Have you ever seen a camel headbang? Have you drunk yourself into a coma for the princely sum of £8.50? Have you marvelled at exotic traditions, microlighted over the Sahara, smoked something unknown with a Bedouin tribesman and spent far too much time wondering about how a desert fox's ears could get so big? Then exactly what are you doing with your life? With its sandy beaches, blistering sun and more than friendly prices, it's no wonder that Tunisia has long-been a favourite with British holidaymakers for years. But for those itching to explore outside the tourist traps of Sidi Bou Said, there's plenty to create some distinct, unique and almost certainly life-long memories. Consider this everything you need to know (and some you probably don't).
Vive la Revoluzione
Tunisia was the first nation to blow during 2011's Arab Spring overthrowing its crazy leader Bin Ali with some serious gusto. In a rather cruel twist of fate this event, although being the cleanest, swiftest and most straightforward overthrow compared to the other Arab states, hit Tunisia's ever-important tourism industry in massive proportions as unsurprisingly guests cancelled trips and booked elsewhere. Two years later, they've only just reached pre-Revolution levels of visitors, despite now having the most liberal, progressive and foreigner-friendly president in its history. Great news of course, but it shouldn't stop there. Tunisia isn't just as good as it was, it's actually better. The spirit of change, democracy and excitement is thick in the streets. That's not to ignore the worrying incidents of extremism we've seen on the news, but to see it in isolation and out of the norm. Contrary to the hype, in many parts of the country, western summer clothes and alcohol consumption barely raise an eyebrow of friendly locals, and its not only reserved to the main tourist spots.
Mo Money Less Problems:
The currency in Tunisia is Tunisian Dinars and can only be spent and bought in Tunisia itself. So don't waste your time shopping around for good rates because the only rate you'll get in the UK is irate. Currently the rate is 2.5TND to £1 and generally stays around this mark.
The most important thing to remember is to haggle. In Tunisia, near enough everything is haggle-able, and whilst this is great in terms of savvy shopping, it does make 'a whizz around the shops' nigh impossible, as the great theatre of negotiation must take place.
Hot Hot Heat:
It's a desert country so expect arid, dry and scorching heat toward the south of the land. While a temperature of at least 28 degrees (and up to 45 in peak times of the year) should be expected across Tunisia, coastal areas are lapped by the Mediterranean Sea, bringing with it some well needed ocean breeze. Pack sunscreen, and a high factor.
If you're a fan of your local Lebanese or Turkish restaurant, the food in Tunisia won't seem too unfamiliar. Lamb is the national meat, and you'll find it succulent and spiced in most places. In the top end restaurants, the traditional cuisine is served in a rather set format. Pastry parcels filled with spiced minced meats and cheeses start, followed by chunks of charcoal grilled meat and poultry, rice and raw salad vegetables (peppers and onion) making up the main. The Tunisians aren't huge on dessert, but you'll find sweet, often milk based puddings, to finish. Take advantage of the fresh fish in the coastal towns, sample an authentic tagine, and watch out for the Arabian coffee. It's silt heavy and floral in flavour, drank straight, and can be jarring to a Western palate. Despite being a largely Muslim country, most hotels and restaurants, particularly in tourist areas are happy to serve alcohol or pork. I'm only joking about the pork, don't be crazy. Tunisia is a wine producing nation, so do take advantage of the local vino, as well as the olive oil, another homegrown beauty to rival their Mediterranean neighbours. Dates also form a huge park of the cuisine. They're very proud of their dates which are largely recognised as being the best in the world, and due to their religious symbolism and history as food of the Bedouin (dates are hardy fruit that desert wanderers were known to live off) are something that can be found at every dinner table.
For the gourmands amongst you, take to the streets for something a little bit more authentic. You can pick up a Tunisian take on a sandwich for a few dinar in most places - a naan style Calzone filled with spiced mince and hot chillis. Bring water.
The phrase 'East meets West' might seem a hackneyed bit of marketing but actually, Tunisia is a contender. Just across the water from Italy (apparently so close people have swam the distance) the Med influence can certainly be felt around the coastal towns. They've of course, had a little help from their former occupiers, France, and as you walk through Tunis you can actually definitively mark the shift from the traditional souk (narrow streets, with the quintessential pointed arches) to the new French built areas (modelled on Paris, note the wide pavements littered with cafes). Move further South and the country gets a whole lot more Arabian, and in particular Bedouin. The Bedouin people are the desert nomads who, until just 20 years ago, lived in tribes around the desert. They can be found in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan and others, and these days are more of a tourist novelty than their former dune-dwelling selves. That is not to say they've lost their charms or influence and interacting with their survival desert traditions through the designated tours are unmissable, even if not being wholly 'authentic'. I had an elderly cobbler handcraft me a bespoke pair of traditional sand slippers (for just £12), before his son, kitted out in full desert robes, hand delivered it to me at the hotel on a moped before joining us for a beer. East meets West, absolutely.
The Key, the Secret:
I'm going to be honest here, the main reason for this piece is to tell you to visit Douz. Go to Douz for heaven's sake, go to Douz whatever you…douz? Douz is the last town in Tunisia before it becomes uninhabitable desert. For this reason it is known as the Gateway to the Sahara and is home to a jaw dropping festival held around Christmas that I cannot recommend enough if you're looking for an escape. It's called the Festival of the Sahara and is one of the most authentically Tunisian experiences a visitor can have. It's a celebration of desert culture and traditions with music, dancing and high profile guests (the President showed up when I was there, to give you an insight). Acrobatics on running horses, young ladies lined up flaunting their in a ritual of courtship, camel racing, camel fighting (it's not what you think- they don't fight, they just show their bits off and headbang at each other) and a desert style crufts that see desert dogs compete. It's rough, it's ready, but it's singular to the world.
You could spend months in Tunisia and never be bored. It's warm, its beautiful, its geared up for guests but still has plenty of authentic experience off the beaten track. Right now it exists in a unique historical period post revolution that must be enjoyed. Like getting to Cuba before the Castros are out. Don't miss the chance.
Tunisair operates five flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £190, including taxes. For all the information on what’s happening in Tunisia go to www.cometotunisia.co.uk