By David Rich
Parts of Tunisia out-Greeks Greece and out-Romes Italy, white-washed houses trimmed in blue, cascading down to the translucent Mediterranean at Sidi Bou, practically a suburb of Tunis. Meanwhile the world’s best-preserved Roman ruins and mosaics pepper the country like polka-dots.
Plus the locals are friendly, secular Muslims better acquainted with form-fitting denim than the scarves called “odious rags” by the Tunisian President.
The food is succulent and the cappuccinos sublime, while the reasonable prices of hotels and restaurants shame overpriced Europe, a stone’s throw across the Mediterranean.
Whether by land or by sea, everyone enters Tunisia via the capitol of Tunis. While in Tunis check out the vibrant old medina and the fabulous Bardo Museum, the latter harboring exquisite mosaics, statuary and tiles from all of ancient Tunisia. Then take the local tram to the ruins of Carthage and its pathetically unrestored harbor.
The military superstar Hannibal sallied forth from this harbor, via Spain, to galumph battle elephants all over Europe, almost erasing the emerging Roman Empire during the Second Punic War from 218-202 B.C.E.
Photogenic Harbors and Villages
Sidi Bou sits next door, a mere half mile away, one of the most photogenic villages on the planet. See the accompanying photos for the breathtaking beauty of whitewashed Sidi Bou Said, accented by blue balconies above the incandescent Mediterranean, a substitute for relatively sterile word-play.
The north of Tunisia is covered by hundreds of miles of olive trees dominated by fences of giant prickly pear, while the elongated Mediterranean coast is pocked with picturesque harbors chock-a-block with fishing boats painted like rainbows.
Tabarka, closest to Algeria, guarded by the dagger-like rocks of Les Aiguilles and a sprawling Genoese Castle on the heights above the harbor. Beautiful Bizerte sits on the northeast tip, offering an upscale cornice and photogenic old port.
Proceed down the coast past Sidi Bou to the gorgeous neat-as-a-pin town of Monastir dominated by an intricate fort, scenic yacht basin and extensive mosques, gardens and a sprawling old cemetery.
Home of the Lotus Eaters
After the finger peninsula of Madhia, stuffed with narrow alleyways and exotic Moslem architecture, an ancient castle, Kasbahs and a lighthouse on the tip, lies the melting pot of Jerba Island, home of Homer’s Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey, where few ever wish to leave.
The ancient caravansaries of Jerba’s capitol, Houmt Souq, have been converted into unusual hotel rooms stuffed with antique tiles and accented by picturesque balconies overlooking vibrant pedestrian-only squares discoverable through a narrow labyrinth of alleys.
Jerba’s unexpected jewel is the world’s most colorful synagogue, El Ghriba, still attended daily by a shrinking community of 200 lonesome Jews. The inside is colonnaded in brilliant blues where visiting tourists are required to don shawls and yarmulkes, instantly converted into authentic-looking Jews.
Tunisia’s south is the entrance to the vast Sahara dominated by a string of mysterious oases traversed by camels saddled fit to kill or bite, on top of which perch European tourists fiercely brandishing digital cameras.
The south also offers vast salt lakes such as Chott El Jerid, dry most of the year, bordered by sparkling crystals of salt and the sparse remains of shimmering blue waters, shading to red.
Star Wars Settings
If you liked the Star Wars series you’ll love the south of Tunisia where most of the movies were filmed. Visit the ksars, fortified Berber strongholds around Tatauoine, Tozeur and Matmata for recognizable settings, below ground in pits sheltering troglodyte houses, or above ground where alien forms tower four stories in colors ranging from pastels of pink to orange and sienna, each fronted by a cyclopean door and called a ghorfa, literally a room. Before Star Wars fame these rooms were mundanely used to store grain, still situated where originally built in the beveled swirls of eroded orange canyons.
Do not miss Tozeur, the furthest southwest you can go in Tunisia without becoming mired in Saharan sand. Tozeur is peppered with crenellated brick facades in raised patterns, brilliantly executed, and an ancient medina with a tiny museum where the vivacious lady-curator will perform a drumming Tunisian wedding, dressing all comers in the clothing of sheiks and sheikesses.
Tozeur is the jumping-off place for Chebika, Tamerza, and Mides, a half mile from the Algerian border, towns melted during twenty-two days of uninterrupted torrential rains in 1969, presenting a spectacle of plasticity on the brows of precipitous canyons, beside waterfalls and crystalline waters channeled from ancient times to provide sustenance for groves of life-giving date palms, aka palmeries.
The Best Roman Ruins
Cops in jack boots and black hats patrol the entrance and exit roundabouts of every little village, harassing the locals while waving-through tourists who provide the hard currencies that keep the country afloat.
Many come to see the best-preserved Roman ruins on the planet, from the world’s third largest Coliseum at El Jem, making the one in Rome look shabby, to the sprawling expanse of Dougga, the exquisite temples of Minerva, Jupiter and Juno at Sbeitla and the underground Roman villas at Bulla Regia, reminiscent of troglodyte homes also built below ground to escape Tunisia’s summer heat.
Dougga is the jewel in the crown of Tunisia’s Roman ruins, its sprawling complex ranging from the sixty-six foot (21 m) Libyo-Punic mausoleum topped by a New Age-type pyramid and scowling lion, to the thirty-three-foot (10 m) so-called Capitol of Dougga, a temple dedicated to Jupiter.
Other temples are dedicated to Mercury, Minerva, Pluto, Saturn, the Sun God, Augustine Piety, Carcalla’s Victory, Concorde, Frugifer and Liber Pater, and Tellus. The second best temple consists of well-preserved columns composing the Temple of Juno-Caelestus.
This litany excludes eight houses with nicely intact mosaics, cisterns, crypts, arches, fountains, sanctuaries and the incredibly situated and almost perfectly preserved theater, plus the fabulous Licinian Baths and the perfect Arch of Alexander Severus. When I visited in April the site was blanketed by wild flowers of yellow, purple, blue, orange and chartreuse.
A Respite of Caffeine
When suffering exhaustion from unremitting sightseeing, repair to the unending and ubiquitous coffee houses that litter every Tunisian town, medina and city. There the locals puff on sheesha water pipes and quaff coffee and cappuccinos laden with far too much sugar, while contemplating the alien tourists invading their sanctums interims, smoking required.
Stalking the maze of any medina will inevitably lead to an atmospheric coffee house where even the most harassed and frenetic tourist will savor flavors unrivalled by Starbucks.
After a respite of caffeine you can venture gingerly out, to explore preposterous Medinas crammed with sweets, spices, stained glassware and colorful tin.
The unparalleled variety of Tunisian doors could populate a calendar of three hundred years. Plus the food is excellent, from red-chili spiced harissa to salade Tunisienne, grilled meats, seafood, kabobs, couscous, kemia and sharmas.
Under no circumstances miss the fabulous Medinas of Sfax and Kairouan while enjoying topnotch coffee and an unending procession of characters far removed from sterile and over-priced Europe.
When You Go:
Fly to Tunis direct from most anywhere for $1000, or substantially less from Europe, or take a plush 24-hour ferry from Rome’s port of Civitavecchia with private cabin from $400 a couple. Enter flights Tunis on any search engine and enjoy.
Nice hotels up to three stars cost between $30 and $50 a night for two. The incredible converted caravansaries in Houmt Souq, Jerba Island, cost far less and provide an indelible experience. Don’t miss the cave hotel at Douiret, southwest of Tataouine, utterly cool for a double at $23 a night.
Four-course set menus in Tunis will cost $7.50 for two people at Carcassone Restaurant, and, of course, way up.
The best way to see Tunisia is to rent a car because the country has excellent roads, paved and well-maintained, with little traffic and cops who pamper tourists, including tourists who make dumb mistakes. I rented a nice Renault from Jawda Rent-a-car in Tunis for 17 days, total cost $520 with unlimited kilometers.
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David Rich is GoNOMAD’s most intrepid writer, braving blizzards, monsoons, desert heat and State Department travel advisories to visit the world’s most out-of-the-way places from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the wilds of Borneo to the Harley-Davidson Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. He lives in Glendale AZ where his latest passion is flying his own plane. Click the link to see all of his books, including RV the World, The Isis Affair and Myths of the Tribe on Amazon.