Tunisia is the northernmost country of the African continent. It is a small country that contains the eastern tip of the Atlas Mountains and the northern part of the Sahara Desert, with the rest of its territory consisting of significant areas of arable land. Its coastline in the Mediterranean Sea stretches for 1,300 km.
From early antiquity, Tunisia was inhabited by native Berbers. The Phoenicians began to arrive in the 12th century BC, creating settlements, and in the 7th century ΒC, Carthage developed as a strong Mediterranean city. It was the center of a great trading empire and a rival of the Roman empire from which it was defeated in 146 BC. The Romans brought Christianity while later the Muslims conquered Tunisia bringing Islam and Arab culture. It was later conquered by the Ottoman Empire from 1574 and for more than 300 years, until the French colonized it in 1881. Tunisia gained its independence in 1957. Today, Tunisia has a remarkable cultural identity, resulting in the mixing of different cultures and ethnicities over the centuries.
This is the place where the Arab Spring began in 2011, a revolution triggered by lack of democracy, freedom of speech and other human rights violations, high unemployment, inflation, corruption and a poor living standards under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The spark for the mass protests was an incident with a 26-year-old street vendor, who set himself on fire in December 2010, protesting for the seizure of his goods and the humiliation suffered by a municipal employee. Anger and violence escalated a month later, after the vendor’s death, sparking the first revolution motivated by social media. Ben Ali was forced to resign and leave the country after 23 years in power and the revolution spread like a domino to many other states of the Arab world with similar governments.
Hosni Mubarak was ousted from Egypt after bloody uprisings, Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in Libya and civil wars broke out in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, some of them lasting till present day.
Despite the social unrest of recent years, Tunisia is one of the few countries in Africa that ranks high in the Human Development Index, with one of the highest per capita incomes on the continent.
Tunisia is a very touristy country and I was negatively biased by the behavior of people in similar places. But just as every country is different, the Tunisians do not share similarities with others, muslims or not, nor have they adopted the hustling selling habits of other North African countries such as Egypt or Morocco. Nobody was pressing to sell anything, everyone was very kind and helpful and getting with significant memories from my visit.
Although small in size, Tunisia has great environmental diversity due to its north-south orientation. The differences in Tunisia, as in the rest of the Maghreb, are largely north-south environmental differences defined by the sharp decrease in rainfall towards the south. The eastern end of the Atlas Mountains crosses Tunisia. At the northwestern tip, altitudes reach 1,000 meters and snow falls in winter. A coastal plain along the Mediterranean, is among the top olive cultivating areas in the world. Inland you find steppe areas and much of the southern part is desert. Tunisia has a coastline of 1,140 kilometers.
The capital and largest city is Tunis, located on its northeast coast, giving the country its name. Tunisia has many historical monuments from the Roman history, such as the El Jem amphitheater, the ruins of Carthage and more from later Islamic era.
Tunisia is a country with massive tourism development and most of the consequences in that fact. So it had been remaining low on my travel list. Each place, however, reserves beauties that depending on your personal travel style and the way you discover it, can offer uniquely authentic experiences. An independent trip without a specific program, combined with the autonomy of a road trip, I think is most joyful way to explore a place.
Arrival in Tunis airport is no hassle, COVID tests have been abolished and the masks are almost a thing of the past for this country. We pick up the rental car and with my two travel buddies we start driving south. Even after the outskirts of Tunis we have to deal with quite aggressive driving behavior, something common in other Arab countries as well. The landscape is rather boring even those with some view at the Mediterranean. Garbage and plastic bags dominate the roadside and olive groves are typical of a Mediterranean country and not an exotic African one. The limited duration of our whole trip and the ambitious route plan can’t include the first coastal cities. We skip Hammamet which is a touristy resort town with villas and all inclusive hotels. Sousse and Monastir are probably more interesting but we skip them too, trying to cover as much distance as possible at daylight time.
The first stop of our route is in the famous from Nikos Kavadias’ poems, port of Sfax. The coastal part of the city is occupied by shipping facilities that block access and sea views, but the city’s medina is remarkable.
The Medina which literally means “city”, is a typical urban area found in many cities of the Islamic world and especially in North Africa. It is usually surrounded by walls and consists of narrow, labyrinth streets aimed to disorient possible invaders. The medinas usually contain historical monuments, palaces, mosques and bazaars, the so-called souks. Flea markets and bazaars are an attraction for me as probably most of visitors, and Sfax’s colorful souk is no exception. The alleys are flooded with scents of spices and all kinds of goods, clothes, shoes, rugs, jewelry, handicrafts and food, as in every market in the Arab world. The Great Mosque of Sfax which was built at the same time as the medina in 849 AD. It is under repair, but this does not detract from its splendor, having a unique architecture and vibe, with impressive courtyards and a large prayer hall with thick carpets and marble columns. From what I read, under normal circumstances it is not accessible to non-Muslims so I was lucky enough to see it. The distance to our final destination is long, we expect to arrive around midnight and probably restaurants will be closed at that time. So we decide having a lunch in Sfax, in a local tavern named Elgolla. Although I’m a already fan of traditional restaurants, I did not expect such a delicious menu including spaghetti with seafood cooked in a clay pot, octopus, shrimp and Mediterranean delicacies.
We arrive around midnight at the hotel location, shortly after the settlement of Matmata. But the sign reads “museum” and the heavy double door with the arch is also misleading. Finally there is someone to welcome us and give us a beautiful room in a rustic style. The hotel has a swimming pool, obviously for the summer season since these days of March the air conditioner barely managed to heat the room. A group of young people have a small party outside. Finally, we won’t refuse a dinner that was prepared for us.
The next day starts again with a rich menu, a traditional breakfast that includes chakchouka (eggs with tomato sauce), mlawi (flat bread), honey, humus and of course dates.
Matmata is a small town of Berber people, famous for its special architecture of cave structures that were “troglodyte” dwellings.
The typical village houses were created by digging a large pit in the ground. Caves were dug around the perimeter of the pit to be used as rooms, with some houses including multiple rooms connected by passages. In 1969, after a period of heavy rainfall, many caves collapsed, but many residents insisted on rebuilding them. Matmata is a popular tourist attraction and some of the locals make a living from folklore visits to their homes. A very nice, hospitable family welcomed us in their poor settlement and despite the language gap, they offered us bread with honey and oil. From the chat context we understand that they live happily with this simple lifestyle and they are not willing to change it for urban lifestyle. They do not ask for money, they accepted the tip offered after our insistence.
The city of Douz is the “gateway to the Sahara”. It is an oasis with over 500,000 palm trees and in the past was an important rest stop of caravans in the Sahara. Today, it’s a tourist destination for those who want to experience the desert, a starting point for hiking, camel rides or 4×4 drives.
Two months after my trip in the Mauritanian Sahara, the desert welcomes me back. I expected that due to tourism, Douz would be full of tourist offers, but I come across a city that moves on its daily pace without tourist presence. We head eastwards out of town, where the desert reaches the road sides, but we do not find any nice viewpoint. The road leads to the Algerian border, so we drive back to Douz where we meet a local guy in an SUV, suggesting to follow him. He owns a quad bike agency and some camels. Of course we’re not into riding camels that live in dubious conditions but we enjoy the drifting in sand with the quads. Despite this fun activity, the Sahara, which has light-color sand at this part, doesn;t look quite impressive to me. It seems less enchanting than the vastness of Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan…
Chott el Djerid
It is the largest salt plain in the Sahara, with an area of about 7,000 km2. Due to climate conditions with daily temperatures in summer reaching 50° C, the water evaporates from the lake. In summer, Chott el Djerid is almost completely dried and phenomena of visual illusions (also known as fata morgana), occur. A road line of many kilometers passes through the lake that has minimal water in some places.
Following a side route in an interesting semi-desert landscape, we head to two locations that were used as film locations for “Star Wars” movies. In the first one, in Nefta area, some of the buildings of the fictional city of Mos Espa are preserved. Although some of the scenery has been destroyed by time and natural elements, many of the structures are still standing and some rocket-like makeshift installations have been added to attract visitors. The place is touristy and the camel herders are rushing to get clients but still they act politely. Animal exploitation for tourism is something I try not to support, I prefer to give the camel a hug. The second film spot is called camel’s head and is a steep slope whose end is actually shaped like a camel’s head. The view over the mud hill is spectacular, a vast expanse of arid lakes extends to the horizon. The return route got a bit confusing, with many sandy paths between low vegetation. A local motorcyclist suggests to follow him, leading us on the right path.
At Tozeur we wander into another picturesque medina. The neat city with the big mosque acquires bronze colors under the sunset light. Suddenly music and a festive parade of many people fill the main street. It doesn’t look like a wedding, I can’t imagine the reason for the celebrations but I follow the crowd, capturing the moments. In a traditional tavern we enjoy local delicacies before we start a long evening driving without specific destination, trying to cover much distance. After 4 hours of driving we reach the city of Kairouan where we stay in an luxurious but not expensive hotel.
I admit that I was not aware about this city which appears to be the most beautiful of this trip. The morning light reveals a dream scenery, the medina of Kairouan looks like frozen in time. Its monumental walls and gates, its quiet alleys, have changed little over the centuries, with simple, whitewashed houses having doors, arches and windows painted in bright blue and green. The most famous building is the 9th century Grand Mosque, one of the most important religious buildings in the Islamic world. As the daily pace starts to give life in the city, we mingle with the residents and explore the alleys, the local markets, the amazing architecture of governor’s mansion which is now a carpet shop and of course an excellent view of the Grand Mosque from the roof top of a neighboring shop. Bir Barouta is a 17th century sacred well that legend says is associated with the Zamzam spring in Mecca. A camel walks in a circle pumping water from the well located inside a building. This custom that I had also encountered in Yemen is not much respecting animal living conditions, thoough is considered an important religious ritual in this city.
The medina of Tunis is a labyrinth of alleys, one of the most impressive medieval medinas in North Africa and one of Tunisia’s great treasures. It hosts numerous roofed souks that sell everything from shoes to hookahs, as well as busy cafes and residential areas distinguished by large, colored doors. Historic palaces, Turkish baths, mosques and madrassas (schools of the Qur’an) are scattered, decorated with tiles and marble columns.
Medina’s architecture is ideal for the local climate, with narrow streets that are cool in summer and warm in winter.
The medina is flooded with young people who enjoy their hookah, make social contacts and flirt. Even outside the medina, Tunis is of great architectural interest, with several impressive neoclassical buildings coexisting with the modern city. The only factor of dissatisfaction is the intense traffic combined with aggressive driving.
Sidi bou Said
“Dressed” in typical blue and white colors, with its cobbled streets and stunning views of the turquoise sea, the village of Sidi Bou SaId is very reminiscent of a Greek island. It is one of the most beautiful, popular and most touristic places in Tunisia. It took its name from a Sufi saint and its architecture has no Greek influences, but is a mixture of Ottoman and Andalusian tradition. It has been a source of inspiration for many French intellectuals and artists such as Paul Klee.
In the afternoon the village is flooded with tourists, nowhere else in the country do you meet so many. This is interesting, but the real magic of the place is enjoyed in the early morning hours when it is completely empty.
Our stay in a small mansion with a beautiful inner garden and the delicious food experiences in the city, make a most memorable experience.
Before our tour in the greater Carthage area, we visit the yacht harbor under the Sidi bou Said rock, not really interesting place. Paid parking is everywhere in the area but in the previous days we had found legal free parking on side streets, not far from the tourist area. In the port, which is not crowded this morning, we parked after a sidewalk on an open space. Upon return we see a wheel lock on the car. Fortunately, the municipality staff are still there, we pay the fine (€ 10) on the spot and release the vehicle. I imagine if we had a flight after short time and the employees had left the spot.
From the 6th century BC, Carthage was the base of a powerful trading empire that stretched across the southern Mediterranean and hosted a population of half a million people. Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Modern Carthage is a very rich area, with luxurious residences, elite schools, a large number of archeological sites and museums and the seaside residence of the President himself, which means much police presence. One of the archeological points of interest is the Baths of Antonios that were built in the 1st century during the reign of this Roman emperor. On Byrsa Hill are the ruins of the citadel and the Roman Catholic Church of St. Louis. Regarding other points of archaeological interest I did not consider worth spending money and time. The presidential palace is strictly guarded and photography is prohibited.
Adjacent to Carthage is the large beach of La Marsa and the settlement of La Gulette which serves as the port of ferries connecting to Italy. The wide Tunis lagoon is also nearby.
Tunisia is a much visited Mediterranean destination and this is justified as it combines impressive landscape variation, history and traditions, architecture and monuments, remarkable cuisine and amenities that do not differ from those of Europe, all together with the exoticism of an Islamic North African country.
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