Monastir and Kanes

Monastir, Tunisia
Monastir, Tunisia

Monastir was once a small fishing village but has developed with tourism to become one of the most attractive fishing ports in the region. It has a lovely promenade, or Corniche, which runs alongside the beach and blue waters of the Mediterranean, and for part of the way past the high stone walls of the ribat, the town’s old fortress.

Monastir was also the birthplace of modern Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourgiba, a national hero whose mausoleum in the town also bears testimony to his importance. He was born in a house on Place 3 August, along the Corniche, and the fact that this was his home town is one reason for its development as a tourist resort and the fact that it’s a bustling town with a modern feel to it.

Skanes, just along the coast near the airport, is quieter at the moment but also growing as its hotels attract more visitors. It has a great beach, and good links with both Monastir and nearby Sousse thanks to the Metro service between them.

You have to try the Medina first, of course, as there are plenty of souvenir shops in among the ones you might not need, like carpenters and cobblers. It’s also the place for banks and the supermarket.

The local markets are opposite the Medina off the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and while you might not want to buy anything it’s fun to see the meat, fresh fish, the fruit and vegetables on display.

Habib Bourgiba Mausoleum
Impressive huge building at northern end of cemetery, beautifully decorated in gold and jade, with two twin minarets. This houses the tombs of the family of modern Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourgiba, but is not open to the public. Well worth seeing, though.

This was first built in the 8th century as part of the coastal defences, and was added to and a further defensive wall built in the 9th and 11th centuries. You can see the look-out towers, courtyard, dormitories, a museum and other features. It has been seen in films as varied as Zeffirelli’s Life of Christ and Monty Python’s Life of Brian!

Rather different from medinas in other towns, the one in Monastir was partly demolished and modernised. But the people remain, and their stalls and haggling techniques are as fierce and as much fun here as anywhere else. Monastir’s big market day is Saturday.

Grand Mosque
A simple but still impressive example of Islamic architecture, this was built mainly in the 9th and 11th centuries. Dress respectfully if you want to go in and see the courtyard, which is the only part open to the general public.

Costume Museum
Next to the tourist office in the Medina, this is only small but worth looking into if you’re at all interested in the traditional costumes and embroidery of the region.

It’s worth taking a walk out to the new marina, to dawdle over a coffee in one of the many cafés here (lots of eating places too) while gazing at the luxury yachts and the people who own them.

Monastir and Skanes are ideally placed for exploring the south, including the Roman amphitheatre at El Djem and the cave dwellings at Matmata. It’s also only about three hours to Tunis, Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.

The town beach, across from the ribat and the Great Mosque, is excellent if you fancy a change from the hotel swimming pools and beaches, or want to combine swimming with your sightseeing. It’s in a sheltered bay thanks to the Marina at one end and the causeway across to El-Kebira island at the other, and has the impressive ribat behind. Quite a setting. The long and sandy beach at Skanes is also good, and ideal for families with young children.

It’s worth paying the small extra fee for permission to take photos in the Ribat, as there are good views of the town and marina from here.