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Tunisie

Tunisia

From the blond sand of the beaches in the North to the golden sand of the southern desert!

We visited Tunisia five years ago, before the Arab Spring, and were therefore curious to see if the country had changed since. And the answer is both “yes” and “no”! Let’s see how much!


Should we still put Tunisia on our travel list?

The question is a fair one and my answer is: Yes.

First, because terrorism has become a truly global threat. It can hit anywhere, at any time, including in Canada, as we have recently seen.

Second, because rather paradoxically, Tunisia is safer today even more than yesterday. Following the terrorist attack of last June 26, the country has put in place many measures aiming to increase the security of tourists.

At last, because we must show solidarity with the people of Tunisia. As has so rightly said the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) Secretary general: “These attacks are direct attacks to the livelihood of the Tunisian people. Tourism is a lifeline for the economy of the country and we stand by the Government and the people of Tunisia in continuing to support the recovery of this vital sector to the future and wellbeing of Tunisians.”

There is no nationwide advisory in effect for Tunisia from the Canadian Government. However, a high degree of caution due to the heightened threat of terrorism should be exercised in the country, as in many others.

Christiane Théberge


On the coast 

Since we landed in Tunis, this was an opportunity to explore the city, the Cap Bon Peninsula, and the Mediterranean coast – Tunisia has 1,148 km of coasts on the Mediterranean Sea, with beaches that cover 575 km – before heading southwards to the desert, which covers almost 40% of the country.

There, we saw a great deal of vegetation, palm trees, olive trees, vines, bougainvilleas, geraniums and even poinsettias, along with expanses of sand as far as the eye can see.

All white and blue: Sidi Bou Saïd

We lay our suitcases down in Gammarth, 20 km from Tunis, close to Carthage, which we visit later that same day.

On our way, our first glance is of the charming city of Sidi Bou Saïd, which is all white and blue. One could easily believe that it might be a twin city with one in Greece.

We enjoy strolling through its lively narrow streets, while our eyes are constantly attracted by shades of blue: that of the sea further down and the prevailing blue in Sidi Bou Saïd, covering the doors and the wrought-iron bars of the windows.

The same thrill emerges when we come across the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace, once private and today transformed into a museum and Centre for Arab and Mediterranean music. With its walls, finely crafted stucco and sculpted wood, engraved or painted ceilings, its luxurious Persian and Andalusian garden, and its period furniture, it is a true Arab-Islamic architectural gem. Also remarkable is a collection of musical instruments, collected by the owner, the Baron d’Erlanger, a music lover and painter – whose works adorn the walls.

A stop is in order at the famous Café des Nattes. It owes its name to mats that cover the floors, the bench seats and even a few walls. It is also famous for its pine nut tea (unusual, but delicious), and the spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea offered on its terrace.

A little further on, attracted by the aromas, we stop in front of a small stand to taste a local specialty: a delicious warm bambalouni (light fritter covered with sugar). It will be our dessert after a delectable lunch of sea bass enjoyed at the restaurant Au Bon Vieux Temps.

Carthage

With the need to burn some calories, we head to the impressive Carthage Roman Aqueduct, one of the longest in the Roman Empire. With its 15 gigantic cisterns – 100 meters long by 8 meters wide and a depth of 9 meters flowing on 134 km – it was used from half of the 2nd century BC until 698 of our era. What is left of it allows us to easily imagine the major engineering undertaking it signified.

Close by, on Byrsa Hill, there are the historical remains of the Punic city, with many patrician villas, aristocrats’ properties from the early 2nd century, ruins of basilicas, shops and private and public spaces, such as the Roman Forum, all which reveal the expanse of the city of Carthage as it once was when two Punic harbors still existed. One shouldn’t expect to see a precisely delimited perimeter; the area is immense and the ruins have been scattered.

The lovely St. Louis Cathedral stands proudly on the hill. It is now used as a concert hall and known by the name of “Acropolio”.

A little further, we discover the Thermes of Antonius; they were the largest in the Roman Empire outside of Rome: 1,800 people could bathe, clean themselves, play sports in the arena and relax in a hundred rooms. Gigantic! Wandering under a few arcades that still stand does not provide a real idea of the span of the vaulted roofs that were destroyed. It is said that they reached the height of an 8-story building. However, the reconstruction of an immense column of the frigidarium (cold pool) from still-existing elements gives us a better picture of the monumental structure.

Tunis: a few must-see

Because of the time factor and since we had already visited Tunis during previous stays, we settle for a quick peek at a few crucial locations.

Bardo National Museum

Located in the official palace and residence of the Bey (King) of Tunis, the imposing setting, alternately ancient and modern, contributes to the charm of this museum. The Bardo, one of the most important archeological museums in the Maghreb, was the stage of a deplorable terrorist attack last March.

Its skillfully featured collection of rich Roman mosaics, sculptures, pottery, bronze, glassware and reliefs depicting the Old and the New Testament trace the history of the country, from prehistory to the Punic, Roman, Christian and Arab-Muslim periods. Worth mentioning are the engraved tombstones that display specific details such as the age of the deceased, including the days and hours.

The Medina

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Medina contains madrasas (schools), houses and souks where merchants and shopkeepers compete to attract our attention and the Zitouna Mosque, the oldest and most important religious building in Tunis . A few small museums and palaces are worth a stop. And why not break for an excellent coffee in a likeable institution: Café Ben Yedder, which operates its own coffee bean roaster on the other side of the street!

An immense, fabulous, very colorful and busy fish market provides us with a pretty good idea of the diversity of the bounty produced by the sea in Tunisia: sea bass, shrimp, red tuna, sole, and octopus… our mouths water just at the thought!

Our escapade in the capital will end with a stroll on the beautiful Habib Bourguiba Avenue which crosses the city, with a stop in front of the Cathedral St. Vincent de Paul. We are quite stunned to see barbed wire, not very aesthetically pleasing, surrounding the public square facing the cathedral. A few remains of the Arab Spring, we are told!

For the sea and the beach: Hammamet

The sun is shining and the temperature rises, so it is time to draw closer to the sea. Let’s head to Hammamet, a renowned seaside resort with its long sandy beaches. As expected, the sea, sun, white sand, palm and orange trees present a united front to provide a perfect coastal stay.

Its large medina with winding alleys by the seashore is always bewitching. Surrounded by the ramparts of a 15th century fortress, it displays the whole variety of crafts produced by local artisans: Nabeul pottery with earthy tones adorned with green and brown lines and drawings, rush “smâr braids” (woven mat), feast day costumes that are richly embroidered, intricate jewelry, etc.

Here as well are the blue doors that contrast with the whiteness of the walls, where a fish pattern, also blue, is often painted: a symbol of good luck.

Of course, the restaurants in the area offer a good variety of fish and other seafood. We enjoy a finger-licking good sole at the warm terrace, Chez Achour, thankful for the shade provided by a huge tree. The sun was hitting hard!

And one must not forget that Hammamet’s name is derived from hammam, a “place of well-being.” More than fifteen balneotherapy centers have storefronts in the city. How could we not experience one of the hammams?

This will be experienced in Yasmine Hammamet, a modern seaside resort, neighbor of Hammamet, which claims to be a “seaside resort par excellence” with its 30 some hotels, huge modern convention centre, golf course, marina and its “Medina Mediterranea”, which aims to reconstitute a traditional Arab city.

We spend a few hours in beautiful installations, where every corner is given over to hygiene, and where walls, ceilings and floors are covered with ceramics, white stones and terracotta. We appreciate alternately a humid sauna, a body scrub, an exfoliation, a clay body wrap and a wonderful massage. Seawater is abundantly used between all of those basic cares, and perfumed tea is offered during relaxation breaks in small, comfortable salons. All that pampering was provided by warm, capable, attentive personnel who have expert hands. Complete, absolute relaxation!

Sousse

After an almost one-hour drive, Sousse welcomes us. A huge bustling resort with many modern hotels and apartment buildings, it is ideal for a long stay.

But it is the old city, with its medina encircled by crenulated walls, flanked by square towers built in the Middle Ages, that attracts our attention.

Its ribat, built in 821 on the ramparts of a fortress whose origin is probably Byzantine, is one of the most interesting forts and religious buildings on the North African coast. With the Kasbah, housing a rich archeological museum, it is a beautiful complex in the middle of the green.

Close by, at the back of the museum, we come across vestiges that are a little more recent: those of the Sousse Red Light District that was entirely burned down, ransacked and whose doors have even been closed up to ensure return is not possible. This was the second red light district in the country. Even though prostitution is legal in Tunisia, after 2011 Islamic groups forced the closure of most of the red light districts in the country.

Before heading southwards to the vastness of the desert, we enjoy a final lunch at Port El Kantaoui by the sea. On a terrace, in a marina housing luxury - as well as modest - boats, the sea bass had the fresh taste of the ocean that we wanted to take away with us.

On the road to the desert

We cross through the center of the country, which is covered in olive trees: more than 70 million. A long tradition since the Phoenicians, Tunisia is the 4th largest producer of olive oil after Greece, Spain and Italy. It is easy to purchase extra virgin oil, first cold pressed, in local supermarkets at virtually no cost.

Ten kilometers from the village of Hergla, famous for its baskets and mats woven with Alfa, from which fine paper is also produced, a stop gives us an opportunity to see a few specimens of this handicraft offered on the side of the road by an artisan, under the light of a beautiful sunset. It was a great pity that the pieces were too large for our suitcases!

As we moved onwards, the strips of huge cactus bordering the road become more and more dense. They are in fact prickly pears, called “figue d’Inde” here and originated in Mexico. They serve as barriers and also help fight soil erosion. Moreover, they are a sign of what is to come: the desert.

On our way: Kairouan 

Kairouan, the holy town, is nicknamed “the town with three hundred mosques” and mostly known for the exceptional Sidi Saheb mosque, a 17th century building, the most ancient mosque in the Western world; its minaret, a three-story square tower, is the oldest in the world.

We will also remember this city for its numerous stalls that offer piles of honey doughnuts and little date-filled pastries, makroudhs, a specialty in the town. It is also known for its Berber carpets (kilim) with colorful lozenges.

At last our oasis! 

Tozeur is an oasis with 400,000 date palm trees and is where the Deglet Nour is grown. A golden, delicate and delicious date, it is known as the “Queen of dates”.

A walk in the heart of the palm grove is an opportunity to share tea with the workers who explain to us, amongst other things, the importance of the irrigation system, which distributes the water provided from 200 springs in order to respond to the volume of 1,000 litres per second.

With the objective of discovering in more depth the life of this palm grove, one of the most famous in the world, we head to the Eden Palm complex, a concept which draws both on a museum and an organic recovery and transformation center for the products of the palm grove.

The permanent exhibition, which is quite fascinating and commented upon by a knowledgeable guide, is well worth the visit and perfectly complements what we learned earlier during our walk through the palm grove. A tasting session of organic produce based on date and palm sweetly ends the tour. Date preserves with caramel and chocolate particularly seduced us and we are still enjoying them on our morning toast.

Around Tozeur, we cross dunes (erg) and stone deserts (reg) – for crossword enthusiasts – to reach Onk El Jemal. Of course, we cannot avoid a visit to the village where “Star Wars” was filmed, where we can still see a good portion of the film set. It is quite surreal to see this tiny “village”, so-called from the future, in the middle of sand dunes with dromedaries that seem quite at ease next to replicas of rocket ships. Only Luke Skywalker is missing in the surroundings!

Back in Tozeur for our final night, we have dinner downtown in a small, traditional, and charming restaurant: the Dar Dada. The lamb dish in gargoulette (marinated lamb with olive oil, garlic, saffron, thyme and rosemary cooked slowly in an earthenware jar sealed with a strip of dough that hardens while cooking) was particularly tasty.

It was also our last chance to take a closer look at the traditional architecture of Tozeur, where the ochre and the clay of the stones are harmoniously placed in diamond shapes and other geometrical designs on the dividing walls and houses.

Salted immensity 

With the hopes of admiring an exceptional sunrise, we leave Tozeur quite early the next morning to cross the Chott el-Jérid, a great dry salt lake – not so dry though since it was covered by a thick layer of water due to the abundant rain from previous days. We are rewarded with a spectacular symphony of yellows and oranges that reflect on the white vastness that is bordered by mountains.

A total immersion 

It is still early when we reach Douz for the weekly market, already in full swing, and it’s a quite amazing trade fair with its animal market where camels, goats and lamb mix with chickens, roosters and dogs in a maze that is impossible to browse without risk of trampling on an animal’s foot or something else. It was a little more fragrant and less pleasant.

Other parts of this large market are dedicated to usual day-to-day needs, others to clothes, and another houses a large food sector. In a nutshell, it is a feast of colors, smells and sounds.

This is to say nothing of the customers dressed in all manners: traditional, with bournous and turbans; in Western styles, with leather jackets and caps. We are reminded that nomadic families have lived for millennia in this abundant oasis and supply themselves from this market, just like the urban population of Douz.

A camel ride? Of course! 

Our stay wouldn’t be complete without a camel trek! To that effect, we spend some time at the Centre d’animation touristique Pégase for an expedition into the dunes.

We will be crossing the gates of the desert on the back of a dromedary, while others choose to do so comfortably sitting in a carriage and yet others, thrill seekers, opt for a quad vehicle to make the same circuit. After all, one style does not fit all! But in terms of senses, the dromedary ride is definitely not lacking!

A fascination contrast  

Modernity and tradition have mixed during our stay. But our last night in Tunisia will be seeped in modernity for our final meal at the restaurant of the Dar El Marsa, a beautiful and new 5-star boutique hotel. Our meal was as perfect as the ambiance of this establishment, resolutely modern while incorporating a few subtle touches of tradition that reminded us where we were. 

Our nights

Most of the time, we stayed in hotels in the Golden Yasmin chain, which operates luxury hotels throughout the country.

In Yasmine Hammamet: the Méhari Hammamet, a 5-star hotel with 200 rooms with views of the sea or the garden. 

In Kairouan: La Kasbah. A beautiful establishment that mixes comfort and tradition!

In Tozeur, Hotel Ras El Ain – Recommended for its gardens and its lovely indoor pool that is close to the palm grove.
http://www.goldenyasmin.com/ras-el-ain/fr/

In Douz, the Sun Palm, where the lunch buffet is spectacular and delicious!

Other options:

In Gammarth, the Regency Hotel is intriguing for its view of the Gulf of Tunis, its lush gardens and its impressive lobby with high wood-sculpted ceilings.

In the Tozeur oasis, there is a mini village with cabins on stilts. It is nicely decorated as per the regional traditions and fully equipped. Ideal for those in search of solitude!

In conclusion

To answer our question from the beginning: has Tunisia changed in the past 5 years?

Yes, its tourist infrastructure has grown in quality and in numbers, but every place has remained very hospitable.

Yes, at an economic level, the country has been impacted by the consequences that followed the Arab Spring.

No, the general environment has not changed, and the Tunisians are always friendly.

Tunisia remains a beautiful country, a destination that history enthusiasts, sun and sand seekers will love and, such as Ulysses, feel sorry to leave. Anyone would be remiss to leave it off of a travel list!

Christiane Théberge

This trip was made by invitation from the Tunisian National Tourism Office.



 


Sidi Bou Saïd

Persian garden, Ennejma Ezzahra Palace


Café des Nattes

Carthage Roman Aqueduct

Thermes of Antonius

 The Bardo 

Ceramic at the Bardo: player cheating with his foot 

Medina, Tunis

Fish market

Avenue Bourguiba

Hammamet

Entrance, Hammamet's medina

Door in the medina 

Ribat in Sousse

Sousse medina

Baskets with Alfa

On the road to Kairouan

Pastries in Kairouan

Tea time in the oasis

 Luke Skywalker's village

At the market in Douz

At the market in Douz

Ready for the trek... almost

  

 

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