high?

Monastir

Click: More Images of Monastir

Our first impression of Tunisia was arriving here by air for a cycling tour, some 20 years ago. This time we spent a little longer in this popular resort, situated on a headland 12 miles/20 km east of Sousse, on the Gulf of Hammamet. The 'Zone Touristique' is strung along the beach near the international airport at Skanes, 5 miles west of the town, where we were made extremely welcome at the first mega-hotel we tried - the Primalife.

The centre of Monastir proved relatively quiet and unspoilt by tourism (at least in March). It was the birthplace and final home of President Habib Bourgiba - revered here in a similar way to Ataturk in Turkey.

The highlight for us was the well-preserved Ribat (fort) next to the Great Mosque, overlooking the harbour. It was well worth the entry fee (TD5 each plus TD1 camera permit) for the view along the coast or of the Mausoleum of Habib Bourgiba in the large formal cemetery behind. A museum off the courtyard explained the fort's history from 796 AD to completion in the 11th century. 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! You can climb a vertiginous tower (as they did) or walk the ramparts (as we did), imagining the fun when many scenes from Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' were filmed here. Monastir also stood in for Jerusalem in 'Jesus of Nazareth' and Zeffirelli's 'Life of Christ'.

Mahdia

Click: More Images of Mahdia and Cap d'Afrique

The port of Mahdia, south of Monastir on the way to Sfax, was Tunisia's capital in the 10th century, with some historic relics and a fine beach. We paid a small amount to park by the Medina and explore its warren of cobbled streets, old houses and shops. Then we found free parking space further east along peninsula of Cap d'Afrique, where we had a picnic before walking to the lighthouse, across an extensive open area of simple graves. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, local lads played football while others swam from the rocks running along the shore. One or two buses brought Tunisian families or school parties for a day by the sea, but we saw no other foreign tourists.

Driving south from Mahdia, we passed mile upon mile of orderly olive groves, some newly planted, some ancient. Tunisia is the biggest grower of olives in Africa (thanks to the Roman legacy) and approaching Sfax we saw 2 large olive mills. Presumably the oil is shipped from the port of Sfax, Tunisia's second largest city: an industrial rather than tourist centre.

Jerba Island

Click: More Images of Jerba Island

Continuing south, between Gabes and Medenine a minor road turns east to El-Jorf for a 15-minute ferry ride to the holiday island of Jerba. The fare was a mere TD0.80 (about 40 pence) per car, with all passengers free! There was a long queue with a half-hour wait for the roll-on roll-off boats with names like 'Hannibal' or 'Ulysses'. Jerba claims to be Homer's land of the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey, an enchanted and isle from which no-one wants to return. It could well be, as we lingered for 4 days of lotus-eating on the island before returning to the mainland!

The 'Zone Touristique' starts 6 miles east of the main town, Houmt Souq, along the Sidi Mahres beach, with a large choice of hotels (emphasis on large) and more being built. Avoiding the palatial resorts on the sea front, we found the best accommodation of our tour, near the Casino and one block back from the beach: a self-catering apartment at the Hotel Rodes. See 'Accommodation' above for more details.

At Houmt Souq there was a large free parking area by the shore, between the marina and the fort, where we saw a motorhome or two camped. In the town we shopped for produce at the Souq, braved the all-male sheesha-smoking preserve of the Café Les Arcades (TD5 for 2 fresh orange juices) and formed a queue to send emails from the adjacent Cyber Planet (all of 8 machines and no WiFi). Later we discovered the classy Royal First Haroun Hotel, near our Hotel Rodes, had free WiFi in its café for the price of a drink (again TD5 for 2 fresh orange juices!)

To avoid becoming too indolent among the lotus-eaters, we did use our bicycles. We had a 20-mile ride east along Sidi Mahres beach (rarely glimpsed behind the vast package-tour palaces and golf courses) to the lighthouse of Rass Taguermes at the NE corner of the island, then down the east coast alongside a lagoon to Rass Rougga. A few pale-skinned tourists had already arrived from the Far North to enjoy the local pastimes of riding in horse-drawn carriages, sitting on hired mopeds or scooters, perching on camels or making a noise on the sands in fleets of quad-bikes. And these were the outdoor types … At the furthest end of the beaches (the scruffy public zone) there were still working fishermen and a shepherd with his flock, looking very biblical. Costumes would not have been needed for the extras on epic film sets! A second cycle ride took us west along the coast, beyond Houmt Souk to the lighthouse at the NW corner of the island, returning on an inland route past the holiday airport and through Mellita village.

Leaving Jerba, rather than taking the ferry we crossed the free causeway ('Chaussee Romaine') from El Kantara, continuing south to Zarzis, where there is an international airport, and on to Tataouine (130 miles in all). The original causeway was indeed Roman-built, guarded by a Roman fort and trading post at Meninx.

Conclusion

Overall, touring Tunisia was a much much pleasanter experience than our own visit to Morocco a decade ago, or Moroccan tours reported more recently by several friends (all experienced motorhomers). Great people, the Tunisians - working their very minor scams with great dignity!

After this 3-week sample, we certainly hope to return for longer.