Hammamet-Tunisia's Best Known Resort
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Hammamet, only 60 km (37mi) from Tunis, the country’s capital, is Tunisia’s best known holiday spot and one of the most popular retreats in the whole of North Africa. An attractive resort, it is set in a dense envelope of greenery on the southeast coast of the Cap Bon Peninsula.
Some say Hammamet derives its name from the Arabic hamam, which can mean either bathhouse or doves, depending on how the consonant is stressed. Others contend that it comes from the name, Al-Sayyid Hayam – the man who established the town. He was so beloved by the village people that when he died (mat in Arabic) they named it after the mourning cries of the women, Al-Sayyid Hayam mat.
Since Roman times, when aristocrats came to enjoy its delights, the procession of visitors has never stopped. Yet, it remained for centuries a walled village, flanked on one side by two vast beaches of fine sands and, on the other, luxuriant gardens. Here, through the years, a few of the upper and middle classes came to play.
All this changed in the 1920s when George Sébastian, a Romanian millionaire, impressed with the green countryside and fine beaches, built a stunning large home near the sea. Others of the affluent classes followed and Hammamet soon became a resort epitomizing refinement and pleasure, drawing famous visitors like Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, André Gide, Sophia Loren, and many others. Today, it is a breathtaking holiday destination with some 140 hotels – many very luxurious tourist abodes.
Kept less than a few stories high, these tourist dwellings are strung for miles along the beach – a long stretch of white sand, edged by a clear blue sea and a partially palm-lined shore. They generally cater to tour groups and are relatively inexpensive, especially during the winter months.
The town’s population of some 35,000 more than doubles in summer when the beaches are packed with masses of vacationers. However, Hammamet has a year-round excellent climate – mild in winter and not excessively hot in summer, enhancing the other tourist attributes of the resort.
Besides the large hotels lining the beaches, there are a series of budget lodgings in town. The architecture of the tourist dwellings and the resort’s endless villas, with their gardens and orchards, are a well-balanced blend of the ancient and futuristic type of construction. They offer a scene more attractive than the photos on tourist brochures.
The heart of old Hammamet, located on a cape jutting out into the sea, is a 15th-century fort, the town’s most important historic landmark. Maintained in excellent condition, this medieval fortress is a marvel of architectural rhetoric. From its square towers, one can gaze over the fairytale-like structures of the city stretching to the horizon and at the Medina below.
The Medina, with its homes sparkling white with blue and purple trims and its clean narrow streets, maintains the aura of the past ages. Towering above these white gems, like a guardian angel, stands the restored 15th-century minaret of the Great Mosque. Even though tourists are everywhere, the daily life of the Medina remains hidden behind the endless studded doors. Apparently, the never-ending package tours have not affected the daily life of the inhabitants.
Seemingly spilling from the Medina is the edging Andalusian-style Commercial Centre – an exquisite plaza with antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants, catering to foreign visitors. Here, one can enjoy an excellent Tunisian meal or sit in a coffee house and puff on a rented narghile (water pipe) while
watching tourists window-shopping, who themselves are usually surveying the coffee house patrons. The exotic scene is complemented by the haunting oriental music permeating the atmosphere.
When travelers tire of tourist shops and eating places, they can stroll from hotel to hotel along the beaches, asking directions from the locals. It’s an enjoyable way to meet people. Like most Tunisians, the inhabitants of Hammamet are pleasant and friendly to strangers.
If one has time, the International Cultural Centre, housed in Sébastian’s sumptuous villa, is the place to visit, especially during July and August when it hosts the `International Festival of the Arts’. However, even if it is not festival time, the Centre’s gardens and the home itself, built in traditional Tunisian style, are worth exploring. On the other hand, if a visitor is a golfer, 10 km (6 MI) outside of Hammamet is a fine 18-hole golf course.
For evening entertainment, almost every hotel has bars, discotheques, and cabarets which offer a gala folkloric evening once a week. Outside of town, there are a number of restaurants where dinner is combined with belly-dancing and other exciting displays of bodily agility.
For those interested in history or exploring the countryside, there are very reasonably priced excursions from the hotels. Always offered are one day tours to Tunisia’s Islamic capital of Kairouan and the seacoast cities of Sousse and Monastir; a journey around Cap Bon Peninsula; Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, Carthage and the charming town of Sidi Bou Said; the Roman ruins of Dougga; and the preserved Roman amphitheater of El Jem.
Topping all these excursions is a day spent roaming through Hammamet’s countryside with its endless orchards and vineyards, edged by towering cypresses. Here, especially in spring, one can glory in the scent of their blossoms mingled with the aroma of jasmine and sweetbrier, filling the land with an air of perfume and sweetness.
The Andalusian Muslims, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, were responsible for establishing these lush-green gardens in this part of Tunisia. Yearning for their luxuriant fields in Andalusia, they re-created around Hammamet the orchards and gardens of their lost lands.
The many excursions and trips to the countryside offered visitors to enhance their stay in what Tunisians love to call their `Riviera’. They add to one’s romping in the resort’s clear-blue waters, sunbathing on its soft-white sands, relaxing in its serene atmosphere and dining in its fine restaurants. There are very few tourist stamping grounds in the world where travelers can enjoy, at reasonable prices, a more pleasant sea coast holiday.