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krisek Monastir - A travel report by Krys
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Monastir,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  Monastir
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krisek's travel reports

Tunisia's flagship tourist destination. Monastir.

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Although it has relatively few sights, Monastir managed to establish itself as a prime holiday destination in Tunisia. Sousse and El Jem nearby, both on UNESCO list, complement Monastir conveniently, but Monastir has better beaches and is cleaner.

the Ribat
the Ribat
I was actually trying to avoid Monastir due to its reputation of being overrun with bus-loads of group tours. And its hyper artificial zone touristique! However, since I was lucky enough to be travelling in own mode of transport, I had one day spare in my itinerary. So, I booked a hotel for one night, and decided to give it a go. And in the end, I could not stay in Monastir overnight, due to a camel rage, broken arm and curtailed holiday. The blessing of own transportation however meant that I could still drop for a short visit to the town and have a look around, as part of my way up north to the capital, the airport and eventually to an operation theatre.

Monastir had been built on the top of the ruins of Ruspina, an ancient Punic–Roman city. Nothing of significance remained from that ancient period at the time of my visit in April 2010, though. Monastir is not even famous for it and it might have been elevated to the first pages of travel magazines by the Monty Pythons, who used the town's well preserved Ribat as a Roman castle in their film 'The Life of Brian'.

I found the core of Monastir to be very tidy. Later, I learned that it was because of the large and flamboyant mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president, who fought against the French for the country's independence. Just a few yards from the Ribat and the small medina, and the central seafront corniche. It had to be clean then.

Favourite spots:
the Ribat
the Ribat
The Ribat of Harthema, right at the seafront, stood out from the crowd of other attractions of Monastir. Its state of preservation was remarkable. From the distance, the fortress looked almost new. And up close one could spot that parts of the structure might have been restored, otherwise the clean-up work, which could have been done instead was extremely successful. On good, sunny weather, the light brown, thick walls stood austere and solid. Almost mesmerising! And the little park across the street, with benches and palmtrees could not be positioned any better at all. It gave great perspective or a foreground for interesting photo compositions.

The Ribat was the first in the country to allow female students and professors. Its constructions must have started in the 8th century, but as the complex had been remodelled over the centuries, it was hard to establish its exact age. Entry to the Ribat (museum of ancient Islamic writing, fabric and pottery) was TND3 plus TND1 for the camera.

What's really great:
In the centre...
In the centre...
I liked how Monastir seemed so clean. African countries do not always care about cleanliness in the streets, with an exception of Namibia, I guess. But it would have looked really disrespectful if rubbish, plastic bottles and bags, cigarette ends and papers lied around the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba and the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier (both pictured opposite - the mausoleum in the background). The town felt very civilised and pleasant.

Weather was also great, there was plenty of sunshine, almost no clouds at all, and the temperature climbed to the very comfortable 26C. And the aura pleased me like that although March/April have typically been Tunisia's wettest months. Lucky me?

Old mosque
Old mosque
Despite its popularity, there was not that much to see in Monastir. The sights only included the Ribat and its museum inside, of course; the Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum; the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier; the Grande Mosque (pictured opposite); the Habib Bourguiba Mosque; the Museum of Traditional Costume; and that was pretty much it.

There was also a medina full of souvenir shops obviously, but it was not as attractive as many other medinas in the country. Fortunately, Monastir had a little square called Place du Gouvernorat, flanked by local government buildings, the congress hall, the theatre, and the Artisanat. The latter was a handicraft centre. It was unlike many other centres I had spotted before in Tunisia, as items sold here had a certificate issued by the Tunisian government stating the authenticity of the goods. And the certificate was issued only for items of reasonable quality.

Le Phenix de Mahdia Hotel, room 308
Le Phenix de Mahdia Hotel, room 308
I had a booking at Hotel Mezri, right by the sea on Route de la Corniche, a few minutes walk from the Ribat. They were charging €21 for a double room including all taxes and continental breakfast. However, I did not end up staying there, as I had to go back to the UK following the accident with the camels in Douz a few days before, to fix my broken arm. Instead, I stayed at Le Pehinix de Mahdia, some 40 kilometres south.

Le Phenix de Mahdia was a relatively well appointed hotel that paid attention to detail with regard to the decor. Rooms were clean, and the double rooms had giant super king size beds. The bathrooms were modern and clean. The toiletries were provided. There were phones, small refrigerators, tv sets, and spacious wardrobes. The beds were comfortable, had two bedside cabinets, and the sheets were crispy clean. Single rooms were TND70 (€35) and the doubles were twice that.

An old cemetery in the centre
An old cemetery in the centre
I am not sure what Monastir's nightlife looked like, as I did not have an opportunity to check it. What I heard was the night action in Monastir, both the old part of the town and the zone touristique was rather low key. Not unlike in most Tunisian towns, but in contrast with the coastal towns of Hammamet or Tabarka, both very far from Monastir. The only so called reasonable hotel clubs in the zone touristique, The Sahara Club and The L'Aquarius did not enjoy good press. Not good at all! Sadly, nightlife in Monastir sounded as exciting as walking in a cemetery after sunset.

Horse-drawn carts, as a method to kill time?
Horse-drawn carts, as a method to kill time?
There was no shortage cafes serving teas, coffees and shisha, if one did not mind a male-dominated, if not male-exclusive, environment and loads and loads of smoke in those cafes, which did not have outside tables. At least near the Ribat! Further south and along the coast, it was slightly better. Cafes were more women-friendly and had large windows opening to the sea, which provided better ventilation.

For walking and hanging out in the outdoors, the seafront corniche was not too bad with a few palmtrees and very blue water. And the little park in front of the Grande Mosque and the Ribat was also cool. It had benches and plenty of shade.

Monastir also boasted horse-drawn carts, which could be an option to kill time and relax - in motion. But that depends if one likes the smell of horse dung, of course. The drivers were slightly pushy but not persistant, and the carts did look comfortable.

Small park, close to a few cafes...
Small park, close to a few cafes...
There was a good selection of places to eat in Monastir, but one had to be careful, as not all of them were any good. Places around and inside the medina were... hmm... not sophisticated enough. Their unimaginative menus clearly discriminated against the tourists but offering few dishes, like pizza, lamb couscous, and fried fish. Normally as a set menu for about TND7 (€3.50). Restaurant du Bonheur just outside the medina looked more decent than others. For better food and definitely better service one had to venture either to the zone touristique or south of the medina along the coast or the marina. The Restaurant La Plage at the marina was very popular specialising in fish dishes, including fish pate and spicy fish couscous. It was not cheap, as the set menus were going for about TND30 (€15), excluding drinks.

Other recommendations:
El Jem Colosseum
El Jem Colosseum
El Jem, North Africa's gem, was just 45 kilometres west from Mahdia. This small town's proud possession was world's third largest Roman amphitheatre. I had been capable to accommodate over 30,000 blood-thirsty spectators. UNESCO listed the colosseum as a World Cultural Heritage Site, and when I visited, the ticket to see the monument was TND8 plus TND1 for a camera. The site would look exceptionally spectacular from the air (as many satellite photographs indicate), but exploring it from the ground was also quite overwheling. The shear size of the arena was impressive! And its obvious oval shape looked incredible.

Frequent and convenient louages served the Monastir - El Jem route, taking about an hour, but there were many tour agents that would set one up for the trip in a heartbeat.

The Monastir international airport was fully operational, when I visited. It served mostly the charter flights from many European countries. And the narrow gauge rail linked Monastir with Sousse.

Published on Tuesday May 25th, 2010

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