Tackling Tunis, Tunisia …


Tuesday 6 August 2013

Saturday night found us sitting in the yacht club in Marina Del Sole, Cagliari, Sardinia, awaiting the arrival of Steve Keenor. “Yacht club” being the name we had given it and more a term of endearment. It was really an aging marquee with a bar at the one end with associated knick-knacks (statues representing the owner with his big white beard aka Granddad of Only Fools and Horses) while at the other end is the reception consisting of a plastic table piled high with papers, blue gas bottles beneath it, and a fridge, piles of books etc. The yacht club serves the best ice cold beer and potent gin and tonics. We loved it.

Steve is accredited with introducing Susie to sailing and we have enjoyed several sailing trips with him since. Our plan was to cross from Sardinia to Tunisia and spend a few days in its capital city, Tunis – we thus needed someone with a sense of adventure and we reckoned Steve would fit that bill.

Taking Adina's sail down for repairs

Taking Adina’s sail down for repairs

The very next day, after a morning of preparation we headed out into the windy bay of Cagliari (which one day we hope to pronounce correctly!). Weather here seems to be the same day in, day out. Calm, flat as pancake in the morning. Gentle breeze starts around ten, by twelve it’s up to 12 knots and by 2pm it’s between 16 to 22 knots and really kicking off. We left at 2pm, planning more around a daylight arrival in Tunisia than anything else. The sea was suitably bumpy and we were going upwind. An hour later we tacked. Tom ushered one of his infamous phrases that seem to cause damage – “trim on”. Bang! The head of our large genoa ripped, and knowing this would be difficult to get repaired in Tunisia, we turned around and headed back to the un-pronounceable Cagliari rather disheartened.

We radioed Marina Del Sole hoping they could squeeze us in. Squeeze us in being the right phrase as we were firmly wedged between two rather large motor boats. Cheering Tom up ever so slightly was the sight of a race boat with it’s main sail head ripped off a few boats further along the pontoon.

While the genoa was repaired, we spent another day exploring Cagliari, wondering the streets, seeing the market, eating pizza – all the typical things one does in Sardinia. And visiting the yacht club of course! Steve was introduced to monopoly deal and promptly won the first game.

Forty eight hours after our planned departure we headed out again on a 27 hour passage to Africa! As with all passages, we sailed, motored, read, chatted, ate, looked out for ships, enjoyed the sunset and cast lures vainly into the sea. Susie was the lucky one with dolphins for 5 minutes on one of her watches.


Tabarka, Tunisia

We didn’t quite know what to expect on our arrival in Tarbaka, Tunisia having read you’ll be fitted in but don’t expect too much. We duly radioed the harbour as we made our approach but no answer instead getting “Adina, this is Tunisia Navy Station”. Not a problem, they just wanted our details and wished us a “Welcome to Tunisia”. Funny how those simple words warm the heart.

Playing Monopolydeal which Steve picked up quickly!

Playing Monopolydeal which Steve picked up quickly!

Inside the harbour was a man who waved us in and rafted us up to two other boats. Police and customs came onboard and were friendly and chatty making us even more at ease. Steve works in the police force and so he was now “a colleague” to them! We very quickly warmed to Tabarka. People were friendly, easy-going, it was full of blue-and-white buildings, easy on the eye.

The first night we found a barbeque restaurant and had course after course delivered to us. All the while thinking well this will cost and stupid us for not asking the price. Bill comes, with drinks, 23 dinars, that’s just over £10 for three of us. Smiles all round.

Independence Day, Tunis

Independence Day, Tunis

We had also timed our visit to coincide with Ramadan. That has it’s positives and negatives. Negatives being you won’t find restaurants or coffee shops open in the day – they are all firmly shut whilst everyone fasts during daylight hours. And when you’re a caffeine addict like Mr Partridge, that’s a challenge. On the positive, after prayers in the evening everyone comes out on the streets. We learnt coffee shops are usually the domain of men but during Ramadan, you see women, children, men all mingling together. Mid-afternoon, the streets are empty due to the heat. 11pm it’s jam packed. And we liked it, sitting in outdoor coffee shops watching the world go by.

The next day we headed off to Tunis, a two hour shared taxi ride away. Steve seemed a little wary of the driver’s skills but having seen far worse in the world we thought he actually wasn’t that bad. We wouldn’t be saying the same on our return when we had a driver, who would merrily overtake on blind corners, read his phone and drift into the wrong lane, drive in the wrong lane, nod off etc. etc.

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Souks, Tunis

We wanted to see Tunis and also needed to pick up our visa for Algeria. Leaving Steve to check-in at the hotel, we headed to the Algerian embassy. Avoiding too long a tale, getting a visa to Algeria is no easy matter. We had applied to the embassy in London way back in February before leaving, submitting piles of paperwork on our planned trip. They never issued it but told us to keep in contact and assured us we could pick it up in Tunis. Finally we got to the embassy – closed! We were just getting the feeling it was never meant to be. We were told to return in the morning.

So together with Steve we went exploring. Walking down the main street enjoying all the old colonial style buildings we noticed a few military vehicles and barbed wire but thought nothing more of it. Up to now, every Tunisian had been friendly, welcoming and warm-hearted. Many would try out their English on you. One man offered to show us a festival going on as it was Independence Day. Susie could speak French and we followed as we dived in and out of alleys and roads. There was no festival, it was just a viewing roof and below rooms of carpets and other wares. It was a real shame, we’ve travelled a lot and are always wary of such cons, yet we had been stung thinking Tunisia was different. We walked off refusing to see anything or pay baksheesh he had asked for. The next harmless soul who asked a question got the wrath of Susie! To be fair, we never saw another con artist and our impression of Tunisians being genuinely nice and welcoming stands.

We explored the medina (old town) and souks, really enjoying it. These were real souks rather that the tourist versions you see in Marrakesh. They were there for people to do day-to-day shopping. Come evening time, we were sitting in a bar in a hotel, and half-heartedly noticed on the news in the background a woman being interviewed and talking and talking with scenes of what looked like a crime scene with a 4 wheel drive truck and it’s doors all open. We thought nothing of it but little were we to know that the Tunisian opposition leader had been assassinated, and it’s his wife we were watching being interviewed and blaming the government.

Steve, Susie in front of typical Tunisian blue door

Steve, Susie in front of typical Tunisian blue door

We later walked around trying to find somewhere to eat, with little joy thinking it must be due to Ramadan. Back to the main street where there surely would be eating venues. We heard some chanting and whistle blowing going on, noticed a few more military but the mind is always positive thinking these are Independence Day celebrations. No restaurant, back to the side streets. We then noticed people looking a little agitated and peering towards the main street. Curious we went to look. The scene of riot police running along and the smell of tear gas, told us all was not quite well. In situations like this it’s sensible to keep clear, and rely on the locals who will tell you if there’s any danger. It eventually calmed down and readers will be delighted to know we found some pizza for dinner!

The next morning we headed back to the Algerian Embassy! No, only Tunisians can get visas here. We explained our predicament and that London had said they had informed them of our arrival. We were ushered into a security reception and after a while lead into the main embassy and seated in a room on our own. A very nice lady came in and told us indeed they knew of our application. Paperwork was completed but then we were told that normally it takes two weeks and many processes had to be followed. They were very friendly, a few questions were asked, and we were sent way to return in a few hours and they would see what they could do. We crossed fingers. Back we went, and the visas had been issued. This was going to be a good day. To the Algerian embassy in Tunis and to the kind lady that helped us, we thank you and are appreciative of all you did to help us.


Carthage Cathedral

Given a day of strikes had been called, we figured it best to spend the day outside of Tunis. That meant walking around in 42 degrees Celsius of sun looking for assorted ruins in an area called Carthage. After a good many hours of fighting sunstroke we found ourselves in a very quaint village by the name of Sidi Bou Said perched on a hill-top overlooking the sea. We waited for the sun to go down in a little coffee shop talking to the owner in French. Well I say we. Susie spoke, Steve understood, and I nodded. It was a very likeable place with cobbled streets, beautiful Tunisia door and buildings of white and blue. We opted to stay for dinner and tackle the coucous which had been spiced with harrisa. The Tunisian hot spice.

Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said

Heading back into town we were amazed to be driven up the main road, coffee shops open, hardly a policeman in sight and normal service resumed. Baffled. The next morning Steve headed off to the airport where we hoped flights would be resumed after the strike (they were), bidding him farewell and apologising profusely about the random nature of his trip and would he like to visit us in the pacific for sandy beaches, palm trees, sunsets and lobsters?

Cold beer at the end of a hot day!

Cold beer at the end of a hot day!

We headed back to the boat and spent the evening with our neighbour, a lady called Joy, who had been left alone while the skipper flew to France to source spare parts. She was understandably a little nervous with the goings-on but the locals were watching out for her and we re-assured her that the situation we had seen was better than it appeared in the press.

And so our short time in Tunisia was at an end. Certainly a place we’d come back to. Now it was time to explore Algeria. Yes, we were a little apprehensive, we couldn’t find anyone who had been, the Tunisians were telling us they all had long beards, and one man thought we were crazy taking our lovely boat there. But we had read good things, that yes this was a land little travelled but people were friendly and welcoming. And we were keen to explore.

Steve – thank you for joining us, thank you for being patient, fishing in the Pacific islands perhaps?

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