Medieval walled cities, ancient Roman ruins and the Sahara desert. Not enough? Add to the pile the Star Wars-like extraordinary landscape and white sand Mediterranean beaches: and Behold Tunisia - a relatively small sized country, just a three-hour flight away from London!
As a Jazz lover, I have been intrigued by the captivating melody of "A Night in Tunisia" for a very long time. Under what circumstances, in that small North African country could Dizzy Gillespie have been, to inspire the composer to write one of the greatest standard Jazz tunes of all time?
But I didn't go to Tunisia looking for Jazz. Or live music, for once. One of my aspirations while residing in London, is to take advantage of the city's accessibility to many countries, not as easily accessible from other parts of the world. Adding that to the high level of interest I have held for Middle Eastern/North African culture over the past 6 years made visiting Tunisia a priority for my first year in London.
And there was an added bonus: A dear Brazilian friend of mine was about to start a year-long backpacking journey around the world, but was rather unsure of where to start. Next thing we knew, we were reunited in Tunis, and about to start an eight-day-long road trip from the sea to the desert.
The culture, the people
Tunisia is an interesting mix of many worlds. Although it considers itself a less conservative country than its Islamic neighbours, it is most certainly galaxies away from embracing the "European culture" and western standards of living that they claim to live up to rather often. It embraces many of the annoyances of a Middle Eastern country, such as the difficulty of making overall travel arrangements locally without being quickly targeted as a foolish foreigner (it took us over 90 minutes trying to hire a car from Tunis' airport with a minimum level of respect, not being ripped off TOO much), and although the service level is by no means European, the prices certainly are, making it a much more expensive country than Egypt, Turkey or Morocco.
Another difficulty I had to patiently endure, was the fact that, as a woman, most people would generally address my friend rather than me, when providing information, advising prices etc – which wouldn't have been as much of a problem if he did speak either French or Arabic, both official languages of Tunisia that I did speak, but instead, I often found myself having to translate things to someone that wasn't even the decision maker in most cases. To make things easier, particularly when it came to accommodation, we decided to confirm, when asked, to be indeed married to one another.
But don't let such first impressions from this post discourage any potential interest in visiting Tunisia! It has a lot to offer, and although it might not be the easiest of countries for independent travel, it surely has the infrastructure needed to remove the stress away from any traveller willing to organise their trip from abroad, prior to arriving. And true to their Berber/Middle Eastern roots, the people are kind and happy to see foreigners, as well as used to having them around, making it a less intimidating destination than some of its neighbouring countries.
The plan: Beaches, markets, sand dunes and ruins
The choices of activities to do in Tunisia and things to see were many, and we tried dividing up our itinerary in a way we could encompass a bit of everything: landscapes, old cities and its markets, beaches and ancient civilisation sites. As the country isn't exactly large, 8 days took us far.
After a day in Tunis unwinding and making future arrangements, we decided to venture into two of the must-visit cities nearby: Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.
Only about 30 minutes away by local train, is the quaint and beautiful Sidi Bou Said, a village filled by stunning white and blue buildings overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It is a stopover point of many cruise lines, so one needs to be careful about planning the ideal time of the week to pay it a visit, as there aren't exactly sites to be seen, it is all about soaking up the atmosphere while walking up and down the hills of this medieval village, through its flower-filled counrtyards and winding streets (all of which could easily be ruined if extremely crowded). Its name is derived from a 13th century Sufi Holy man, but it hasn't been a site of pilgrimage for centuries. People come to appreciate its gorgeous architecture, either before or after a visit to the nearby Carthage.
An UNESCO World Heritage site, the old Phoenician city of Carthage was a powerful trading centre back in the 6th century BC. It was destroyed when seized by the Roman Empire nearly 140 years later, and became the capital of the African Roman Empire yet another century later. Old Roman baths, temples, mosaics and other archaeological relics can be found everywhere around the Carthage Museum and the nearby Acropolium. To top it all off is the location, sitting right on the summit of the Byrsa hill, overlooking the sea, making it yet more desirable as a travel destination for the spectacular views it offers. A visit to Tunis' incredible Bardo Museum in conjunction with a day in Carthage is certainly enough to impress even the most well-travelled history buffs!
Next on the list, was conservative Kairouan: arguably Islam's fourth holiest city where a very traditional way of life can still be found. With my head scarf on, and always by my fictitious husband's side, it felt like we had finally entered the Middle East, as we walked inside the city's Medina through one of its beautiful old gates, strolled around its authentic markets and gazed at its impressive old mosques.
As we continued to drive south through coastal Gabbes and Medinine, we headed towards Saharan Tunisia through the Matmata/Tatouine region, where much of the moon-like landscapes and cave-like dwellings from Star Wars "The Phantom Menace" can be found. Ksar Hadada and Ksar Ouled Soltane are very traditional villages to this day, and one can easily see that the way in which locals dress was indeed inspirational for George Lucas, with their long robes and capes. It seems to be a big source of tourism in the region, and many enjoy spending a night at Cave hotels in the bigger towns of Tatouine and Matmata.
We then visited Chenini, an old Berber hilltop town, with incredible scenic landscapes, but unfortunately, filled with very aggressive salesmen and unwanted tour guides, which made it very hard for us to enjoy our visit, despite the spectacular scenery. We later ventured into nearby Old Douiret, and the experience was the exact opposite: A deserted medieval old hilltop village where we could hike on our own until sunset, to later appreciate the most magnificent starry night sky. A true hidden gem!
Now it was time to actually cross the Saharan desert. With a tank full of cheap gasoline from nearby Libya (sold all around the country by the road side) we drove towards Ksar Ghilane, an Oasis village in the Sahara that serves to many as a starting point to desert excursions. We chose to spend an afternoon there, hanging out in the beautiful sand dunes and walking on our own, before starting the journey back towards Matmata, to spend the night in a traditional Cave hotel and visit the Skywalker Bar. The sand dunes were spectacular, especially at sunset!
Time was running out, and the followding day we still had to drive ourselves all the way back to Tunis. We stopped in non-touristy Sfax, Tunisia's third largest city, where we randomly met the most amazing locals, and later at Sousse, Tunisia's second city, size wise.
The perfect ending – a relaxing beach stop
But a visit to Tunisia wouldn't have been complete without stopping in one of the much sough after beach destinations: Mahdia. Luckily, being low season, the town was empty, and we could take advantage of the warm weather and stroll around the sea just by its beautiful Old Town, before driving back and stopping at the amazing El-Jem Roman amphitheatre – where Hollywood's "Gladiator" was shot, and which, in my opinion, is much more impressive than Rome's iconic Coliseum.
Lasting Impressions: All in all, a great travel destination
By the time we reached Tunis, we were both impressed by how much territory and cultural diversity we managed to cover in just eight days. As my flight wasn't until 1PM the following day, we still managed to squeeze a bit of time walking around Tunis' Medina, stopping for tea at a traditional tea shop and roaming around the markets.
Many of the places we stopped at for a night could have easily been two or even three-night-long stops, and considering that we didn't even attempt to cover more of the Mediterranean coast, go on a desert excursion or visit the northern part of the country, it's easy to see how one could easily spend weeks and weeks exploring Tunisia. Few have been the countries that I have visited that offered so much diversity in such a limited geographical space, and although a bit of patience, flexibility and cultural understanding is surely needed, Tunisia has something for everyone!