Tunisia: Tunis

Rapt to be shelving the last few covid years by stoking the travel bug with a month in the north African country of Tunisia.

Wedged between Algeria and Libya and set on the Mediterranean coastline, this country ticks a few boxes for me. There’s history and ancient sites, interesting Islamic and French influences in the architecture, religion and cuisine as well as a slew of changing landscapes from deserts to beaches.

We landed in the capital Tunis to an orderly Carthage International Airport, hailed a taxi (BOLT is Tunisia’s Uber) and sped towards our hotel in the Medina. The 24 hour Emirates flight from Australia was well and truly working its slumber magic.

Palais Byram, once the 18th century palace of the Mufti, was home for 7 nights and the Suite Historique lived up to its strong rating on booking.com. Most happy we were with everything: location, room, restaurant, staff.

Our room with its original floor to ceiling tiles
When at the Palais Bayram: lamb couscous washed down with a very nice Tunisian red
On our first night at the Bayrem, this couple invited us to their wedding. We had already booked into the restaurant where the wedding was being held. A most enjoyable time, even if we couldn’t speak Arabic.

The Medina (largest in the world and heritage listed) fairly hums from early morning to late afternoon with the sounds of stall holders calling out, artisans chipping away at silverware, the smell of mint tea, coffee and perfumes. Heritage listed with monuments, mosques, mansions, once Ottoman palaces (now restaurants/small hotels), countless stalls selling countless things, it is truly fantastic. Getting lost and lost again was par for the course. Over 7 days, I never got my bearings!

Tea souq
Carpets galore
Owner tells me his shop is 400 years old
View of Zitouna Mosque from Panorama Cafe
In the medina – lunch at Fondouk el Attarine – once a caravanserai
Dinner at the stunning Dar el Jeld.
While Tunisian red wine is excellent and Tunisia sells itself as a liberal Islam country, when it comes to alcohol, it’s very much restricted to restaurants.

Coffee drinking is a time worn tradition thanks to the Ottomans. Tunisians say, ‘In this life we drink coffee’. Guess we can’t drink it in the afterlife.

Medina tea house – Almond tea and Turkish coffee
Young man working here was proud to show us the 100 year old well on the right and sing us a traditional wedding song (his other job).

The French influence is not to be underestimated. For a start, French is widely spoken along with Arabic. Seized by France in 1881, Tunisia achieved independence in 1958. Boulangeries, patisseries, baguettes, gateaux and streets names (Rue …) are prolific.

Porte de France – one entrance to the Medina
Place de Victoire – popular place for a coffee
Cathedral Saint Vincent de Paul opposite a very heavily guarded French Embassy

At the end of Avenue Habib Bourguiba (often dubbed Tunisia’s Champs- Elysess) is this fabulous clock tower built for past President Ben Ali.

Away from the Medina in the back streets, life doesn’t get any less busy.  This city is alive with people, tea houses and stalls selling all kinds of wares in very much a French architectural setting.

Fruit and vegetables seem plentiful as are second hand items like clothes, shoes, bags, linen which find their way into Tunisia via Europe. A whopping 94% of Tunisians buy second hand, such is the quality. Given the GDP sits at $US 12000, this makes good financial sense.

Dates de Tunis – at Marche Central – perfectly fresh, sun soft and sweet
Bought our fair share of fresh oranges and drank our fair share of jus d’orange during our stay

The ruins of Ancient Carthage settled by Phoenicians (modern day Lebanon) are a 20 minute light rail ride from the Medina and a half day here was well spent.

Once a powerful empire (in 4BCE) with thousands of people living inside its walls, the seascape with its buoyant shipping trade as well as the surrounding fertile land explain why Carthage was coveted by the Romans.

The final Punic War in 146 BC saw Carthage and main man Hannibal destroyed. All Carthage roads now led to Rome.

Baths of Antonius
Carthage Theatre built during reign of Hadrian 2AD
Hundreds of mosaics are dotted around
Punic Port

From Carthage, we ventured to the seaside towns of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said where blue and white houses butt up to a brilliant blue Mediterranean Sea.

La Marsa – beachfront promenade
Sidi Bou Said

Just 30 minutes south of Tunis, is the ancient Roman site of Uthina.  Founded by Augustus in 1st century AD for his army veterans, the town reached its peak two centuries later before declining. Incredible that the site lay untouched until 1993. We had the site to ourselves when we visited.

One and a half hours from Tunis is Africa’s most magnificent ancient monument – Dougga. Originally called Thugga under Numidian rule, it also played host to Punic, Hellenistic and Roman rule. Dougga is 3000 years old and described as the most complete and preserved ancient city in Africa. There’s a lot to see – capitol, forum, temples, baths, cisterns, houses, theatres, streets – within 75 hectares. It was impressive.

There’s a lot more excavating to do. Apparently, the town stretches a further 7 kms. The work of the UN is vital in countries like Tunisia in protecting and restoring incredible sites like Dougga. Like Uthina though, hardly anyone was here.

Beautiful views from Dougga over a fertile, olive tree landscape.

One site I very much wanted to visit was the famous Bardo Museum, Africa’s second largest museum after Cairo’s. However, it is closed; has been for two years. There is talk of it opening soon, but given the unsettled air in Tunisia, maybe not.

Unsettled Tunisia is with inflation at 11%, interest rates 8%, a wages freeze and looming strikes. Add to the mix, President Saied dismissing parliament, changing the constitution to secure his power and arresting his opposition, and it’s a given that Tunisia is in for some interesting, albeit rocky days ahead.

We’re hitting the road tomorrow and heading to Kairouan, 4th holiest Islamic site in the world.

6 thoughts on “Tunisia: Tunis

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