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Medina Beach Hammamet Tunisia

In the footsteps of Queen Dido, Ulysses, Sir Winston Churchill and even Luke Skywalker!
The first thing we want to say is that we've just returned from our first trip to Tunisia, we're enchanted and we're determined to go back!

We succumbed to one of long trips that Canadian tour operators have begun offering in recent years. Tunisia is not a country that you go to for a one-week vacation. But since you can have four or five weeks there for the price of a one- or two-week all-inclusive package in the Caribbean, why not go? We suspect these bargains won't last long!

The country

Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Basin, Tunisia is well known for its pleasant year-round climate and seaside resorts (the summers are very hot and the winters are mild with an average temperature of 15oC). When we visited in February, the temperature averaged 20oC. And we set about discovering a small country that offers many treasures and a cultural richness we had hardly suspected.

Small but varied

The Cap Bon peninsula, in the north of the country, offers rolling green fields, olive and citrus groves and vineyards; as you travel southward towards the border with Algeria, the vegetation becomes scarce and eventually yields to a majestic desert.

Tunisia's culture has been forged by its 3,000 years of heritage and bears the traces of many cultures: Punic, Arab, Turkish, African, European and Muslim.

We'd like to share with you some of our best and most fascinating discoveries, which elicited the occasional oohs and aahs. Of course, there's much more to see and do. We won't tell you about the sandy beaches along the Mediterranean, or the hotels that range from the most basic to the most modern and luxurious, with spas included. And of course when you're talking about the desert, you're talking about camels and camel rides. But that's not specific to Tunisia. So let's take a look at what you won't find anywhere else!

In the north, there's the Punic city of Kerkouane, where excavations have revealed an entire city as it was when it was destroyed by the Romans and abandoned in the middle of the third century BC. The site gives a good idea of the urban planning, economy and daily life of that era.

You won't want to miss Carthage, the ancient Phoenician city founded by Queen Dido, where archeological excavations continue to this day. The Antonine Baths, the Damous el-Karita ruins and the National Museum of Carthage are all worth a visit.

Tunis, the capital of the country, has all the attractions of a modern city. The city is laid out around avenue France and avenue Bourguiba, which are reminiscent of the rue de Rivoli and the Champs-Élysées in Paris, with their cafés, elegant hotels, stores, art galleries and so on. You must see the Bardo Museum and the section reserved for subsea archeological excavations, which offers the finest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. You also won't want to miss the Medina of Tunis, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where in the middle of the souks stand the Great Mosque and several palaces.

The small village of Sidi Bou Saïd is a prime tourist attraction, with its many souvenir shops and art galleries and lovely blue and white architecture. It's perched on a seaside cliff, about 20 minutes from Tunis. We especially enjoyed stopping for coffee and a treat at the picturesque Café des Nattes, where we delighted in the decor, the pastries and the magnificent view from the top of the hill.

Heading south toward the sea, in El Djem we visited a Roman amphitheatre from the second century, the third-largest in the world after the Rome Coliseum and the theatre at Capoua. It's said to be the most important monument in Africa, and we were suitably impressed!

The desert and its oases

Gabès, a seaside oasis, and the island of Djerba. You'll want to stroll around and savour your visit. Matmata, a village with traditional "troglodyte" houses consisting of caves. Scenes from Star Wars were filmed here and you can still visit some of the sets. Seeing the sets surge up out of the dunes is a spectacular experience that will bring back fond memories for fans of Luke Skywalker.

Douz, Tozeur and the crossing of Chott El Djerid, a huge dry lake where you can see mirages. And, believe it or not, we saw more than one!

Metlaoui, the location for scenes from The English Patient, is a fine example of a mountain oasis.

A Muslim country but...

Islam is Tunisia's main and official religion, but the country is known for its tolerance and openness to other cultures. Unlike other Muslim countries, Tunisia prohibits proselytizing and polygamy and also restricts the wearing of the hijab, notably in government offices and public schools. Even in the small villages in the interior of the country, we saw very few women who were completely veiled.

Tunisia is a safe country that coexists peacefully with its neighbours, and it shows. The country's government is highly stable and has adopted legislation that promotes education, healthcare, environmental protection and women's rights.

Women can walk about safely without being harassed. Of course, people will say hello and offer to show you around or take you to buy a carpet from a "cousin." If you reply politely and continue on your way, they usually won't insist, except in the city bazaars, where the vendors are little more aggressive. But if you keep on walking, you'll generally have no problems.

The country has created a "tourist police." A police officer who encounters a Tunisian man with a foreign woman will politely check to be sure there is no problem.

Crafts

The country is known for its many crafts. Tunis and Nabeul are recognized for their pottery and Kairouan is the national centre for carpets. Tunisia also has a long and rich tradition of mosaics and magnificent embroidered “babouches” (shoes) , which are sold everywhere.

And, above all, say yes at least once to the vendors who offer small bouquets of jasmine at the corner of the street. Jasmine is the flower that symbolizes the country. It's the fragrance of Tunisia and it's memorable. As are the orange blossoms!

Cuisine

You'll eat well in Tunisia, even though there isn't much variety. Tunisian cuisine is essentially based on vegetables, lamb, beef, fish and pasta. Even though the traditional meal is couscous, the dish eaten most often is pasta, usually served with tomato sauce and harissa, a hot pepper sauce. Tunisian tajine is a stew made with eggs, meat and potatoes and is quite different from the Moroccan variety. Finally, you have to try brik à l’oeuf! Prepared properly, it's a delicacy.  (photo)

You'll save on wine and beer, which are available but not offered automatically. Don't forget you're in a Muslim country.

Celebrations and festivals

Various celebrations and festivals take place around the country but, in our opinion, one of the most appealing is the International Hammamet Festival. It takes place in July and August at the Hammamet International Cultural Centre, which features a neo-Greek open-air theatre in a magnificent garden with more than 300 species of plants. In the middle of the garden stands the Villa Sébastien, a masterpiece of traditional Tunisian architecture. Sir Winston Churchill and several artists and writers, including Paul Klee, André Gide and Giacometti, stayed there. The Cultural Centre with its garden and Villa Sébastien are open to visitors even when the festival is not on.

Getting around

You can of course rent a car, but we recommend taking public transit (train and bus), which is efficient and safe. Taxis are also very reasonable, especially share taxis, but be sure to get a late-model vehicle. The highways are in good shape but the secondary roads are bumpy, and you'll regret having opted for a charming driver rather than a more recent car.

Automated banking machines are easy to find, even in small towns, and they accept debit cards and credit cards with a PIN.

Getting there

Several tour operators, including Tour Solazur, Sultana Tours, Exotic Tours, Rêvatours, Jolivac and more recently Tours Mont-Royal, offer long trips at very reasonable prices. Your travel agent should be able to offer you a wide selection of appealing itineraries and stays.

 

Christiane Theberge

Hammamet Beach Tunisia
Hammamet Beach

Kerkouane Punic city TunisiaKerkouane, Punic city

Sidi Bou Saïd  Tunisia
Sidi Bou Saïd

El Djem ColiseumTunisiaEl Djem Coliseum

Star Wars set
Star Wars set

Matmata
Matmata

Hammamet Market TunisiaHammamet Market


 

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