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A Week in Hammamet
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Advantages: Potential for year round good weather
Disadvantages: Depends where you stay
The reason I chose Tunisia for a holiday was that I was thinking about taking more adventurous holidays but wanted to test the water first and try somewhere a little bit different from my usual destinations - the Greek Islands, Canaries, Spain, etc. I wanted to see how I would fare in a country with customs quite different to those I was used to. Tunisia seemed to fit the bill - a Muslim country on a continent I had never visited before and one I thought might be quite different from previous holiday destinations.
We booked a package through Panorama/Manos having seen very good prices on the internet and then made the actual booking by phone - 230 Pounds each, bed and breakfast basis for one week to be allocated on arrival(Prices have changed little since the end of 2003. A bit more than I would have paid for a last minute week in Spain or the Canaries but I was desperate for a holiday and wanted to try Tunisia.
Flights from the UK to Tunisia last about 4 hours on average and we flew from Newcastle to Monastir with My Travel - the food was OK, the service fine - not much more to add (and besides I'm reviewing Tunisia here!) I do have to say, though, that there was a thrilling moment as we approched Monastir and the plane turned and swooped down for landing - the view of the beach and the sea was gorgeous - shimmering blue ocean and golden beaches - perfect!
There was quite a wait to get through arrivals and it the heat hit you as soon as you got off the plane (I'm just remarking, not complaining!). Luckily I had foreseen this and was wearing a vest top under my sweatshirt so I was soon dressed for the heat. While queueing I had to go to the loo and here I got my introduction to Tunisian toilets. There was no toilet paper to use - either it had all been used because the toilets were overflowing because they were stuffed with it, or people had stuffed their own tissues (not suitable for these toilets) down the toilet and thus blocked it. The floor was swimming with water and, in short, it was horrible.
I hoped that perhaps this was a one off but sadly my experience of Tunisian toilets did not improve over the week. I found them, on the whole, dirty, lacking toilet paper, lacking privacy (one toilet in a restaurant was unisex and the cubicle had a saloon type door and the Tunisian men would peer over the top as you were sitting there using the toilet. I understand fully that other countries have different customs to ours but I was surprised that in a country where women are meant to be chaste and modest, there would be no privacy in such matters. The attitude of Tunisian men is one I shall mention again later.
The coach transfer to Hammamet takes roughly an hour depending on which part of the resort you are staying in. Hammamet is basically made up of three distinct areas - Hammamet Yassmine (or Hammamet Sud), Hammamet Plage and Hammamet centre (confusingly, this is not in the middle, it is just the town centre!)
Hammamet Yaassmine is the first part you hit and this is the vey new part of town, massive hotel complexes, high rises and quite glitzy. The biggest hotel here opened just before we visited and the rep told us that it had already made it's way into the top fifty hotels in the world. However, they couldn't fill the hotel and most of it's visitors had just been guests from more modest hotels going in for a look around. This hotel is designed to look like a huge, white North African fortress or casbah - I hated it!
There didn't seem to be many restaurants in this area - I wondered whether it was because most of the hotels here are offering fully inclusive packages. There is a small area on the edge of Hammamet Yassmine as you approach Hammamet Plage with a few bars and restaurants. While not particularly great or even Tunisian in style, it seems to be quite lively. There are plans to build an airport at Hammamet and our rep pointed out where this is likely to be - right next to Hammamet Yassmine!
Hammamet Plage (plage being the French word for beach), is the next part of the resort and this is where we stayed. The area is quiet and there are enough restaurants and cafe-bars to serve the cluster of hotels without making the area too busy and spoilt. There are some pizza/pasta places which also do steaks and other international dishes and there are a few restaurants that, amongst a wide international menu, also do good Tunisian fish dishes.
There are a series of larger hotels here which have their own access to the beach and some have their own roped off area with private sun-loungers. However, there is still plenty of beach to enjoy and these private areas are quite small.
However, we were not in one of those hotels - our hotel faced the row of those on the beach, so we were not far away from the beach - about a minutes walk down a sheltered footpath.
The beach at Hammamet Plage is lovely - clean, golden sand, wide expanses and you can walk for miles. Locals young men walk up and down the beach trying to sell soft drinks and fruit but they don't seem to pester you that much.
A word of warning - I manged to get stung by a jellyfish - it hurts more than any pain I've experienced before! Apparently the weather was even hotter than usual for the time of year and this brought the jellyfish. Some local guys who were working on the beach advised me to return to the hotel and ask for a tomato, cut in half, to rub on the stings. It worked!! OK, it still hurt for a couple of days but it did help reduce the intense pain. Please do not think that this is common here - the hotel staff and the guys on the beach said it happens mainly in August - this was September so it was quite unusual.
The water is shallow for a fair distance and then becomes steeper so is good for both adults wanting to swim and families with children. There are no toilets along the beach, you would have to ask to use them at one of the hotels or come away from the beach and use the ones in a cafe.
Our hotel, les Citronniers, was a medium sized family run affair on a pleasant quiet street, close to a selection of cafes and restaurants and a small convenience store very close - good for buying stocks of bottled water! Most hotels serve a continental breakfast - croissants, juice and coffee - ours was no different. The pool was clean and well-maintained and there were plenty of sun-loungers for guests.
Les Citronniers has a bar/TV room which is open to the public and guests of other hotels and was quite lively in the evenings, although when we arrived everyone was sitting indoors watching the omnibus edition of Eastenders! Why????
It is possible to walk from Hammamet Plage to the main centre of Hammamet in about twenty-five minutes; buses are cheap but not as regular as you might expect and taxis are very cheap. If you walk you pass some nice restaurants but the pavements are not great - they can be uneven and at times disappear at the worst point when there are no places to cross the busy road into town. Coming into town you go through quite a dirty aprt of town but keep going. We thought we were going to be very disppointed with Hammamet but kept walking a bit further and eventually we could see the lights of the town centre up ahead.
Walking also allows you to pop in to some of the larger hotels for a pre-dinner drink - I would recomend Hotel Sinbad - lovely surroundings, a beautiful outdoor seating area and lots of complimentary nibbles with your drinks.
The casbah and the medina on the little headland by the small harbour (not really a harbour, more a small pebbly beach where fisherman leave their boats overnight) are the first thing you spot. The minaret of the town's main mosque looms up out of the medina and at night it is lit up beautifully and looks very pretty. You get a great view from the little park/square next to the medina which has a delightful modern fountain. (There are often young Tunisian men round here trying to sell you hash; smoking marijuana is not common in Tunisia, it is not tolerated by the police and you are more than likely going to be sold some legal kind of herbal mixture. Refuse politely and they will be OK).
The medina is the centre of most Tunisian towns and is much more than just a market. The medina is a town in side gated walls and Hammamet's is just another smaller version of the one in Tunis. There are usually young men approaching you as soon as you get anywhere near the medina, offering to show you round. They will not expect any money for doing so and they will tell you as much. They are usually quite helpful, telling you all sorts of interesting things about life inside the medina (several hundred people live inside the medina in Hammamet) but eventually they will want you to browse round the souk belonging to one of their relatives.
Most of the goods are low quality tourist items (toy camels, painted ceramics, etc) but there are one or two nice jewellery stalls. You will be expected to haggle - the sellers usually know if it's your first time and will help you along, without trying to rip you off. Remember not to offer any price you are not willing to pay (it is bad form to offer a price and then withdraw it), think about what you would be willing to pay at home and don't try to be too clever thinking that you can cheat the seller - remember he has a living to make. Finally, enjoy it - it's meant to be fun!
To be honest, there's not really much to see or do in Hammamet itself. The shops are nothing to write home about, although we did find an interesting little gallery/shop run by a German (if I remember rightly) who was selling his own paintings and small sculptures which we loved. The paintings were vibrant, bright canvasses which seemed very much influenced by the sea and the light at Hammamet.
Hammamet can give the impression of being slighty run down but, from what I saw of other towns and the capital, it's really no worse than anywhere else. The attitude seems to be "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - you have to remember not to impose your conceptions of how things should look, based on how we expect our towns to be maintained at home.
Looking at Hammamet now, it is hard to imagine that in the 1920s and 30s, Hammamet had a reputation as an intellectual resort and it attracted literary, bohemian types. One such person was the Romanian millionnaire, George Sebastian. He commissioned the building of a specatular villa above the beach, designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The house is open for viewing (Tues - Sun 9am - 6pm, 1.1Tunisian Dinar) but the gardens can be accessed outside these hours and it's worth a visit to see the mock Greek theatre and the rather splendid arcaded swimming pool next to which sits an amazingly glamorous black marble poolside table.
And that, really, is all there is to see/do - there is a small municpal museum in town but the Rough Guide wasn't very enthusiastic about it so we gave it a miss.
Trips offered by tour companies tend to be to Sousse (the next resort to the south), to Nabeul (a market town half an hour north, we did it independently by bus and saved about 17 quid) and the trip out into the Sahara to see the locations used in the Star Wars films - this trip lasts three days so can only really be done on a two week holiday). We also ventured independently to Tunis. Independent travel in Tunisia is fairly easy and very cheap; it costs alot less than going on organised tours and you get the satisfaction of having done it yourself.
Hammamet is really a place to relax and enjoy the sun - whether that be on the beach or by the side of your hotel pool. Unless you venture out of town, there's not much to occupy you. Children will be happy on the beach or by the pool but it can get very hot so it may not be the best resort for children since there is not much for children to do out of the sun.
Hammamet centre has a fair selection of restaurants clustered around the Avenue Bourguibba, close to the medina. I would especially recommend the Belle Vue - for good food, pleasant staff and excellent entertainment from the band who play a selection of popular Tunisian songs. Most places offer a few fish dishes and then the usual international fare - steaks, pizzas, risotto, etc. It's best to ask what fish is available rather than go by the menu - if you try to order fish from the menu you will normally be told they don't have it and they will bring a platter of fish they do have and ask you to choose from that instead.
Cous cous, of course, is the dish most associated with North Africa, but many restaurants say that they require notice that you want this dish. If you see a place you would like to eat and they do cous cous, it may be worth booking earlier in the day (or the day before) and telling them you want the cous cous. Otherwise you will either be refused or have a long wait. The cous cous you get here will be steamed fully - it's not the simple to prepare "just add water" stuff we buy from the supermarket at home. A popular Tunisian snack is the "brik" or "brik a l'oeuf" - it's a traingle of pastry containing either cheese, ham, prawns or tuna (usually) and an egg - it is deep fried which reults in the patry being lovely and crisp but it leaves the egg still lovely and runny inside. Eating a brik without getting egg everywhere isa real challenge but a delicious one!
The local firewater is "boukkha" and is made from figs ( - don't try it neat - it's lethal! ) and is best drunk with coke.You can buy most other spirits but as they are imported they are fairly expensive compared to boukkha. The local beer is OK but a little watery, however it is fairly cheap.
And finally, I come to practicalities and realities.
Tunisia is a Muslim country and although it has a reputation of being one of the most liberal in attitudes, you should always remember that it has customs quite different to those of other countries who receive lots of holiday makers.
Some hotels may allow topless sunbathing but you should bear in mind that hotels ae staffed almost exclusively by Tunisian men who are very keen to ogle European holiday makers. They may construe your relaxed attitudes as "easiness" and think you are offering yourself to them. In the medina and obviously in mosques woman should have shoulders covered and ideally wear along skirt. Men should not wear shorts in the medina or in a mosque.
Some of the young men in the medina tried to hold my hand and I made it quite plain that I did not want this- this was partly because I did not want them to hold my hand and partly because if one person does this, all the young men flock around and want to do it too.
The Tunisian currency is the Dinar and cannot be bought or sold outside the country so you need to change travellers cheques when you get there. As the end of your stay approaches, be careful how much money you change because you can take no more than 2 Dinar through the airport (this is sufficient to make one phone call from departures if necessary). Cheques can be changed in banks and at hotels.
Most people in the resorts (cafes, restaurants, hotels) speak English otherwise basic French will get you buy.
To sum up I would say that Hammamet is a pleasant place for a weeks holiday - any longer and you would have to plan some trips, unless you are happy just to sun yourself continually.
If I returned to Tunisia it would certainly be to a different resort.
Summary: Limited activities but good beaches and friendly folk