Magnificent Roman ruins including a coliseum rivaling the one in Rome… amphitheaters and temples on windswept plains… beautifully vibrant mosaics in fine detail still in the homes they originally decorated… They’re here in Tunisia, in northern Africa. This is what we came for and we’re impressed… really impressed.
Places called Dougga, Bulla Regia, Sbeitla — new to us as well as the better known, but little appreciated, Carthage — are open secrets here, dynamic evidence of the many civilizations that conquered and occupied this northeast corner of Africa for several millennium.
We’ve been particularly impressed with the vast number of Roman mosaics that have been preserved, especially those at Bulla Regia, still covering the floors and walls of the Roman homes where they were originally installed; and the ones in the handsome museums in Tunis and El Jem. The entire perimeter of the Coliseum at El Jem remains, along with a third of the seats, and the nearby museum displays mosaics vividly memorializing in fine detail the cruel entertainment performed there. The still standing Capitol at Dougga was more impressive to us than the Acropolis in Athens on a hilltop, facing a wide valley, defiant, magnificent and stunning.
But Tunisia is not All-Ruins-All-the-Time. We’ve been eating, of course! The food is good, somewhat influenced by the long French occupation with lots of lamb, chicken, potatoes and squash-like vegetables served over couscous; salads; melons and dates; olives and something they call “grilled salad,” more like a salsa made from fire-roasted peppers, spices and olive oil. We love the spicy condiment of hot chilies called harissa. There are no western fast-food franchises in Tunisia, but pizza shops abound. (Yes, our clothes still fit but a little more snugly.) Despite its Islamic bent, Tunisia has passable locally grown wine and decent beer, but they can’t make a Margarita worth a damn even though they have charged us a fortune to try.
We’ve enjoyed our travel through the countryside, with terrain ranging from full-on desert with camels and all, to arid scrubland similar to Southern Spain, to classic Mediterranean landscapes covered with wildflowers familiar to us in Southern California. We were completely surprised by the beautiful, cool, forested mountains in the northwest, and the many beaches are quite impressive, though we haven’t had much time to “test them out.”
The people are lovely and friendly. The primary language is Arabic, though, as in Morocco, Amazigh (Berber) is common in the south. Most of the people we’ve met also speak French. English speakers are mostly found in the northern tourist cities. Tunisians range in size and shape and skin color with great variation; many young men are very tall, thin and good looking. About a third of the women wear some form of head covering and what a variety of beautiful scarves and colors they have. There are very few women in full Islamic coverings but most all women are modestly dressed except for the French tourists, of course!
A major factor for our interest in coming to Tunisia was our very enjoyable trip to Morocco in 2008. We have discovered that, while the countries are similar on the surface, they are different underneath. Morocco is still a very primitive country with a repressive government. While Tunisia’s government is far from being truly representational, the country is much more modern. Tunisia has potable water and electricity in all but the furthest corners. There are large, freshly painted secondary schools full of students in every Tunisian town. Modern highways (including European-style tollways) are working their way south. The result is that all this infrastructure makes Tunisia a little less “foreign” and therefore, ironically for us, a little less exciting. One bit of “infrastructure,” however, has been greatly appreciated: we have never been in any country where the public restrooms are as clean and well attended as in Tunisia.
Our guide, Manel, is a perky 20-something, “modern” (her term) Tunisian woman who looks like Penelope Cruz. “Modern,” as we understand it, means modest, but uncovered, self-directed, but observant (of her personal interpretation of Islam) and aggressively determined to move up in the world. Moving up includes choosing her own husband, not the one her father might have in mind. She has an amazing mastery of Arab, Roman and Tunisian history and dates.
We stayed in modern hotels throughout the tour, all with full amenities; rated by the Tunisians as four- and five-star properties — one notch higher than European ratings. A full buffet breakfast is a standard inclusion and all properties had WiFi available for the guests (some free and if not, the charge was moderate). All hotels that we stayed in had lovely swimming pools and many had a spa with an indoor pool.
For clients who are looking for something a little bit different, yet safe and easy to reach, Tunisia is highly recommended.