Wintering in Tunisia 2018/19
So 6-7 months in Tunisia for the winter, what do we have to say about it?
There is always a lot of apprehensions when the idea is to go to North Africa, we discussed it previously during the 2017 season when we went to Morocco (read it all here) and we still keep the same perspective.
How can anyone know without having ever been or without knowing personally people that have been?!
Just like many, all we knew about Tunisia was the little we had read online, not much information is available and the first-hand feedbacks are few.
But one thing we are sure, after living and travelling in South East Asia for 7 years and in my case also as a female solo backpacker in China and John in India, we are not afraid or scared of the Bogeyman.
The idea of staying for 6-7 months in Tunisia for the winter was not just about sightseeing, there were maintenance works to be done, the Schengen 90/180 days dance and the low cost of living of the country dictated a much longer stay that would allow us to work at whatever rhythm we wanted knowing that the costs wouldn’t slip out of control during that period.
With our plans set, we knew that we had to prepare for the 2018 Winter projects list before sailing to Tunisia, after all the chances of not being able to find parts, tools and materials necessary to our tasks was quite high and we had already read that having parts delivered in the country can be a big hassle with Customs/Aduana.
The bureaucratic details of arriving Tunisia were also a bit unclear and even after reading any accounts in French (due to their French legacy) we were not sure of how things would pan out. Backshish is not uncommon in North Africa and our previous experience in Morocco dodging the situation was not guaranteed here. For more details you can read here, Morocco - heading south.
The uncertainty of the accounts online regarding the subject both in Monastir (where we were planning to arrive initially) and Hammamet left us a bit unsure of where it would be best to arrive for easier check-in.
We ended up deciding mid passage that we would go straight to Hammamet instead of the initially planned detour to Monastir, hoping we could negotiate with the marina to advance our winter contract by 15 days, avoiding the extra charges. After all, we were already planning to leave in the month of March anyway, more than a month before the end of the winter package.
We arrived after nightfall and the check-in was reasonably easy but you can read in more detail here, Tunisia, Hammamet - checking in and regarding Ella’s arrival you can find the details here, Arriving in Tunisia with a dog. Moving from the arrival pontoon to our spot was a bit of a chaos with the night shift marineros trying to put us first on the hammerhead together with a catamaran on a spot for a 40ft boat, where for obvious reasons we don’t fit. Staying on that spot would mean The Dream would be hanging it’s butt proudly in the access way to the normal spots on that pontoon, blocking the way. After much discussion with the marineros, we ended up being moved to another spot much like a city wall exposed to the public. We would decide on our final spot the following day and move a week later when the winds had settled down.
Our final spot was on the gated pontoons, where the 50fts are kept on one of the side of the pontoon and much smaller boats on the opposite.
The spot we chose turned out to be a winner spot, our starboard neighbour, Phillippe the owner of a 56ft monohull going through an intense refit, would become a great friend within days of his return from his trip home (a month after our arrival) and the neighbours across from us, Gerard and Nadia with their powerboat, these would be the people that would make us feel most welcomed and became true friends.
John and Gerard became big fishing buddies and with Gerard’s kindness we would have fresh fish on the table every week and even Ella would get a share of entire fish meals often.
These three new friends would mark our time in Hammamet, and through them, we would get to know many other new friends that created that warm feeling of being welcomed here.
The resident British arrival committee of Mick and Jo were also an important part of our experience in Tunisia. Their assistance navigating the area around Hammamet on our initial days was immeasurable, they provided us with the English speaking safety net one can miss when staying in a Francophone area for months (especially for John that only speaks English) and helped us find the relevant trades to source out some of the things needed for our projects. Without them, the winter season works would have been much harder to progress.
The first impressions of the Marina were that the staff was quite nice and the marina full of lively tourists, this last bit would die off with the end of their tourism high season.
In this marina we would see throughout the entire winter a strong police presence with regular patrols both on the commercial area but also on the pontoons, the marineros were also within sight throughout the day and night with around 3 staff members always available.
Despite a bit of look of decay and abandonment in the garden areas of the marina, a result of the tourism crisis, the sense of insecurity was never felt, the same can be said of the nearby town Barrak Essahel where we would go provisioning regularly. One can sense and see the poverty but we were never hassled, harassed or felt anything besides maybe some curiosity, even when wearing short shorts and tank tops. In this area they are more than used to western tourists and their excesses on what comes to showing skin, bikinis are seen as much as in any European beach and summer clothing the same. Only when travelling outside of the tourist hub of Tunis, Hammamet and Monastir people will be less used to seeing that kind of clothing but the bus tours that cross the entire country showing the highlights of Tunisia have made Western women wearing short shorts and skirts, tank tops etc and men wearing bathers a normal sighting for the locals. People might stare but probably is more wondering why the heck we are interested in seeing their country than in judgement of what they are seeing. Prudence and respect are obviously recommended but I have not felt any problems wearing tight leggings or short shorts while travelling in Tunisia.
By late September Yasmine Hammamet marina was still pumping with tourists, the temperatures hot and the nights pleasant, by mid-October the first winter neighbours started arriving, we had now moved to our chosen place and met our new not so local friends that would make our time here a nice one.
Until mid-November a few other yachties arrived, everyone cleaned up their boats and prepared to leave back to their home countries for the winter, we could easily count who was staying the entire winter, mostly only the yachties with pets, all French with the exception of our Brazilian friends.
Time was passed engaging in our project list and socialising with our new friends (mostly immigrated French and local Tunisians), works progressed at a slow steady pace mostly due to the Aperitivo ritual from our pontoon at lunchtime that deemed any afternoon works to a lazy pace.
As expected some of the things needed for some of our projects were not available or easy to find but thanks to our planned provisioning on this matter this circumstance didn’t interfere much with our plans and works run smoothly. The trips John and I did back to our home countries to clear the 90-day visa on our passports (for Tunisia) and visit family allowed us to get whatever we found outstanding.
There were nice surprises in terms of the local trades (carpenters & metalworkers) found that allowed us to add a couple of extra jobs/projects that were not on the original list or even complete them with a much better finishing quality than we had planned for. It was the case of the sail repair “loft” that made an absolutely brilliant job with our cockpit cushions (fully custom made to our wishes) and the carpenter guy that supplied us with a beautiful alternative to teakwood, Acaju wood for our exterior jobs and an unknown wood that matched perfectly the grain and colour after stained of our interior joinery. With his assistance and pre-preparation of some pieces as per Johns instructions, John would be able to do some very well integrated details in new shelves that now seem to have always been part of the boat.
The one thing we didn’t find was a stainless steel trader to do some rails and reinforcement of the Bimini, but we did find they could do an unexpected repair of our Volvo exhaust Waterlock unit.
In between works we got the opportunity to do some site seeing, three road trips across the country that allowed us to get a good feel of how Tunisia really is past the big hubs of Tunis, Hammamet and Monastir (the three hubs where European tourists seem to congregate).
The feeling these trips left us with was that Tunisia is still very much an untouched country despite the hoards of tourists that once fuelled the country’s economy before the crisis brought by the terrorist attacks of 2015.
Each one of our trips was a gem revealed to our eyes and reassurance that if we return there will still be much for us to see and explore.
The details of our exploration of this beautiful country will be linked here soon, there was so much to see that congregate all in here was just too much.
For now you can appreciate the albums from those trips on our facebook page!
By January and February the trips to the Hammam with Nadia and some of our lady neighbours began, the weather was cold by then and these visits warmed the body and exercised our giggling muscles with the reactions of the locals when seeing me, the one from the group that is clearly not from around here, not even a French immigrant.
The trips to the Hammam are an experience not to be missed, but I’m talking about the real local Hammam not the touristy one at the hotels.
You should read A trip to a local Hammam “a girls afternoon outing”, for a better idea of what the experience involves.
Another thing not to be missed is the local food, but for that, one needs to make friends with the locals because very limited options can be found and tasted at restaurants, cafes and street vendors.
Apart from the Tunisian Couscous, the Brik (a deep fried savoury pastry), the Makloub and Lebanese (similar to what we call Wraps but with pizza bread or flatbread) that can be tasted easily at any restaurant, we got to try a traditional dessert prepared for the commemoration of the prophet birthday, and other fine delicacies that require days of work cooking. A very pleasant surprise to our taste buds!
Otherwise, the menus seem to be very Westernised and with great influence from the French protectorate times.
(pizzas, omelettes, crepes, burgers, pasta, grilled fish, fine pastry)
We got to try the northern recipes and got also a little taste of the southern cuisine during our road trips, a few things will stay in our memories for long and we will try and replicate these memories in our galley.
But be aware of the ketchup look alike paste served often on the side of the plate, if you’re not into spicy food coming in contact with Harissa might bring into tears and when going local you can expect to have it always present.
Apart from the road trips, the culinary experiences and social moments with our local friend's life went by very normally, provisioning was an easy routine although with a certain lack of variety on the veggies and fruit department, all very seasonal and from traditional agriculture I guess. It was quite interesting going to town and see the trucks pull up on the roadside full like you don’t see in Europe of whatever veggie or fruit is in the perfect season that week!
The prices compared to Europe make you fill the pantry like never before.
Meat can be found easily both poultry and red meats but you can see that it’s a bit expensive for the local pocket to get red meat. Poultry and red meat are sold at separate shops and we became good cherished clients of the red meat butcher that between gestures would agree with us to have certain items for us the following days. John would make many oxtail curries, one of his favourite dishes I think.
Milk was good and cheap, cheese not so much, yoghurt too commercial to our taste. Crisps were a huge disappointment and we love our crisps, in here all crisps seem to be a puffy thing very much of the family of Cheetos but flavourless.
One thing we would get used to was to go stock up on beer and wine on Thursdays because alcohol is not sold on Fridays!
Local beer and wine were a pleasant surprise considering we were in a Muslim country where drinking is frowned upon, and restaurants and cafes that sell alcohol are hard to find. The number of people found on Thursdays at the liquor shop didn’t seem to tell this story.
The weather was according to our neighbours and friends very unusual for Tunisia, many dessert storms hit us bringing lots of dust from the Sahara, epic rain downpours almost every other week with the periods in between being quite cold.
Our friends told us that winters are usually mild, sunny and dry but the 2018/19 winter, very much like the summer, was telling us something very different.
Despite the violent storms felt in the region, with 50-knot winds being felt in the marina often, we felt very protected from the swell even when the winds blew from south directly at the marina entrance.
March finally came and we were more than itchy to leave, we had been way too long tied to the dock. Preparations started for departure but soon we would identify a broken piece of equipment that would delay our plans a few more weeks. With the French electric engineer, Gilles, help we would be able to source out a new one from France but we would have to wait for him to go to France and return with it because importing items into Tunisia can be a bit of a hassle and he already had a big list of parts for other boats so this way our part could benefit of the efforts he was already going to have.
With the plans of departure delayed another matter came to our attention, my passport was coming to the end of the second 90 days visa given automatically on arrival.
We both had our passports visas cleared by travelling back to our home countries for a few days previously, in Tunisia the 90 days visa received on arrival can easily be renewed with a simple flight to Europe for example but at that moment we were not interested in flying me somewhere and spend money on hotels, taxis etc just to get a new stamp. Requesting an extension according to our local friends was going to be hard work, much easier would be to take The Dream out and sail to a nearby Italian island and return the following day.
The idea was a good one, we could do a pre-season “sea trial”, shake off the land laziness and even enjoy a few hours sail with some of our marina friends on board!
So, we invited some friends, waited for the smoothest forecast, after all, we were missing a piece of navigational equipment and prepared to check out. With all our friend's experiences arriving with backshish demands, we considered that this time maybe we wouldn’t be so lucky as on our arrival. We were right we had to “pay” our dues before leaving the police dock but you can read in further detail here, Checking out of Hammamet
The plan was simple, we would sail to the island of Pantelleria, anchor for an hour or two without checking into Italy and return to Tunisia. In a bit more than 24h after departure, we were back on our berth in Hammamet and all of us with an additional 90 days available to use.
We could have also simply paid the fine for overstaying in the country, the cost doesn’t seem outrageous for a couple of days (20TND or 6€ per person per day) but we preferred not to go down that route not knowing exactly how long we needed to wait for the new part.
Once the new part arrived we set ourselves to depart on the next weather window.
The only question was if we should try and decant some fuel from the tanks into jerrycans and then finish topping up the fuel tanks or not get any more fuel. Normally we would just top up the fuel tanks and fill any jerrycans that had already been used but in our memory was still all the trouble a yacht that had arrived our pontoon gone through because of their jerrycans. For sure we didn’t want to go through the same experience so after some pondering and given the very tight weather window to leave we decided to not fuel up at all and just leave, after all, our tanks were almost full and we only had one half empty jerrycans at best we could get 50 more litres. Happy that we had topped up shortly after our arrival we let the subject go.
PS - After a few questions we've updated the post to include the berth fees for Yasmine Hammamet Marina for 2019 (in Euros)
***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.