I wanted to visit Tunisia, a place I’ve never been before, because I wanted to experience their culture and vast historical heritage. I wanted to stay in small towns not too populated by tourists and explore on my own. I’m not a seasoned traveller so I knew I needed to do my research about the area. I compared quotes on flythomascook.com, my usual travel agents, against popular airlines and flight centres. I looked into some hotels in Enfidha that weren’t too populated with tourists and found a small family owned house converted into the Sinbad Hotel, where I rented a room for the night I landed.
I travelled from the coast of Port El Kantaoui-Sousse to the pearlescent white-washed homes along the SidiBou Said (Tunisia’s Mediterranean stretch of coastline) staying in small guesthouses and peppering my stay in two 4-star hotels along the way. I always make sure I budget for my trip by checking out forums and reviews (such as Tripadvisor and Lonely planet) to research the best deals so I can spend more money on food and curios.
There is a sensory overload when you visit Medina’s in Tunisia, not only with all the exotic scents but also just the labyrinth of people that you will need to maneuver through. The alleys are lined with curios, food stalls, clothing and perfume. I was in awe of the architecture and sheer beauty of the Mosques and Madrassas (Islam Clerical Colleges). There were coves of craftsman, you would miss them if you weren’t looking down a small alley. Their workmanship and skill as masons, carpenters and blacksmiths rivals that of any that I’ve seen.
Don’t be intimidated by the lack of prices on items, there is rarely a set price to the traditional items being sold at markets and along the roads. Before you visit, brush up on your haggling skills, as almost everything is up for negotiation. Haggle well (I kept telling myself that’s it’s part of their culture…so as not to feel too bad about buying a scarf off a kindly old woman) but I got good deals. With just a little bit of persistence, you should be able to wangle a fair price. Remember everything is negotiable, even the cost of camels at the Pushkar Fair.
El-Jem (formerly the Roman town of Thysdrus)
The main attraction in this halfway point city between Sousse and Sfax is the Roman Amphitheater, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You might also recognize it from the film Gladiator. It illustrates the true engineering proficiency with a movable floor and pulley-systems to entertain the masses over 2000 years ago.Try and see it either when the sun is rising or setting, the auburn glow of the Amphitheater is brilliant, especially from the higher levels.
When you go down to beneath the arena (the main stage, where are the action takes place) are more intact and reachable rooms (better preserved and accessible than its twin the Coliseum in Rome), where fighters, animals and ‘staff’ were kept during the ‘shows’. The theatre also houses a beautiful collection of mosaics that I thought was better than that at the Bardo Museum for its preservation and for the restored Roman Villa that shows their bravura style and the variations in floor plans for different levels of society.
The way I organized my tour, was to go more inland than south (where most people visit the set of the Star Wars early franchises) but because I was passing through Al-Qayrawan, there is only one site worth visiting if you’re only there for a short time and that’s the Zaouia (an arrangement of buildings around a saint’s tomb) of Sidi Abid el-Ghariani, which dates from around the 14th-century. Although it’s quite empty, most of the attraction is in the construction, tiles and exquisite architecture. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Bulla Regia, Northwest of Jendouba
The Romans really knew how to live, love and have a good time. They were inventive and you can see it all in these complete and preserved underground villas. The mosaics (although most have been taken to the Bardo Museum) range from simple and elegant to gaudy and grandiose. Definitely visit the House of Fishing and see the Venus and Centaurs in the House of Amphitrite.
The Bardo National Museum, Le Bardo
I nearly missed this museum, but I’m glad I didn’t. It has an exquisite collection of Roman, Phoenician and Islamic artefacts, mosaics and collections. There’s a solid gold statue of amour but it’s more of a chest plate made of bronze and gold for the Punics (a Hellanistic time period people) campaign warriors for Hannibal. The museum has an extensive Greek and Egyptian collection through extensive land and underwater excavations.
Carthage was the home to Hannibal who led his army, including elephants, over the Alps to attack Rome in the Second of the three Punic Wars that Rome and Carthage fought for controlled of the Mediterranean. The Romans stormed this once great city in the last of the Punic Wars . Carthage couldn’t hold on and the Romans destroyed it. We saw were Roman basilicas, bathhouses and traditional homes.
Tabarka to Sidibou Said (Northwest Coastal towns)
The quiet coastal town of Tabarka is a hub for music lovers. They have a fusion of Algerian-pop, Jazz festivals mixed in with a bit of Latin and African World beats. I stayed in a beach villa, and was close to both the city festival and a small music gathering on the beach. I didn’t visit the cork forests (I’m not that big on hiking) so I decided to travel the coast to SidiBou Said to see Greek inspired lime-washed homes and spent the remainder of my trip on the beach and in the sea.
You will never forget the exhilarating and sometimes over-whelming cultural experiences that Tunisia has to offer amongst its caves, hills, alleyways and monuments. Take the time to travel to a country that mixes the familiar West with the exotic East.