11 DECEMBER 2017
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Airline enthusiast Brother Michael Bartlett, known in civil aviation circles as the Mad Monk, is an inveterate traveller and the Guinness World Records aviation champion. Among his achievements is completing a round-the-world journey by air in 57hr 17min (BTN 9 January). Here, in the second extract from his latest exploit (See Pt 1 in BTN 19 November), Bartlett, a regular visitor to Tunisia with 48 visits in 30 years, recounts why he finds the country so fascinating – and fun.
Tunisia is a land willing and able to satisfy the needs and requests of most visitors, whether holiday makers or business travellers taking a break. There is a wide range of activities available for all age groups, including safaris to the Sahara that can be arranged through most hotels and/or local travel agencies. There is also the enjoyment of a great welcome and the comfort of a good hotel room, usually much larger than most offered in the UK and Europe and at reasonable cost. Local food is enjoyable and varied and there is sunshine and excellent Tunisian wines!
The first thing to do is to buy a map. Tunisia has a 700-mile coastline, most of it enticing and attractive sandy beach and as well as the mainland to explore there is a variety of islands – best known are Djerba and the tranquil Kerkennah group. Depending on season, Tunis Air Express flies to Djerba from Tunis or Sfax and sometimes Monastir and Enfidha.
For Kerkennah, which has been described as “Little Eden”, visitors have to take the small car and passenger ferry boat from Sfax, which is great fun, to deserted beaches where the only noise heard is the lapping of the waves. The villages are tiny, with twisting streets and a big welcome from the local people and visitors should not miss the local food speciality of octopus in sauce. Waders in plenty provide a sight for birdwatchers.
In Tunisia’s far north is the resort of Tabarka, built around the stylish marina Porto Corallo. With warm dry summers and mild winters, the northern coast is usually lush and green, in contrast to the south. A boat trip to La Galite island, some 35 miles from the coast and a big diving centre, is an adventure. There is a nature reserve, and hiking, birdwatching and horse riding are regular pursuits in the Khroumirie Mountains. The whole area is a nature lover's paradise.
In the south-west is Metlaoui, which can be reached by the tourist train called the Lezard Rouge, or Red Lizard. This operates between Metlaoui and Selja a few times a week during the summer, a round trip of about 32km, and consists of 19th-century carriages beautifully restored some years ago.
The other cheap way of exploring the immediate countryside is the local bus network, which serves numerous cities, towns and villages and towns. The most popular and best known are Carthage, Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, Gabes and Tozeur, not forgetting Gafsa, Monastir and Mahdia, Kairouan, El Djem, Matmata and a host more.
Carthage boasts museums dedicated to archaeology and oceanography, Sidi Bou Said has a Museum of Musical Instruments, while the Museum for Popular Arts and Traditions at Le Kef is a mine of information about equestrian tradition, clothing and jewellery relating to life as it was in the Bedouin tents. Other noted sights are the amphitheatre at El Djem and the famous mosque at Kairouan, but the list of museums must also include the one in Tunis devoted to mosaics. The Bardo, former palace of the bey, or local ruler, was renovated in 2012 and is full of Roman antiques and mosaics.
Along with the buses and the national railway which serves the major centres and a metro line between Sousse, Monastir and Madhia, an easy and fairly cheap way to travel is the “Louage”, a system of cars usually providing for five people between cities. They go as and when there are enough passengers. The cars are a good way to meet interesting people and everyone is made welcome.
With a recorded history that began well before the birth of Christ with the Phoenicians sailing from Asia Minor and establishing various trading places, Tunisia is a fascinating and varied place to visit, a pleasant country of great historical value plus good weather, interesting food and a warm welcome. I can’t wait for my next visit.
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