In the words of Sophia Loren:
Sex appeal is
fifty percent what you've got
and fifty percent
what people think you've got.
Hammamet once had it, but it is now a construct of tourism brochures extolling its past, when in that past it was a place of simplicity and beauty – a place that inspired artists of every sort.
It was Hammamet that inspired Paul Klee in 1914 to say:
Colour and I are both one:
I am a painter!
Now cheap flights and package hotels obscure much of what inspired the location as a tourism mecca – but Hammamet still has its beauty.
We arrived late at night by sea to the Yasmine Marina, and the morning gave a favourable first view.
It is difficult to not have a good first view when one has been rocked to sleep on a gentle harbour swell and awakes to the comforting kling and klang of the rigging and the seagulls call.
The original settlement of what is now Hammamet was called Pupput in the 1st century, coming under Roman domination in the 2nd century, and later under Spanish and Turkish rule.
The Spanish called Hammamet 'La Mahometa' and in 1605 a mysterious call to retreat in the midst of what was until then a successful attack on the city saw a disorderly retreat. Over 1200 men were stranded on the beaches and unable to get back to their galleons and were summarily slaughtered en masse by a much smaller contingent of Moors.
It was therefore with some wonder that I saw a Spanish galleon sail past in the marina.
I was not hallucinating. It was not one of the lost fleet, but instead a regular tourism voyage.
The Yasmine Marina has low fees that attract many 'yachties' to winter their yachts here, and it is worth just walking around and savouring the quality of the vessels in dock.
The variety of yachts ranges from ocean-going catamarans through to beautiful classic wooden schooners.
This one was exceptional.
The Yasmine Marina is a luxury development where you can moor your boat close to your condominium...
…and close by within the park which flanks the harbour.
There are plenty of excellent restaurants.
One is a floating restaurant right on the marina.
On land we were shown all the tempting, fresh seafood…
…and good wine, although in Ramadan it is wise to check before heading out, as not all places will serve alcohol until the end of Ramadan.
The fish looked a little more substantial than our catch while sailing towards Hamammet.
Nearby, the Kathargo hotel has been designed to replicate a great ocean-going liner, with rounded balconies….
… huge foyer windows...
…and all the fittings in keeping with the theme.
The medina in Hammamet is the only medina of those I have visited where, when separated from my friends, I actually felt quite anxious.
The shop-sellers are really forceful. When I was alone I felt more vulnerable than I had ever done in other medinas or souks. Salesmen grabbed my arm, insisting that I come and see their wares - something I politely resisted, trying to appear calm and unruffled.
On my return, I read that this is a sentiment shared by other travellers – so a word of warning to be equally definite about your route.
But there are many interesting things to find within the shops.
The narrow routes through the old town are more authentic than the tourist hotels and their enclosed grounds.
Walking through them…
…we came across the Clothing Museum, which is just a modified house with various displays of traditional costumes.
On the roof was the opportunity to gain a good insight into the rooftop balcony life of the houses of the old town.
If, like me, you are less than charmed by all the tourist 'attractions' that are the antithesis of the real place, then step onto Hammamet’s Avenue de la République and just stroll around.
Here, are charming villas resting in the sun…
…a beautifully laid out Post Office…
…traditional mosaic and carved entrances, their doors with patterns in black studs…
…and more humble entrances with wooden carved doors.
There are traditional, non-tourist cafés …
These shops are for locals, selling an array of day-to-day goods, like spices…
..nuts and lentils…
…pickles of all colours and varieties…
..or dried flowers - the whole shop a mixture of fragrance and colour.
Further along, you could choose from an array of fresh vegetables, or fruits - all beautifully displayed.
The non-tourist cuisine can be savoured in the locals cafes along the beach.
Here, sitting at colourful tiled tables, it is easy to still see some of the simplicity and beauty that in the early 1900s attracted the rich and famous from all over the world to have summer villas here.
For me, Hammamet is a metaphor for how we come somewhere to enjoy a special beauty – and through over-developing the place into a tourist mecca, destroy what we came to enjoy.
But there is still a lot of charm and loveliness to be enjoyed in Hammamet for, as the famous Persian poet Moslih Eddin Saadi, or Saadi as he is usually known, said:
A traveller without observation
is a bird without wings
Behind every door there is a story - and a curious traveller seeks them out, the better to know the place.