Off the Beaten Track: Check out Tunisia

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I thought I had mastered driving in Tunisia’s chaotic traffic – until I spotted the camel trotting up behind me in a swirling roundabout near the ancient Roman site of El Djem. I steered away to avoid the beast and an oncoming taxi. 

Camels are not common on the streets of Tunisia; they are hired out for tourists.  But it was just one of the surprises awaiting us during a two-week visit to this North African nation in August with my wife and daughters, one who was studying Arabic in Tunis, the capital. 

Tunisia is not on the radar screen of most Seattle-area travelers, or for most Americans. Some may know the region as a key battleground in World War II, or as the birthplace of the Arab Spring movements that swept the Mideast in 2011.  But Tunisia deserves a closer look. 

Tunisia is ancient, scenic, lively, and welcoming to visitors who are willing to tolerate a certain amount of chaos.  Americans and Europeans have been crowding Rome, Paris, and Athens this sweltering summer while Tunisia is remarkably free of tourists even at the most spectacular sites. Your dollars go much farther here than in the better-known destinations.

Unlike its neighbors, Libya and Algeria, Tunisia has a stable government, although the actions of an increasingly authoritarian president are causing increasing concern. The streets are safe, transportation is cheap and accessible, and food options range from street fare to fine dining. The people are warm and friendly.

The medinas, or old cities, throughout the country are remarkably well preserved.  They surround bustling markets filled with residents. The Mediterranean shore offers many fine swimming beaches.

The country boasts some of the best-preserved Roman ruins anywhere.  At the sprawling Antoninus Baths in Carthage, or the finely preserved amphitheater of El Djem, we were often alone or among only a handful of visitors.  

A Rich History and Uncertain Future

Founded by the Phoenicians in 814 BC as part of its far-flung trading empire, Carthage (today a suburb of Tunis) grew to become the leading power in the Mediterranean –  until Rome came along. Despite the early victories of Hannibal against the Roman legions, the Third Punic War came to an end with the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.

Under Roman rule, Tunisia became one of the leading grain producers in the Mediterranean.  Successive Romans built a series of settlements complete with public baths, amphitheaters, aqueducts, and roadways. 

After the fall of Rome, the Vandals swept in around 439 AD, followed by Arabic forces from the east in 670 AD, the Ottomans in 1534 and finally the French in 1881.  It was not until 1956 that France gave up control and independence was declared. The colonial legacy remains.  French is a widespread second language and is mixed liberally in the local Arabic dialect.  The streets are filled with small Renault and Citroen taxis. 

As in many other newly independent states, Tunisia is still dogged by economic and political uncertainty. It gave birth to the Arab Spring movement in 2010 that reflected widespread unrest over corruption, authoritarian governments, and a lack of economic opportunities. 

More than a decade later, the country has yet to fully realize the promise of the Arab Spring. Inflation is running high and educated young people struggle to find work. 

Seizing on popular discontent in July 2021, the current president, Kais Saied, a former conservative law professor, issued a declaration firing the prime minister, halted parliament, and assumed all executive power.  He later pushed through a new constitution that strengthened his authoritarian powers. Since February, more than 20 opposition politicians, journalists, and business figures have been arrested under various charges such as “plotting against state security” and “terrorism.” Saied’s popularity has actually risen with his promises to shake up the government. 

The political outcome remains in doubt.  The country badly needs a large aid package from Europe but Saied has resisted the austerity measures the loans would require. “It is a time when people are feeling edgy.  There is a drought, inflation and unemployment is high,’’ said one American working in Tunis. Saied is getting support with a tough-guy image “sort of like Donald Trump,” she said.

Visitors sense little of the political unrest.  Tourists naturally are welcomed warmly, and they provide a key source of income for the country, which exports olive oil and phosphates. It has small oil reserves.

Although the State Department warns against travel to the Libyan and Algerian border areas, the country is largely open to visitors.  Visits to Star Wars filming locations are popular.

 “We have been surprised at the ease at which we can access any part of the country,’’ said the American in Tunis. “We love it here.  We go out on walks past ruins that are 2,000 years old.  It’s incredible.”

Flights to Tunisia via Paris or Frankfurt are surprisingly convenient, just a two-hour hop over the Mediterranean. We had no difficulties navigating the bustling Tunis airport. When arriving, do what the locals do: take taxis, which are cheap and convenient but often small.  The best advice is to download the Bolt app to your phone, which allows you to see the price, time of arrival, and driver before they arrive. Cash payment is preferred.  Buses are often very crowded.

French is the most common second language, with English not common outside cities.  Signage typically is in both Arabic and French. The metropolitan areas have a wide range of hotel accommodations and eating options: street food, tiny cafes, and fine-dining establishments. Credit cards are widely accepted in the cities but less so in rural areas and souks.  ATMs are common in cities but be careful of high fees. Travelers are advised to avoid tap water but instead drink bottled water, which is cheap and available everywhere.

Driving in urban areas can be daunting, but the traffic is generally slow-moving. There is a well-maintained system of major highways linking the key areas, as well as a rail system. Rental cars are easily available and can be delivered to your accommodation.  Tunis Air also flies to key cities, although its schedule is not always reliable.

It’s a Muslim country, so visitors should be mindful of religious and cultural norms.  In the northern and coast cities, Western clothing is common for men and women.  In rural southern areas, women should wear long skirts and cover their shoulders.  Alcohol is available in upscale restaurants in cities, but not commonly in rural areas.  

We felt very safe throughout our visit, but travelers should use the usual safeguards in cities to avoid pickpockets and scammers. Don’t leave luggage visible in cars at tourist sites.

For our family, the major attractions were the amazingly well-preserved Roman ruins and the bustling medinas. The Bardo Museum, closed since 2021, has just reopened, housing many spectacular mosaics and other ancient artifacts. 

Tunis’s Medina dates from 698 AD and its warren of streets is little changed from ancient times, exhibiting signs of the waves of cultures that have swept over the region for two millennia. Sections of the city’s ancient wall still stand today.  The souks are home to innumerable tiny shops selling every conceivable item of clothing, household goods, shoes, spices, jewelry, and rugs. Look for the handmade traditional red cloth caps, sandals and poufs, or leather footrests.  The calls to prayer from the Zitouna Mosque echo in the tiny lanes.

Successive Roman emperors invested heavily in towns, roads and aqueducts throughout the country.  The most outstanding example in Tunis is the sprawling second-century AD Baths of Antoninus, more than 600 feet long overlooking the Bay of Tunis.  It boasted swimming pools, hot and cold pools, outdoor and indoor gymnasiums.  On the hillside above are the remains of homes of wealthy Romans. 

For fine dining, we enjoyed Le Golfe, Cliff and Casa Lico.  Fondouk El Attarine is a wonderful French-influenced restaurant tucked away in the Medina. 

Instead of accommodation in Tunis proper, consider less congested Carthage and La Marsa neighborhoods.  A popular tourist destination is Sidi Bou Said, a neighborhood with a steep shopping street topped by some of the finest views in the city.  The street is crowded with shoppers every day, especially when a cruise ship disgorges its passengers at the nearby port.

South of the city lies Uthina, a Roman town established as a defense against rebel desert tribes, with the extensive remains of a forum, amphitheater, homes, and public baths.  A new visitors center has informative displays about the ruins and their history.

Further south, about 125 miles from Tunis, are the restored ruins of the El Djem amphitheater, the Roman world’s third largest after the Colosseum in Rome and a now destroyed one in Capua. With walls rising 100 feet, it had the capacity for 35,000 spectators.  

We drove 330 miles south to the resort island of Djerba, reached over a causeway originally built by Romans. Fne beaches and warm seas made it a vacation playground in ancient times. It is also known for a neighborhood “Djerbahood” decorated with murals by artists from all over the country.

Djerba also is home to North Africa’s oldest synagogue, El Ghriba.  While predominately Muslim, Tunisia also is home to a small Jewish population. Jews originally fled from the Mideast in Roman times, and again later when expelled from Spain in 1492. 

One of the island’s most popular restaurants is Haroun, perhaps the only place (outside of Disneyland) where you can dine aboard a pirate ship. Restaurant Scilla is known for Italian-influenced dishes.

We found invaluable the just-published Brandt Guide to Tunisia, written by Oscar Scafidi, a historian and North African traveler.  It dives deep into the history, culture and politics of a colorful, fascinating country. 

Tunisia offers a unique travel experience. We left feeling there is much more to see and hopeful the nation can build on its nascent independence and emerge successfully from its challenges.

Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt is a former writer and editor for local newspapers. He recently retired as senior executive policy advisor for the Port of Seattle.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you. It was a treat to follow in your family’s footsteps, Mike. You have given many a taste for a not-often-heralded experience. Some of your adventures — but no means all of them — echo two occasions when I traveled to Morocco and Jordan to help friends teach women there to run for office and – in spare moments — tour the souks and historic sites.

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