Saturday snippets: 23rd February 2019

By | Category: Travel news

As mentioned in last week’s snippets, I have been in Tunisia for much of the week, courtesy of the Tunisian National Tourist Board. Today’s column is a bit of hotchpotch of things seen and reminders to people who haven’t visited the country since the FCO ban in 2015 came into force. Now, of course, that ban is lifted.

Tunis Carthage Airport – where many of you will first enter Tunisia

To start with, you don’t need a visa to visit the country for a holiday. When you arrive at the airport of arrival – which will probably be Tunis, Djerba or Enfidah – you will have an entry form (you fill in the top part for arrival; the bottom part is to be handed in – when comleted – on departure.) After arrival it will be necessary to change your money into the local currency – dinars. There are about 3.80-4 dinars to the pound available from the banks at the airports. There are a number of them at the airport and the rates vary so don’t settle for the first one but check them out to see who offers the best rate. The dinar is not a convertible currency so you won’t be able to order the dinars at home or pick them up at your departure airport but when you leave, you don’t have to convert them back; you can save them for the next journey.

Incidentally, when you go to return home, you had better spend as many of your remaining dinars before you go through to security or the departure lounges. Once you reach the duty free shop and the cafes near the gates dinars are not acceptable payment. You will have to use sterling, dollars, euros or another convertible currency. Don’t think you can buy your duty free bottles of Tunisian red (there are some good ones around) with those remaining coins in your pocket. You can’t!

When catching your returning flight you should also be aware that before you get in to the check-in area you will have to go through a security check to get into the building. All bags will have to be screened. After check-in you need to keep a pen handy to complete your departure card. You will go through a passport control and a security check with the normal procedures of taking belts off, removing laptops and the like and then you can go to the gate. At the gate sometimes but not always there will be a hand-baggage check where they will open your bag and go through it as well as asking you to power up any laptops, notebooks, etc. The queues can take 15-20 minutes to get through if you have a full flight so allow some extra time.

-security scanners at Movenpick Hotel, Gammarth
Most hotels will have a secure entry point

Speaking of airports, if you are using Tunis-Carthage Airport, take the time to look at the ceilings. They are a cut-above the architecture of many airports being designed with bright colours in a Moorish and almost art-deco vein.

If you plan to drive in Tunis or any of the big cities do not try if you have a nervous disposition! At roundabouts, cars will push in and if you think there are two lanes don’t be surprised if you suddenly find three or four. On highways and main roads there are speed limits although I’m not sure how many are obeyed. You will also find police checks at some places although tourist vehicles are usually nodded through.

At your hotel there will be a security check and your bags will go through similar equipment to that you see at airports. This will happen each time you enter, and often leave, your hotel. There are no queues usually and it takes just seconds to go through. You will probably spend longer waiting for the lift to take you to your room. If you are staying at a beach resort there will also be a guard where the hotel grounds meet the beach. Leave this and walk along the beach and try to re-enter and you will be challenged by a guard – as I was – who will probably ring through to reception to check that a guest of your name is staying at the hotel and that you have given the correct room number. All this is designed for the safety of the guests.

Don’t expect all hotels and their rooms to be in perfect conditions. After the troubles of the last four years, hotel owners have had little monies to maintain cosmetic standards. You might find a lick of paint is needed and the odd scratch marks need attention but that work will be done once the money starts rolling in again.

When you go into the soukhs or markets don’t forget to haggle. If you want to buy a souvenir don’t settle for the price quoted. I tend to start at half-the-price or even lower and after the obligatory comments about how many children the stall owner has to feed, a price is agreed. Afterwards the stallholder may invite you to take tea with them and that tea will be black and it could have pine nuts floating in it. This is called thé aux pignons. Tea with milk in it is rare except in hotels where you can use the milk by the counter containing cereals for your cuppa.

the bustling market in Douz on Thursdays

Carthaginian heritage visits are often available as excursions to hotel guests. At the moment, the Carthage Museum is closed for renovations until April. It would surprise few if that date slipped. You can still walk around the grounds and see the remains from the time of Hannibal and the outside statues but the best finds are in the museum. Don’t confuse this museum with the Bardo. The Bardo – containing some of the finest mosaics you will ever see – is still open although much of the literature available isn’t in English. The reason – there have been few English language visitors over the last few years. Even at the tourism information desk at Tunis-Carthage Airport, most of the literature is in French.

Understanding Tunisians as they talk in their “language” is something I found appealing. In English we rarely use a foreign word unless it is something like bureau de change or déjà vu. In Tunisia you hear Arabic blithely mixed with Italian and French, fascinating to hear and difficult to follow. Many Tunisians speak French so a smattering of the tongue will help you along.

On of the fine mosaics in the Bardo Museum

Finally a word about food. In coastal areas, fish makes up a major part of the diet. Go inland or down towards the Sahara and the interior and lamb is predominant. Camel is also available from the butchers but none of the hotels at which I have stayed have served it. Salad vegetables make up part of every meal as does freshly baked bread. As an accompaniment you will see a dish with a reddish relish on it. This is harissa. Every hotel, café, restaurant and mother has their own recipe but what is common is that it will be hot. How hot it is you won’t know until you try it so I suggest the first time you try it, smear a little on your bread, try it and wait for the aftertaste. Only then will you find out how hot it is and whether your palate likes it. Some can be a little mild and others will put a vindaloo to shame!

Finally, enjoy yourselves.

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