Tunisia – January 9-24 2016
1. Tunisia is safe and inexpensive with lots to see: Roman ruins, beaches, an active sidewalk life. However the economy is poor and the people are unhappy with the present government and want change. Things started to unravel with the revolution and got much worse after each terrorist attack in 2015. I was here in the non-tourism season (and saw NO other tourists), but it is poor year around.
Accommodation. Stay at Auberge de Medina (Auberge de Jeunesse) in Tunis. It is cheap, atmospheric and in the Medina, a vibrant part of Tunis.
2. Transportation. Bus. For bus schedules go to www.sntri.com.tn;. Buses have fixed time tables and tend to travel very early in the morning or in the evening. Seating is more comfortable than louages. Trains. For train schedules, use www.sncft.com.tn (only the french part has information). Louages. But most of the time, transportation around Tunisia is by louage, or shared taxis. As cheap as buses, this mini-van network goes everywhere and timing is not important. They leave when they are full (usually 7-8 passengers), and the wait is rarely long, usually just long enough to stretch your legs and grab something to eat. Unlike in Central Asia, where as many as 10 shared cars all going to the same destination compete with each other for passengers, here they take turns and only fill one vehicle at once. The louage stations are usually near the bus stations and serve as hubs to collect passengers efficiently. The ones in big places like Sfax and Sousse have hundreds of vehicles waiting.
3. Algerian Visa. Even though Tunisia shares a land border, it is not possible to get an Algerian visa in Tunis if you are not a Tunisian citizen. So get that visa somewhere else (Dubai if there?).
It’s but a slim wedge of North Africa’s vast expanse, but Tunisia has enough history, cultural diversity and extremes of landscape to fill a country many times its size. With a sand-fringed, jasmine-scented coast, it’s a destination usually equated with Mediterranean sun holidays. But get beyond the beaches and you’ll find stunning Roman sites, forested hinterland, Saharan dunes and mountain oases, all of which can be experienced in a few days.
The country’s tourist sector has struggled mightily since the historic Jasmine Revolution of 2011. Isolated incidents of instability grab international headlines, but it’s essentially business as usual. Tunis, the capital, continues to offer an enthralling mix of tradition and modernity, Islamic serenity and seaside hedonism. Now, more than ever, Tunisians will welcome you with open arms.
Population. 10.67 million
Money. The unit of currency is the Tunisian dinar (TD), which is divided into 1000 millimes (mills). Exchange Rate: Jan 2016 – 2TD to the US$. It’s illegal to import or export dinars and they are not accepted in the duty-free shops at Tunis Airport.
You can re-exchange up to 30% of the amount you changed into dinar, up to a certain limit. You need bank receipts to prove you changed the money in the first place.
Major credit cards, such as Visa, American Express and MasterCard, are widely accepted at big shops, tourist hotels, car-rental agencies and banks. ATMs are common in major towns and resort areas.
Visa. Nationals of most Western European countries and Canada can stay up to three months without a visa – just collect a stamp in your passport at the point of entry. Those from the US can stay for up to four months. Australians and South Africans can get a visa at the airport; seven days costs TD10, a month TD35. Other nationalities, including Israelis, must apply before they arrive. It should take 14 to 21 days in person or via post, and the length of stay is up to the embassy.
Visa Extensions. Applications can be made at the Interior Ministry (Ave Habib Bourguiba) in Tunis and regional offices in Houmt Souq. They cost around TD10 per week (payable only in timbres fiscales – revenue stamps available from post offices) and take up to 10 days to issue. You’ll need two photos, and may need bank receipts and a facture (receipt) from your hotel. It’s a process to be avoided – far easier to leave the country and return instead.
Visas for Onward Travel. The Algerian and Libyan embassies in Tunis do not issue visas. If you want to visit either country from Tunisia, you should apply to the Algerian or Libyan representatives in your home country. Australians and New Zealanders can apply in London. It can be a lengthy process and you usually need an invitation, obtained from a citizen or through a travel agency.
When to Go. Mar–May Explore Roman ruins and hike. Wildflowers. Jun–Sep Balmy beach time and music festivals. Nov–Jan The Saharan south’s high season.
Terrorist Attacks in Tunisia
1. Ghriba synagogue bombing. On April 11, 2002, a natural gas truck fitted with explosives drove past security barriers at the ancient El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Jerba. The truck detonated at the front of the synagogue, killing 14 German tourists, three Tunisians, and two French nationals. More than 30 others were wounded.
2. Sousse Beach. On October 30, 2013, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the beach at Sousse after attempting to enter the Riadh Palms Hotel with a suitcase. No one else was hurt.
3. Bardo National Museum attack. On March 13 2015, three jihadists attacked the Bardo National Museum in the Tunisian capital city of Tunis. Twenty-one people, mostly European tourists, were killed at the scene, while an additional victim died ten days later. Around fifty others were injured. Two of the gunmen, Tunisian citizens Yassine Labidi and Saber Khachnaoui, were killed by police, while the third attacker is currently at large. Police treated the event as a terrorist attack.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attack, and threatened to commit further attacks. However, the Tunisian government blamed a local splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, called the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, for the attack. A police raid killed nine members on 28 March.
4. Sousse attacks. On 26 June 2015 the Spanish-owned five-star Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel at Port El Kantaoui, ten kilometres north of Sousse, Tunisia, was hosting 565 guests mainly from Western Europe, 77% of its capacity. At around noon, Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi, disguised as a tourist, socialized with others, and then took out a Kalashnikov assault rifle concealed in a beach umbrella and fired at the tourists on the beach. He entered the hotel, shooting at people he came across. He was killed by security forces during an exchange of fire.
Thirty-eight people were killed, thirty of whom were British. Among the fatalities was Denis Thwaites, a former professional footballer for Birmingham City, and his wife, Elaine. Thirty-nine others were wounded.
The killer, Seifiddine Rezgui Yacoubi was a 23-year-old electrical engineering student at University of Kairouan from Gaafour, in northwest Tunisia. He did not have the typical traits of an Islamic extremist: he had a girlfriend, drank alcohol and was a local break-dancing star. He was also believed to be high on cocaine during his rampage. He is believed to have been radicalized over such issues as the Libyan Civil War and Western inaction against the savagery of the Assad government during the Syrian Civil War.
Hotels were targeted in attacks to undermine tourism and because they were considered “brothels” by ISIS. Both tourism and the related industries accounted for up to 14.9% of the Tunisian economy in 2014.
On 8 July, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office changed the advised status of Tunisia to “Advise against all but essential travel”, resulting from 9 July in the planned return home of the estimated 3,000 British nationals in Tunisia at that time. ABTA and travel organizations First Choice, TUI and Thomson have stated that they plan to send no further British tourists to Tunisia until post 31 October 2015.
Four other Islamist attacks took place on the same day in France, Kuwait, Syria and Somalia. The attacks followed an audio message released three days earlier by ISIL senior leader Abu Mohammad al-Adnani encouraging militants everywhere to attack during the month of Ramadan. No definitive link between the attacks has yet been established. One attack, at a French factory, resulted in the beheading of one person; another bombing at a Shia mosque in Kuwait City killed at least 27; and the other attack on an African Union base in Somalia undertaken by Al-Shabaab, killed at least 70. Another attack on the day took place in Hasakeh in Syria. A suicide bomber blew himself up and killed 20 people.
5. 2015 Tunis Bombing. On suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying members of the Tunisian presidential guard, killing 12, on a principal road in Tunis. ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack.
It was a long several days of travel from Yeuqing to Tunis: 4 hour train to Shanghai, a cancelled flight and an extra day spent in Shanghai, fly to Urumqi, Dubai, Cairo and finally Tunis – almost exactly 72 hours.
I continue to travel with a damaged passport (it accidentally got wet on Dec 4 and my passport picture is blurred) and Tunisia was the 16th immigration gone through with no problems. So much for the fear mongering from the Canadian Consulate in Dubai who said that my only recourse for further travel was a replacement (20 working days).
TUNIS (pop 1.29 MILLION)
Tunis is a good introduction to the wildly divergent culture of modern Tunisia. The medina’s tangle of souqs, squares, mosques and shuttered town houses is surrounded by the straight, colonial lines of the Ville Nouvelle. ‘French’ Tunis centres on Ave Habib Bourguiba, a wide, tree-lined street made famous by the scenes of Jasmine Revolution protest; its crowds are now again made up of shoppers and cafe-goers.
Apart from the medina, Tunis’ main attractions are outside the city proper; they include the wonderful Bardo Museum. For beach outings, interesting shops and night-time fun, join the young and well-to-do in the gorgeous northern suburbs.
I always look for the public bus at airports going into town rather than taking expensive and boring taxis. The one in Tunis cost 50 ¢ and was old and rattletrap.
Tunis was so unlike anywhere I had been for so long, it came as a pleasant and welcome surprise. As we walked from the bus station to the medina, I couldn’t believe the flood of people on the streets, the wide sidewalks full of tables full of people sipping their espressos, the carless boulevard on the way. Maybe it is like this everyday, but this was a Saturday, so who knows.
Then we entered the medina, the old section of town full of an endless variety of shops selling everything. The “street”, Rue de la Kasbah, we walked to get to the hostel was barely a meter wide. Merchandise encroached on the walking space – and the huge numbers of locals shopping and walking made a maze of humanity to move around. I’d been to crowded souks throughout the Gulf States and markets in Hongqiao that were full of people, but not this many people. This was much more atmospheric. And we were the only foreigners – January is not the tourist season here. Everyone we asked for directions was more than friendly and helpful.
Despite what seemed like a maze of tiny lanes, a sense of never being able to find anything here and a nagging fear of taking a wrong turn and getting hopelessly lost, the way was clear. Find Al Kasbah Street, then Al Slah restaurant and look for the promised signs for Aubergue el Medina. All miraculously materialized and we turned down the shopless lane to arrive.
In an old palace, this place had a ton of atmosphere. Small couches lined walls tiled with bright Middle eastern motifs, a courtyard under a large dome and the very welcoming old guy at the front desk. I had come with a Xavier, 41-year-old Spanish guy I met at the bus stop. On a one-day business trip from Shanghai where he has lived for 6 years, he had reservations at a much more expensive hotel and tagged along to see where I was staying. The old guy showed me the dorm room for 15 dinar (US$7.50) and then offered a single room for the same price as it wasn’t busy. My single room has a 25 foot ceiling, tiled walls and is very cute. Wifi was a dollar for the entire stay, and breakfast was included! Oh to be in the third world. Xavier returned as he had cancelled his 37€ per night room to stay in the hostel.
Tunis Medina. This sprawling maze of ancient streets and alleyways is a national treasure. It’s home to numerous cave-like souqs selling everything from shoes to sheesha (hookah) pipes, as well as lavishly tiled cafes, back streets full of artisans at work, and residential areas punctuated by grand, brightly painted doorways. Historic palaces, mosques and medersas (Quranic schools) are scattered throughout. An atmospheric time to explore is early morning, when all is serene apart from the cafes and fragrant breakfast stalls. The main drag at any other time can be unbearably hot, crowded and noisy, but the crush soon dissipates a few streets either side.
We walked many streets of the Medina getting hopelessly turned around in the maze of lanes and shops. Everything looks the same. Street food is endless with a good lunch available for 50¢.
We joined up for dinner with a young French guy here studying Arabic. The transition in the medina from afternoon to 7pm was surreal. All the shops were closed and the cobbled lane was actually 3-meters wide. And there wasn’t another soul about. The hostel guy had warned us that it wasn’t a safe place for a foreigner to walk at night. Out of the Medina, most sidewalk cafes were closed with the tables and chairs stacked under awnings. But we found a hole-in-the-wall and had sandwiches loaded with meat on a baguette and greasy French fries.
We had passed a bar – a big room with 35 tiny round tables covered in green beer bottles all occupied. After eating, we returned to have a few beer. The guy next to us gave us nuts to munch, another offered his help if we had any problems. This is certainly a different culture from the socially reserved Chinese one I had just left.
The next day (Sunday Jan. 10), Xavier and I took the train to Carthage.
Carthage. This Punic and Roman site lies northeast of the city and is easily reached by the suburban train from Tunis Marine TGM station. Get off at Carthage Hannibal station and wander up to the top of Byrsa Hill for a fine view across the site. You’ll have to use a bit of historical sixth sense, as the ruins are scant and scattered over a wide area amongst houses, but they include impressive Roman baths, houses, cisterns, basilicas and streets. The Carthage Museum has monumental statuary, mosaics and extraordinary everyday stuff, including razors and kohl pots. The Byrsa Quarter, an excavated quarter of the Punic city, once home to 400,000 people and surrounded by 13m-high walls, is also in the grounds of the museum.
Zaytouna Mosque (Grande Mosquée).At the medina’s heart lies this beautiful mosque, its forest of columns scrounged from Roman Carthage. Non-Muslims can only enter the courtyard, but it’s still deeply impressive.
Xavier left to fly back to Shanghai and I returned to the Medina. A man started to walk with me offering all sorts of tourist advice. We ended up at a carpet shop and took the stairs up to the roof for panoramic views of the Medina. Then came the sales pitch as the carpets, bed covers and sequined pillow cases appeared. I said I would not buy anything and we promptly left. Then we went to a perfume shop where I was virtually forced to buy some natural oil (a small vial for $15 eventually reduced to $10). I was made to feel that I had cheated the “tour guide” when I didn’t buy something I had no interest in. I eventually escaped. I guess the best recourse when people act friendly (as there is inevitably a sales pitch for a shop coming) is to be politely refuse any “too friendly” advice at the very beginning.
Bardo Museum. The country’s top museum has a magnificent, must-see collection that provides a vibrant vision of ancient North African life. The original, glorious Husseinite palace now connects with a contemporary addition, doubling exhibition space. Highlights are a huge stash of incredibly well-preserved Roman mosaics, rare Phoenician artifacts and early Islamic ceramics. The Bardo is 4km northwest of the city centre on Metro line 4.
One afternoon, I visited the Bardo, the national museum. I took the “metro”, actually a trolley system of above-ground trams with six lines. I think I was the only one who had bought a ticket, there was no one to collect them and the trolleys were packed in the middle of the day. During the rush hours, with the commute to and from work, the tram *cannot* be used, because it is physically *impossible* to board. The tram is full; absolutely packed. You will either have to walk or take a taxi, or wait for the rush hours to pass. Taxis can often be impossible to flag down, too, since they’re all full. You only know which station you’re at by using GPS and a phone map (or simply ask someone) – none of the stations are named or marked and there were no announcements.
The Bardo is in the old kings palace with a new addition. It has the most amazing collection of mosaics, hundreds on every wall, some huge and from all over Tunisia. It is a maze of rooms with no clear order of visiting just like the Louvre or Hermitage. Some of the old rooms were spectacular with Italian ceilings and spectacular incised plaster, but there wasn’t a word mentioned about the architecture, except which king (Bey) built it. Ancient Carthage with its Phoenician roots, Greek and Roman influences were all represented.
I walked the 5kms back through a lot of depressed areas, but didn’t get lost.
January 14 was the anniversary of Tunisia’s “revolution”. They have now had 5 years of democracy, but don’t seem too thrilled about it all, despite being the only success story of the Arab Spring. The festivities were on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main thoroughfare downtown. It is a wonderful boulevard: 15m wide sidewalks covered with outside tables and chairs, 3 lanes of road on each side and a 20m walkway in between. There was a massive police presence: swat teams, balaclava faced motorcycle cops, and many standing around with their AK47s. All the police vehicles have their windows and lights clad in black metal mesh.
There was a big crowd mainly congregated around two bandstands with entertainment. The national anthem, songs praising the Prophet Mohammed and Tunisia, speeches extolling the need for economic progress and women’s rights, and then a pop music band. It was not so interesting as I understood little but still worthwhile to see.
I stood beside two women in hijab both who spoke good English and told me what was going on. They are all unhappy with the present government as they are not better off. The economy, like the rest of the world and especially those dependent on oil, has not done well and they expect the government to fix it all, despite there being little industry or entrepreneurial spirit and thus few well-paying jobs. They complained of inequality. One of the women thought the answer was an Islamic government as Islam is a democratic religion that espouses equality. I could not convince her that it was important to have a secular government where religion and the state are separate. She destroyed her argument when she said the Shiite Muslims weren’t Muslim – so much for equality and tolerance. Even though Tunisia is supposedly 98% Sunni Muslim, one fellow in the hostel said that 50% of Tunisians were atheist.
Small groups were surrounding soap box orators complaining of the lack of progress and their dissatisfaction with the government and failure of democracy. Arguments were intense. It is refreshing to see the convictions of many being discussed actively on the street. One guy holding a big banner was starting a new political party – one based on eradicating poverty. They seem to have little insight into the world economic recession affecting many countries still, the effect of low oil prices on a resource-based economy and the role of education, entrepreneurs and innovation in jump starting an economy – all things severely missing in Tunisia. Few speak English, still the language of business (a fact so well understood in Northern Europe). They thought democracy meant capitalism and growth when all it really gave them was free-speech and a choice in who governs them. They want a change of parties when what they have is the only progressive government in the Middle East area.
Even tourism is dead at this time of the year. I am the only tourist I see although there have been a few people at the hostel but almost none are foreigners, only Tunisians visiting Tunis. It is warm with cool nights and I am comfortably wearing flip-flops and no jacket. I bought some lovely leather slippers, amazingly thin and perfect for backpacking to keep my feet warm in the evenings.
The medina is a hubbub of people strolling, shops putting all their wares out in the narrow lanes, guys pushing carts of sweet cakes, odours and street food, but the shops are empty and no one seems to be buying much. Drinking espresso and smoking sheesha is a national pastime.
It is easily the most atmospheric place I have ever visited. It’s a maze of old stuff and so easy to get completely disoriented and turned around in the curves and triangles that comprise any Islamic quarter – think Grenada, Cordoba or Seville in Spain. But the medina is huge – I haven’t begun to see it all. It is paved with large black flagstones or bricks with a centre trough. It is a joy.
But after 6:30pm, it is a different story. The Medina is completely abandoned except for garbage and cats (eating the garbage), It’s dark and kind of spooky. The owner of the hostel constantly warns us about the danger of going out after 8pm. I went downtown to have pizza – it was very good and with a coke only $5. Tunis is a very cheap place to travel.
I was off at 5am on January 15th to take the train 6hrs to the far south, to Gabas ($12). I love trains. Unlike buses where you are crammed into a seat, trains allow you to move around. And the seats are much more comfortable. I ensconced myself on a wide seat opposite two others so could sprawl. I brought along bananas and a wide variety of pastries so there was lots to snack on. Snack carts plied the aisle. And at $12.50 for six hours of travel, it is unbelievably cheap, although not as inexpensive as the $1/hour trains of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The toilets were easily the worst I have ever seen, but at least they existed. Unlike trains elsewhere, this one left 7 minutes late and arrived in Gabes 1¼ hours late.
On the surface, like so much of North Africa, one would surmise that Tunisia has oil, the black stuff, but little did I believe that it was more of the green variety – olive oil. The train moved through dead flat country for the entire 6 hours and the only sight out the window, apart from the occasional town, was olive trees, all planted in monotonous grids, going on forever. Furrowed tan earth formed wide swaths between the rows. Olive trees are given a lot of space – maybe there is a lot of space available in Tunisia? A few of the trees were leafless: apples or other fruit? but 99.9% looked like olive trees. It was dry country with light grass and low-lying bush, where that was allowed to subsist.
The dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the Sahara’s most expansive sand seas, spill into Tunisia’s far south. Life-giving palmeraies support a network of busy oasis towns, and produce an autumn harvest of the world’s best dates. Beyond these, salt lakes and ruined Berber forts stare from scrubby hilltops. Back on the coast, the palm-dotted island of Jerba is an intriguing mix of ancient traditions, both Berber and Jewish, and beach-resort languor.
Tunisia’s sensuous Saharan dunes set the scene in The English Patient and its impressive fortifications served as a Levantine backdrop for Monty Python’s Life of Brian. But its most famous screen role was providing the otherworldly architecture and desertscapes that gave the Star Wars series such a powerful visual identity. If you want to walk in the steps of R2-D2, hotels and travel agencies in Tozeur or Douz can organize tours of various locations or rent a vehicle and drive from Matmata to Tataoine to see many more.
Gabes is a big city on the east coast not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet as there is nothing for the tourist there. On arrival I immediately caught a series of 2 louages (share taxis) to Matamata, 45 minutes and 3.7 TD away. It’s hard to believe that they make any money at these rates but gas in only 62¢ per litre. There was nothing cheap for accommodation in Temezrat (and I doubted any would be unbooked anyway), but Matmata was only 10kms away.
MATMATA. (pop 1500)
From above, the troglodytic pit homes that have made Matmata famous, look like bomb craters. Home to only about 20-25 families in Matmata now, the ingenious dwellings only come into focus up close and are a testament to humankind’s urge to domesticate, even somewhere as inhospitable as here. There are possibly 700 troglodyte homes in the area and many are still occupied. They are totally excavated by hand – a big round pit 12-17m deep is dug and rooms created in caves around the perimeter. They offer year-around climate control: in the 40-45°C summer heat, they are 20-25° and the winter are warm.
More recently, the town has drawn its fame from playing the home planet of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
The only place to stay listed in the LP was the Hôtel Marhala, a troglodytic hotel but it was impossible to make a reservation through the website of the Touring Club de Tunisie. But I was hustled by Mostafa at the louage stand and he took me to the Hotel Sidi Idriss and it turned out to be a good choice, although not recommended in the LP for accommodation. But ownership has changed since then and the place has been totally renovated. The famous Sidi Driss was used for interior shots of the Lars family homestead in Star Wars and was used again in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. The dining room is where Luke tucked into a blue milkshake and went head to head over the harvest with his Uncle Owen. It has all sorts of pieces left over from the original set – plastic doors, door frames made to look like brick and pipes coming randomly out of the floor and walls. I can’t wait to resee the movies. Half pension (dinner and breakfast) was 25TD ($12.50) and beer 2.5TD. It is an incredible place with 3 open pits connected by tunnels and 25 rooms coming off the sides of two of the pits.
I had not come originally to see Matmata and pit homes, but for the New Years Celebration on January 16th at Temezret. A couple at the hostel in Tunis told be about it and it seemed a perfect way to leave Tunis, head for the south of Tunisia and see a festival in a small mountain town.
There were no louages or buses to Temezret and I was offered rides for 60TD, then 35TD when I offered to recommend to Lonely Planet this hotel and then 20TD by the manager who was quite friendly. All seemed a little high.
I was also hustled by a guy in the hotel offering tours to Berber villages, the Sahara, Tozeur, Douz and Tatouine, all places I wanted to visit. But the price was also high, 500TD (250$) for a 2-day/1-night trip.
He took me for a walk around the neighbourhood showing me his original troglodyte home now unoccupied, plus two others. Most people have now moved out into “normal” above ground homes. Homes all have small fields diked with berms of dirt. Likewise all the watercourses have dirt berms and rock walls across them to control water flow on the few days of rain in the winter.
On January 16, I woke up to a cold, windy, rainy day, not a good day to spend at a festival. After a breakfast of the usual bread, butter, jam and very black coffee, the persistent Mostafa Moncef, who had hustled me at the louage stand taking me to Hotel Sidi Idrisse, coaxed me into a day-trip to see all the things I was interested in. Still expensive at 250TD, I would get to Tataouine and on the way see several Berber villages that would require individual taxis and difficult logistics. He spoke passable English and served as a good guide and driver. Rather than the guide available through Sidi Idrisse, I would highly recommend Mostafa. He can be reached at (216) 97902239 or (216) 25921077 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prior to 5 years ago (and the revolution), there were many more tourists in Tunisia but perceptions are that it is not safe (and the recession has probably also had an affect), and tourism is relatively dead. The two ISIS attacks in Tunis at the Bardo and a hotel in the last year were particularly damaging.
TEMEZRET (pop 250 with 35 families)
We started by taking a detour to Temezret. The tiny town sits on a hilltop with old stone walls and mostly abandoned stone homes on the top. We did a walk-about though the town – it only took 20 minutes to see all that was interesting and I didn’t regret missing the festival (only in its second year, it celebrates the Amazir Berber culture and looked to be a very low-key, local affair). These Berbers were Christian before conversion to Islam.
Returning to Matmata, we headed south through rocky, hilly countryside averaging 800m elevation high with panoramic views down to the plain below. The road was slow and winding with low scrub vegetation and a few olive trees.
TOUJANE (pop 800 with 150 families)
We stopped at a restaurant/shop high above the 300-year-old town of stone houses spilling down the hillside on either side of a wadi. The bleating of goats and sheep carried up the hillside. The town is famous for carpets made from sheep and camel wool and I almost bought one. The small ones with traditional motifs in natural dyes take a month to make and were only 70 TD but were simply too bulky to carry in my limited pack. But I bought a lovely silver bracelet for Anna.
Ancient abandoned terraces covered the slopes.
We detoured west to visit this small amazing village. Up a steep, 4WD road, the old part of the town has been uninhabited for 60 years. About 100 stone, two-story, round-roofed structures, each perhaps 20m X 2m surrounded a large open area on the top of the hill. A very affable guy spoke only French but made himself well understood and guided me through several homes, a mosque (plastered geometric designs and Koran verses), the school (plaster fish, hands, geometric designs adorned the ceiling) and the olive oil press. A donkey or small camel walking around the 2m wide press pushed a huge round stone. Panoramas of the modern town below circled the old place. I gave him 10TD for the tour that the driver thought appropriate.
Donkeys and people carried bundles of olive branches for sheep feed. A dinosaur stood on top of one hill.
This village was the location for the Mos Espa slave quarters – stunningly weird architecture, a warren of disjointed lanes of structures identical to Ksar Hallouf: other-worldly, two-story, round roofed structures little more than a meter wide and up to 10m long is where, in the “restaurant”, Qui-Gon Jinn learned the truth about Anakin’s parentage in the 1997 The Phantom Menace.
Where we stopped for lunch, the Berber dress was a brown cloak with a wide hood.
Set on a high hill under two rock pinnacles, this village consisted of terraces of caves fronted by stone walls and buildings. A great olive oil press was in one room. These Berbers were Christian before converting to Islam. It was abandoned about 65 years ago for the modern town below.
The town itself is a series of stone houses fronting caves set on several terraces and covering the top of the mountain – it was incredibly picturesque. A white-washed mosque sat in the saddle below.
The Mosquee des Sept Dormants (Mosque of the Seven Sleeps) is on a hillside outside the town. Built 700 years ago, it was a Christian Church before a mosque and is surrounded by the graves of Christians (the 8 graves are 5m long as the people were much bigger then!!) and several Berber graves. It is a gorgeous little structure with 7 small domes and a leaning tower capped with a triangular structure. It was locked as there are no tourists and people were using it to sleep in. Next is a cave lived in for 390 years that predates the church/mosque.
KSAR OULED SOLTANE
22kms SE of Tataouine, these were more slave quarters in some of the Star Wars movies and are perhaps the finest example of the curious moulded courtyard-centered buildings, actually ghorfas or ancient grain stores. Walk initially down a “street” of 1, 2 and 3 story ghorfas before entering a large courtyard surrounded by 50 ghorfas, most a dizzying 3 and 4 storeys high, reached by precarious dream-sequence staircases. The store rooms had creaking old doors and a few giant pots hanging through the doorways.
TATAOUINE (pop 90,000)
Not a destination in itself, this big city is best used as a base for exploring the ruined hilltop ksar (fortified strongholds) that I have just seen on the way from Matmata. I simply passed through after seeing Chenenni and on my way to and from Ksar Ouled Soltane.
Here the Berber dress is simply a big brown cape like a blanket draped over the head.
Was it worth spending 250TD (125$) for a one-day drive? It was the only way to see all these villages and Star Wars sites and I passed through a lot of pretty countryside in the mountains along the way. One place I intentionally missed (but should have included as it would not have cost more) was Ksar Gelan, an oasis with a warm pool for swimming and the opportunity for camel rides. And I also saved at least two days of travel. I think I spent a few days too many in Tunis and now was in a bit of a rush to see the rest of Tunisia. I had set my sights on the cheapest flight to Beirut, on TunisAir on Sunday, January 24.
After a great day, Mostafa (on his way back to Matmata) dropped me off at the louage station in Medenine, north of Tataouine and the crossroads to Jerba and its capital city Houmt Souq, my next destination.
The island of Jerba has a mixture of sandy beaches, desert heat and wonderfully idiosyncratic architecture. Berber culture is dominant – as the women wrapped in cream-striped textiles, topped with straw hats attest – while a Jewish community, once integral to the island’s ethnic make-up, retains a small presence. This is Homer’s Land of the Lotus Eaters, a place so seductive that it’s impossible to leave; ‘drugged by the legendary honeyed fruit’, poor Ulysses had a lot of trouble prising his crew away. Luxury hotels line beautiful Sidi Mahres beach.
HOUMT SOUQ. This is the island’s capital, situated in the middle of the north coast. It’s a charming small town, chock-a-block with outdoor cafes, shops and a handful of ancient funduqs (converted Ottoman-era camel caravan inns – also known as caravansérail), the town’s architectural trademark. All the magnificent cedar trees on the main street had been cut down, the stumps removed and in the process, the brick sidewalks had been destroyed (and not repaired). I found walking around Houmt Souq kind of depressing.
A causeway built in Roman times links the east of the island to the mainland and 24-hour car ferries go from western Ajim and El-Jorf.
From the louage station, it was a short walk to the Hotel Marhala, the cheapest in town. But right next door was the Augerge de Jeunesse, so at 8TD per night, I got a private room with ensuite bath. That night, I socialized with 5 Boy Scout leaders. They normally go on camping trips all over Tunisia and have a penchant for lighting campfires.
Houmt Souq Old Town. Jerba’s traditional architecture is delightful and unlike any other in Tunisia. Domes dot the skyline and all is bathed in a dusty whitewash. A market town, there’s no escaping the carpets, jewelry, ceramics, bric-a-brac, ubiquitous leather goods and kaftans. Highly atmospheric with plenty of pretty squares where you can people watch.
I was hustled by a guy insistent that I see the spice souq. After smelling every spice, herb and essential oil in the place, the fellow was amazed that I did not want to buy anything that I simply didn’t want.
Borj Ghazi Mustapha. This fairy-tale fort, on the beach 500m north of town, was first built in the 13th-century by the Aragonese. It is doubtful if paying the 7TD entry was worth it. The information inside was not in English, the inside is junkie and kind of depressing and seeing it from the outside only is just as good.
El-Ghriba. The most important synagogue on Jerba and the oldest in North Africa is signposted 1km south of Erriadh, 7km south of Houmt Souq. Blank from the outside, the interior is an exquisite combination of glowing blue tile work and moodily dark wooden furniture. The inner sanctuary, with its elevated pulpit, is said to contain one of the oldest Torahs in the world. As stated above, Ghriba was the site of a terrorist attack in 2002 killing 19 tourists and injuring 30. There was heavy security: a baggage scanner and many police for security.
Again, I’m not sure if this is worth the taxi out and back to here. A donation is requested to visit. I hitchhiked back to Houmt Souq.
The hours are confusing: Closed Saturdays, Winter 09:00-12:00 and 15:00-17:00, Summer 09:30-12:00 and 14:30-16:30.
Of course I arrived at noon and so had 3 hours to kill. I walked the 1km back to Erriadh town center just as the Sunday market was closing down. Spread over 3 blocks of one street, it was amazing to watch everyone pack tons of stuff they had optimistically set out to sell. I also found an Internet café where I was able to access the internet, update posts and do some business, scanning and photocopying documents, that were long overdue. I also downloaded stuff onto my Kindle.
Tourist Zone. All the large resorts are at least 10kms east of Houmt Souq on the northeast and east coasts of Jerba. The best beach is next to the Club Med. I was tempted to go out just to have a look. It was cool, windy day where a puff jacket was necessary to stay warm. Buses go out to the zone several times a day.
As I am up at this hour anyway, on January 18th, I took the 5am bus 2½ hrs to Gabes the next morning, then a louage to Kibili and a second louage to Tozeur, arriving after 7 hours of travel.
TOZEUR (pop 35,500)
An excellent base to see Chott el-Jerid, Tunisia’s largest salt lake, you can also get excursions via 4WD to Ong Jemal, a dramatic location used in both Star Wars and The English Patient; Nefta, with its exquisite sunken palmeraie; or the beautiful Berber villages of Midès, Chebika and Tamerza.
Ouled el-Hadef. This 14th-century medina has a unique, striking architecture of pale brickwork arranged in relief patterns. Much different from the Tunis Medina, this has few shops and no people, but instead long lanes of artful brick work and closed colourful doors. I visited one shop jammed full of stuff and chatted with Said, the ancient owner. Since the Sousse terrorist attack, tourism has been completely dead and he was eager to sell me something. I admired some silver bracelets and the bargaining was on! He gave his price, I gave him mine and we met in the middle (I was wary of the trap he set for me as I couldn’t walk away with nothing once the process started). But I had real empathy for the old guy. The first floor of his shop is huge and full, the second is all carpets and the third is a coffeeshop and panoramic rooftop with views down to the medina and palmeraie.
Palmeraie. Enormous gardens with over 200,000 date palms.
I went on a walk-about and saw an awful lot of the town. I regret not going to see the Berber villages as they all looked enchanting but the prices quoted were exorbitant.
I skipped Douz (pop 28,000), a modern, functional oasis with camel trading and riding, and a palmeraie with 400,000 date palms. Douz is the most convenient place to get a taste for the Sahara with the desert proper starting 80km south at the Grand Erg Oriental. It is south of Tozeur.
From Tozeur, I planned on taking the 3am bus to Sfax but slept in (I guess failing to wake up at 2am is sleeping in) and instead took the much more civilized train at 6:30am. The train never arrived. I guess that is how things work in Tunisia. So I walked back to the louage station taking 3 separate vehicles via Safx to El-Jem. It was looking like my ambitious travel day was going to fall short of my ultimate destination.
Home to Kairouan, one of Islam’s most holy cities, several of Tunisia’s largest beach resorts, and El-Jem, its most impressive Roman monument.
Sfax (pop 265,000)
I simply passed through here on by way between Tozeur and El-Jem. It is the country’s second-largest city, is dull and most tourists head straight through on the way to the south. The busy, picturesque medina is surrounded by ancient crenulated walls, the Grande Mosquee has a 9th century minaret and the Ville Nouvelle has some of the best-preserved 20th-century architecture in Tunisia.
Cap Bon & the Central Coast.
I didn’t drive this section of coast as I have little interest in beaches and this was certainly not beach season.
The golden-sand coast stretching from the city of Sfax to the tip of Cap Bon has drawn millions of European sun-seekers since the 1960s. Spared the high-rise towers that blight the Mediterranean elsewhere, the resorts are never far from Roman ruins, Berber villages or seldom-visited countryside.
Hotels are rarely crowded. There’s also a number of small hotels and B&Bs, both in the backstreets of the popular resort towns and in the remoter coastal towns, that offer comfort and a more low-key experience.
Hammamet. Huge resorts that stretch for miles, relaxed and charming.
Nabeul. Laid-back beach destination in a bustling, prosperous town.
Kélibia and El Haouaria Remote and largely untouristed beaches, rocky coves and pine forests.
Monastir. Unatrractive but with a dramatic seaside ribat (fort) and Bourghiba’s mausoleum.
Sousse. Loud, crowded but beautiful, Boujaffar Beach is a favourite. I was disappointed to miss the medina, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Mahdia. Scenic and historic.
EL-JEM (pop 18,300)
A Roman coliseum rises up from a low plateau halfway between Sousse and Sfax, dwarfing the tiny modern town around it. Built 2000 years ago by olive-oil traders with money to burn, it’s a culmination of a couple of centuries of engineering expertise. It included state-of-the-art features including a movable floor – all the better to showcase gladiatorial combat, executions of Christians and other forms of Roman popular culture.
The Coliseum of Thysdrus is a magnificent structure. It is an oval – 149X124m – and able to hold 30,000 spectators in 5 tiers of seating (Rome’s Coliseum held 43,000). The structure has 5 levels of great keystone arches holding up the 5 levels of walkways giving access to the seating. You are able to walk through the hypogeum, the underground area that held the animals and gladiators raised on elevators to the area of combat. It was originally covered by a wood ceiling.
Its beautiful archaeological museum is home to an outstanding mosaic collection, better than that in the Bardo: some wonderful geometrics and many depicting animals (including a great peacock) and gladiators.
Traveling by bus and louage, I stopped here to see the coliseum, and had a cruise through the museum all in one hour carrying my backpack. It had taken an hour to fill the louage and I had great timing to snag the last seat. As I was putting my pack in the back, I fellow sat in my seat, I got a little upset and he gave it up. It was then 40 minutes north to Sousse and then 45 minutes west to Kairouan. There are also trains but their timing is not nearly so convenient as the louages.
The countryside is flat and one big olive grove. Fences between fields are hedgerows of impenetrable giant prickly pear. Agave also grow well in this semi-desert. So after 5 louages, one coliseum and one museum, I arrived in Kairouan at 6:15pm.
KAIROUAN (pop 117,900)
With its Grande Mosquée, the oldest in North Africa, the walled city of Kairouan is considered the fourth-holiest site of Islam. The medina is a beautiful place to wander with crumbling, white-washed, blue- and green-edged houses.
It was here that Arabs established their first base when they arrived from the east in AD 670 – Kairouan became so important in the Islamic hierarchy that seven visits now equal one visit to Mecca. This is also the rug capital of the country (although I saw no rug shops).
The louage station was in a remote place but one of the guys in the louage gave me a free taxi ride to my hotel, Hotel Serba. It was described in the LP as a “hostel-like dump” and it was (no wifi, share bathrooms with no toilet paper or toilet seats), but the price is right for a hotel (20TD with an above average breakfast), a comfortable bed and in an awesome location opposite the Bab ech Chouhada (the main entrance into the medina).
Medina. Little is mentioned in the LP about the amazing 15m-high crenulated wall surrounding the entire medina. It is very imposing. The medina is huge and the usual maze of lanes with few people and shops only on some streets. The Grande Mosquee, Barrouta and Zaouia Sidi Sahab are inside the walls. I wandered around the atmospheric place wandering into woodworking shops, weavers working old hand and leg driven looms, and stores that stocked all their goods on shelves behind the counter (the last time I saw this was in the 1960s in the Bowie General Store in Piapot, Saskatchewan where my mother was raised). I had the breakfast specialty: soft dough thrown into a round and tossed in a large vat of boiling oil with an egg and cooked cabbage put on top to cook inside. It was delicious in its utter greasiness and a much needed sink with soap is provided.
Grande Mosquée. This 9th-century mosque, with its buttressed 8m walls surrounding 8,000 square meters of space, has an unadorned design in the Aghlabid Maghreb style and is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. Founded in 670 and reconstructed in 836, it transformed Kairouan as the town moved westward to surround it. Impressions change once you step into the huge marble-paved courtyard with its sundial and surrounded by a double arched colonnade of marble columns. The 60m-high minaret is the oldest in Tunisia. The fellow selling the 10TD ticket said it was good for the “whole” mosque and I took him at his word. Even though I knew I couldn’t enter the oratory (prayer hall) as a non-Muslim, I was determined to see the inside, moved across to the east side and snuck in an obscure door. It is richly decorated with small, lush carpets on the floor, 17 naves and 8 beys, marble columns with antique capitals, a high rich wood ceiling, a ribbed, shell-shaped dome over the original 9th century mihrab with its glazed tiles, minbar (the chair for preaching and the oldest in the world) and wonderful wood jali screens of the maqaura (emirs space). After touring the entire space, I was unceremoniously kicked out and the police guards with their submachine guns came. But everything was pleasant.
Puits Barrouta. A muzzled camel walks in a circle, drawing water from a holy noria (well) said to be connected to Mecca. I am drinking a wonderful freshly squeezed orange juice in the atmospheric adjoining café as I write this.
Tapis-Sabra. In the medina, this 18th-century residence of the former beys of Kairouan, is now a carpet shop. It’s worth enduring the carpet spiel to see an exquisitely restored medina house and witness the women rug weavers at work.
After the wonderful medina, I shouldered my pack to go to the louage stand for El Kef. It is amazing how I can get turned around sometimes by making assumptions about direction (I actually believe I have wonderful direction sense), reading the LP incorrectly, paying no attention to the proper names of places, and being in a city laid out on an “Islamic” grid (that is no grid at all but confusing triangles and trapezoids). Anyway, I went on a walkabout looking for the louage stand and the below mosque/mausoleum and walked a long way to never find the mosque. But I did find a great mosque/mausoleum in the medina (wonderful geometric floor tiles, tiled walls and beautiful carved wood ceiling over the grave of someone.
Zaouia Sidi Sahab. 17th-century mosque tiled in luminescent colours and known as the ‘barber mosque’, because it contains the mausoleum of one of the Prophet’s companions, Abu Zama el-Belaoui, who used to carry around three hairs from the Prophet’s beard.
BACK TO NORTERN TUNISIA
The road gained altitude progressively as we drove NW of Kairouan, Much more interesting than most of flat eastern Tunisia, it was initially rolling hills, then some dramatic cliffs and finally a pine forest with patchy snow and completely snow-dusted mountains in the distance. Vistas were big.
I had a louage change at Makthar but the louage to Le Kef never did get enough passengers to leave. So I was in Makthar for the night. There was no hotel but a Maison de Jeunesse (Youth Center). When I arrived the place was filled with teenagers, some playing table tennis. So I played many games with some really nice kids and stayed in a room in the back, then woke up early to get the bus towards Tunis at 6am. But after waiting for 2 hours in the cold (0°C?), I finally headed to the louage stand. Within 2 minutes, I was in a vehicle and on my way, or so I thought. The plan now was to skip Le Kef and go to Dogga directly. But the louage didn’t go to Dougga, but to Silyana, a town nearby and its bus depot. There I had another 3 ½ hour wait for the regional bus to Dougga. Silyana is much more of a transport hub than Mukthar which is best avoided.
Such are the trials and tribulations of vagabonding. Not having everything arranged can be a blessing, but also a royal pain in the ass at other times.
Le Kef. (pop 41,600)
3 ¼ hours SW of Tunis by bus, this proud, well-kept city is a real gem. The medina is a hilltop of narrow cobbled streets and blue-shuttered buildings, both traditional and early colonial in style. Highlights include beautiful ancient Muslim, Christian and Jewish places of worship. It is 1 hour past Dougga.
Kasbah. Fortress that dominates the city and has great views looking out across the rolling blue-green landscape dotted with trees. A stronghold of some sort has occupied this site since the 5th century BC.
Zaouia of Sidi Boumakhlouf. Enchanting 17th-century Sufi mausoleum, with a brilliantly tiled interior and narrow tower.
Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires. Well-laid-out museum, housed in a sprawling, ornate Sufi complex founded in 1784. The museum concentrates on the culture of the region’s Berber nomads.
But I didn’t go to Le Kef because of all the transportation problems, and got dropped off at Nouvell Dougga. The country north of Mukthar is a wide-open, flat valley planted with wheat, indicating the more abundant rainfall.
DOUGGA. 110kms SW of Tunis, and 1 hour from El Kef, Dougga is one of the most magnificent Roman sights in Africa. Its ancient remains are startlingly complete, giving a glimpse of how well-heeled Romans lived, with baths, the imposing Capitole (the 3500-seat theatre) and 21 temples (one had immense walls – the Romans were incredible engineers. The city was built on the site of ancient Thugga, a Numidian settlement, which explains why the streets are so uncharacteristically tangled. The 2nd-century-BC Libyo-Punic mausoleum is the country’s finest pre-Roman monument.
Dougga can easily be visited on a day trip from Tunis or Le Kef – or en route between the two cities. Built of tan stone on a hillside, it blends with the dusty landscape of the Kalled Valley and Tebersouk Mountains.
If coming from Tunis, buses and louages stop at Tebersouk, about 8km northeast and then hire a louage or taxi to Dougga. If coming from El Kef, turn at Nouvelle Dougga. The best time to visit is in the morning or late in the day; allow at least three hours and pack a picnic.
I arrived at Nouvelle Dougga (pop 400) from Silyana on the regional bus at 1:15pm. A taxi promptly offered for 20TD to drive me the 3km north uphill to the ruins (7TD) and I took 70 minutes to see everything. Wow, very special, especially the theatre and the large temple. I wish I could read Latin as the perfectly incised text was everywhere. Remnants of mosaic floors were common. If the place had a map or signs, its value would have been considerably enhanced. Besides a few workers and 4 local tourists, I had the place to myself. The driver waited for me and took me the 8km to Tebersouk to get the 3pm bus to Jendouba where I hoped to sleep in order to see Bulla Regia the next day. Some transportation finally worked out.
Jendouba. What a dump. There is only one hotel, it cost more than anything I have had so far in Tunisia (35TN), is nothing special and the guy only laughed when I asked if there was Wifi. I needed to withdraw money and they said it was so far, that I would need to take a taxi. That’s advice I have learned to ignore. It took me 10 minutes to walk there. Besides drinking espresso and smoking, this is not an exercise culture.
Famed for its extraordinary underground villas, the Roman city of Bulla Regia (7TD), 7km northwest of Jendouba, offers a rare opportunity to walk into complete, superbly preserved Roman rooms – there’s no need to guess at how things once looked.
To escape the summer heat, the ever-inventive Romans retreated below the surface, building elegant homes – complete with colonnaded courtyards – that echo the troglodytic Berber homes at Matmata. The name each villa is known by reflects the theme of the mosaics found inside. Some (but not all) of the best are now in the Bardo Museum. Especially lovely examples can be seen at the oldest (though simplest) structure, the House of Fishing, which dates from the 2nd century. The newer villas become increasingly more ostentacious. The star attraction is the House of Amphitrite, with its nude Venus and centaurs, and attendant cherubs riding dolphins.
Bulla Regia is approximately 160km west of Tunis and may be easily visited on a day trip from Tunis, Le Kef or Tabarka. Trains or buses to Jendouba are your best bet to and from Tunis, and there are also regular buses and louages to and from Le Kef and Tabarka. A taxi from Jendouba costs around TD5. Any bus travelling between Jendouba and Ain Draham can drop you off at the Bulla Regia turn-off, from where it’s a 3km walk. In the summer, it can get very hot here.
There are no paper maps, but a map was just inside the entrance on the left. Without a map or guide, one would never find anything without a huge amount of searching. It is quite a big site and the only things visible from the road are a large building at the entrance and a theatre to the north. All the interesting stuff is on the western edge (consider the road as running north-south). Bring some paper and a pen and draw your own rough diagram to get any satisfaction from your visit. There were some men working, they hailed a fellow, who although only spoke French, gave me an excellent tour for free.
There are three underground spaces and two of them were disappointingly locked. The one that was open had several rooms and ok mosaics. To see the fantastic mosaics of the House of Amphitrite, we climbed a small wall, jumped down about five feet and got good views through a grate. Not much of the House of Fishing was visible down a round open well. There were several outstanding mosaics out in the open in the same area: a large floor with gazelles, a zebra and fish; a small pool with a man fishing from a boat and a spectacular bathtub with mosaic writing. Search this area carefully to find everything.
The rest of the site is simply broken walls, nondescript rooms and old stone roads.
The taxi out was 5TD (there is also a bus that runs on the hour from in front of the hotel). The taxi back was free (the driver picked up passengers along the way and a woman paid for me).
I just missed the 10am bus back to Tunis and got a louage. The country side passed through was lovely – all green fields of winter wheat and rolling hills, quite the contrast to the dry east and south. Tunis was a welcome site when it first appeared. with its white buildings bordering the sea. Eager to stretch my legs, I walked the four kms from the north bus station back to the medina. I entered at an odd place and got unbelievable turned around. Tunisians are unable to read maps and nobody could tell me where I was. But it all turned out just to be some more exercise, and I got to see part of the medina I hadn’t been to before.
Back in Tunis for 2 nights before my flight to Beirut, I took it easy and headed out to
Sidi Bou Saïd, one of the prettiest spots in Tunisia. Thirty minutes up the TGM line, it has cascading bougainvillea, bright-blue window grills, narrow, steep cobbled streets, glimpses of coast and is a tour-bus favourite.
12 young Koreans (2 studying Arabic in Tunisia and 10 tourists) had invaded the hostel when I returned. Spending all 2 weeks only in Tunis, they sang songs all evening and wrote out serious dissertations on how they were feeling about things.
At 5:30 on the 24th, I got a taxi to the airport (6TD). Exchange your dinars before passing through security – everything in duty free must be paid for in euros and the only place to spend them is an unbelievably expensive café (there are no money changers after security). This was my 18th immigration I have gone through with my damaged Canadian passport (so much for all the fear mongering of our consulates and embassies).
I had a lovely 3-hour flight over the Mediterranean passing over Greek Islands (there was a nice play-by-play map on the TV) and Cyprus to arrive in Beirut at 12:30 (lost an hour). The fly into Beirut must be the most spectacular anywhere – the route was just off the beach and you see all of Beirut and the ocean.
SUMMARY OF TUNISIA
I very much enjoyed this country. Other than hiring vehicles to do tours, it is a very inexpensive place to visit. There is lots to see and a great sidewalk café scene where you can spend hours people watching. Using a combination of trains, buses and mostly louages, there were few problems getting around.
The people are lovely and helpful. It would help greatly if you could speak French or Arabic, but I had few real problems with neither. Even though I was here in mid January, outside of the tourist season, I felt like I had the country to myself. The only tourist I saw in the two weeks was a young Chinese man in Jem (there were also 4 expatriates working in Tunis on short holidays).
I found the people politically engaged but naïve. They blamed the poor economy on the government despite the world-wide recession, rock-bottom oil prices and the complete collapse of the tourism industry since independence and the 2015 terrorism attacks. Good education and hard work did not seem to be valued as a route to success. Free speech does not have much meaning when you are having difficulty putting food on the table. I think an Islamic government will be elected in the next election, not a step forward. If the number of men sitting around drinking espresso and smoking is any indication of the employment level, things look bad.
The brand of Sunni Islam practiced seems quite relaxed: alcohol and pork were widely available. Maybe half the women wore hijab, but almost no veils or
The places I enjoyed the most were: in Tunis, the Bardo, medina, food and café scene; Bulla Regia and Dougga, both great Roman sites, Kauraoan (Mosque, mausoleums, medina, crafts); the coliseum and museum in El-Jem, Matmata (troglodytic homes/hotels), and the Berber villages in the south with unusual architecture and Star Wars sites. The things I wish I had seen were Le Kef and the villages around Tozeur. Most tourists come for the beach scene, but it was cool and I don’t go to beaches anyway. But I did see a huge slice of the country.