Tunisia was the first country I visited in Africa and a first encounter with Arab culture. There were a lot of jokes about how many camels I might be worth. I had also hoped it might be a chance for some spring sunshine. But the weather was disappointing - it wasn’t really warm enough to sunbathe.
This is a much anticipated revisit to Tunisia, after a very long gap. My guide is Noureddine, from Nabeul, near Hammamet, which, coincidentally, is the beach resort I stayed in on my last visit.
Tunisia lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and so, is a melting pot of cultures. The country is named after its capital city and is home to Africa’s northernmost point, Cape Angela. It is the smallest nation in North Africa, having a population of 11 plus million. It's a surprisingly green wedge, dipping into the Sahara. And, according to Wikipedia, it’s the only truly democratic Arab nation.
Tunisia was inhabited by the Berber peoples from very early times. The Phoenicians began to arrive in the 12th century BC, establishing several settlements. By the 7th century BC Carthage had emerged as the most powerful. It became a major mercantile empire and a military rival of the Roman Empire, but they grew too strong. The Romans defeated them over successive Punic Wars and flattened much of the country to ensure no resurgence. They (or Byzantines) occupied Tunisia for most of the next 800 years.
The Arab Empire, most notably the Aghlabids, took over gradually after this and Christianity gave way to Islam. The Ottoman Empire established control in 1574 and held sway for over 300 years. The French conquered Tunisia in 1881. Tunisia gained independence under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, who declared the Tunisian Republic in 1957.
Tunis, the Capital of Tunisia
I’m beginning in Tunis – that’s where my plane landed. It’s home to almost three million people if you count all the suburbs. It sprawls along the hills edging the Mediterranean (the Gulf of Tunis), behind the Lake of Tunis and alongside its port (La Goulette).
And naturally, I have to start at the core, the ancient medina, a World Heritage Site. Tunis is a good introduction to African cities. It has minarets in abundance, crumbling palaces, culture and a suitably chaotic souk easy to get lost in. It’s delightfully authentic, with covered arcades and baby blue balconies, the brightest of bougainvillea spilling over them. The guest houses here are dars, the equivalent of Moroccan riads, built round courtyards. Refined and relatively undistinguished from outside they brim with style and interesting design once though the studded doors. There are plenty of blue doors to match the balconies, though it seems that bright yellow is also in fashion.
The laid back stallholders are happy to chat. I’m shown how to make the traditional Tunisian red hats – they have a whole souk to them selves. They’re flatter than the Moroccan or Turkish varieties and are known as chechia. It’s a complicated process. They are crocheted from wool, (huge at that point), then wetted, battered, combed, dyed, moulded and baked till they are small and felted. The traditional burgundy colour comes from cochineal ants, but there are plenty of other colours and designs for men and women. Though I’m not tempted.
There are window displays of ceremonial clothes - Tunisian men wear a costume called a 'jebba', a long sleeveless tunic worn over a shirt; a vest known as a 'farmla' and trousers named 'sarouel. The most important ceremonies are weddings and circumcision, which seems to feature heavily. Noureddine tells me about his own circumcision, which was roughly 50 years ago. It takes place when the boys are about 6 years old and he was circumcised with his younger twin brothers. There was no anaesthetic used in those days and it was just a family affair – so no doctors either. His father demanded that he not cry as Noureddine was to go before his siblings. He said it wasn’t easy to obey. He was then taken to bathe in the sea, on the grounds that the salt would be helpful in healing the wounds. No holding back the tears at that point.
The other highlight is the old Al Zaytuna mosque, dating back to 698 and utilising 160 columns from the ruins of Carthage.
Tunis – Ville Nouvelle
East of the medina, through the Sea Gate (also known as the Bab el Bhar and the Porte de France) lies the modern city, or Ville Nouvelle. It’s traversed by the Tunisian Champs-Élysées, the Grand Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after the ‘Father of Independence.’ The colonial-era buildings abut various government buildings, which I’m not allowed to take pictures of, and the Independence Monument, on Independence Square. In-between, the imposing (French built), St Vincent de Paul Cathedral, still used for Christian worship.
Three lane highways weave past the airport and alongside the salt lake, mountains shrouded in mist beyond. This is up and coming Tunis, the suburbs of Carthage, La Marsa, and Sidi Bou Said. The embassies are moving further and further out this way and the shores of the lake are lined with fancy restaurants and chain hotels.
This once centre of the Punic empire nestles in the suburbs of Tunis. Carthage is famous for controlling much of the Western trade in the luxurious purple dye from the murex shell. Legend has it that Carthage was founded by the Phoenician Queen Dido (Elissa of Tyre). In 814 B, after requesting a place to settle from the resident Numidian prince, Dido was told that she could take the equivalent of the hide of a bull. She cut the hide into strips and so, was able to claim a considerable quantity of land. She chose to base her city on a hill top and called it Qart Hadasht, meaning new town.
The hill is now known as Byrsa. The Phoenician settlement was destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt again by Julius Caesar and then Augustus, who named it Cartago. He flattened the summit to build the forum, temples and library, which were destroyed in their turn by the Vandals. As if that wasn’t enough layers of history, the French built a cathedral on top of that. The towering Acropolium Cathedral is dedicated to St Louis (IX) 1890. Nowadays this cathedral is a concert hall and art gallery.
The famed ruins of Carthage are, surprisingly, spread over several sites, sprinkled around suburbia. They are, frankly, a little underwhelming. Most of the sites are Roman or later. There are the usual temples, theatres, an amphitheatre modelled on the Roman Colosseum, numerous baths and temples, and a circus. Byrsa Hill is overrun by tourists, the buses decanting streams of sightseers have come from the gigantic cruise liner we can see down in La Goulette. It’s a great view, across the port and lake, when I can find a gap in the crowds.
Fortunately, the buses can’t get to the ‘lesser sites.’ The Roman amphitheatre, also destroyed by the Vandals, is thankfully, quiet. It was designed to hold 50000. Today, there’s only me and a couple admiring the remnants of columns and imagining the lions emerging from the tunnels beneath. I’ve read that it wasn’t just animals and gladiators here. They used to flood this one for mock naval battles.
Noureddine is chauffeuring me around the various remains by car. But there’s also a light railway you can jump on. Next up, is the theatre. This one is down to Hadrian, dates from the second century and has been adapted and reconstructed for concerts today. Its original 5000 audience capacity has been expanded to 12000 for the annual film festival.
Finally, the ruins of the the Zaghouan Aqueduct of Hadrian ( he seems to have built everywhere). There are several long undamaged stretches, and in its heyday it was 132 kilometres long. The adjacent cisterns, 24 of them, held 50-60000 cubic metres of water.
Sidi Bou Said
Sidi Bou Said is the epitome of blue and white Greek villages. except it’s in Tunisia. Whitewashed domes and curly balconies. Jettied windows. Profusions of bougainvillea. Narrow streets and very steep steps. Minarets instead of church towers. It’s perched on a cliffside, with views to the Mediterranean and the lake. Sidi means holy man and this place was founded by the Sufis. Later, it became the ultimate bohemian village, made famous by Paul Klee, who took up residence here with August Macke and Louis Moillet.
It’s a great place to wander and souvenir hunt, though it's also a magnet for day trippers, who toil up hill from their buses, past the large tourist orientated market. Its popularity means enduring hassle from the many ceramic ware vendors and also some grossly inflated prices.
My hotel is a labyrinth of beautifully styled rooms layered into the cliff. The chambers and suites are linked by numerous staircases; it takes several days to work out what leads where. Most of the rooms have tiny balconies where the occupants eat their meals. (there’s also a plate glass dining room with views to the sea). The food is as gorgeously presented as the rooms.
My suite has sea views, but no balcony. There are two minuscule swimming pools and a sunbathing terrace with three beds. As it’s pushing 40 degrees it’s a little hot to go without shade. There’s a road winding down to the port, a very long way below and a stretch of sandy beach. But there’s no shade on that either and it’s packed with locals. I discover a long staircase leading back up to the village. But the climb is extremely hard work. As I’ve said many times, paradise is never perfect.
And now we’re off to Sousse. Past Hammamet. Again, it’s mostly highways and I’m fascinated by the elaborate topiary lining the routes. All the trees and bushes have been cajoled into the most elaborate of spirals and other intricate shapes. Northern Tunisia is pleasantly green and this area is scattered with golf courses. Tourism brings in much needed currency. This is yet another country where there is huge inequality and fluctuating levels of poverty that are directly related to civil unrest.
Sousse was also a Phoenician settlement originally. It’s now the third largest city in Tunisia, after Tunis and Sfax. The medina here has massive walls. In the centre is the also ancient Aghlabid dynasty (Muslim 800-909) fort or ribat. It’s part of a chain built along the coast during the crusades. Not one, but two, rows of arched crenellations either side of the battlements. Monks (or religious soldiers) were quartered here, so there is both a prayer room and a watch tower There are purple skies overhead and a sticky climb up steps of assorted sizes, for the panorama of the walled city and the casbah atop an adjacent hill.
There’s also another very old mosque. This one also dates from the ninth century.
We eat dinner at La Fiesta, a small tourist restaurant close to the sea and the many hotels. Unsurprisingly, it’s run by a friend of Noureddine’s (my guide as is often the case seems to know just about everyone in Tunisia) and Ben Khalifa Majid sits with us and chats all the while I’m eating. But the food is good. Mezze and perfectly cooked fish. No complaints.
Dar Antonia, Sousse
My guest house, Dar Antonia, also promises much. I’m given a tour, another roof top view and a modern meets palatial bedroom. I have a mezzanine day bed area and stairs to my raised bed, which is decorated with a huge golden arch. The mezzanine is reached by a wooden ladder that doesn’t seem to be attached to much. It’s used to hang the towels from the shower cubicle wedged in beneath. I don’t think I’ll be going up there. And, much to my chagrin, I walk straight into the plate glass shower wall whilst reaching for a light switch. I’ve collected a wonderful black eye. Any photos from now on will include sunglasses.
Monastir is another tourist town further down the coast. More golf courses. Noureddine says that the name is derived from the French for fort, but I think it’s actually monastery. The ribat here is very restored, but it was the setting for the films Jesus of Nazareth and Life of Brian. There’s been a lot of filming in Tunisia. The main sight is Bourguiba’s Mausoleum. Monastir was his home town and he built it well before he was deposed, and then died, but it’s still venerated.
Mahdia is the third town of the coastal Sahel region, historically important, with yet another ribat. It’s cloudy. So this city is not especially scenic today, in the dim light. There’s a large fishing harbour and attached market. A huge cemetery stretches below the ribat and down and around the Phoenician harbour. This dates back to the ninth century BC, when Mahdia was a Phoenician military settlement.
Muslim Mahdia was founded by the Fatimids in 921 and briefly made the capital of Ifriqiya. (eastern Algeria, Tunisia, western Libya and Sicily at one point). Carthage preceded it and Kairouan and Tunis followed. From the promontory and lighthouse there are panoramic views across to the beaches, promenade and modern hotels of today’s resort town.
The Roman amphitheatre at El Jem is in much better condition than the one at Carthage, though it’s a little smaller. Noureddine says it was built by Julius Caesar, but Wikipedia says it was the third on the site and that this (one of the best preserved Roman buildings in the world) was built around 238 AD, probably by the local proconsul Gordian, who became emperor as Gordian III. No-one is quite sure.
This amphitheatre, built to seat 35,000, did not only survive the Vandals; it was used as fort to defend against them, and later others. It’s also been used as a mining centre and a market place. It deserves it’s UNESCO status.
We’re driving south, away from the green, arable areas of Tunisia. This is olive tree belt. Mile after mile of silvery rows stretching to the horizon. The olives at La Fiesta were small, black and sweet. I’ve not been so lucky since. For variety, every so often, pistachio orchards, or pomegranates, the trees adorned with red flowers.
The motorway bypasses Sfax and we stop in Al Maharas, a small fishing town. It has a coastal park crammed with sculptures. This is where they host an annual festival. At our café stop, the bar tender unlocks a special toilet for me. I’m glad I didn’t get to see the others.
The people are friendly, don’t speak much English but generally some French. All the menus and additional signage are in French.
There are few dogs in this country; Tunisians like cats. They stroll everywhere, generally in reasonable condition. The locals put out fish and other leftovers and house the kittens in cardboard boxes. The felines vie for attention- and shade. There’s usually at least one cat that has sneaked under the car when we park up.
It's been a long day. Now the olive groves are giving way to arid biscuit coloured sandstone, at times rising high into mountains with a few wadis beneath. The eastern Atlas mountains and the Sahara beckon.
Tamezret is my home for the night. It’s an old Berber village ensconced on a hilltop; my hotel is delightfully situated on an adjoining hill with views across the rocky desert and to the old village.
This area around here and towards the small town of Matmata is known for its troglodyte houses. The inhabitants have made an industry of welcoming tourists to view their cool and immaculate dwellings and selling them honey and other gewgaws at the same time. The houses are centred on dug out pits or courtyards. The cell like rooms are hollowed in rows, appropriately reminiscent of beehive combs.
In Matmata itself, the main attraction is a troglodyte hotel - the Hotel Sidi Driss, used to film the Skywalker homestead on Tatooine, in Star Wars. George Lucas liked this area. Beyond, the buttes and mesas of the desert. Past another scenic village, Toujane, is the town of Tataouine(!) and several more Star Wars sites. The most scenic, by a mile, is the Berber granary, Ksar Ouled Soultane, on a hilltop. The locations are liberally decorated with film props. Some look more authentic than others.
More arid, but stunning mountain landscapes to Chichini. This Berber village is surrounded by towering mesas. There’s another ksar resting high above. And sadly, a huge echoing tourist restaurant with broken Wi-Fi and expensive bad food. Turkey kebabs with the meat completely frazzled. And they have strong tea with mint in it, but won’t make tea with only mint in it as there is no hot water. Unbelievable. At least there are views through the mountains from the breezy window.
And there’s an excellent panorama across the flat desert visible from the village on top after a painfully stiff ascent. Coming down isn’t much more comfortable. The stone path is steep and slippy. Most of the villagers have sensibly abandoned their lofty cave dwellings and relocated to houses on the lower slopes.
South and West and there are increasing signs of proper, drifting sand. Large herds of camels meander across the road in front of us. Smaller herds of goats and fat sheep waddle past, followed by their nomad tenders. Our newish tarmac follows old desert tracks and the guide pretends he hasn’t gone the wrong way as we arrive at the oasis at Ksar Ghislane much later than the signposts had predicted
I’m in a tent at Hotel Pansy. It’s advertised as a luxury camp, but the description isn’t exactly accurate. It could definitely do with some TLC. The light switches are hanging off the wall. The concrete floor and shower are stained, peeling, and worn. The mirror is filthy. The newish owner explains that its luxurious compared to other local offerings. I’m not sure I buy that as an excuse for misleading the punters.
On the plus side there’s a huge natural swimming pool and if you fight your way through the trees and scrub a magnificent view to the Sahara and a sand sea, the Grand Erg Oriental. (Workers are busy clearing the way with JCBs). There’s a pretty good view of the camp and oasis from the camp watch tower too.
It’s always good to meet sand dunes and these stretch away to the horizon. But this biscuity offering is not as impressive as others - Mauritania or neighbouring Algeria for example. Lawrence of Arabia doesn't quite work here. Nevertheless, this is Tunis’ adventure centre. Rows of quad bikes, lines of resting camels, pacing horses, all waiting to bear travellers into the Sahara. A natural hot spring pool surrounded by tented cafes welcomes their return.
I’m rudely awoken by the sound of thumping music at 6.30 a.m.. The workers are back to clearing the trees and dancing and singing as they go along. There’s no electricity yet and my concrete bathroom is dark so washing and putting in my contact lenses is a precarious business.
The food here is a little hit or miss too. Dinner is a weird meal - fried egg on a turkey escalope, very spicy ratatouille and spaghetti and no ice for my G and T. But at least they have that. Breakfast is eminently missable. Sachets of coffee and chocolate. No hot water. Or cold water for that matter. Bread. Margarine. A boiled egg. A cheese triangle. Honey. Some sort of wrapped bun filled with chocolate sauce.
120 kilometres north to Douz, through pancake flat desert, then north and west to Tozeur across the Chott el Djerid salt flats. These are mostly devoid of salt, but there are some glittery encrusted areas and a rosy pink pool area. It’s scattered with more Star Wars artefacts to create photo opportunities for tourists like me .
This region is sprinkled with oasis towns and at least one and a half million date palms giving welcome shade and creating pretty avenues . They are irrigated by solar powered pumps. The oasis town of Tozeur has a ceramic design all of its own. The Saturday afternoon medina is quietly authentic and residential. Archways, closed studded doors and the odd minaret. Groups of children peep out, chatter and point, posing for pictures. The medina seems small, but it’s frighteningly easy to get lost in the narrow streets.
Oasis Towns in Tunisia
Now, we are in pursuit of more film sites in the villages around Tozeur. The mountains here have zigzag backs, like dinosaurs.
Chibika has a spring and a far reaching view across the desert and oasis. We share it with Tunisian families enjoying their weekend and participating in a village festival. Exuberant children race around the zig zag paths and study the pools.
Tamazgha has the waterfall Grande Source at a ravine end. They got a bit carried away when they named the waterfall, but this is the desert.
Mides has the most stunning ravine views. This is where Kristin Scott Thomas died in the English Patient. Raiders of the Lost Ark also made use of the scenery here.
Driving in Tunisia
The driving in Tunisia is typically African. No one uses their indicator before they pull out. Lorries straddle both lanes. Noureddine toots at them furiously. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and they won’t budge. He berates them and does exactly the same thing himself. Sometimes, he takes his hands off the wheel to clap to music, I have been foolish enough to play on the car system. That’s not the only time we wander off the tarmac. I dare not doze, even though it's very tempting in the heat.
Most of the approaches to the towns are guarded by sleeping policemen. These may be signalled by faded paint, if we are lucky. Too often, there’s no paint at all. Hitting the bumps at pace isn’t much fun. We have to stop to have the rear number plate fixed back on.
Noureddine doesn't believe in going slowly in order to admire the scenery. and to be fair, we have long distances to travel. It’s not unusual for us to bowl along at double the speed limit in the suburbs. There are numerous (genuine, awake and alert) police posts along the way 'checking documents'. Noureddine is stopped for speeding at one of those, but he isn’t fined. ’I told them my brother is a captain of police. It’s true,’ he boasts.
The oil fields stretch towards the coast, in the other direction. Then we reach Gafsa. Mining for minerals and iron ore has underpinned the economy for many years, especially under French rule. Gafsa is the centre of the phosphate industry – we zoom past several quarries and processing plants. The town appears to be doubling in size. The suburbs are dotted with red brick construction.
I’m still alive - just. Heading north again the countryside is once again green. And there are small round carpets under each of the olive trees.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Kairouan was founded by the Umayyads in 670. Kairouan was the Aghlabid capital after Mahdia, a powerful trading hub and centre of Islamic scholarship. As well as more magnificent palaces, it is famous for the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba with a square minaret and more marble columns brought from the ruins of Carthage. The prayer hall has 414 columns supporting horseshoe arches, whilst there are more than 500 columns in the whole mosque. Legend says you can't count them without going blind. The Great Mosque, on the edge of the medina, was originally built when Kairouan was founded in 670 AD, so it’s the oldest mosque in North Africa and one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world. It’s a major pilgrimage site. For Muslims, seven trips here are said to equal one hajj to Mecca
The UNESCO souk is tranquil - as usual there is more activity in the narrow alleys around the main covered bazaars than in the centre of the medina. This is a more genuine souk experience, locals intermingling with tourists in the carpet bazaars and glittering metal workshops. I'm saying the night in the Kasbah Hotel, built right into the medina walls. Lovely staff.
Perhaps the most interesting stop is the Aghlabid Basins, outside the ramparts of the medina of Kairouan. Wikipedia says they are considered to be the most important hydraulic systems in the history of the Muslim world. They had a total storage capacity of 68,800 cubic metres. They’re not exactly beautiful, in themselves. Striking maybe - there is too much dirt and litter. But the reflections are pretty.
Dougga is a great end to my Tunisian journey. Noureddine says that the town’s original name was Thougga, meaning rocky. Wikipedia suggests that its from the Phoenician for 'roof terrace'. This makes sense. It has to have one of the best views in the country. Dougga is UNESCO listed, as 'the best preserved small Roman town in North Africa'. It's baking hot, but this proves an advantage, as no-one else is daft enough to be here exploring, the streets, houses and tunnels.
There are Punic ruins - a temple with a cleansing bath and walls from the Phoenician period, later adopted by the Romans. Most of the Roman remains date back to the second and third centuries AD. The theatre, also one of the best preserved examples in Roman Africa, seated 3500 spectators, and is still used today. Next up, the Capitol, with huge monolithic columns. Covering all bases, it's dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva Augusta. alongside a forum and separate marketplace. The Arch of Alexander Septimius beckons in the distance, before the temple of Caelaestis, picturesquely set a little further off, (much to Noureddine's annoyance), through a grove of olive trees. Juno Caelestis was the successor of the Punic god Tanit.
The streets leading between the buildings bear the marks of carts and there are holes in the doorways to tie up your horses. Not to mention the sewers beneath. You can lift up stones to see them. Roman times are easily imagined here, amongst the villas, mosaics, gymnasium, brothel and the Antonian Winter Baths. (Two other bathhouses were built outside the city centre, for the summer.) We wander through the tunnels where the slaves used to heat the water to get to the three bathrooms. There's more uncomfortable clambering up and down the steep steps. Noureddine insists we see the unconscionably sociable latrines.
At least we get to see the best of the panorama. This is not just a Roman and Phoenician site. The Numidians first settled here and there is an almost unique mausoleum (Ateban) on the slope, that dates to the second century AD. (Its inscription is housed in the British Museum).
Food in Tunisia
At its best, food in Tunisia is tasty, spicy and beautifully presented. There's couscous and pot baked lamb and chicken of course. And the speciality is brik - egg or tuna encased in a batter envelope. Lunch is too often bland food, in nasty tourist restaurants, totally lacking in atmosphere. I’m not happy, but Noureddine says they're the only places that are reputable. He doesn’t want to risk food poisoning. And who am I to deprive him of his free lunch where he’s known? I resign myself to enduring a string of such meals, or going hungry. It could be worse. And I get to sample dromedary (it's ok, resembling beef ). Parts of Tunisia are renowned for boar and hunting brings in the tourists. Muslims, of course, do not eat pork, but boar is on offer at one of the soulless lunch stops. It tastes as its name suggests.
On the plus side I've been offered fruit juices (strawberries are in season) and G and T in some gorgeous settings. Sidi Bou Said and the dars - palm trees illuminated at night. Very romantic...
Arriving in Tunisia is trouble free. No queues. Free visa on arrival. No Covid requirements, other than showing my vaccination certificate before I board my Nouvelair flight.
Leaving is not so easy. The queues at immigration are almost worse than watching paint dry. Interminable. And they won’t accept dinars once you’re past immigration, which is tough, as you can’t change them. It would be nice if they told you beforehand.
And they have changed the time of the plane by an hour, without telling me, and it's running late even beyond that. We’re delayed even further, as they have also altered the departure gate, without notifying the passengers. I only found out, as a little Turkish lady told me. I’m still sitting on the aircraft waiting for them to round up the stragglers.
Every single food item on the Nouvelair menu contains tuna (except the crisps and chocolate bars), which is fine if you like canned tuna. I suppose it’s because this is Tunisia…