Tunisia. The very name conjures up mystery, exoticism, and something quite electrifying. Having never visited the country before, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to spend a week there with a colleague. I did a bit of pre-trip research and learned that this tiny country is squeezed between two very large ones – Algeria to the west and Libya to the east; that it was once the center of the ancient Carthaginian civilization; and that it was ultimately defeated by the Roman Empire in 1883. The French made the country a protectorate and then, under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia was granted its independence in 1956.
Our first day of sightseeing took us to the capital city of Tunis and its old town medina, ancient and intriguing. The medina is enclosed by ramparts
and gates, and as we entered, we stepped back in time. Here we found labyrinths of light and shadow criss-crossed with lanes and alleys. Amid the
hum and buzz of vendors hawking their wares, there was the constant, tinny sound of metalworkers hammering intricate designs on brass, and permeating all, the sweet, musky smell of incense. We seemed to walk forever and made sure we stayed very close to our guide because to lose him meant we might never find our way out of this maze.
White and Blue and Beautiful All Over
We left the narrow confines of the medina for the fresh air of Sidi Bou Said, the elegant and chic resort by the sea. There we found bright white, blue-trimmed villas with fuchsia bougainvillea spilling from terraces. At a sidewalk café perched on a hill with steep terraces set spectacularly on the cliffs and overlooking the gulf below, we sat on kilim covered banquettes and watched men seriously absorbed in smoking their chicas (water pipes). We drank espresso so strong it had a real jolt and ate delicious doughnuts sweetened with honey called boubalouni. Sidi Bou Said is a tourist haven yet even on a summer evening, you can have it to yourself by wandering through the silent backstreets. From our vantage point, we looked across the cliff tops to a monastic fortress and lighthouse built in the early years of Arab rule. Dar Ennejma Ezzahra is our next stop in Sidi. It is the French Baron d’Erlanger’s monumental and beautiful folly which was built between 1912 and 1922, its architecture a mixture of Tunisian and Romantic Orientalism. This edifice is now home to the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music and we saw stunning musical instruments through the ages, a collection of cultural heritage worthy of both study and preservation.
Power to the Palm Tree
The city of Hammamet on the Cap Bon peninsula is 40 miles southeast of Tunis and is rightly called Tunisia’s garden resort. The land abounds with eucalyptus and citrus trees and flowering shrubs. A major expansion has taken place within the last five years causing the government to enact a local law prohibiting hotels built higher than the tallest surrounding palm tree. This has not, however, stopped Hammamet from expanding horizontally with hotels rimming the seashore in each direction as far as the eye can see. In fact, “Las Vegas by the Mediterranean” came quickly to mind. To further this image, the hotels all vie for guests by offering elaborate nightly entertainment and 70’s-style discos. By day, there’s lots to occupy you: two major golf courses, para-sailing, windsurfing or just hanging around the hotel pool, and in summer, Hammamet is the site of Tunisia’s annual cultural festival.
We were looking forward to our visit to Carthage and its acres of Roman ruins. In its day, Carthage was a thriving maritime center that became the
third largest city in the Roman Empire, before being destroyed by Arab invaders from the east in 692 a.d. Virgil wrote of the ancient port of Carthage in the first century B.C. and it has forever more been suffused in a legendary aura of romance. This is Tunisia’s best-known archeological site and its ruins are scattered over a very large area. To tour it completely you’ll need a full day. We had only a few hours to walk amid the pillars and statues, some almost wholly intact and preserved but many standing only a little above ground level. Still, if you approach Carthage with some imagination and a willingness to be impressed, it has a good deal to offer.
The Holy City
That would be Kairouan, a three hour drive from Tunis. This city is famous for its Great Mosque and is considered the most important religious site in the country. “What a hell of a place to put a holy city” wrote The Times’ military correspondent in 1939, complaining about the heat. Kairouan, because it is situated inland from the tempering breeze of the Mediterranean, can get incredibly hot in summer. We had a comfortable 70-75 degrees, weather made for café sitting and observing the lively street scene which enfolded about us. Robed men and head-covered women bustled about, donkeys pulled carts laden with twigs and branches, shepherds by the roadside guided their flocks with staffs and there sprawled out before us, the awe-inspiring, sand-colored Great Mosque. Surrounding this vast site were the ubiquitous vendors. Here their specialty is carpets. Kairouan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is Islam’s fourth most holy center. You may visit certain parts of this monument but be aware that the mosque’s prayer-hall is closed to non-Muslims.
The Tip of North Africa
As our Tunisian tour came to an end, we decided to head toward the northernmost part of the country, Bizerte. Driving a couple of hours from our Tunis base, we came to the “untouched, true” Tunisia, if you will. The land here is agricultural with fertile fields growing wheat and barley. Vineyards and olive groves abound. We passed through dusty villages with kids playing in the rubble and, however small the town, there was always a table set up outside a storefront where men sat, drank tea and smoked
In Bizerte, we found a port city known not as much for resort as for industry. However, this place is definitely worth a visit, as it has a monumental heritage covering centuries of strategic importance and is still very much the preserve of Tunisians. We visited Bizert’s Kasbah with its massive walls and on top, a promenade where we had a view of the port - brightly colored boats and fishermen stringing their large, lacy nets. We explored the Old Town with hidden passages, arches and walls painted in pretty pastel shades.
The Bardo Museum<
We saved one of the highlights of our trip for the last day when we visited the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Housed in the former royal palace of the Bey, this museum has the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. The building itself is spectacular, built up over the centuries and surrounded by gardens full of Roman and Punic statues. The mosaics are splendid and awe-inspiring. Viewing them so bright and vivid is like looking through an album of color snapshots. These mosaics offer a direct and beautiful visual record of what was considered important by this powerful civilization. The collection is too vast to take in on a single visit but even a glimpse of some of the designs will flesh out a picture of Roman life and times. Two artworks that beckon a smile: one, a glorious rendering of a scene from Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails past the Island of Sirens, and his men, to prevent temptation, are all tied to masts. The more things change…. The other, in one of the fresco rooms, among the rare surviving fragments - a wall painting depicting a bottle of wine wrapped in straw, a bag full of eggs and a leg of lamb. Ah, the good life!
Strangers into Friends
Our guide summed up the Tunisian experience very well: “Here in Tunisia, one kills four birds with one stone. You have a country that is Arabic yet European; you are in Africa and here you can experience the wonders of the Islamic world.” He went on to explain: “Tunisians are a liberal people and the idea welcoming strangers is a centuries-old tradition. It is a cosmopolitan country which offers exploration of an historic and exotic land.” When we arrived the Tunisian people were but strangers. We leave with strangers becoming friends. Tunisia welcomes you.
IF YOU GO:
Tunisian Tourism www.tourismtunisia.com