We follow the Arab Spring to Tunis
30.04.2012 - 04.05.2012
Although we had flown into Tunis-Carthage airport, it took us nearly 2 weeks to finally visit and explore the fantastic Tunisian capital. Tunis is a modern, thriving metropolis with a vibrant character, and we were keen to explore!
Organising accommodation in Tunis presented an unexpected challenge for us before we had even arrived in the city. Unlike the other major cities we had visited so far, no hostels were listed online. Even travel forums were sparse with information. Probably a good reflection of where Tunis falls on the tourist trail. With Lonely Planet our only real piece of advice (I guess that's what it was like before the internet!), we took a punt on the Grande Hotel de France. As it turns out, so had everybody else! The hotel, with spacious, old fashioned rooms, felt more like a backpackers meet and greet venue than a random hotel in the middle of the city. The fantastic location and friendly staff capped it off. It was a good start to the city.
Right next to our hotel lay the UNESCO listed Tunis medina. With a bit of medina experience already (Who am I kidding?! We're experts now!), we were keen to see how Tunis stacked up. The uninitiated among you might assume that once you have seen one medina you've seen them all, but this could not be further from the truth. Being the oldest medina we had visited (some of the buildings date back to the 7th century) Tunis' medina had a sophistication which had been sorely lacking in our previous medina experiences. The winding cobblestone alleyways were dotted with beautiful mosques, including the impressive Great Mosque. Ornate wooden doors were seen at every curve. Of course you can't escape the salesmen, selling everything from souvenier t-shirts to bronze bowls, but the selling was soft at best, making the walk much more relaxing. If you can't guess yet, Tunis medina was easily my favourite (so far at least), and wandering the streets was exciting and fun. As we exited the old city we were confronted with a rather serious looking blockade, barbed wire, armed men and police all around. We discovered later that the head of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was visiting Tunis that week, and we had managed to stumble upon the offices of parliament! It was an interesting situation, and a sign that perhaps Tunisia is truly functioning as a state once again. The victims of the Arab Spring may not have died in vain.
Scattered with Roman and Phoenician ruins, Tunisia has a wealth of history at her fingertips. Much of these treasures come in the form of mosaics, which have been salvaged from archeological sites all around the country and compiled in the magnificent Bardo Museum in the heart of Tunis. Many of the mosaics have been recovered or restored to near perfect condition, and they are displayed on every wall of the museum, some towering up over two stories! The fine detail and intricacy of these ancient pieces of art is breathtaking. The museum itself is housed in a 13th century palace. Unfortunately, due to current extensions to the museum, the most beautiful areas of the building were closed off during our visit. Or so we thought. As we wandered through the new (and rather bland) section of the museum, a guard waved for us to come through a closed door. We followed conspiratorially, and were let into the entrance hall of the old building, palatial and magnificent. We followed along, through the music room and the room for the Caliphs harem. We were wowed by the beautiful decorations, even if much of it was covered in plastic wrap! Finally, we were led back out into the new section of the building, with the large tour groups crowding the museum none the wiser.
Our final event in Tunis was a visit to the ruins of Carthage, the famous Phoenician city of antiquity. Once a rival to Rome, Carthage was defeated over the course of three wars, and eventually razed to the ground by her Roman conquerors. The Romans subsequently built their own city on the site, but it too was razed by the marauding Vandals. Since then the Byzantinians and Arabs have also attempted to build on the site, with little success. Always wanting to have the last word, Tunisia's French colonisers plonked a gaudy gothic church on the site, which now sits amongst the ruins. Although the city of Tunis was not originally built on Carthage, it has slowly expanded northwards to surround the ruins. Nowadays, Carthage has become the most expensive suburb in the whole country. The site of the great city, once so prized by the ancient empires, is once again hot property. We began our journey at the old port. In ancient times this housed the source of Carthage's power, her navy. Now the port is surrounded by luxurious town houses. Although the ruins themselves aren't the most intact, you can still get an idea of the size and scale of the ancient harbour. We continued from the port up Byrsa hill, to the site of the city itself. Like the port, not much remains, but the view is absolutely jaw-dropping! From the hill we could see back across Tunis and all the way out to Cap Bon. You can see how such a commanding view would have been prized. Interestingly, much of Carthage and her surrounds is still being excavated. Every year, teams from major universities around the world arrive in Tunis for archaeological expeditions. As a local guide told us, “In Tunisia when you dig you don't find oil, you find history!”. Carthage is testament to this point!
Tunis marked the last stop of our Tunisia expedition, and we were sad to leave. We had arrived with no idea what to expect, and yet we left with a long list of recommendation and an even longer to-do list! The people were delightfully friendly, the food was great and the sites, from beaches to ruins to desert, were diverse and delightful. From our experience, Tunisia really represents a hidden gem off the usual tourist circuit. Tunis itself showed us a side of North Africa that we hadn't yet encountered. A buzzing, vibrant and modern metropolis. A real jewel in the already shining crown of Tunisia, and a great way to end our visit.
Some observations from Tunis:
1. Try to remember you're in North Africa and not Europe, even as you pass the fashionable young Tunisians exiting Zara.
2. From ancient mosques to dilapidated French colonial buildings, Tunis has some stunning architecture.
3. Try the sweets! They are amazing!!