“You go on public transport to Kairouan?” Walid asks, trying to mask his shock, as he checks me into the five star Raddison Blu Hotel in Hammanet, Tunisia’s beach Mecca. He shakes his head “Not today. The men are too rowdy. It is Saturday. They drink too much. It is not safe for you. On your own.” I stare at him to gauge whether he is joking. In Kairouan? The holiest city in the country? The fourth holiest in the world? He nods. “Even around the mosque.”
I am here in Tunisia to see if it lives up to the accolades it’s been given from those in the know. Conde Nast has called it the next big travel destination and it hit the top spot for Lonely Planet’s Places to Visit in 2015 list. It seems to have it all – sandy beaches, ancient ruins, Berber villages in the desert, Star Wars film sets, the most European of all North African and Arab nations, the most stable country after the Arab Spring in 2011. My plan had been simple – a last minute flight from London to Tunis, the first two nights in a boutique hotel, and from then on, I would make it up as I went along. However, Walid’s warning has thrown me.
As it turns out, I receive an urgent email from Expedia. My return flight has been cancelled. I spend the next 3 hours on Skype (thank goodness for free wifi), most of that listening to the same awful track, navigating their awful claims/compensation/refund departments. They are all manned by very patient men, but the system is designed to be unhelpful. I am offered a flight the following day. Then a flight that goes via Rome and Milan. And finally a flight via Paris on the same day as I was scheduled. I ask for confirmation and after another 20 minutes on hold, the very nice Indian man informs me that Air France is closed for the weekend. I give up, send a text to my husband and ask him to sort it out from the UK.
By the time I have failed to sort out my travel plans, it is early afternoon and it is too late to hire a car or even a car and guide for my trip to Kairouan. The mosque will have to wait for the next time I’m here. I hear an English accent and a man thrusts out his hand. “I overheard you are returning on Tuesday. So are we. Maybe we could share a transfer together?”
David and his wife Stella, from Exeter have just completed a 7 day tour around the country, and it seems as if they have done and seen everything. From Dougga and Carthage ruins in the north to the desert, film sets and oases in the south. That’s an enormous amount for a week and I wonder how much getting on and off the bus at great speed was involved. I feel slightly jealous when they tell me how much the trip cost. Excluding flights, £500. That includes a stop at Kairouan, which is beginning to feel like a mirage in the distance for me. I wonder whether I’ve made a mistake in this last minute and DIY tour.