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TUNISIA — TUNIS SOUKS TO THE DJERBA OASIS

Story and photos by

Mention Mediterranean resorts and most people think of the sun-drenched coasts of Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Even seasoned travelers forget the opposite side of the Mediterranean Sea — Africa.

Tunisia is the jewel of the African Med. Its sunny coast appeals not only to beach-lovers but also to seekers of historical, archaeological and cultural riches.

Two women, wearing sefsaris, shop for carpets in market.
Two women, wearing sefsaris, shop for carpets in market.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shopping for carpets, silver and perfume

The best place to begin a tour of the Tunisian Med is in Tunis, the capital city. Head straight for the medina, the medieval quarter, where time's relentless script has spared the souks from a vanishing way of life. Jammed together in covered passageways and a labyrinth of small streets, the souks are grouped according to commodity, be it cloth, carpets, slippers or silver.

Wander through the dim corridors along with women veiled in ankle-length sefsaris, haggle for glimmering brass and copper plates and pay a few pennies for a dab of jasmine perfume from a glass-stoppered bottle. The price of an object, you will find, is fixed, not by its actual value, but by how much you want it.

Although French and Arabic are primarily spoken in Tunisia, most vendors can help you in English, or Swahili, for that matter! They will probably also invite you into their shops for sweet mint tea and conversation — whether you buy their wares or not.

Delicious Tunisian food

Tunis is also a good place to sample local food specialties. Try couscous, the national dish of steamed semolina topped with chunks of lamb and vegetables in a spicy sauce. Our favorite appetizer is brik, a crisp, flaky pastry stuffed with tuna and egg.

For dessert, try kab el ghzal (gazelle horns), horn-shaped pastries, stuffed with ground almonds and sesame seeds and soaked in syrup. Tunisian wines, while inexpensive, are mediocre. More potent is boukha, a grappa-style liquor, distilled from figs.

Fascinating as it is, Tunis is a city and you must leave it to get the true flavor of the Mediterranean coast. A rental car is ideal for day trips to neighboring villages.

Ancient Carthage and dazzling white villages

Archeologists at work in Carthage
Archeologists at work in Carthage
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Just north of Tunis, you will find Carthage, built from rock quarried by more than 3,500 slaves. Little remains of Carthage today, since stones from its buildings were used to build Tunis as well as Italian, Spanish and even Turkish cities. It is worth a visit, though, to watch archaeologists reconstructing the ruins.

Other day trips can be made to Kelibia, a colorful fishing village dominated by a Roman castle, to Nabeul, a city of craftsmen, specializing in ceramics, and to Hammamet, a beach resort, crowded with European tourists.

Far more appealing, is the dazzling white village of Sidi Bou Said, with its arched blue doorways and wrought-iron window grilles, trimmed with pink bougainvillea. Climb the cobbled streets to viewpoints overlooking elegant villas and the Bay of Tunis. The overall effect is certainly more Mediterranean than African.

Roman mosaics and columns in The Winter Baths at Thuburbo Majus
Roman mosaics and columns in The Winter Baths at Thuburbo Majus
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Roman cities and ruins

You must leave your base in Tunis to explore the Roman cities that flourished during the reign of the Caesars. Many of the ruins are spectacularly situated along the Mediterranean coast. Thuburbo Majus should not be missed, nor should Sousse with its Great Mosque. On Friday afternoons, the souks close and the town becomes deserted while everyone goes to the mosque to listen to the great immam (teacher).

Travelers who venture inland will find the detour worthwhile. In Dougga, the Baths of Cyclops are in ruins, except for the 1700-year-old communal latrines. In a stone bench, shaped like a horseshoe, there are 12 holes, side by side. A waste channel leads to the street gutter. Wildflowers grow in the washbasin. Also well-preserved is the sign for the ancient brothel — a phallus engraved in stone.

Raiders of the Lost Ark film location

Those of you who've seen the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, may remember the scene where a truck speeds through a narrow street, overturning stands of fruit, piles of wicker baskets and scattering people and chickens in all directions until it rolls over in a burst of flames. The setting, minus the truck, is essentially the same today. It's one of the streets of Kairouan, Tunisia's sacred Islamic city.

Arch-framed view of courtyard and minaret of the Great Mosque in Kairouan
Arch-framed view of courtyard and minaret of the Great Mosque in Kairouan
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Next to Mecca, itself, the city is the holiest place that any North African may go on a pilgrimage. The Great Mosque is open to the public, but visitors must dress conservatively, speak quietly and refrain from smoking. Although you cannot enter the prayer hall, you can peek through one of the wooden doorways to glimpse the 414 columns supporting 17 aisles of arches. The 35-metre-high minaret is the oldest in the world. At sunrise and sunset, the call to prayer echoes throughout the city.

Third-largest amphitheatre in the world

Working your way back to the coast from Kairouan, stop at El Jem to see its three-tiered amphitheatre. Better preserved than the coliseum in Rome, it once seated 30,000 spectators for gladiatorial combats, wild animal fights and the martyrdom of Christians.

The Mediterranean beckons and no more so than from the Ribat, the fortified monastery overlooking the coast in Monastir. On the beach below, a camel rests, chewing his cud, oblivious to the topless sunbathers around him.

Like Ulysses, 3,000 years ago, most visitors find themselves drawn even further south to Djerba, the fabled island of the Lotus-Eaters. Djerba is an oasis of date palms, olive trees and flowers afloat in a turquoise sea. Europeans come here to stay in its dazzling white hotels, to sunbathe, windsurf and dine on seafood for a fraction of what it costs on the Riviera.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Tunisian National Tourism Office: www.cometotunisia.co.uk

ElderTreks: www.eldertreks.com

More information on Tunisia:

Tunisia Adventure in Sahara Desert and Berber Villages by Camel and 4-Wheels