It may be a tiny sliver on North Africa’s arid horizontal expanse, but Tunisia has enough history and diverse natural beauty to occupy you for a few days. With a balmy, sand-fringed Mediterranean coast, scented with jasmine and sea breezes, Tunisia is prime territory for an out of the way, sun, sand, and sea holiday. Beyond the beaches sectioned off in its “Tourist Zones”, Tunisia is an underrated destination where distinct cultures and incredible extremes of landscape can be explored at leisure. At the time of my visit, Tunis was refashioning itself as an ambitiously modern Arab capital, though both its long Ottoman and not-so-distant colonial past still have a powerful presence.
Sadly, Arab Spring erupted shortly after my visit, and I’ve been told that the country is a shadow of its welcoming, liberal past. My first impressions were made as the plane made its approach into the airport. Staring out the window, I saw a vast desert stretching out below me, and couldn’t imagine how the city of Tunis could exist in such a climate.
Almost immediately upon arrival, I was greeted with warm, genuine smiles. Tunisians see roughly 7 million tourists a year, though judging by their reactions, I was the first one they had seen in a long time. Eager to explore, I started the day with a walk through the city center. Avenue Habib Bourgiba connects the bustling downtown area to the city’s main attraction, the Medina. This wide, tree lined street is crowded by cafes, restaurants and shops, and at the time of my visit was bustling with teen girls dressed in shorts and tank-tops, and crowded by rush-hour traffic. The restaurants were packed, though with men only, as unaccompanied women don’t enter them alone.
Though all travel guides warn women not to explore the Medina alone, for fear of harassment, I was drawn to the narrow maze of alleys and hallways cluttered by carpet, pottery and spice merchants, reminiscent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Aside from the sun-baked tourists, no other women were roaming the halls alone, but I felt perfectly safe and comfortable, as according to guide books, Tunisian men treat foreign women as equals and interact with them with a lot of respect. There is much to buy and haggle over here, but in general the offerings are quite modest and overpriced.
Inside the Medina are a few places you should check out. There’s a beautiful mosque and a women’s hamam, as well as multiple food stalls serving very basic regional foods. Being a huge fan of ancient history, I was more eager to leave the city and explore the ancient cities of Carthage and Hannibal. Reaching them was not easy from downtown Tunis. You see, most tourists stay in beachfront resorts of the “tourist zone” where skimpy clothing is optional and drinking alcohol, the norm. But if like me, you’re staying downtown, where Islamic laws must be respected, you will find fewer amenities for tourists. There weren’t many guided tours to Carthage, so my only option was to get on a commuter train early in the morning, cross the edges of the barren Sahara, to reach this beautiful suburb of Hannibal.
Something to keep in mind is that as you depart the liberal city, you’ll encounter more people who are not used to seeing foreigners, especially single women traveling unescorted. Though still very respectful, you are likely to encounter Tunisians who don’t know what to make of you. As I approached the ticket booth to buy a ticket to Hannibal/Carthage, speaking elementary French (they do not speak English here at all), my money was not welcome according to the elderly man operating the booth. Unsure whether I pronounced it correctly, I pushed the money back through the window and asked again for a ticket. Again, he pushed it back, this time, clearly annoyed by me. As I stood there wondering what to do next, a well dressed business man came up to me, apologized profusely in French, saying he was sorry that some men in his country were not used to serving women. He went up to the ticket booth and bought me a ticket, then refused to accept money from me, but kept apologizing as he departed.
The ride to Carthage was an experience to remember. As the train departed the crowded station, the landscape outside the window changed quickly to arid desolation. But the scene inside the train was even more perplexing. Packed like sardines in an oily tin can, the passengers stood all too comfortably close to each other, while respectfully keeping a physical distance from me. Though I was grateful for the space, I felt uneasy about the hundred pairs of male eyes staring directly at me. Looking around the train, trying not to appear nervous, my eyes fell on the back of the car, where a cluster of women were jammed on top of each other staring fiercely in my direction. I got it, I was supposed to join the women in the back of the train, but somehow I couldn’t get myself to do it. Normally, I am very respectful of other cultures, and had I known in advance, I would have boarded the train at the women’s section. But now that I had committed an egregious faux-pas, I actually felt more comfortable among the men. Yes they were all staring, but the women glared even harder. The seemed more offended by my blunder than the men, and so I counted the seconds until the train reached the station.
Carthage must not be used to seeing tourists, as there are no signs or markings guiding you to its sights. It happens to be a beautiful residential town, lined with private villas overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Luckily, with the help of a few stunned residents, I was able to navigate to the Carthage National Museum to view the world’s most impressive collection of Roman mosaics. This place is well worth the trek, as it truly is a treasure trove of Punic and Roman art. The exterior of the museum is completely surrounded by ruins, and you can spend hours roaming the grounds. What makes this area absolutely spectacular are the magnificent views of the sea below. Actually, the contrast between the ancient ruins of Hannibal and the blue Mediterranean was the most beautiful thing to admire here.
Though completely devoid of tourists, Hannibal has some impressive roman ruins, ancient theaters, baths and temples. I would suggest that you bring a good guide book, as there are no tourist amenities here, and the streets aren’t marked. Though the locals are friendly, you’re on our own in terms of gaining an understanding of the town’s history and the significance of all the art. If you are on a special diet, it may be wise to pack a lunch as there are only a few modest coffee shops and restaurants here, and bottled water is hard to come by. Keep in mind, you are at the very edge of the Sahara desert, so sand, dust and heat are things to be prepared for. Plan your excursion for earlier in the day to give yourself plenty of time to get lost and found.