Between the ages of 11 and 23, I had been abroad. I had been on school trips to France, to Calais and Paris. I had later ventured further south, to the Atlantic coast of France near Biarritz, and on another occasion, to Perpignan. Including a short visit to Figueras, in northern Spain. That was the sum total of my travels. This had all been done by ferry boat, then train, or in some sort of motor vehicle. I had never been in an aircraft up to that point.
By early 1975 , I was seeing the girl who would later become my first wife. As her father had always worked for Thomas Cook, she was unusually well-travelled, and there were few places she had never visited, albeit mostly as a child, and on cruise ships. She suggested that we go on a week long holiday over the Easter period, which fell sometime in March, and coincided with both our birthdays, which were only two weeks apart. Looking for somewhere hot at that time of year, she settled on North Africa as a destination, as it could be expected to be warm and sunny, even that early in the year. I sorted out a new passport, and pretty much left the rest to her. As we were both living with our parents at the time, the prospect of a week away, in a room together, was doubly appealing. She booked us in to a hotel in the up and coming resort of Sousse, one of Tunisia’s most popular beach resorts. It was a package holiday with Thompson, including flights from Luton Airport, as well as breakfast and evening meal at the resort.
I knew very little about Tunisia as a holiday destination, but a great deal about it as a place of history. Once called Carthage, it was the homeland of Hannibal, and had been the great adversary of the Roman Empire in its day. During the Second World War, it had been part of the Desert War theatre, and had been the site of numerous battles. It was also associated with French colonisation, and the Foreign Legion, things that I had also read about at some length. All that was long forgotten it seemed, when it was later to become more famous as the filming location of Monty Python’s, ‘Life of Brian’. Looking at the travel agent’s brochure, the palm trees on the beach, and the exotic looking pools in the grounds of the hotel complex, certainly made it seem to be a desirable destination for a holiday. I was suitably excited, and counted down the days until we left. I was a little nervous of the prospect of flying, but my girlfriend assured me that it would be OK. Even though foreign travel was commonplace by this time, North Africa was still considered to be somewhere exotic, and a cut above the usual sun spots of Eastern Spain.
Luton Airport was a disappointment. At that time, it appeared to be little more than a large shed, catering solely for the charter holiday market. It lacked the swish atmosphere of airports that I had seen on TV, and in the films, and I felt a little cheated by my first experience of an International Terminal. I had no idea about how to travel to this type of holiday, and arrived wearing a formal suit and tie, believing that one should appear smart and businesslike when embarking on such adventures. I had also packed a suitcase full of clothes of all types, including numerous pairs of shoes, and lots of long-sleeved shirts, and smart trousers. I felt sure that it would be normal to dress smartly for dinner, and my concept of how to look and behave was firmly rooted in British Colonialism, and the newsreels and films that I had seen in my youth. As soon as I was seated on the aircraft, I realised my mistake. I was smarter than the pilot, and looked terribly out of place.
At least the prospect of flying in a jet soon took my mind off of anything else. In those days, it was permissible to smoke on board, and we had purchased cheap cigarettes in the duty free shop. We had smoking seats, and as soon as the lights went out, I smoked constantly, until our arrival at Monastir. I found flying to be a terrible anti-climax. I had imagined a feeling of zipping through the sky, hanging on for dear life, as the aircraft reached fantastic speeds. Although I did find the take-off somewhat disconcerting, once we had stabilised, the flight was very dull, when the excitement of being in the clouds had worn off. I liked the free meal, hot drinks, and the chance to buy things from the hostess, but mainly, I was bored. I have flown many times since, and generally retained this impression, not really liking flying at all.
As I was not sitting near a window, I also lost the chance to see anything much from an aerial vantage point. I could hear others discussing coastal formations, and speculating about our current position, but saw little from my aisle seat. I didn’t like having to use the aircraft toilet, finding it claustrophobic, and being greatly put off by the constant queue outside. When the announcement came that we would be landing soon, followed by the seat belt light illuminating, I was relieved that it would soon be over, and we could get on with the holiday.
The arrival at Monastir Airport did not disappoint. It was warm and sunny, and had a foreign smell about it, something that you could not identify, but you just knew it was different. Apparently, Monastir was the home town of the President of Tunisia at the time, so the airport was modern, clean, and very impressive.( As was the town itself). There were few tourists or travellers around in the terminal, giving the place a spacious and airy feel as well. We had not been able to obtain Tunisian money in the UK, as it was not a traded currency. We got some at the airport, exchanging travellers cheques at the cash desk, another first for me. Even the money was exotic, with Arabic script, and pictures of unknown statesmen. Foreign money has always appealed to me; it seems more colourful than ours, and you used to get what at least seemed a lot for the pounds handed over; certainly notes of large denomination, anyway.
We were met by a friendly and efficient Thompson rep, who had not been doing it long enough to become jaded and indifferent. She arranged a smooth transfer of the group and our luggage onto the coach, for the drive to Sousse. Once out on the road, I started to feel like I was really abroad. This was nothing like being in Europe, with the ramshackle roadside shops, donkey carts, and blaring horns of the taxis and cars; the local people dressed in one piece outfits resembling the habits of monks, and the entire area seemingly under construction, in varying stages of completion. We could see the coast as we drove, and the blue sea and sandy beaches instilled the holiday spirit, together with the palm trees everywhere, driving home the point that we had arrived somewhere very different.
Once we got to Sousse, we turned onto the long peninsular that led to our hotel, and I was amazed at the number of hotels fringing the beaches there. I had possibly imagined that we would be staying somewhere isolated, surrounded by mysterious deserts. The reality was a continuous stretch of high and low rise tourist developments, stretching as far as the eye could see. The coach turned into each one in turn, dropping off some passengers here, some there, until we were in the last small group remaining. Our hotel was the last in the line, and we got a shock as we entered the driveway leading to it. It was simply massive. Not one, but three separate accommodation blocks loomed ahead of us, and extensive grounds surrounded the entire complex, with a beach frontage seemingly as far as the horizon. There were a couple of large swimming pools, archery butts, tennis courts, even horse-riding facilities. I later discovered that the place could hold over a thousand tourists at peak time, though luckily for us, it was relatively quiet, even though it was Easter. The reception was cool and clean, and the staff formal, but efficient. We got the key to our room, on an upper floor, with sea view, and balcony, as promised. The rep told us that there would be a meeting that evening, where she would tell us all about the place, and what was on offer from Thompson.
I was suitably impressed with the room. At that time, it was certainly the best that I had ever stayed in. It was clean and airy, with a very good view, and for someone like me, new to the experience, it felt almost luxurious. The public rooms in the rest of the hotel were of a similar standard, with large restaurants, numerous bars, and an indoor pool for those who preferred it; even a gym, when such things were unheard of. I was happy, and convinced that we had struck lucky. Thirty-eight years later, as I write this now, I could not think of anywhere worse to stay. But then, I knew no better.
Even that late in the afternoon, the temperature was pleasantly warm, and I changed out of my suit, donning something more suitable for the location. The suit, formal trousers, and shirts, were destined to remain in the wardrobe for the duration of the trip, as they were completely redundant in that setting. The meeting with the rep gave us a chance to examine the rest of the tour party. I was surprised to find that they came from all over the UK; for some reason, I had expected everyone to be from London. The hotel’s other guests were from various countries; some French, mostly German and Dutch. The tour guide explained all the facilities in the hotel; how to book them, when to turn up for meals, and how to get the free bus from the hotel into town and back. She then settled into the real business of the meeting, selling excursions to places of interest. After listening to her lengthy presentation, we decided to buy the trip to El Djem, and Sfax. Sfax was one of the former French colonial towns, and El Djem was home to one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres outside of Italy. This would involve a very lengthy coach trip, and was not something we wanted to chance independently. As the only other places we wanted to visit were the Old Town in Sousse, and possibly Monastir, we decided that one trip was sufficient. After all, we were only there for one week, and the first day was almost over, with dinner time approaching.
Dinner was more than acceptable, with a choice from the menu, and waiter service. This was before the days of identikit buffets, served the same everywhere, and more in the French style, with bread served with the meal, and mineral water brought as a matter of course. The next day, breakfast was a Continental affair, with pastries, cheeses, and sliced meats. At that time, I considered this to be quite unusual, and took to it readily. By the end of the week, I was longing for a traditional English breakfast, having tired of fruit, ham, and croissants. Another sure sign that I was new to all this. Later that week, we also had a free show at the hotel, with dancers and musicians in traditional dress. It was entertaining, for about fifteen minutes, but I soon became bored with that too.
That holiday was all about being outside, soaking up the unusual street scenes, noisy markets, and architecture unchanged since Biblical times. Or sitting on the wonderful sandy beaches, watching the waves, reading a book, and relaxing. We did not become part of the ‘pool set’. I do not swim, and my girlfriend, though a strong swimmer, preferred the sea. I did have my first taste of the infamous ‘sun-lounger claiming’ though, with Germans and others up before first light, draping towels over the best spots. I had no interest in playing that game, and we would wander down the beach, easily finding a calmer spot to enjoy. Trips into the old Souk in Sousse rapidly became tiresome. The constant hassle from vendors, and the haggling, at first amusing, soon changed to outright arguments. I also had my first taste of the Arab obsession with blonde women, something I was still encountering fifteen years later, on a trip to Egypt. The locals thought it was acceptable, to not only stare, but also to touch her hair, and make lewd gestures. I had to spend much of the trip fending off unwanted admirers, stopping short of a full-on fight.
In the hotel complex, there was none of this, and the atmosphere was always calm and professional. We decided to get a local coach to Monastir. This was not as developed for tourism as Sousse, and had a few luxury hotels, patronised by well-off French visitors. We found one with a rooftop pool and terrace, and spent a pleasantly hot afternoon, sipping drinks in the dignified surroundings, wishing we had thought to book into somewhere so nice. Monastir was unusually clean, with attractive modern architecture, much of it still in the Arabic style. The seafront and beaches were much more upmarket than we had seen around Sousse, and we left the place with a feeling of regret, that we had not stayed there instead. I somehow doubt that this town is still like that today, given the level of tourist development in that country.
The trip to Sfax and El Djem necessitated a dawn departure, and we had a sleepy breakfast, with the sky still dark outside. I do not know how far it was in miles, but it certainly took a long time, in the rather ancient coach, which picked other tourists up along the way. The roads were also not that great, and we were frequently stuck behind many slow-moving vehicles. The countryside outside of the holiday resorts was mostly desert, with small villages and towns that looked unchanged from the wartime newsreels I had seen as a child. As we approached El Djem, it was all worth it. Standing high in the desert ahead, was the almost complete amphitheatre, as magnificent to my eyes as The Colosseum, and only missing around a quarter of the outside wall. We had access to the whole thing, and could go or climb anywhere, inside and out. Although we had the services of a local guide included, I don’t remember anything he said, as I was so excited to see this wonder. http://www.tunisiaonline.com/el-djem-colosseum/
Lunch, provided in a small local cafe, was another new experience. Everything was covered in flies, where it had been prepared in advance, and then left out, pending our arrival. Despite being hungry, we decided not to eat anything except some fresh bread, and we were pleased that we had brought some cakes and pastries from the hotel. The toilet in this establishment deserves a special mention. Even to this day, I have never seen anything so disgusting, and I have seen many. Despite badly needing to pee, I could not bear to stand inside for more than a few seconds. The ‘unisex’ facility had presumably never been cleaned, and had suffered from years of both local and tourist stomach upsets, piled up the wall, in what looked like a scene from a horror film. Almost 40 years later, I can still recall that horrible place, and I try not to. I am not ashamed to say, that I walked around the back of the cafe, and relieved myself against a significantly cleaner tree.
Pleased to be away from our lunch venue, and back on the road, we were told by the guide that we would be having dinner in Sfax. To our surprise, we were still hours away, and as we were not due to arrive until mid-evening, the addition of this place on the trip seemed rather pointless; even more so, considering that it was further away from our hotel, and not really on the way back. The town was actually attractive to behold as we drove in. The colonial architecture was virtually unchanged, and the centre was reminiscent of what I had seen in pictures, and on film, of the old part of New Orleans. We were driven to a nice restaurant, a world away from the place where we had been for lunch. Crisp white tablecloths, nice cutlery, and a set meal of high standard, it was all well-received by the group. There was no tour of Sfax, and we set off after dinner, to return to Sousse. It was already dark, so we completed a long and boring journey, arriving late, and ready for bed. It was all worth it though, at least to me, as El Djem was a delight.
The last two days in the resort were marred by cloudy weather, although it was still very warm. Arriving at the airport for the flight home, we had to quickly change back any remaining notes, as they would be worthless in England. Of course, the return exchange rate was not favourable, and no loose change was accepted. This was deposited in a charity box nearby, hopefully for distribution to a good cause. Taking my second ever flight, outbound to Luton, I reflected that it had been a great experience overall, with Monastir and El Djem the highlights, and the lunchtime cafe representing a new low. I had enjoyed my first taste of another culture, and the sight of a desert for the first time too.
For a reasonably small cost, it was a great little holiday. But then I was only 23 years old, so what did I know?