Venturing beyond the beaches to Roman ruins, Medina and desert!

Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa with a population of 10,043,000 and the capital being Tunis. The main language spoken is Arabic and French. I picked up on mainly the French language immediately as in restaurants and shops people were saying ‘merci’ and ‘Bonjour’ quite frequently. I would advise to learn a few French phases in order to travel. English is rarely spoken or understood as I discovered the hard way. The currency is the Tunisian dinar with the exchange rate being pretty strong against the British pound. I would say it was a little more expensive than Morocco and certainly more than Egypt, but still good value. £25 would be an average budget, but this can dramatically inflate if adding tours/trips and some luxury. We seemed to find plenty of ATM’S around in the major towns. Visas are free for most on arrival too.

It’s located on the north, coast of Africa with 800 kilometres of beautiful Mediterranean coastline and unspoiled beaches. The south of the country is composed mainly of the Sahara desert. Some may say its North Africa’s most relaxed and hospitable country. Climate is kind, in the north it has hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. Flying from the UK takes only two and a half hours; ‘Tunis Air’ operates regular cheap flights. So why isn’t it more popular I ask myself!?! Cheap to travel around too, great exchange rates and great, golden beaches with lots of sunshine…

The natural beauty and history of this country could easily be packed in to a country twice its size. The Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert both played a prominent role in the ancient times, first with the Punic city of Carthage, then as the roman province of Africa which was known as the ‘Bread basket’ of Rome. Later Tunisia occupied by Vandals during the 5Th century AD, Byzantines in the 6Th century and Arabs in the 8Th century. Under the Ottoman empire Tunisia was known as ‘Regency of Tunis’. It passed under French protectorate in 1881. After obtaining independence in 1956 the country took the official name of ‘Kingdom of Tunisia’.

The country boasts ‘religious freedom’, With regards to the freedom of Muslims. The people seem generally indifferent and quite used to tourists. There was a mainly North African backpacker crowd, with not many Europeans. I did bump into a few Dutch, Japanese, and Germans, one Australian and quite a few English, but not many. In relation to Egypt and Morocco there is no real hassle. Being one of the wealthiest countries in the region and it shows; you’re not bothered by touts, beggars or salesmen. You do get minor hassle to buy souvenirs on the street or as you pass restaurants but nothing significant. As a woman travelling, you need to be confident and wear sensible clothing.

Tourism seems to be well developed to make independent travelling relaxed and easy to plan and get about. I would say it’s more geared towards ‘tourists’ than ‘travellers’. Being more appealing to package, European tourists. I did discover there are ten package holiday tourists to every one independent traveller.

There are good transport links to get around and the compactness is unique for Africa. The SNCFT operates the rail network, which links Tunis, Sousse, Sfax and Gafsa. A good point to note is tickets bought on the train are more than double the price of ones at the station. So plan in advance. State ran bus services are good; these are recognisable by the green and yellow buses and are air conditioned and comfortable. You also get mini buses otherwise known as ‘louages’ departing from major towns for travellers and locals, these are great and very cheap. But be aware these fill up very quickly. You pay when you’re due to leave the vehicle apart from arrival in to large towns which have organised stalls in stations.

Accommodation was good, not a lot specifically aimed at travellers, but plenty of cheap places. Price and availability does vary from town to town, especially in the beach resorts and during the summer months. Don’t expect heating in the winter or air con in the summer and hot water is not always available. A basic cold, buffet breakfast is nearly always supplied in with the room price. For a cheap room you can expect to pay around £7 – £15 a night.

There is plenty of good food to be found around Tunisia. Being distinctively, spicy with influences coming from neighbouring countries. They have a fondness for couscous and deserts. Couscous is nearly served with everything. Normally paired with a ‘briq’, a very thin, pastry parcel that comes with a range of fillings. Fish/seafood is very popular, especially canned tuna. A basket of bread is served with every meal being a cheap substance. Most meals are served and cooked in the traditional tagine (a pot). Also pork consumption is also forbidden in accordance with Sharia, religious laws of Islam. Some of my favourites included the donuts made from orange juice and dipped in honey syrup, the ‘Tunisian salad’, which was all diced up containing cucumber, peppers, onions, tomato, eggs, tuna seasoned with olive oil. ‘Mloukhia’ was a good, filling dish almost like a casserole or stew. Very tasty lamb, beef or chicken with vegetables in a gravy sauce. Spicy sausages called ‘Merguez’. When it comes to drink, Tunisians are big coffee drinkers, but the preferred drink is ‘mint tea’. I did keep trying it but did not like it one bit! Most meals I had with fizzy drinks or mineral water. Although a Muslim country and not served everywhere, alcohol is widely available. Tunisian produced wine is very good, trust me I sampled enough. An interesting liqueur and a home brewed beer called ‘Celtia’ – not to everyone’s taste but worth a try….

We only spent two weeks exploring, but felt like we saw so much of this diverse country. The outline of our plan was starting in Tunis, travel towards Dougga, Le Kef, Makthar, Kairouan, Sbeitla, Tozeur, Douz, Matmata, El Jem, Sousse and Carthage before heading back to Tunis.

We spent 2 nights in ‘Tunis’, I felt it was all about the Medina, which is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. ‘Bardo’ museum is a must see sight, housed in the former royal palace, the building itself is attractive and surrounded by perfect groomed gardens. It contains a huge collection of Roman mosaics, Greek bronze statuary and Islamic artefact’s. The Phoenician trading port of Carthage, once the second most important city of the Roman Empire is also worth a visit. We also trekked further north of Carthage to a charming village of Sidi Bou Said, originated around the tomb of a 13Th century holy man. We spent the afternoon wandering through the quiet streets past the traditional white washed houses with many other tourists.

We took the train from Tunis to Kairouan, which took just under three hours. The train was great, air conditioned and comfortable the views on the journey were amazing. The whole city is a UNESCO world heritage site and Islam’s fourth most holy centre. The great mosque is one of the most important in Tunisia. There is also a famous amphitheatre of ‘El Djem’, this is considered to many to be finer than Rome’s coliseum, it is very striking but I think the statement of it being finer than Rome’s is a bit bold. We headed to Mahres to spend the night, a small village on the coast. It was a very quirky, arty place. Lots of artists sat around drawing and painting near the sea. A calming place!

 

The next day we took a minivan across the rocky dessert to ‘Matmata’ a small Berber speaking town in southern Tunisia. This was home to the troglodytes, people who live underground; Villages are created by digging a large pit in the ground. It has become famous in more recent years for featuring in the series of the star wars films. We visited the remains of the original film set which was incredible and you could imagine it all taking place. We also got the chance to visit real troglodyte homes. This was an extraordinary experience. I had seen something similar before in a central south Australian town called ‘Cooper Pedy’. We continued by bus to Douz, the gateway town to the Sahara. We passed through the town centre and visited the Sahara desert museum before taking a camel trek into the Sahara. We trekked on camels into the desert late afternoon as it was getting cooler, I loved this experience! We had dinner out in the desert watching the cooks cooking traditional food for us and baking bread in the sand. The camel drivers played traditional music around a campfire before we spent the night in a Bedouin camp. Nothing more than a basic tent, cushions and blankets. But what a peaceful night’s sleep, alone out in the desert.

The next morning was stimulating and dreamlike waking very early in the desert. We left the camels and drove in the minivan across 2000 square miles of the ‘Chott El Djerid’ (salt lake), which appeared like a mirage against the sand, before reaching Tozeur. The town has earned a reputation for the lush beauty of its oasis in which 200,000 date palms thrive and is now a common tourist destination. We spent the night in a cheap, centrally located hotel in Tozeur, surrounded by gorgeous gardens.

 

We departed to Metlaoui to take the red lizard train through remarkable scenery. It was a wooden, old train running the ‘Selja river canyons’. We also visited the close by old town and oasis at Nefta in a valley filled with thousands of palms. We travelled overnight back by bus to Tozeur. We were a little unsure about staying overnight due to recent riots and fighting in Metlaoui. So it seemed safer to head back to Tozeur even though we didn’t get great night’s sleep.

The sun had risen as we arrived in visit Sbeitla, home to one of the best preserved archaeological sites in Tunisia. This was a small town in central Tunisia, nearby are the Roman ruins of Sufetula. We took a car to the ruins they were well worth the difficulty getting there. We continued on from here by taxi to the charming mountain town of Le Kaf, which clings to the side of the cliff. This is clearly one of the most underrated travel destinations in the country. It was charming and stunning at an elevation of 800 metres above sea level with plenty of attractions. We found a small, café here and watched the sun go down enjoying a glass of wine. Perfect!

The next day we caught an early bus to Dougga, where the Roman site was. This was given UNESCO World heritage status in 1997. It is the largest in Tunis and considered the most magnificent. Later that day we continued to the Andalucian city of Testour, founded by Muslims evicted from Spain in the 1600s. The square is very Spanish in style and the great mosque dominates the old town. The mosque is really quite interesting, holding lots of details, which all tell stories. We spent the night in a family guest house within the town perched on the hills of the Medjerda valley. Food wasn’t the best here or should I say not to our liking, ha. After this we headed back to Tunis via bus to head to the airport for our return flight back to the UK.

 

The highlights of this trip have been endless, taking in so much and experiences I will remember forever. Venturing beyond the beaches to Roman ruins, Medina and desert! From the extensive use of white and blue colours all around Sidi Bou Said. To the great mosque of ‘Kairouan’ dating back to the as 7th century AD. Magnificent Roman ruins. Seeing the largest salt pan of the Sahara desert and trekking by camel to an overnight Bedouin camp….