Tunisia: A country of unbelievable contrasts
A lost child wailed for his mother, a man frantically searched for his missing cat, shopkeepers screamed out offers on the top of their voices to attract customers and customers desperately tried to bargain for the best possible prices. The footpaths of the Sousse souk were crowded with stalls selling sacks of nuts and dried fruit, or meat roasting on roasting skewers. Powdered spices lay in rust red and dusty yellow piles, or spilled bright green from sacks as large as feed bags. All of these smells mixed together and gave the market a rather unique scent, which hung in the air from early morning to late evening. This is Tunisia… the land of undiscovered mysteries and blindingly vibrant sunsets.
It isn’t often that I use the word unbelievable to describe any country or trip because I can believe A LOT. However, Tunisia left me shocked with my lack of knowledge on this country, the amalgamation between European & Arab influences, hidden landscapes and the utter warmth of its people.
When I tell you that people went totally out of their way to help me, I truly mean it. When I tell you that the landscapes & structures in Tunisia blew my mind, I am being 100% honest. When you scroll through this post and browse through my photos, you’re going to also ask “Is this really Tunisia?” The best part of it all was that I found little to no information about Tunisia on the internet; there were very few blogs written in English and little coherent information apart from travel agency websites. Which meant that I had no expectations of what I would find when I went there!
You never hear stories of “There was this one time in Tunis…” in fact, you never hear anyone talking about Tunisia. And, if you’re anything like I am, don’t you want to be the person who has the travel stories that no one else does? (Short answer, you DO).
Before I take you through my time in Tunisia, let’s start with a PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson.
The smallest North African country, Tunisia is located at the the northern tip of Africa, forming a wedge of territory between Algeria and Libya. Originally built by the Phoenicians, Tunisia was ideally situated to facilitate trade along the Mediterranean.
Later on, Tunisia became a Roman province for over 500 years. In the 7th century the Arabs invaded Tunisia and brought with them the religion of Islam. Today nearly 99% of Tunisians are Muslim. Tunisia remained a center of Arab culture and became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Then in 1881, the French took control and remained in control until Tunisia became an independent country in 1956. Since then their past has been tumultuous and included rule under a dictator for many years until a revolution in 2011 which eventually led to the country holding its first free presidential election in 2014. The official language of Tunisia is Arabic. Most people speak Tunisian Arabic (also called Derja) as a first language. Most inhabitants are also literate in Literary Arabic, which is the country’s official language, as well as in French. The capital city is Tunis and the currency is the Tunisia Dinar.
My time in Tunisia…
Upon arrival into Tunis Airport, my sister- Expat Penguin- and I picked up our rental car and drove out of Tunis straight to Bizerte. As we drove we noticed the lush vegetation and grazing animals underneath a bright blue sky. Tunisia was already living up to our non existent expectations.
Bizerte is a charming seaside town where we spent one night relaxing and walking around this quaint place. In the typical fashion of coastal towns, Bizerte was very relaxing and the people were very laid back but friendly. I loved the Mediterranean influences present here in this town coupled with warm Arab hospitality. You could walk for hours, just taking photos, sipping freshly squeezed orange juice and getting lost in the town. As I strolled through the alleyways people greeted me in Arabic… ‘can’t they see that I am not from here?’, I wondered. But apparently I either didn’t stick out or people didn’t care as we were approached by an excited lady who greatly admired my Panda tote bag and told us so… in fluent French. The town had an irresistibly warm atmosphere and I can only imagine how enjoyable it must be to swim in the clear blue waters in summer. I highly recommend this town for its relaxing environment and gorgeous views.
Sidi Bou Said
Our trip continued with a 2 night stopover in the charming seaside town of Sidi Bou Said. We parked our car at our hotel and spent the next 2 days wandering the town on foot. This town boasts even more gorgeous beaches (the colour of the water can give Seychelles a run for its money), a fabulous market, many beautiful streets and epic sunsets. Just look at these photos to convince you.
While most tour groups some for a day trip, I was happy to spend two days here to unwind and eat my way through the town. Similar to Moroccan dishes, Tunisian meals are rich in spices such as coriander, cumin, saffron and harissa (a chili paste). Slow-cooked meats and couscous with eggs are commonly found on local plates.
Do not leave without sampling lamb shank and couscous at Villa Blue or the famous Bombalini (a cinnamon & sugar soft donut) at the market. Honestly I could probably do a separate post simply for the joy that bomobalini gave me but I will refrain.
Oh and special mention to brik a l’oeuf, a triangle shaped, deep-fried pastry filled with egg and tuna… I need to find a way to replicate this in my own kitchen, ASAP.
On Instagram someone commented on my photo of Sidi Bou Said and said, “It looks like Santorini without the crowds!”. Without having been to Greece, I can’t accurately agree or disagree with statement however I can tell you that Tunisia is not crowded with tourists at all. And I saw locals doing exactly what I was doing- snapping photos of each other and pretty doors. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were the only non locals in the town during the 2 days we were there.
Sousse was 2.5 hour drive from Sidi Bou Said and off we went to discover this seaport town. Sousse was quite the opposite of the lazy seaside towns we had just experienced and rather, was a bustling harbor town where everything ran at a faster pace. The souk in no Sousse had no pretty art and very little souvenirs; it was a busy and chaotic market selling fish, fruit and clothing to residents. We based ourselves here for 2 nights to experience a different pace of Tunisian life and also, to see something other than cobble stones and blue roofs.
We did try going to the Ribat (Fort) but found it rather uninspiring so we entertained ourselves with wandering the souk and eating our away around the area.
We did a day trip to El Jem which is famous for housing a Roman amphitheater. While the drive including a number of wrong turns (Google Maps seems to get lost in Tunisia) and some narrow street with sharp corners, we were eventually rewarded with this view.
Modeled after the famous Colosseum of Rome, this impressive monument is one of the most accomplished examples of Roman architecture of an amphitheater, almost equal to that of the Colosseum itself. We spent an hour or two wandering around, taking snaps and then made our way back to Sousse.
Sousse, while an interesting foray into a busier side of Tunisian life, definitely wasn’t my favourite Tunisian town.
Penguin & I stayed at Dar Antonia– a homely 4 room traditional boutique hotel than felt more like our home away from home. The rooms were exquisitely decoarted and it was in the heart of Sousse. We loved the delicious breakfasts and entertaining chats with the owner of the place. To book click here.
I think I may be making Tunisia seem dreamy and without any challenges however, despite the luck I had with finding superb accommodations and the dazzling scenery, I did experience a few challenges. And I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t reveal them.
-Language: English is NOT WIDELY SPOKEN in Tunisia. I considered myself exceptionally lucky if someone was able to understand me (I met a total of 3 Tunisians who were able to have a conversation with me in English). Rather than view this as an obstacle I relied on my Arabic comprehension skills (that North African dialect though) and Google Translate App to help me decipher French menus. For the most part I used hand signals and strange gestures when I needed help. I got by. You will too.
-Driving: While I loved the freedom that driving gave me in Tunisia, I would only recommend this option to drivers who are VERY CONFIDENT in their abilities (I didn’t think I was one of those people previously but oh well!). The roads are narrow, navigation requires vigilance, parking lots are not always a certainty and sometimes the lanes disappear making it a free for all. If you’re a couple or in a group you’d probably be all right to drive around in a Tunisian car. However if you’re a solo traveler, I recommend using taxis (they’re extremely cheap) in towns and catching shuttle buses (called louages) to get from one city to the other.
-Tunis Airport: I have seen hundreds of airports in my lifetime from ones that had no ceiling (Malindi Airport, Kenya) to airports the size of my childhood home (Heho Airport, Myanmar). But Tunis Airport has to be one of the most inefficient, chaotic and confusing airports I have ever had to encounter in my life. This is mainly due to incompetent staff who don’t seem to have a clue about the concept of efficiency and an airport that outgrew its capacity a good 35 years ago. My flight was delayed by 2 hours due to the check in staff taking 30-40 minutes to check in EACH passenger (Even the pilot sounded exasperated when he informed us about it). Give yourself 3-4 hours before your flight when departing and prepare to spend at least 90 minutes when going through passport control and collecting checked luggage.
-While accommodations were not on the cheap side (no south East Asia prices here and didn’t see many hostels), the quality of service is generally fantastic and 3 star price in Dubai will get you 5 star hotel in Tunisia. Absolutely worth every cent.
-Tunisia is visa free for South African passport holders. I was not asked to produce proof of accommodation but do make sure to locate and fill out the non residents card at passport control when arriving and departing (or you will be sent to the back of a very long line).
-None of the accommodation I mentioned in this post was sponsored in anyway. I am purely recommending them because they were that good!
Have you put Tunisia on your destination list? Or have you already visited? Comment below to let me know!