With its friendly mix of domestic and international tourists and easy-going vibe, Sousse is favourite holiday draw as a glittering resort town blessed with stunning sands. A wealth of great hotels and restaurants suit every budget while the city’s beautiful Medina and dozens of daytrip options provide plenty of off-beach action. Navigating Sousse’s warren of covered alleyways and tiled passages allows a glimpse into the city’s captivating ancient past; still highly relevant to its present.
Although just a small number of catacombs remain from the 15,000 original graves stretching over three miles, the dimly lit burial crypts of Sousse are eerily mesmerizing. Built under the city towards the end of the first century by Christians to bury their dead during periods of persecution, a walk (in a crouch position) through these mysterious chambers takes visitors through vast iron doors and down deep into steeply-slopings tunnel past skeletons and twisted tree roots. For a livelier stroll join the crocodile of people strolling the esplanade at dusk as music from the surrounding bars and restaurants adds to the sound of chatter and waves on the beach.
MONASTIR & SKANES
Famed country-wide as the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, Monastir honours him at every turn, from statues and monuments to an extravagantly-domed burial chamber and mausoleum.
In the Western world, Monastir is renowned as the setting for films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Life of Christ with its ancient sun-parched old stone walls, towering minarets and dust-heavy skinny streets. Monastir’s handsome Ribat of Harthema, set close to the sea, is a truly beautiful sight, built originally around 796 and painstakingly restored. Most evenings, the palm-trimmed courtyard is filled with chairs and a stage ready for a lamp-lit musical or theatrical performance. The Ribat’s old prayer hall houses a fascinating museum, packed with ancient Islamic writings, ceramics, textiles and astrolabes. At the Medina, vendors ply for trade at stalls piled high with an eclectic mix of authentic arts, electronic goods and tacky souvenirs. Nearby, the resort town of Skanes is dedicated to the needs of holidaymakers with its beach parasols, water-sports, fish restaurants and pristine golden sands.
Once the capital of the ancient Fatamind dynasty, the city of Mahdia owes its modern-day fortunes to its scenic location, as the home of a sweeping stretch of fish-rich shoreline and one of Tunisia’s finest expanses of sand.
Remarkably unspoilt, and with the crumbling ruins of Fatimid port tumbling into the sea, Mahdia hugs the palm-scattered coastline, where for centuries local fisherman have trawled their nets for sponges, mackerel and bream. A colourful flotilla of wooden fishing boats strewn with lanterns departs Mahdia for the high seas after dark, returning with their hauls ready for the lunchtime menu. Enter the city through a gate squeezed into the 10-metre-thick stone walls to discover flag-topped monuments, skinny cobbled streets and the ornate onion-shaped domes of the Great Mosque. Haggle for silverware, tufted woven carpets, scented oils and carved woods or browse the cemetery where each inscribed, white-washed grave boasts a resplendent view out to sea. Ride a horse across meadows of spring flowers, join the melee at beautifully tiled fish market, or grab a table in the tiny Place du Caire to simply watch the world go by.
Sandwiched between olive groves and the Mediterranean Sea, around 165 miles south-east of Tunisa, Sfax is renowned for its honest, simple cooking and mouth-watering local dishes. Between its founding in AD 849 on the ruins of Taparura and Thaenae and its French colonisation in the late 19th century, Sfax fell under the rule of Roger of Sicily in 1148. It was briefly occupied by Spain and became an integral base of the Barbary piracy – all of which has help to shape Sfax’ colourful culture, character and cuisine.
As a busy commercial centre, Sfax is a fascinating place to visit in order to see Tunisian merchants in action. Unlike many other historic quarters, the Old City is a working district packed with residences, shops and vendors engulfed in the hullaballoo, aromas, grit and debris of the daily grind. The harbour and the Medina are both “must sees” with the city walls looping the Medina in its labyrinthine entirely, and still standing proud, robust and strong, despite coming under fierce attack during World War II. Take a stroll around the cream-coloured stone ramparts for some of the most spectacular views of Sfax out to sea, across a ramshackle of rooftops, palms, olive trees and curious winding alleys. With its formal gardens and mix of European design influences swayed by some flamboyant Eastern touches, the city’s genteel colonial quarters’ rank among Tunisia’s most magnificent. A particularly fine Town Hall serves an archaeological museum housing collections from prehistoric and first Islamic eras to the Roman period and present day.
The archipelago of Kerkennah comprises two main islands connected by a roman-era causeway plus five teeny-weeny scrub-topped atolls. Wonderfully remote and with an eccentric character quite unlike the Tunisian mainland 20km away, these low-lying dusty islands resemble bone dry pancakes studded with palm and fig trees – but don’t let this put you off. For the Kerkennah Islands enjoy a reputation as gloriously desolate place to be: a quirk getaway far from the trappings of modern life. Visitors soon relax into the local go-slow pace in this chill out paradise, where the locals swear that within 24 hours you’ll be on “Kerkennah time” with a dreamy faraway look in your eyes.
Life is simple in the Kerkennah Islands with very little that will serve as a reminder of home. Quietude and tranquillity characterise a rustic shoreline and in the islands’ one resort on Chergui Island a genteel pace prevails. In typical Kerkennah style, the “resort” is a simple string of beach huts each with its own little balcony facing the picture-perfect placid waters of Sidi Frej bay. The ruins of Borj el Hissar, the village of Remla and the small fishing port El Attaia are all within easy reach. Gently sloping sands ensure the sea remains shallow for vast stretches making the island’s beaches some of the Mediterranean’s most child-friendly.
Motorised vehicles are scarce and rarely make it out of second gear. Even the breeze that gently rustles the date palms is leisurely at best. Home-spun fertile soils and fish-rich waters ensure a high degree of self-sufficiency and things have been done the “Kerkennah way” since time began. Like centuries past, fishermen fish using funnels made out of palm fronds as a “net”. They catch bream, mullet, sole and sea bass and cast ceramic pots for lobster and octopus. For a truly unforgettable gastronomic splurge be sure to order a seafood platter – it’s cooked over open fires and is divine.