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Travel & Holidays in later life


There's no shortage of sand in North Africa, and Tunisia is making the most of other holidaymaker attractions: year-round sunshine, low prices, modern purpose-built hotels and resorts. That goes with 'different' sightseeing: Moslem cities, bazaars, oases, desert cave-dwellings and ancient Roman sites.

Hotels used by UK tour operators are Moorish in design and furnishing, but low profile, no higher than tree level. They are built totally with European holidaymakers in mind, and facilities are of high standard. Within the hotel complex, you could be anywhere in the Mediterranean. All have their own swimming pools; and most have their own beach frontage.

Tunisia is closer to Britain than Malta or Greece, and flights by charter or scheduled services now deliver you direct to Monastir, Tunis or the Island of Djerba. From those airports you can easily reach the three main areas of tourism development.

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Tunisian prices for local travel, food and drink are very reasonable. But imported items are heavily taxed. Non-Tunisian wines and spirits are particularly high-priced. 

There's good shopping for handicrafts in the bazaars. Whole sections are devoted to brass-workers, slipper-makers, perfumers, dyers, potters, weavers, tanners. 

Since long before the boom in tourism, the Tunisian government has fostered handicraft skills through special trade schools. It ensures that most traditional souvenirs are of good quality. Haggling is part of the fun.

More information: Tunisian National Tourist Office, 77a
Wigmore Street, London W1U 1QF. Tel: 020-7224-5561.  Contact.:

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Within a 75-minute drive of Monastir airport is the resort of Hammamet, with soft white sand. Hotels are built in garden settings, outside the small walled city with its 15th-century Kasbah. Hammamet and Nabeul were the first Tunisian resorts to be established, and are the nearest to the capital.

Nabeul is famous for its pottery. Friday is market day, when countrymen arrive with camels, donkeys and sheep, or set up luscious displays of fruit and vegetables.

Tunis itself is a city with white blocks of apartments, French-type bars and restaurants. But inside the Medina - the traditional Arab town - you can stroll through bazaars, which locally are called souks. It's the Middle Ages come to life, nothing changed.

The principal cafe in Sidi-Bou-Said A suburb of Tunis is the delightful village of Sidi-Bou- Said, with glittering white houses, blue doorways and grillwork windows. In a few workshops along cobbled streets, craftsmen make elegant Oriental-design bird cages for export throughout the world. They can easily be adapted as hanging flower holders, or even as light fixtures.

Close by are the ruins of ancient Carthage. Over the centuries, Carthage has been exploited as a handy stone-quarry, and not much remains. But the Bardo museum in Tunis contains one of the world's best collections of Roman and Christian mosaics.

Halfway down the Tunisian coast, the resorts of Sousse, Port El Kantaoui, Skanes and Monastir are served by flights to Monastir, purpose-built to handle charters.

The top luxury destination is Port El Kantaoui, four miles north of Sousse. There's all the usual access to water-sports, horse or camel riding, or golf on a championship course dotted with palm, olive and pomegranate trees. Around the 340-boat marina are waterfront restaurants, boutiques and nightspots.

As Tunisia's third largest city, Sousse has a charming old quarter where visitors can shop for costume jewellery, brilliant hand-woven blankets, cushion-covers and carved olive wood. This coastal region, incidentally, is fringed with large green plantations of olive trees.

Inland, 35 miles from Sousse, there's easy access to Kairouan - a holy city of Islam, with a long history as Tunisia's former capital. The Grand Mosque was founded in 670 AD by a follower of Mohammed, and has been a major pilgrimage site ever since. Kairouan is also Tunisia's leading carpet- and rug-making centre.

Essential to hold on tight when a camel begins to stand up Coach trips can take you to desert oases, Roman remains and - further south - to the desert cave-dwellings of Matmata. The Coliseum at El Djem can rival the similar monument in Rome with seating for 30,000, and better preserved.

Gabes is another world: a lush oasis near the coast, with thousands of date-palms and a serene life-style. Visitors enjoy a change of pace, touring the oasis by horse-carriage. Alongside each plot of land is a precious rivulet of water, nourishing the dates, bananas, oranges and figs: a fruitarian's paradise. 

Oases and cave-men can be reached more easily from the blissful holiday island of Djerba, linked by a causeway to the mainland. Beachside hotels attract an international clientele of sun-worshippers.

Beyond the hotel gates, local life is little changed from centuries past. In the pottery village of Guellala, craftsmen use techniques that are quite unchanged since their potters' wheels first began to spin over 2,000 years ago.

The most incredible relic from the past is the desert cave village of Matmata, which was used as a "Star Wars" location. After a journey into the hills, you look down onto a broad valley, pitted like the crater-scarred surface of the moon.

The easily-worAt the entrance gate to Port El Kantaouiked rock is shaped into a series of tunnels down to a courtyard pit that gives access to rooms and stables and store-rooms. Caves keep warm in winter, cool in summer. They are well protected against dust and sand-storms. Whitewashed rooms are furnished in normal style, with niches, shelves and working surfaces hewn from the living rock.

Back in your modern hotel, cuisine still keeps the strong French influence from almost 100 years that Tunisia was under the control of France. That influence has also left the country with a well-established wine production, and French as the main second language. 

Some other suggestions on where to go in the Med region

CYPRUS - enjoy the off-season sunshine

LUXOR - Luxury living and the pharaohs

MALLORCA - Breakaway to the Spanish grandee rural life

MEDITERRANEAN CRUISING - get Insight into the ports of call

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Blue Guide - Tunisia by Amanda Hinton - Excellent for anyone who wants to get away from the beaches and explore the wide range of Tunisia's architecture, monuments and off-beat sites. 

Footprint Tunisia Handbook: The Travel Guide by Justin McGuinness - an in-depth guide which also gives good coverage to the local history, culture and customs.

AA Essential Tunisia by Peter Lilley - A handy pocket guide which concentrates on the ten essential highlights of Tunisia.

Lonely Planet Tunisia - Covers all the cultural and historical background, with hints on what to buy, from bird cages to carpets. Also features desert tours by 4WD.

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