holiday in Tunisia?
sliver of sensible Islamic republic kick-started the Arab spring of democracy and got into all sorts of mayhem in the process but still offers an attractive combination of probable sunshine, good beaches
and superb ancient ruins.
The country appears to be primarily targetting package tourists,
so hotels are well set up to host and entertain that kind of clientele.
History? Hannibal grew up here, Carthage is in the suburbs of Tunis,
and Star Wars was partly filmed at Matmata.
Tired of Roman ruins and beaches? Sahara dunes and a thousand grumpy
camels await your pleasure...
And all this comes at a reasonable price, with fair and varied food
that's mostly better than north African neighbours.
- A very large, central chunk of Tunisia is visually dull. Driving
the classic six/seven hours (one way) from Tunis down to Matmata/Sahara
the view is flat and featureless, offering little more than 55 million
olive trees and a few shabby, half-built towns, though seaside towns like Sousse
and Mahdia have impressive forts,
- Souk (market) sellers can be aggressive and unpleasant. Don't
show interest unless you really want to haggle...
French is widely spoken, English - outside main tourist areas -
May, June, September
OK: April, Oct (variable weather, could be windy, chilly, wet) and
July, Aug (excessive heat and crowds)
Worst: Oct-March (rain, chilly) and Ramadan (Muslim fasting month, dates depend on full moon so may differ by one day depending on location. 9 July-7 August 2013.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights:
1 week for some culture, some beach life.
Pleasant: 2 weeks - visiting ancient sites and traditional towns,
doing the dune thing and having a beach ball.
**Tunis has a walkable city centre with a World Heritage
7th century old town of narrow streets and nail-studded doors, an
interesting souk (market), a pretty French zone, a superb museum
(the Bardo), the pathetic remnants of magnificent old Carthage on
the outskirts and a lovely, classic Mediterranean village - Sidi
Bou Said - on the clifftop nearby. Finally there's a good beach
in the upmarket La Marsa suburb.
The last three locations are easily accessible by the TGM, the Tunis
suburban train line.
**Hammamet is the country's biggest
tourist destination, a lively beach town only 60km from Tunis, but
more European culture than local, with prices to match. Excellent
beaches, naturally, but also golf courses.
**Sousse is an attractive seaside town with a large fort, mosque, massive
city walls, relatively relaxed Medina and an excellent museum specialising
in 3rd century mosaics.
*Kairouan is one of Islam's top four
holy places, with an impressive Great Mosque and some other fine buildings.
*Tozeur and Chott el Jerid salt lake.
This is a palm-packed oasis town near the Chott el Jerid with a
maze of streets in the old quarter and a good traditional culture
museum, but mostly not very attractive. The 5,000sq.km salt lake
ranges from dull to technicolour depending on the weather.
**Djerba island is a totally different
experience from cosmopolitan north Tunisia, with the same cute souks
and narrow streets but a much slower pace, fewer tourists and less
**Matmata's bleak and blasted landscape
and 'underground' Berber homes attracted Star Wars location scouts
and now attracts mobs of tour buses, though they do tend to visit
Guide probably needed.
*Douz, 'self-styled 'Gateway to the
Sahara', is a relaxed town with a famously colourful Thursday market
and lots of desert activities on offer, from biking to quad bikes
to camels. The desert in the immediate vicinity tends to be awash
with large groups of learner camel drivers in fake Berber costumes.
Better trek companies take tourists at least 20km out to the Grand
Erg Oriental by 4WD, then off you go...Guide needed.
*Ksar Ghilane is a cute oasis 140km
south of Douz with a swimming hole, a few cafés, a collection
of magnificent dunes and little else. 4WD desert nomads hang
**Tatouine/Ksour. Tatouine is uninteresting
but a good base to visit the hilltop Berber villages around it and
the stunning ksour (fortified granaries).
**Dougga's hilltop site has the best preserved Roman ruins in Tunisia
- and a lot of them - particularly the Capitol structure.
*El-Jem houses nothing much of interest save for the massive Roman
*Sbeitla (aka Sufetula) more great, well-preserved Roman temples.
Watersports: a good, varied selection at some excellent beaches,
especially on the north coast e.g Tabarka or Bizerte, or down south
Camels: into the Sahara, especially
from Douz and Zaafrane near Chott el Jerid salt lake, in the south.
Hiking: in the beautiful, wooded Kroumirie
Mountains, in the northwest, but poorly marked trails. Organised
treks are offered from Tabarka.
Golf: good courses at Hammamet, Djerba,
Tabarka, Tunis and Port el- Kantaoui.
Bird watching: migrating birds stop
off in large numbers at Ichkeul National Park - not far from Tunis,
from autumn to springtime. Including: eagles, hawks, storks and
numerous water birds.
n.b. Ramadan (dates above).
March, Octopus Festival, Kerkennah.
June/July, Moulid al Nabi, celebrating Mohamed's birthday with feasts
July, El-Jem International Music Festival, (orchestral), El-Jem's
early July, Tabarka Jazz Festival, Tabarka.
July, Festival of Malouf (trad music), Testour.
July-Aug, Dougga Festival of classical drama, Dougga.
July-Aug, Carthage International Festival (music and dance), in
Carthage's ancient sites, Tunis.
early Nov, Sahara Festival, Douz, camel racing and other colourful
Nov, end of Ramadan (Eid el Fitr), much feasting and celebration
No big problems here though Tunisian dinars are not supposed
to be available/taken out of the country.
Travellers cheques are commonly accepted, as are credit cards,
but carry some local currency too - theft is rare.
Locals don't tip much, and it's not obligatory, but, as usual,
waiters in tourist establishments and taxi drivers have learnt
to expect a 10% tip.
Tunisian food is good, healthy, good value, varied and often extremely
spicy. Bread (especially in baguette form) and couscous (semolina)
are staples, while salads, soups and fruit are popular.
Most main courses, however, contain some kind of meat (particularly
turkey or lamb) or seafood (expensive).
Like other north African cousins, carpets, copper, brass and gold
jewellery are the main offerings here, though good quality doesn't
Market vendors can be extremely pushy and difficult, using tricks
such as...'You have see festival near here?' - then taking you to
see a woman weaving a carpet inside a shop.
It's important to develop an aura of untouchability when cruising
the medina, with an assured, uncontestable 'Non, merci!'
being your first line of defence.
Brush up on a few useful French phrases - Bonjour, bonsoir and
merci at the very least, with the occasional inshallah (God willing)!
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