Remember Simon Bates’s Our Tune on BBC Radio 1 and the cheesy romantic melody that was the background to a similarly cheesy romantic story? Well that’s what’s playing in northern Tunisia right now. Along with slightly grittier fare, such as the theme to Love Story, it floats incongruously out of cafés and restaurants, past the blue studded doors of the medinas, over the baskets of garlic, chickpeas and bundles of wet spinach in the souks and between the thatched sun umbrellas at posh hotels.
It formed a surreally retro soundtrack to my trip along the north coast – an area with relatively few tourists and no particular interest in western films or music – in the company of a driver called Kamel. On occasion, as we sipped sweet mint tea in cafés full of men sucking peacefully on narghiles, or got back after a long day’s driving across the gold and green North African landscape, it seemed our only link with the Western world.
Tunisia has two main areas geared to foreign tourism – the beach resorts of the east coast, including Hammamet and the island of Djerba, and the desert south with its date palmeries, cloaked Berbers and salt flats. The north coast, however, is low key and less known. It has cliffs and crashing seas and a fertile coastal plain that swoops up to a mountain ridge of modest altitude before dropping down to wheat country and then desert. The economy is largely agricultural, the influence is French and the tourism is almost entirely Tunisian and Algerian.
All this seemed a long way away as we inched through traffic en route to the Tunis medina, a drive punctuated by the light crunch of metal on metal. We saw three ‘kisses’ – too small to be crashes – after which drivers displayed the sort of mild level of irritation I feel on stubbing my toe. We took one wrong turn after another in the sandy alleys of the medina and, at one point, we had three people pointing in different directions, all with the utmost good humour.
The following morning I was woken at 5am by the sun bouncing off the whitewashed walls of my converted palace hotel. Our route would take us north and west from Tunis: first to the fortified coastal town of Bizerte, then inland via Sejnane and Nefza and up to the seaside resort of Tabarka, near the Algerian border, before circling past the Khroumirie Mountains and the Roman ruins at Bulla Regia.
It soon became obvious that coast and hinterland are two different entities. The north coast beaches are famous for their unspoilt charms, but, as with ingénue film stars, time has taken its toll. The sea is lovely – clear green rolls of water over biscuit-coloured sand. The women wore one-pieces or sporty wetsuit-hijab combos as their men played beach football and veiled grannies dandled babies on their knees – and a foreigner could happily wear a bikini.
The first thing we saw in Bizerte was the golden-walled kasbah towering protectively over the harbour mouth. This coast was a magnet for pirates. Great battles raged over the nearby reefs of red coral, craved by everyone – including the Romans – for jewellery (it’s still sold everywhere, to the horror of environmentalists). The town was heavily fortified.