It was the strawberries that did it. Our jovial driver Mokaddem pulled up by the roadside on the way back to Tunis, and returned to his taxi clutching a bulging carrier bag. With a smile he showed us his swag, enough strawberries to feed the Centre Court crowd at Wimbledon for a fortnight. He handed us some and, with typical courtesy, also passed us some tissues to mop up the juice.
We were on the Cap Bon peninsula, just south of Tunis, and a landscape like a mix of the vineyards of Italy and the olive groves of Greece. The occasional red-roofed and dazzling white farmhouses are a reminder too of its Andalucian connections, with settlers from Spain having joined earlier groups like the Romans and Carthaginians. Cap Bon paints the Mediterranean picture of Tunisia, which many people associate only with beaches and desert, as the film set for movies like The English Patient.
We had wanted to see Cap Bon while we were in Tunis, but one look at Tunisian driving, and a second look at car hire rates, made us reluctant to do it ourselves. We were north of Tunis in the beach resort of Gammarth, and Cap Bon was south. Between us lay the city, which has many attractions but the traffic isn’t one of them. A typical street is the 4-wheel equivalent of shoppers storming Harrods on the first day of the sales.
Enter at 9am our knight in shining armour, Mokkadem, recommended by one of the hotel staff and who would put himself and his Mercedes at our disposal for £70 a day. We’d been assured he spoke English, though ‘no problem’ was the main phrase he used. Fiftyish and obviously no fan of the Hip and Thigh Diet, he steered us south. His glove compartment had no door on it, and was stuffed with tapes. Stacked neatly in piles, they filled every available inch, and we were soon relaxing to the gentle strains of Arabic music.
At Soliman he stopped to refill his coffee cup, and bought us a bottle of cold water, welcome in the 80-plus heat. He waved away my offer to pay. A few miles later we were in Korbous, a spa town since Roman towns where, on the edge of town at the enticingly-named Goat Spring, water gushes from the mountainside and pours over rocks into the sea. In the turquoise waters, a group of boys were splashing and laughing, waving at our cameras.
‘Come, touch the water,’ said Mokkadem, leading us to the spring itself. We put our fingers in the flow and jumped back, the water scalding hot as it pumped from the earth. We head back for the car, our driver temporarily diverted by a stall selling cassettes. He can’t resist the temptation to buy one, and puts it with glee in his tape player.
On to El Haouaria, next town down the coast, where a network of 100 caves were first quarried for their sandstone almost 3,000 years ago. Inside the entrance we’re greeted by an enthusiastic young guide. Tunisia is full of these, some official and some unofficial, some good, some atrocious. I remember visiting Tunis’s Bardo Museum on a previous occasion and politely turning away a guide by the entrance. He was affronted that I should not want his services. ‘I am qualified guide,’ he told me, brandishing a permit, ‘I am not some rubbish from the street!’ Impressed by his English, I hired him, and didn’t regret it.
We hired this young guy too, who led us through the caves with a torrent of enthusiastic information. ‘These caves quarried by 30,000 black slaves from south of Africa, black, black, and tied together, 30,000, look, see…’ He crosses his hands to indicate manacles, shows us niches in the walls where they were imprisoned, the holes in the rooves where the huge slabs of rock were winched out and taken by boat to Carthage, the cave where the dead slaves were buried. The whole story comes alive as he relates with enthusiasm a tale he must have told a thousand times before.
We return to Mokaddem’s Mercedes exhilarated but exhausted. Again we hit the road, to spend an hour at Kerkouane, Tunisia’s most impressive Punic ruins, and on to Kelibia, where a massive 6th-century Byzantine fortress guards the harbour. We’re rather disconcerted to find a cow inside, and several chickens, but then discover that the caretaker lives on the premises, so that’s all right.
Mokkadem has gone into town to eat a late lunch, and is waiting for us by the gate as promised an hour later. As we flop onto the back seat, wilting in the heat, we’re grateful that we now don’t have to spend the next two hours driving ourselves back to Tunis. When we eventually approach it close to 7pm, Mokkadem explains it’s the rush hour, so he skirts round the centre, takes us on a ferry, and delivers us back to our hotel safe and sound. We’ve already booked him for the next day too, having decided that touring Tunisia by Mokkadem is definitely better than DIY or organised coaches. And you get free strawberries too.