La Tunisie

This year, during the second week of May France had not just one but two holidays: May 8 is VE Day and May 10, Ascension. The official French name for May 8 is Fête de la Victoire.

The French call the Friday when Thursday is a holiday pont, like the Germans (Brückentag) and not window, like the Austrians. In Upper Austria that kind of day is called a Zwickltag, which I think translates to gusset. My colleagues started calling the week with the Tuesday and Thursday holidays the aqueduct.

Gergö and I had been planning to take the week off and go somewhere warm, but we left it rather late to book anything. In the end we decided on Tunisia and booked a week in Hammamet Yasmine. The travel agent mentioned Carthago and the Souks of Tunis, so we figured there are things to do, should we get bored.

A couple of hours before the flight I realised to my horror that I’d leave the European Union and would have to turn off my phone’s data. But luckily, Orange Tunisia helped out. Before we even had our luggage back, an Orange counter handed out free sim cards, you only had to show your passport for it.  It’s not a bad marketing strategy – I gladly took it and bought credit a few times during the week.

Hammamet Yasmine is a little town 12 km outside of Hammamet proper that consists only of hotels and tourism related businesses. We had read up on that, so we were prepared. We even got a warning about haggling and about various scams that are run on tourists and that 5 stars in Tunisia are not equal to 5 stars in Europe.

The hotel was still pretty fancy and just very big. Large corridors, high ceilings, an enormous lobby, and tiles and mosaics for most surfaces. I’m 37 and still feel completely out of place in settings like that. Surely this is for real adults, not me on holiday?

On our first day we explored the surrounding streets and the little medina. A medina usually is the old town center. It’s just that Yasmine is too new to have an old town, so they created a kitsch tourist version.

There are lots of small shops. Like in most of these places, all of them sell roughly the same things. All of them want you to just come in an look at their stuff, they will make you a very special price.

I learned something surprising that day: Gergö can’t say no and walk away, if somebody holds out their hand and says hello. He never had to learn how to deal with people who think they have a right to your attention. I was so confused by this behaviour that I thought that he actually wants to buy something – why else would he stay and listen to this dude?  He doesn’t usually want to buy things, but who knows. Turns out he doesn’t. By the end of the holiday my role was to play the mean wife who won’t let her husband buy stuff and physically takes his hand and drags him away from guys trying to sell souvenirs.

Gergö had warned me that the mediterranean sea wouldn’t be warm enough to swim in May, but I thought he is always cold, how bad can it be? Holy cow was it freezing. And because of the wind it even was a bit too cool to stay in the shade. I actually spend some time lying in the sun. I was covered in 50 spf sunscreen, but still!

We went on two trips during our stay:

On Thursday we visited Tunis, Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.

The ruins of Carthage are mostly Roman. All the Phoenicians had built was destroyed by the Romans in the punic wars. We visited the site of the ancient roman baths. It’s a large area right next to the president’s palace and you are not allowed to photograph in the direction of the president’s residence.

One touristy thing in Sidi Bou Said and Carthage were people with hawks on leashes for photo opportunities. I thought they were falcons, but our guide said they are “éperviers“. I immediately forgot the word and only now had a look at a wikipedia list of birds of prey to find the it again. Épervier translates to sparrowhawk. To my big surprise an épervier is a Sperber in German. If pressed, I’d have said a Sperber is what Germans call Spatz, but that’s Sperling of course.

I would have loved to pose with a sparrowhawk, but I can’t in good conscience support the kind of business that cuts off the claws of birds of prey and keep them on a rope. It must be a good business though, there were at least 5 people offering photo ops with them at the lookout above the café de delices in Sidi Bou Said.

In Tunis we only visited the souks in the medina. Only when we got on the bus I realised that I had visited them before – in 2003 with my friend V. After finishing our studies, we went on a road trip from Austria via Italy to Malta. We took a boat from Salerno to Malta. On its way it stopped off at Tunis for a few hours and we shared a taxi from the harbour to the souks with an Italian woman and a Maltese men we had met on the boat. I don’t remember a lot about the experience, other than that my passport was expired by a week or so and the border agents didn’t want to let me in and my friend V impressed me with her French/English negotiation skills.

The streets in the souks are named after the product they used to sell – perfume, gold, textiles, etc. Nowadays it’s mostly tourist kitsch and a lot of it is the same. The only souks that largely stayed the same are the ones that are in the wedding business.

After our little trip along the North East coast we did a two-day trip into the South of Tunisia. We wanted to see the desert (that I keep misspelling dessert) and the big salt lake.

Next up we were visiting a Berber family living in caves. It felt about as much like poverty-porn as it sounds. the caves are actually houses hewn into the stone. The tour guide kept calling them troglodytes, which I only knew as an insult but apparently is the correct word for people living in caves. The place we visited is called Matmata and was also a filming location for Star Wars episode IV.

There used to be Berber families with about 2 000 people living in these troglodyte houses. But in 1967 the area was flooded. Flooding can get bad, because the ground is mostly clay, so it doesn’t take up water quickly and in the mountainous areas it can lead to mudflows. The flooding was so bad the roads had to be closed and a lot of the troglodyte houses were destroyed. The Tunisian government built a new village on top of the mountain, that still exists today where most of the families moved to.

The wikipedia article about Matmata explains this pretty well and here’s also an article on the Berber with much nicer photos than I could ever take. Both mention Star Wars and the hotel that was used for scenes in episode IV. We had lunch at a hotel in Matmata but I don’t think that was it. Or maybe I was at the Star Wars hotel and too focussed on the couscous to notice. (I just remembered that I record the location when I take pictures and I took one picture or a sand rose and it was taken at the Marhala hotel, which is not the one from Star Wars.)

We ended the day riding a dromedary and then a quad bike.

As soon as we had stopped somewhere in the desert a couple of guys showed up carrying fennecs – little white desert foxes. It was the same deal as with the falcons – you pay to take photos with them. And their leashes were just some cords around their neck.

After we returned from the two rides someone mentioned seeing ticks crawling in the dromedaries fur. We checked each other for ticks, but didn’t find any. I did have a large insect bite on my face, though. It didn’t hurt and barely itched, it was just distractingly big and I kept wondering how I could have missed being stung in the face. I didn’t google deadly insects of Tunisia though and even though I later got a second enormous bump, this time on my jaw, nothing terrible has happened to me. yet.

We spent the night at a hotel at the edge of the desert, going to sleep at 9 pm, because we would be woken up at 3 am. We left the hotel at 4 to drive onto the great big salt lake to see the sun rise over the salt lake at shortly after 5.

After the little potemkin village, we visited an oasis called Chebika. It’s a place that belongs to several Berber families that grow dates, oranges, and other fruit in the oasis. We were told to brig our bathing suits for the waterfall.

We finished our tour with a visit to the mosque of Kairouan – the one that got its marble from the amphitheatre. We climbed the roof of a souvenir shop that had a great view of the courtyard. Like with the waterfall, I was too hot and tired to appreciate the mosque. Instead we bought Tunisian olive oil and black seed soap like the filthy tourists we are.

Our flight back was the day after. I think only when he checked us in Gergö noticed that we’d be flying business class. We still don’t know if it was an upgrade or a mistake or the only thing left when we booked. Either way, we completely failed a being business class travellers by getting into the long, long queue with the plebs to check in our luggage, instead of the short efficient special people queue. I was extremely grumpy because airport and also because we still had Dinar and all the shops at the airport only accepted Euro. Except for the machine dispensing wifi codes, and that didn’t work. We found the lounge for Tunisair and it was very full and disappointingly dingy. But at least the wifi was working and we got a glass of water while we waited for our flight that was delayed by two hours. We got in line again with the economy class when boarding the plane – we just waited until most people had boarded instead of waltzing right in.

There was enough room to fully recline your seat. Without bothering the row behind you, obviously. As can be expected, i was out of my element and utterly confused and delighted by everything. I even started watching a film, but gave up on it because it was terrible and the flight wouldn’t have been long enough to finish it anyway. We got served food on real plates with metal cutlery. I was digging into the cheese when the air hostess came to ask me if I wanted fish or meat for my main course. I asked “that was only the entrée?” and I could see that she had to bite back a smile at my reaction.

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