Tunisia (Feb. 2023)

I often tell people that I am adventurous but not brave.  When my friend suggested we should take a side trip to Tunisia rather than Sicily (my original choice), I told him I need to think about it.  At that time, I vaguely knew this North African country was just a short flight from Malta.  The Tunisia Revolution in 2011 ignited the Arab Spring.  Sadly, it is debatable if the citizens of these nations are better off since the uprisings.  While I was still musing if we should travel there, Tunisia had a national election with a turnout of 11.2%, because it was boycotted by most opposition parties.  There was a protest on the street after this preliminary round.  Our itinerary meant we would be in Tunisia just days after its 2nd round of election to be held on January 29, 2023.  

As I was monitoring the situation in Tunisia, I contacted a couple of my friends who have been to Tunisia.  They both said they enjoyed their time there.  One friend said just avoid the southern part of the country neighbouring Libya and hired a guide if we were leaving the capital Tunis.  

In the end, we purchased a cheap air ticket to fly from Malta to Tunis with the understanding that if there were any unrest, we would just forfeit the tickets.  

Tunisia  turned out to be wonderful: friendly people, rich history, amazing architecture, delicious food, and comfortable weather.  As a developing country, Tunisia certainly has its issues.  I don’t know about its politics to offer any commentaries but I did sense an air of discontent from the people we met.  

Tunis (Part 1 of 2) : We stayed at Hotel Royal Victoria, right adjacent to the entrance to the Medina. The first photo of this video illustrates the ornate decoration of the hotel, which was home to the former British Embassy. Alas, only if a building could tell tales.

We signed up for a free walking tour of the Medina via an app called GuruWalk. I have used the app in Malta with some success. Its business model is a combination of AirBnB and Free Walking Tours. The “guides” are all independent and participants are expected to tip them at the end of the tours. Since anyone could offer their service, its quality would vary. Similar to AirBnB, users would rely on reviews and the advantage of GuruWalk is you have no obligation to stay if the guide turns out to be terrible. Fortunate for us, our guide in Tunis, Ahmed, was fantastic. He has a degree in English Literature and provide us with rich commentaries of the Medina. Since John and I were the only two people in the tour, Ahmed was essentially our private guide. We were impressed with his work and hired him for the following day as well.

Tunis (Part 2 of 2) The word medina literally means the city but it usually referred to the walled part of the city in North Africa. Compared with the medinas in Morocco or the Grand Bazaars in Turkey, I found this one rather relaxed. Certainly there were people trying to get you to patronize their stores or restaurants but they were not pushy at all. In fact, the labyrinth of narrow lanes were occupied by mostly locals.

Each Muslim country seems to have its own rules about mosque visiting by non-Muslims. I was told it was possible to visit the Mosque in the Medina previously but not now. We did climb the stairs to a rooftop tea house and had a splendid view.

Carthage: We arranged to meet Ahmed (our GuruTour guide) the following day to visit Carthage. This district was once home to a powerful empire. It was conquered by the Roman Empire after a series of wars with the Roman Empire. In 146 BC, after the Third Punic War, the Romans sacked the city, slaughtered or enslaved its population, and completely demolished the city.

Present day Carthage is a suburb of Tunis and several ancient Roman sites dotted around the district.  We meet Ahmed at the Thermes d’Antonin in Carthage. The thermal baths were once a place of relaxation with multiple hot and cold pools, saunas, and massage rooms.  One could imagine the opulence and luxury of Roman life. From there, we went to the Amphitheater.  Built in the 3rd AD, the stone amphitheater could seat up to 30,000 people.  It was used for gladiatorial contests but it is used as an outdoor concert venue now.  

After visiting the Carthage sites, we rode a cab up a small hill to visit the impressive St. Louis Cathedral.  It is an example of Gothic architecture and was built in the late 19 century.  It no longer functioned as a church now but as a public building.

To cap off our Carthage tour, we had a delicious seafood lunch at a restaurant by the seaside.

El Jem: The ancient Roman Amphitheater El Jem is located in the modern city of El Djem, about 200 km south-east of Tunis.  It is home to one of the best preserved Roman Amphitheaters that was built in the 3rd century AD.  It is the third largest in the world with a seating capacity of 35,000 people.  It has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. 

The Amphitheater was featured in Monty Python’s movie: Life of Brian and the TV show Amazon Race Season 1, episode 4.

About 0.5 km from the Amphitheater is the El Jem Museum.  It houses a collection of Roman artifacts and mosaics.  The mosaics depicted scenes from everyday life as well as mythological scenes.  

Sousse: On our return journey back to Tunis, we made a quick stop in Sousse, one of Tunisia’s seaside resort towns.  The Medina of Sousse is a UNESCO World heritage site and it has been around since the 9th century.  Next to the Medina is the Ribat of Sousse, a massive 8th-century fortress that served as a military strong point.  The day that I visited the fortress, there were only a handful of visitors, quite a contrast from the hustle and bustle of the crowd in and around the Medina.  From the top of the ramparts, I was able to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. 

On our drive out of the city, we took the coastal route; Sousse is located on the Mediterranean coast.  I would see people milling around the seaside and enjoying the weather.  I also noticed a variety of western restaurants, cafes, bars, and hotels lining what appeared to be the entertainment district.  In fact, I even sense a bit of Vegas vibe.