That time we went to Tunisia

Last night there was a Panorama documentary about the terrible attacks on the Tunisian resort of Port el Kantaoui last year. We didn’t watch it, but it brought back memories of the time we visited this resort ourselves. It was November 2013 and it was our first ‘proper’ holiday together. This post was originally on my old blog, and it’s one of several that I’m going to be moving over to here. Some of you may have read it before, but if not, it should hopefully make for interesting reading even though it’s from a few years ago!

On Wednesday we returned from a week in Tunisia. It was our first time in Africa and our first time on an all-inclusive holiday, and neither of us had any idea what to expect. I’ll warn you now that this isn’t going to be a rave review, but there were certainly plenty of enjoyable aspects and we don’t regret the holiday, as it was an interesting and enlightening experience on a number of levels! Read on to find out why…

The hotel

We stayed at Hotel Riviera in the purpose-built resort of Port el Kantaoui, right on the coast of the Sahel region of Tunisia. Port el Kantaoui is about 20 minutes’ drive from the town of Sousse, the region’s main town. We had been alarmed, just days before we were due to set off, to read reports that there had been a suicide bomb further up the beach from where our hotel was located, outside Sousse; thankfully nobody but the bomber (who was killed) was injured, but it did make me anxious. When we arrived, we saw that the hotel, like all the others in the area, had gated security, with a security guard stationed permanently, which reassured us.

Out the back of the hotel was a pleasant bar area, with paths leading down to the pool, which was surrounded by date palms.

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Inside, the hotel was very ‘dated’ (!) in a different way; it had been built in the 1970s or 80s and had clearly changed little since then. Even the brown and orange soft furnishings in the rooms gave the illusion of a time warp. The rooms were comfortable enough, though the towels smelt as though they had been washed in muddy water and the over-bath shower leaked water all over the floor.

What really let the hotel down, though, was its policy of allowing smoking in all public areas. Everywhere you went, the stench of cigarette smoke was inescapable. We were initially put in what was evidently a smoking room, despite having requested non-smoking, and it was too late by the time we arrived to change rooms, so we had to endure a night in a disgusting smoke-soaked environment. We were moved next morning to a non-smoking room, which was immeasurably better and had a pool view that the previous room had lacked, but even in that the smell of cigarette smoke wafted in through the air conditioning. How we longed for the UK smoking ban!

Chilling by the pool

In the first half of the week we enjoyed beautifully warm weather, about 27 degrees, which was perfect for relaxing by the pool. It was good to have time to catch up on my reading and diary writing, as well as just chatting with Lee for hours on end. We could have as many free drinks from the pool bar as we wanted, whenever we liked. However, we soon became restless and wanted to get out and about doing things, rapidly concluding that lounging-by-the-pool holidays, while nice for a day or two, are not really for us. We like being active, and seeing and doing things!

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The white sandy beach was a short walk from the hotel, so to break up a day spent by the pool we walked down to the beach and some way along it. We bumped into a couple of camels!

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What we found very annoying was that, whether we were relaxing by the pool, walking on the beach or even sitting in the bar area of the hotel, we were never far from a person coming over to harass us and try to sell us something. On the beach a man approached us and gave Lee a Euro coin that he claimed to have found on the beach, asking him to change it into Dinars (a ploy to con us of course), while constantly around the hotel we were approached by people trying to sell us trips on camels, excursions to Sousse or henna tattoos. It became very difficult not to be rude to them, as these were not official hotel people so we felt they shouldn’t have been allowed the run of the hotel. When we did book trips, it was through the official Thomas Cook rep whom we knew was trustworthy.

The hotel was home to a number of quite sweet cats. I’m very much a dog person, but evidently these two liked me despite that!

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Port el Kantaoui Marina

About 15 minutes’ walk from our hotel was the pleasant marina of Port el Kantaoui, where there were a number of restaurants and shops overlooking expensive yachts moored from all over Europe.

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We walked up to the marina several times during the week and enjoyed a stroll around looking at the various interesting boats, including the tourist ‘pirate galleons’. Again, though, the experienced was marred by numerous locals approaching us trying to get us to go into their shop or restaurant, or on their boat trips. The absolute classic was when a Tunisian man, whose restaurant we had just declined to enter, said to Lee: “Your lady very nice, very small, very soft, very sweet. I trade her for camel”!! Fortunately Lee didn’t, and I live to tell the tale.

The Roman Amphitheatre at El Djem

The real highlight of the trip was an excursion we did to the impressive remains of a Roman amphitheatre at El Djem, about an hour and a half south of where we were staying. We booked this through Thomas Cook and it was operated by the Tunisian Travel Service. We thought this would be the easiest and safest way of getting out and about!

We arose at 6am, in time for breakfast before a coach picked us up at 7am. It was empty when it picked us up, and what followed was a good two hours of trailing around what felt like every hotel in the land picking up more people, until the coach was full to the brim.

Eventually we were on our way, and the initial part of our journey took us through the suburbs of Sousse. We were quite shocked by how run-down everything was, even in a major town: piles of rubble just lying around for no apparent reason, litter absolutely everywhere, half-built buildings vastly outnumbering finished ones but with no apparent work being done on them. And even in this large town, we saw a man with a herd of goats by the side of the road!

Beyond Sousse we passed into arid scrubland with mile after mile of olive groves, some of which had been there since Roman times (this was an important area for olive oil production in Roman times and remains so to this day, Tunisia being the world’s fourth-largest producer of olive oil according to my guidebook). I was quite delighted to observe that instead of using bushes to delineate fields, they use cacti (prickly pears)! Hopefully you can see them in the photo below.

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We passed through a number of smaller Tunisian villages and noted the enormous contrast with the resorts. The larger places had a few shops lining the street, selling odd things like dirty buckets of oil, or random tyres. There was dust everywhere and yet more abandoned half-built buildings. On one street corner there were a couple of dead sheep slung up awaiting the butcher’s knife, with another couple standing casually by, about to meet their maker.

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Eventually, and just as deep vein thrombosis was beginning to look like a very real possibility, we arrived at El Djem. We were led by our guide from the coach to the amphitheatre, a short walk but nonetheless one that provided ample opportunity for harassment by local men trying to sell us things for improbably small sums of money.

One thing I found annoying, as a classical archaeologist, was the fact that the guide – and indeed all local promotional material – insisted on referring to the amphitheatre as ‘a Colosseum’. I wanted to pipe up and tell them that the word ‘Colosseum’ refers very specifically to the one in Rome, but I didn’t want to look like a know-all. In fact the amphitheatre in Rome was not known as the Colosseum in Roman times, and it actually got its name much later because of its proximity to a huge statue of Nero, known as the Colossus, which no longer survives. Proper scholars refer to the Colosseum as ‘the Flavian amphitheatre’, after the emperors who built it. But I digress.

We had been assured that “this Colosseum is better than the one in Rome”, and having now visited both, I’m not sure that I would agree. I still think that the Colosseum is more visually appealing, but it’s certainly true that the El Djem amphitheatre allows one to clamber over and under it rather more.

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Here’s the obligatory one of Lee and me for our next photobook.

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I found the town surrounding the amphitheatre every bit as interesting as the amphitheatre itself, and we climbed to a considerable height in order to observe something of the buildings around, and the life taking place outside. Everything seemed quite chaotic, with battered old motorbikes speeding by, carpets hanging out to dry on the flat rooftops and camels sitting around, their owners trying to sell rides.

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After we’d had 40 minutes or so to explore, we headed back to the coach and were taken a short distance to the El Djem Archaeological Museum, home to a large number of excellent mosaics and the remains of Tunisia’s largest Roman villa.

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Though I’d seen more impressive mosaics in Rome, this was certainly a good collection and I felt much more in my element than being in the hotel – exploring the rooms and venturing out into the sun to look at the ones still in situ.

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After this it was time to head back to the hotels, and I’m pleased to report that the hotel drop-offs were not in reverse order, so we got to leave the coach first.

Sousse Medina

The other excursion we did, again through Thomas Cook/the Tunisian Travel Service, was a tour of Sousse’s old Medina, the market area of the town. Though clearly and frustratingly angled towards vulgar British tourists (e.g. stops to buy fake sportswear!!), this was a good way of experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of a traditional Arabic Medina in a comparatively safe way.

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Crossing through an archway in the old city walls, which had been there since the 9th century, we entered a tangled maze of narrow streets lined with shops selling all manner of things – leather goods, traditional Arabic clothes, spices, dates, and plenty more besides.

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We weren’t harassed too much by shop-owners, who could see that we were on an organised tour, but we were given the chance to do some shopping, either in one of the very few ‘fixed price’ stores or by haggling in the traditional way. As we were Christmas shopping, I can’t divulge what we bought, but we did do a bit of haggling – or rather Lee did, as I’m rubbish at that kind of thing!

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We also stopped off at a traditional coffee shop, which was quite an Aladdin’s cave of interesting things and occupied several floors.

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You could go out onto the roof and see panoramic views of Sousse and its flat rooftops and minarets.

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At one point the background noise of the town was broken by the call to prayer – chanting through loud speakers that could be heard across the town. It was this, more than anything else, that made us feel a long way from home.

The hotel food, and the whole ‘all-inclusive’ thing

No account of our trip could be complete without some comment on our experience of an all-inclusive holiday. It was our first, and I think we can safely say that it’s likely to be our last – at least at this level of budget!

What we liked was the idea that everything was paid for in advance, so theoretically we could have gone and spent no money whatsoever. All food and drinks were included in the price we’d already paid, and all we ended up spending money on was a bit of Christmas shopping and the two excursions. Oh, and a cheap spa treatment in the hotel spa, which turned out to be awful.

However, from the moment we stepped off the plane and onto the coach for the airport transfer, we felt essentially like cattle, herded about as part of the never-ending cycle of impersonal package holidays. When we arrived at the hotel we were given green wristbands, which we loathed and which were purposefully attached to us in such a way as to be virtually impossible to take off. The effect was basically the same as a cow’s eartag, or a prisoner’s tag, and that’s exactly how we felt. Like cows. Or prisoners. Luckily I have small hands, and managed to squeeze mine off, but poor Lee wasn’t so lucky and had to endure wearing his for the whole week.

Our fellow holidaymakers, without meaning to sound too much of a snob, left a great deal to be desired. They were all very much of the same social demographic, all chain-smoking and tattooed, and absolutely devoid of taste, intelligence and culture. We noticed that some of them were wearing red wristbands instead of green ones like ours. We assumed this must mean they were there on a half-board basis, but it transpired that the red bands in fact meant that they belonged to the, er, ‘elite’ club of those who had been back to the hotel five times or more. Staggering.

Though the local wine and beer on offer wasn’t too bad, the food was absolutely horrible and I suffered from a tummy bug for the majority of the time we were there. It was a buffet with, on the face of it, a good choice of food with some options that looked reasonably appetising. Despite being on hot plates, though, it was all lukewarm at best, and even the food that looked ok tasted awful. We spotted the previous night’s unfinished roast potatoes turn up amongst the offerings for breakfast next day, and the same pasta with a tin of tomatoes emptied on it passed off as several different dishes (“penne Sicilian”, “Chef’s special pasta”, blah blah blah) each night of the week. The meat was all scrag-end, of course.

As part of our all-inclusive deal we had one night in the hotel’s “a la carte” Tunisian restaurant and one in the hotel’s “a la carte” Italian restaurant. We really looked forward to these as an opportunity to take a break from the horrid food on offer in the buffet, and dressed up nicely to make an occasion of our evenings in these restaurants. We needn’t have bothered! The Tunisian one had just two options for each course, and the food was identical to that being served in the main buffet. So we got the same crap food, just less choice! We were so disgusted by the fact that our only option for dessert was the same dry pastry things as in the main buffet that we just walked out without having dessert. This photo pretty much sums up our feelings during the main course.

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The Italian restaurant offered more choice, but the food was just as bad. I had a Caprese salad to start – my favourite when I’m in Rome – but the cheese was a warm and fake mozzarella, and not palatable, and there was a load of crappy Iceburg lettuce occupying most of the plate. The same fake plastic mozzarella topped the pizza I ordered, which I couldn’t finish. Lee ordered “steak”, which turned out to be a large slice of slow-cooked braising steak, just like in the main buffet but bigger. We were appalled and again went hungry!

One evening we decided to have dinner in one of the marina restaurants, which cost the princely sum of 20 Tunisian Dinar (about £7) for the whole meal – drinks, pizza for me and a burger for Lee. Though an improvement on the hotel food (not saying much), even that was pretty bad, and we came away from Tunisia desperate for good food.

In conclusion

We were so happy to get home, but still think it was good to have experienced this kind of holiday. It’s made us realise that this is not the kind of holiday for us, and it’s made us appreciate our cosy little home (and England) even more than we already did! Will we be going back to Tunisia? Unlikely.

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