Tunisia

Blessed with both Mediterranean and African beauty, with cool, refreshing waters and sizzling hot sands, and facing both East and West, Tunisia is a vast oasis in the desert.

Sleeping under the stars on the desert sands is nothing out of the ordinary in Tunisia, which is blessed with both Mediterranean and African beauty. Nor is its diminutive size any obstacle to its offering a wide array of pleasures. Seeing the masterpieces at the Bardo, the world’s largest mosaic museum, mingling with the crowds in the seething bazaars, bicycling through the palm groves, sipping mint tea and munching pistachios while gazing at the Mediterranean, floating languidly in thermal springs at an oasis, and touring the film sets for ‘Star Wars’ are just a few of the delights this country offers.

THE ANCIENT AND THE LATEST
City of two and a half million and capital of a country of ten million, Tunis is where Tunisia’s commercial, banking and political pulse beats. In the city center you would never think for a minute that you were in an African country, the reason being Habib Bourguiba Boulevard. It would be no exaggeration to say that this  thoroughfare is comparable to Paris’s famed Champs-Elysée. An avenue with sidewalk cafe-restaurants, towering skyscrapers and multi-star hotels, Habib Bourguiba is one of the city’s most enjoyable venues, especially at evening. During the day it is a boulevard fraught with contrasts. Fez-makers in a tiny shop in the 9th century ‘medina’ with automobiles sporting European license plates parked right outside, the latest in fashionable sunglasses displayed alongside traditional straw hats, cell phones ringing in centuries-old coffeehouses, and wafting over it all the scent of jasmine...

LOSING YOURSELF IN THE MEDINA
If Habib Bourguiba Boulevard is the city’s modern face, the ‘Medina’ or old city at one end of it, founded in the 9th century and expanded with time, is its traditional face. Home to the capital’s major mosques and religious colleges, the medina hums with activity throughout the day. If you think it’s touristic, wander a little in the dizzying labyrinths around the mosque. This is real life! Large and small, such medina’s (the word means ‘walled town') are found in many Tunisian towns. Also connoting an ‘old town’, a medina’s marks a city’s original founding place and where life there first began. The best way to tour a medina is to lose yourself in it. These medieval streets harbor different sections with cloth merchants, perfumeries, antique dealers, and sellers of fezzes and house slippers. The medieval system of professional guilds, which is starting to die out in places, is also in evidence here. And the liveliest venues of all are the tiny cafes and restaurants, which are excellent places for getting acquainted with the Tunisians.

THE WORLD’S LARGEST MOSAIC MUSEUM
You may want to spend most of your time in the city center in the vibrant and chaotic medina. But four kilometers to the west there is a magical, world-renowned museum not to be missed. The Roman ruins you see as you tour Tunis take on deeper meaning in this museum. Acknowledged to be the world’s largest mosaic museum, the Bardo is famous not only for its mosaics from the villas of Roman Africa, but also for the beauty of the building itself, an 18th century palace of the Husaynid dynasty. Converted into a museum  in 1888, the palace is North Africa’s largest archaeological museum today. And you may want to visit it a second time after touring the country since it is difficult to squeeze it into a few hours.

THE RUINS OF CARTHAGE
The ruins of Carthage, one of the ancient world’s most majestic cities and synonymous with the name of the legendary hero Hannibal, is only ten kilometers from Tunis. Legend has it that Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians in 814 B.C. If your time is short, you should opt to see the Baths of Antonine Pius, whose setting is quite impressive. Only the foundations of these baths on the seashore are visible at first glance, but you can get an idea of their size nonetheless. The Carthaginian coast stretches for 15 kilometers and there are multi-star hotels on the shore where you may find accommodation.

BLUE AND WHITE
Since you’ve come all the way to Carthage, don’t miss the historic  hilltop town of Sidi Bou Said, where you will see some extremely fashionably attired policemen directing traffic in front of President Bou Ali’s residence on the way into town. The blue and white architecture you’ll encounter in many parts of the country is at its most striking here. The town’s narrow streets overlook the Bay of Tunis. Blood red geraniums and pink bougainvillea festoon the white walls and grace the courtyards. Prosperous merchants and the city’s prominent families go to great lengths not to spoil the town’s traditional character. In its history this town has welcomed artists and writers such as Paul Klee, Auguste Macke, Andre Gide, and Michel Foucault, who came here and fell under its spell. The center of activity is Sidi Bou Said Square, where cafes, patisseries and gift shops line the cobbled streets, and an authentic vitality predominates despite its touristic appearance. At night things quiet down considerably and the square empties.

MEDITERRANEAN SANDS
Although Tunis’s vibrancy will leave you little time for a dip in the sea, you may nevertheless want to spend some time on its beaches. And the strands extending to the north and south of the city are the country’s loveliest. On a bay 65 kilometers southwest of the capital, Hammamet (the Arabic plural of ‘bath'), a popular watering-hole with the European jet-set in the 1920’s, remains one of the country’s spots most prone to an invasion of tourists in summer. Having attracted the attention of European high society almost a hundred years ago, the magnificent villa of George Sebastian is open to the public today as the Hammamet International Culture Center and is well worth seeing for its lovely garden. Left from the 15th century, Hammamet’s casbah, or citadel, is located at the point where the medina meets the sea. Look out over the walls and see the medina, the houses, and the Gulf of Hammamet with its fishermen. Take a seat in one of the cafes here below the medina and the   citadel with its bay view and opposite the setting sun, and imbibe the pleasant atmosphere. If it’s a more tranquil coastal town you seek, then you may prefer the smaller settlements in the region the Romans called ‘Cap Bon', or the ‘Beautiful Peninsula'.

SEA OF SAND
One of Africa’s most interesting and exceptional traditional architects is the spectacular Sahara Desert, home of the Berbers and one of Tunisia’s unique destinations. Also known as ‘the Great Desert', the Sahara covers an area of 9,065,000 square kilometers stretching from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. Only two million people inhabit this vast geography, which includes Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Egypt, Sudan and a small portion of Burkina Faso. Contrary to widespread belief, only one-ninth of the Sahara is actually covered with sand. Some of its sand seas of extraordinary beauty are larger than many a European country. In ancient times, the Sahara was a transit route for caravans, whose camels often numbered up to  thirty thousand.

ON A FAMOUS FILM SET
Southern Tunisia is a region where you might want to spend most of your time. Although it may appear utterly empty, the desert has its own distinctive rhythm. If you want to feel you’re on a different planet, you should see Matmata, lunar landscape of ‘Star Wars’ fame with its underground dwellings. This region consisting of the ruins of towns, castles and city walls abandoned in the foothills of Jebel (Mountain) Dahar is host to one of the finest desert festivals, the Ksours Sahara Festival (23-25 March) at Tataouine in the heart of Ksours. Ksar Ghilane, an oasis fed by thermal waters and with a desert fortress, has been a source of inspiration to filmmakers and boasts one of the country’s most spectacular landscapes. Several scenes from ‘The English Patient’ were shot here.

Bearing traces of some of history’s greatest civilizations, Tunisia is a country where you can soak up both Africa and the Mediterranean. Small but holding out great promise with its bold freedom and decidedly western orientation.