Let me start by saying, this is a post about a trip to Tunisia, not Tanzania. Same continent, very different country.
Frankly, I loved that our trip to Tunisia confused so many people. I only found one person that had visited before to ask a few questions. Once we arrived however, I realized it’s much more of a tourist destination than I expected. The infrastructure is there, it’s very much unknown to Americans, and the price point is really low for what you get. REALLY low. All things that I personally appreciate at this point in my travels.
Also, it’s on the Mediterranean Sea, has a heavy European influence, but retains the Arabic roots and way of life that feels exotic to westerners. Toss in the fact that the capital, Tunis, is ancient Carthage and has a fascinating history, and impressive Roman ruins are scattered all over the country and I’m left wondering why in the world more people don’t make the trip to Tunisia. The Arab Spring uprising was almost 13 years ago ago, and while the political situation might not be the best right now (the president dissolved parliament), I felt extremely safe and comfortable.
I went with a group of 7 women. I had booked my flights a while ago and didn’t realize it would be during Ramadan, and we were unsure how much would be open and available for tourists so we looked for a private tour company. Xperience Tunisia was the company we went with, and I cannot say enough good things about our experience and trip. Emir, one of the owners, was with us the entire trip. He was knowledgeable and gave us great insight into Tunisia as a whole, as well as the sites and destinations. He also went out of his way to help us in a couple of situations even after the tour had ended. So not only did he put together the perfect adventure tour for us, he was a wonderful daily guide who tolerated 7 women and all of our bathroom breaks and shopping stops patiently.
Day 1 we checked into the Royal Victoria hotel in Tunis. This building is the old British embassy from the 1500s and the decor and detail were stunning. It’s also just on the edge of the Medina to easily take a stroll for shopping and dining. If you turn in the other direction, the very Parisian-esque tree lined wide boulevard has an array of cafes and shops. All of the above felt quite safe.
Day 2 we hit the ground runningggg. The first stop was El Jem amphitheater. This is the 2nd largest Roman colosseum, behind only Rome. But here you can wander through the basement where the prisoners and animals were kept, and climb up to the peasant seats at the top. What blew my mind was that we had it almost completely to ourselves. It was a great first stop for the trip.
Next we stopped in Matmata to see how the Berber people live in their cave dwellings and had lunch in a cave dwelling hotel. We continued on to Douz, the gateway to the Sahara. We got our first taste of the desert on ATVs, and then enjoyed the sunset on the back of camels.
This was also our first real taste of Tunisian hospitality. Before the trip Emir messaged asking if we would like any alcohol for our desert camping night, as they could buy it before Ramadan started and have it for us. A very kind offer that we accepted. This was an intro into understanding the tolerance level of Tunisia. I won’t get into specifics and politics, but just understand Tunisia is not a very conservative Muslim country as a whole, and in my opinion seems to take pride in being accepting and tolerant. That said, things like cohabitation between man and women and homosexuality are not on the list of tolerable items. Alcohol and freedom of religion, seemingly are.
Back to the tour. We had an interesting experience at our desert campsite. There was a demonstration on how to make bread in the sand. We all watched as a man buried hot coals and then moved them aside flattening out the heated sand. He put the dough down directly on the sand and then covered it with more previously heated sand. Sure enough, it was a 1 inch thick, large pizza looking bread 15 minutes later.
We thought that was cool, and we sat down to dinner and unexpectedly the sandy bread was sliced up and served. The shock was real, but so was the hunger and intrigued. So we all dusted our pieces of bread as thoroughly as possible and chewed through some sandy grit, and then went back for more because that bread was really freakin good.
We also had a lovely little buzz from drinking around a campfire in the desert, and half of us laid out under the millions of visible stars freezing for a while before retiring to our tents and beds lumped high with the thick blankets they provided. It was a wonderful experience and one hell of a first day in Tunisia.
Day 3 we immersed ourselves in the desert region even further. We explored a couple of desert oasis’s and admired the waterfalls, and walked on the largest (dried up currently) salt lake in Northern Africa. I found the fact that it’s the largest provider of salt for Europe to be interesting. Salt used for winter weather as opposed to eating. We learned all that one could learn about date palms at a museum, and had an absolutely lovely garden lunch at the date museum.
We had ‘4×4 rides to a star wars filming location’ up next on the itinerary, and tbh we were all a little deflated by the first Star Wars filming location we went to. Well, the ones who have watched Star Wars were disappointed I should say, I’m always just surprised filming locations are big tourist destinations. So we get in 2 4 x4 suvs and start SCOOTIN’ off roading on that salt flat racing each other. Slightly confused at to the whole experience but thoroughly enjoying going fast, we were caught completely off guard when sand dunes started appearing and we were flying over them, ripping around turns, and bouncing all over in that car.
The group in my car had a blast, and as expected… the Star Wars filming location meant nothing at all to me.
Day 4 we headed to Kairouan, considered the 4th holiest city of Islam. While there we saw the Mausoleum of the Barber, which was the final resting place for the actual barber and travel companion of Mohammad. The architecture of the mosque was beautiful; but the most memorable part to me was the rose water splashed on our hands by a man guarding the tomb. We of course then had to pay, but I was sniffing my hands for hours. I’m sure that wasn’t intended to be the highlight of this holy site but gah it smelled good.
The Great Mosque was next. Founded in 670, this ancient mosque is an architectural time portal and is the oldest Muslim place of worship in Africa. It was really expansive, and also a great example of the recycling of the Roman stones and columns as you can easily spot them throughout.
Then we shopped. Specifically, we were wined and dined (date pastries and mint tee) at a carpet shop. A couple of girls bought handmade rugs and I got to enjoy the negotiating and haggling process. It is expected in this part of the world, and I think the salesmen enjoy it just as much as I do. We continued to the east coast and arrived before dark in Hammamet, a resort town.
Day 5 started with a slow morning, the first of the trip, and I was able to enjoy a beach run and a couple of hours of laying in the sun at our lovely beachfront resort and swimming in the ocean. Our one activity for the day is maybe the most surprising thing we did on the trip.
We went to a wine tasting. I had nooo idea Tunisia had a wine region before my minimal research and itinerary building, but it produces pretty dang good wine. Nor did I realize how much they consume of it (not during Ramadan). Apparently Tunisians really enjoy alcoholic beverages per our guide who gave us a wild statistic about average consumption of Tunisians. We rolled up to the winery rather shocked they still hosted our group during Ramadan, and left rather toasted.
A wine ‘tasting’ ended up being more like a pour, and we tried 4 wines. Then we sat down to our lunch in the cellar and they brought bottles of all 4 wines out for us as well. We bought really really inexpensive (to us) great wines direct from the warehouse and made our way back to Tunis. Poor Emir and our driver (Hossam, or Jose as half the group continued to call him accidentally 😂) were privy to a heck of a karaoke dance party in the back of the van for well over an hour. Thankfully, they found us entertaining.
Day 6 was spent exploring Tunis, it was one of my favorite days. It combined the Medina and old parts of Tunis, ancient Carthage area and the history of the city, as well as the Santorini-esque Sidi Bou Said.
We explored the Medina, and got a history of the mosques and buildings built into the giant maze of alleyways as well as some nice window shopping as we quickly passed by. Carthage was one of the places I was most excited about visiting, but truly it is goneeee. The remains are a few ruins scattered on a hilltop and an amphitheater that was mostly broken apart and used elsewhere or vandalized. A surprise was the cemetery of the Phoenicians, that contains over 20,000 urns buried under stone slabs with inscriptions, some as old as 8th century BC. It’s a small cemetery tho, so the space didn’t make sense for there to be that many burial sites. Well, there are 9 layers of them! Burial plots that are just stacked on top of each other, and it’s quite obvious from part of the excavated area that there are layers. The cemetery is unique in that it is children and animals that are buried. The debate is were they sacrificed to a deity or is this just a burial ground for babies and animals. The verdict is still out.
Next we went to the Roman bath complex ruins. The Antonine bath was built between 146 and 162AD and what’s left now still easy gives the impression of what a MASSIVE structure this would have been. The aqueduct system and furnace and pipes that were used allowed for the proper experience of warm rooms, hot rooms, and a cold room. Marble columns were shipped from both Greece and Italy, and still partially standing. My own personal reconstruction in my head is just the definition of opulence and I loved walking through the rooms imagining.
Sidi Bou Said. What a fun little part of town this is! If you have googled Tunisia at all, you’ve seen the Santorini-esque white building and blue rooftop town of Sidi Bou Said. The choice of color scheme stems from a famous French painter and musician who built a palace there in the early 1900s in that color scheme apparently, and the town just followed suit. The shopping and dining is wonderful here, and the stunning views over the Mediterranean peak out from most alleyway strolls and restaurant dining. It really is a must do on a visit, but you probably don’t need more than 2 days. That completed our tour and most of the girls flew out the next morning.
The tour was not a vacation, it was an adventure and exploring a new country. It really exceeded my expectations tho. Tunisia packs so much in and I loved the diversity, the history, and the kindness of everyone we encountered.
After the tour, 4 of us checked into a beach house in La Marsa, a nice area outside of Tunis and also walking distance to Sidi Bou Said, and vacation started. We beach lounged, went to a 3 hour hammam (spa) treatment at a 5 star resort that cost $65, shopped leisurely, and played cards in our living room. It’s when traveling during Ramadan became a little more obvious and we had quite a few meals in our home. Totallllly fine.
Speaking of traveling during Ramadan. If you need the basic explanation, it’s a religious month of fasting for Muslims and an act of worship. From sunrise to sunset the majority fast, including water. So it’s obviously respectful to not eat or drink in public during daylight hours. Shops and store hours were also affected, but it seemed most of the places in the Souk and Sidi Bou Said were open from 10am to 1-2ish, and then the streets are a ghost town from 4-6 while everyone is making it home for iftar, to break fast with their loved ones. The pro for traveling during Ramadan is that we had the attractions almost completely to ourselves. I did feel bad or a little guilty multiple times for having lunch or being served at the tourist spots still open, but if they’re going to be open I suppose they would rather make money.
Also note, Tunisian Dinar is a closed currency, and you can’t exchange it back into USD. So be sure and only take out or exchange what you think you’ll need, and you will need dinar as a lot of places don’t accept credit cards.
That’s your basic rundown on a trip to Tunisia. I went with a group of very well traveled girls, but now having gone I would recommend it to anyone! I would also 100% go back, I would love to see Hammamet in full resort town mode, and I hear the nightlife scene in Tunis is really fun. I will bring an empty suitcase next time so I can buy all of the Turkish towels, jasmine perfumes, and ceramics tho.
Categories: africa, camel riding, sahara, Uncategorized
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