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Hammamet, Tunisia

What was it like?
It was terrific. Go there; you will enjoy.
When did you go?
Easter week 2001.
Why is Hammamet nice?
Because it's centrally located, has nice hotels and restaurants, and isn't too big.  It's a comfortable place to stay while you're discovering Tunisia.  Also, it's often very easy and inexpensive to get there from Europe, since the tour companies have lots of package deals for trips to Hammamet.
Is Hammamet very touristy?
Parts of it are, especially the medina.  There's really no point in visiting the medina unless you feel the need to buy a tacky souvenir.  The salesmen there are at least as relentless as in other medinas, but--as opposed to elsewhere in Tunisia--there's really nothing to see in Hammamet's medina.

Many of the restaurants seem to cater primarily to tourists (with multilingual menus, English-speaking waiters, some non-Tunisian food, etc.); also there are many resort-type hotels, but most of those aren't in the city center.  There are also a bunch of souvenir shops near the medina.  But only in certain parts of town do you see very many Europeans.  Otherwise it's not difficult to feel that you're just in a normal Tunisian city on the coast.

What are the people like?
The overwhelming majority of people throughout Tunisia are very friendly and helpful.  Their first language is Arabic, and they learn French in school, so you may need to use one of those languages to communicate.  I ended up having to use my very basic French in most conversations; we never found a Tunisian who couldn't speak French.  Sometimes for more advanced conversations I was able to use English, German or Spanish.  One clerk at the hotel even spoke a little Swedish.
What did they think of you?
We made a point of treating everyone we met with respect and kindness, and our courtesy was almost always reciprocated.  I made liberal use of the Arabic word for thank you, shukran, and they were usually amazed--and delighted--that a visitor would try to use some Arabic.  We saw a lot of smiles.

I have long hair and a beard, so I really stuck out like a sore thumb almost everywhere.  We never saw a Tunisian man with long hair--not ever.  And exceedingly few had beards, though mustaches are common.  My appearance was often mistakenly taken as evidence of marijuana use; while walking down the street, I was frequently (and discreetly) offered drugs by young men, as often as four times a day.  A lot of young men would say something that sounded like "shsh" as we passed, which for a long time I couldn't figure out.  I gradually began to suspect that it may be a kind of code word for hashish, and that this might be a way of soliciting a sale.

What money do they use?
The Tunisian dinar (TND), divided into 1000 millimes.  Dinars can't be imported or exported.  Prices are often written like 1.500, 1500 or 1D500 (for 1 dinar, 500 millimes).  It can be confusing at first when you see prices like 7300; this means 7 dinars and 300 millimes, not 73 dinars.  There are 5, 10 and 20 dinar bills (and certainly higher ones that we never saw); as for coins, there's 1 dinar, ½ dinar, as well as 100, 50, 20 and 10 millimes.  We very rarely saw coins worth less than 100 millimes.

By the way, a big deal is made about how you aren't allowed to take dinars in or out of the country, but we had some spare millime coins left at the the end of our trip, and we couldn't find anything cheap enough to spend them on, so we took them with us. The airport police saw them when we walked through the metal detectors, but they said nothing, so we just kept them as little souvenirs.

What was the food like?
Terrific!  Everywhere we went we got at least a nice-sized portion, but many places gave us much more food than we could possibly eat.  Quantity and spiciness are probably the characteristics that stand out most to visitors.  Here are some of the local dishes you see most often . . .

A brik is like a crepe folded over once to form a half-circle, then fried; it has filling in the middle and a crisp outer edge.  Briks usually seem to come with seafood (either tuna, or a hodgepodge including octopus). There's also a runny egg inside, some parsley, and some other stuff (a little mayonnaise?). They are very, very good.  Expect to pay between 1D500 and 3D000, depending on the filling and the restaurant.

The first thing you see when they bring a serving of Couscous Royale to your table is a huge pile of cooked vegetables (carrots, onions, etc.), chicken or meat, and a big pepper, all on a bed of couscous.  It's so much food that they serve it in a the kind of bowl used for serving soup to an entire family, but the portion is intended for one person.  This amount could easily feed at least two or three people.  Very delicious.

Ojja has a pepper-sauce base. To that they add (in the version I had) egg, potato, sliced peppers, and whatever else (I had mine with seafood). Excellent.

Where can you go from Hammamet?
You can take day trips to many places in northern Tunisia very easily by bus or louage (five-passenger taxis which leave when full).

Nabeul is much like Hammamet in that lots of tourists stay there.  It's a very nice city, bigger than Hammamet.  The tourist market here was by far the best we saw as far as selection.  The trip takes about 20 minutes; buses leave from Hammamet every half hour.

Sousse is a very big city with a very big medina.  You'll bypass it on your way to Hammamet if you fly into Monastir.  A trip to Sousse should take about 50 minutes.

Tunis is wonderful.  It has a very Parisian feel.  Terrific medina; if you're looking for a souvenir, go here.  The trip will take about an hour and a half.

Kairouan isn't much to see.  It takes about two hours to get there.  Do not pay to see the Great Mosque unless you're really interested in peering over wooden barricades and ropes into the unlit, windowless prayer room.  Non-Muslims are only allowed into the courtyard . . . which you can see perfectly well from the entrance where you buy the tickets.  Also, you can't buy a ticket just to see the Great Mosque; you have to buy the ticket for all the Mosques.  This would only be good value if you were really interested in all of them and came equipped with a deep appreciation.

What were the louages like?
We only took one louage, from Sousse to Hammamet.  Time really is money for a louage driver, and they aim to get where they're going as fast as they possibly can.  Every road is an autobahn for a louage driver.  That said, the louage we took was relatively comfortable.  Louages always seem to be white Peugeot station wagons with a red stripe down the side.
But what do the police do about the louage drivers' breaking the speed limit?
Absolutely nothing, as far as we could tell.  The only police on the roads seemed to be officers directing traffic, or standing outside tiny huts at roundabouts.  We never saw a police car that wasn't parked in front of a police station.  I can't imagine anyone ever gets a ticket for reckless driving in Tunisia.
What are the regular taxis like?
Cheap and ubiquitous.  We always settled on a fare before we got in the taxi.  A couple of times we inquired as to the fares to cities around Hammamet, but the only city they were willing to drive us to was Nabeul.  They weren't willing to take us any greater distance; virtually all the taxis seemed to be only for short runs inside the city. Be very clear about the price before you get in the cab; make sure to settle the price clearly, using your fingers to confirm the amount if you have to (you shouldn't be paying more than 10 dinars to get anywhere).
What was it like using the bus?
Always interesting.  Most of the buses were a little old and worn, but fine for traveling.  Payment methods varied.  On some buses you had to enter at the rear and pay a man sitting at a tiny cash register there.  On others, you just boarded and sat down, and a man came through later to collect the fare from everyone.

In Hammamet, the buses leave mainly from a lot near the tourist office; you'll know it as soon as you get near it, since there's usually a bus sitting there.  Otherwise it really is just a big, empty gravel lot with a few inconspicuous signs. Sometimes buses leave from the other side of the street, so you have to wait in front of the pharmacie (ask any bus driver if you're unsure where your bus will be). There's a departure schedule inside the tourist office, about one minute's walk away (on the same side of the street as the lot, toward the medina).

The buses to Nabeul were sometimes so full that not a single additional person could have fit.  (We never got on a bus that full.)  Once we saw a young lady get on a teeming bus right before it left; with some difficulty she was able to cram herself onto the last step of the bus' rear entrance.  For a moment it looked very dangerous because the bus started to pull away with her just hanging on.  After another few seconds the driver closed the door behind her, barely squeezing her inside.

How great a role does Islam play in everyday life in Tunisia?
From a tourist's perspective, it doesn't seem as though Islam plays any greater role in the average Tunisian's life than Christianity does in an American's or European's life.  You can hear the beautiful song of the muezzin several times a day, but we never saw men drop what they were doing to go to the mosque.  Business goes on as usual.  We frequently saw young ladies wearing very tight outfits, sometimes a little revealing.  Only older ladies covered their heads, usually with a cream-colored cloth wrapped around their entire torso; strangely, the women never closed the cloth together with a pin, so we often saw them biting part of the cloth to keep it in place.
Where did you stay?
At the Kacem Center Hotel, which is about a ten-minute walk from the medina. It's on the main drag along the beach, Avenue Habib Bourgiba (which is the name of virtually all Tunisian main streets).  The Kacem got anywhere from two and a half to three stars in various guides we saw, and it was very nice indeed. It was also very near the train station, but this was never a problem. There's a vociferous rooster not far away, though, and he really likes to crow--from dawn till dusk.
What are the grocery stores like?
We only saw a few supermarkets in the European/American sense.  Often the food stores are small places where, instead of walking around picking up the items yourself, you walk up to a counter, tell them what you want, and they go get it from shelves on the wall.  But most stores are just tiny versions of supermarkets. They have lots of good yoghurts (which we always had for breakfast), and, in the same section, nice pre-packaged desserts like flan and pudding. Fruits are usually outside the store on racks; they have lots of oranges, lemons, dates, some melons, and another fruit that looks like orange figs that we had never seen before.
Is the water safe for Europeans and Americans?
The tour guides said the tap water "isn't dangerous," but that it might make visitors ill because the waterborne bacteria are different there.  We always drank bottled mineral water; common brands are Marwa and Sabrine. Both plain mineral water (eau minerale naturelle) and carbonated water (gazéifiée) are available everywhere, and you can buy plastic-wrapped six-packs of 1.5-liter bottles of water for a very cheap price (like one or two dinars).
Did you eat at any little cafés?
No, because they seemed to be only for men, and I was always with my girlfriend.  Those Tunisian cafés are very popular.  All day every day they seemed to be full of men who were just hanging out, playing cards, and drinking coffee out of plastic cups.  We got Cokes at one café in Nabeul and sat outside for a while, but that café seemed to cater largely to tourists.

One item we saw for sale in the markets was a kind of elaborate bong.  (These were often pointed out to me as the kind of thing I would be especially interested in buying; the sellers referred to them without exception as "hubbly-bubbly.")  For a long time we never saw any Tunisians actually using one, until we went to the medina in Tunis.  There we saw a café with a bong painted on an outside wall; inside and outside there were dozens of men, most smoking from exactly the kind of bong we had seen for sale. (I've since found out that these are sometimes called "shisha"; perhaps that's the word I kept hearing on the street?)

What are the markets like?
There seem to be two kinds of markets:  Tourist markets, which stock almost nothing but souvenirs and which cater almost exclusively to tourists; and the real markets where Tunisians actually shop.  The latter offer a fascinating insight into Tunisian culture and lifestyles; these markets mainly feature fruits, vegetables, clothes and household items.  The sellers here are very laid-back.  We were lucky enough to visit two actual Tunisian markets:  An enormous one in Tunis, and one in Kairouan.  The tourist markets are interesting at first, but the selling is aggressive and hectic, and the merchandise is often poor quality.
What was the bargaining like?
Fun at first, but it can get tiring very quickly, especially if you want to comparison shop to any degree.  I wanted to buy a kashabia, which is a kind of thick robe worn by older men.  I knew exactly what I wanted, which was a real asset while bargaining.  I was often given a first price of between 65 and 130 dinars; before I left the price would be anywhere from 10 to 25 dinars, depending on the quality of the kashabia in question.  But bargaining with three or four men in a row can be very exhausting.  It's an interesting experience, though.

Unfortunately, a few storeowners treated us with thinly veiled disdain if we told them we wanted to think about buying something and might come back.  These sellers seem to think that visitors only deserve courtesy until they relent and buy something. But almost all sellers will be very reluctant to let you out of their sight until you've made a purchase. Affairs were most laid back in the Tunis medina.

What was the terrain like around Hammamet?
Like southern New Mexico or Texas.  Very sandy, lots of plains sparsely covered by bushes, enormous prickly pears and aloe plants, some (very interesting-looking) mountains.
Was it hot?
No, we always wore pants and a long-sleeved shirts.  But it was mid-April.  The sun was very bright, though, and the weather was clear, so you can get sunburned just walking around.  It wasn't really warm enough to swim.
What are the beaches like?
They were okay.  The water is very shallow for about 15 meters from the water's edge.  Unfortunately there's a lot of trash on the beach.  We saw a bulldozer on the beach one day; apparently no one ever picks up the trash, they just plow it under.  From a distance, though, the beaches are attractive, and they offer spectacular views.
Is it trashy everywhere, or just on the beach?
Pretty much everywhere.  Tunisia as a whole is kind of a trashy place.  There seems to be no concept of "littering."  We saw all kinds of people, from little boys to businessmen, open something to eat and then let the wrapper fall to the ground.  That said, Tunisians do seem to be trying to start recycling.  The national symbol for recycling is a kind of huge cartoon kangaroo with enormous ears; you see his likeness on every bottle, and recycling bins with his picture are common.  We even saw a couple statues of him at roadsides.
Where did you exchange money?
At the Banque de l'Habitat, very near the Kacem Center on Habib Bourgiba.  It had the best rate in town.  Their rate was actually identical to the one we found at the Universal Currency Converter before we left.  The staff there were very nice.  Every other bank's rate was slightly less advantageous, but they were all about the same.  None was particularly bad.  It pays to do a little checking around, if you have the time and are exchanging a lot of money.

We also exchanged some money on a Sunday at the Kacem Center.  They shortchanged us 80 millimes (about five cents), but this may have been because they simply didn't have the 80 millimes--coins less than 100 seem to be somewhat unusual.

Was the tourist office worth visiting?
Yes, if for no other reason than that it's air conditioned and has several nice, comfy chairs.  They also have a schedule of bus departures to nearby cities on an inside wall (seemingly the only place in town you can find a bus schedule), and the nice lady working there (who, by the way, speaks very good English) can give you a map of the city.
Would you go back?
We will certainly go back to Tunisia . . . it's a great place!  But next time we'd like to spend a lot of time in the south, so we'll probably make Sousse our base of operations, then stay overnight in various places throughout the country.
Finally, who is "Bread Beat"?
Ah yes, Mr. Bread Beat.  Apparently I closely resemble "Bread Beat"--at least that's what I was told by two different shopkeepers in two different cities:  "You look like Bread Beat!"  I couldn't quite understand what was being said either time, but my girlfriend knew right away:  "Brad Pitt."  (Perhaps this is one of the more flattering lines Tunisian salesmen have developed and spread around?)  So if you're a little bit blond, with a little bit of beard, and have hair that's a little bit long, you too might be compared to Bread Beat.