Tunis And The Wonders Of Northern Tunisia | My Family Travels
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North Africa's best kept secret is whitewashed Tunis, the sophisticated Mediterranean port where Arab culture meets French chic.

Welcoming more than five million tourists last year, Tunisia has slowly taken the Francophone world by storm since its independence from France in 1956. Mediterranean beaches on the whitewashed island of Djerba and several other coastal enclaves feature the all-inclusive resorts and luxury hotels of France’s Club Med; Spain’s Melia, Iberostar and Riu chains; Italy’s Club Valtur and Vincci chains; Germany’s Robinson Club and many others. Well-preserved historical sights include the Phoenician empire’s capital at Carthage and Africa’s first mosque at Kairouan. The combination of vacation and cultural possibilities in a clean, safe, and affordable destination has proved irresistible to European families for two generations.

Tunisia’s exotic blend of the original Berber and various other cultures is evident in the handcrafts, cuisine, and carpets that line its markets or souks. The country’s tolerant form of Sunni Islam encourages gender equality (almost 68% of university students are women) and allows sightseers to feel comfortable in shorts. Tunisia has emerged from its period of colonization to become the most westernized country in North Africa, using the French language, cuisine, educational system and political infrastructure to the benefit of its tourism industry. Due to an increased appetite for exotic locales and the arrival of low fare airlines, Tunisia is beginning to attract global travelers.

Following Carthage, A Wave of Invaders

From a modern international airport named Tunis Carthage, it’s apparent that this contemporary Arab country is justly proud of its ancient heritage. On an acropolis above the northeast side of Tunis lie the ruins of Carthage, the seafaring powerhouse dating from 814 BC. Nearly 3,000 years before the present Israel and Lebanon conflict, the ancient Phoenicians saw a need to establish a colony on the southern side of the Mediterranean to compete with trade routes controlled by Greece and its colony on Sicily.

For centuries Carthage prospered, as seen from excavations of exquisite pottery, mosaics, marble and terra cotta statuary removed to Paris’ Louvre and Tunis’ own stunning Bardo Museum. When the envious Roman Empire began to dominate the region, when they set their sights on annexing wealthy Carthage, they failed. After the three Punic Wars of the 2nd and 1st century — the most famous of which involved the Carthaginian general Hannibal and his attempted conquest of Rome by elephant — the city was sacked and burned in 146 BC.

After Caesar defeated Pompeii, Roman Carthage became the center of a kingdom that incorporated much of North Africa. Vandals invaded from Germany in the 5th century AD and vandalized the city; the Byzantines invaded a century later; and the Arabs invaded in the 7th century, bringing the religion of Islam, modern day Tunisia’s most important cultural legacy. Between 1534 and 1830, Tunisia prospered under the Turkish rule of the Ottoman Empire. After a period of decline, the French invaded in 1881 and colonized Tunisia throughout the global upheavals of two World Wars. Tunisia became a republic after independence was declared on March 20, 1956.Tunis’ Arab Architecture & Cultural Heritage

When the urban bustle of green and blue electric trolleys, silver and glass skyscrapers, and businesswomen on mopeds fools visitors into believing that Tunis is just like any other city, it’s time to tour the Medina. Tunis’ fascinating walled medina or old town encloses a prosperous market with hundreds of shops, several mosques, tiny restaurants and a labyrinth of pedestrian-only souks or lanes earmarked for shoemakers, or hat vendors, poultry sellers or blacksmiths, beauty products or Islamic votive offerings.

Hotels or the local tourist office can recommend a licensed guide to help travelers discover what’s behind the ornate door of the Dar Ben Abdallah, a restored mansion exhibiting traditional costumes, cookware and more; or another home, the Dar Lasram. Guides will point out the first Arab university in the Ez-Zitouna Mosque compound; the Turkish mosque of Sidi Mehrez; and the 13th century Sidi Kacem El Jellizi, all within the medina.

For a casual stroll sans knowledgeable guide, enter by the pretty landscaped Place du Gouvernement where a former royal guesthouse, the Dar El Bey, is now used as the Prime Minister’s office. Pass by the Mosque of Youssef Dey with its octagonal minaret then straight down the crooked Handcrafts Lane, where you can see local caftans, inlaid wood boxes, jewelry and silverwork, leathergoods and more. Several of the lanes are shaded by overhead drapes that keep them surprisingly cool in the hot summer sun. Leave behind the embroidered pillow cases and quilts and make a quick detour for a fig pastry in the Bakers Lane. Notice the tiny cafes where men sit and smoke chichas, the traditional shared waterpipe. In Taxiphone stalls, vendors offer long distance call service metered by the minute, just like the local taxis. Pass through the Bab el Bahr, or Sea Gate, and time travel into Tunis’ Nouvelle Ville at Place de la Victoire. After pausing at Café Dinar for a mint tea, avid shoppers will be ready to hit the department stores along Avenue Bourguiba. Families who are seriously interested in local handcrafts should explore the Maison de l’Artisanat where quality and authenticity are guaranteed.

Year round, the neighborhood and temperate climate of Sidi Bou Said, along the tall cliffs above the Mediterranean north of Carthage, attract visitors. This elite hilltop suburb dates to the 16th century, when its domed stucco homes were built to honor the Sufi mystic (sidi or holy man) Abou Said Khalafa Ben Yahia. Off limits to non-believers until the 1820s, the community was rediscovered in 1912, largely in ruins, by expatriate musicologist Baron d’Erlanger. He undertook its restoration, insisting that all buildings be whitewashed and all woodwork by painted in a vivid blue color, and convinced local authorities that it should be declared a protected zone. Today, a cobblestone pedestrian zone, it is reminiscent of the Mediterranean towns of Italy, France or Greece.

After the cruise ship hordes depart at noon, stroll uphill from the nearest taxi halt, or take the blue TGM tramline (from downtown Tunis it costs DT 1.650 and takes 20 minutes), to Sidi Bou’s whitewashed lanes for a delightful excursion. The kids will love peeking into the narrow stone alleys off the main street, the many small art galleries, the shopkeepers selling souvenirs, and the best bambbaloni, or donuts, in town. Don’t miss Dar El Annabi, an 18th-century mansion that has become a private house museum. The DT3 admission fee covers a glass of mint tea, access to the roof terrace for spectacular views, and a shaded Andalusian style patio with a central fountain and lush jasmine and bougainvillea plants.

Contemporary nightlife is one of unusual cultural attractions in this Muslim country, and in summer, the social scene swirls around the seashore. The picturesque neighborhood of Sidi Bou Said, with its cliff top views and outdoor cafes, is even more appealing at dusk, when the rosy sunlight bathes the whitewashed mansions clinging to the cliffs. It’s our first choice for a totally safe and delightful evening stroll without spending much money.

Teens should be aware that indoor/outdoor discos whose names change each season abound downtown and along the coastal roads. Monthly tourist publications in English and French note concerts and other special events; Mariah Carey played the Olympic Arena at our visit. There are also summer music festivals all over the country with international stars.

Devote another evening to Boulevard Ben Bourguiba, the city’s main avenue in the Nouvelle Ville or turn-of-the-century French town. In addition to the French Embassy and grand Church along its length are department stores, patisseries and many small snack shops. In the heart of the city you’ll find young couples in jeans holding hands, women in caftans sitting at cafes with their husbands, cinemas playing the latest American action film, and several small parks filled with strollers and those seeking fresh air. There are several noted restaurants in this quarter.

Tunis’ Historic & Cultural Attractions

Prior to visiting the actual remains of ancient Carthage, tour the exquisite Bardo Museum, whose world-class collection comprises the finest sculpture, ceramics and especially mosaics found throughout Tunisia. After the Archeological Museum of Cairo, it is considered Africa’s best, and the luminous mosaics excavated at the country’s many Roman-era sites form the world’s most notable collection.

Budget a few hours at the Bardo, as all ages will appreciate the stories told in intricate patterns of colored stone. Don’t miss the second floor: there are wonderful mosaics from the Trajan baths at Acholl and an exhibit of household artifacts excavated from the bottom of the sea by the Rhineland government. Archeologists believe that a 1st century cargo ship sailing from Athens to Mahdia sank and deposited one family’s cargo of small bronzes for a garden, new beds, and other decorative knickknacks. The Bardo is housed in the 19th century Beylical Palace, itself an attraction in the upscale Bardo quarter of Tunis; the museum is closed Monday.

The site of ancient Carthage atop Mt. Byrsa is spare and almost devoid of ruins. Yet once there is an appreciation for the majesty of Phoenicia’s former colony, the ancient remains in the wealthy north Tunis suburb of Carthage are not as disappointing. For 15 years following its declaration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, archeologists used satellite photos to recreate the plan and perimeters of the original Carthage during its fabulously wealthy Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine epochs. An incredible variety of floor, wall and ceiling mosaics were found which illustrate the daily lives of the noble families who lived there and, ironically, still do in the modern day neighborhoods of Carthage, La Goulette, La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said.

Groups from the University of Michigan and the University of Georgia continue to work at the vast site. If you are gullible enough to believe them, the local unlicensed guides who greet you at the gates also find small marble busts and bronze coins from “thousands of years before time” that they will sell to tourists for a few DT (Tunisian dinars, worth about US80¢ each.)

The hilltop site offers panoramic views of Tunis’ coastline and conveys ancient Carthage’s powerful role as guardian of a major Mediterranean trading outpost. Imagination brings the Agora and Temple zones back to life, where a few remaining column stubbles outline the floor plan. In the disappointing Musee de Carthage some aerial photos of Mount Byrsa help orient visitors to the widespread ruins.

With a car and driver (about DT35/US$28 per day if arranged by the hotel) — or on foot, if you’re not traveling in the heat of summer as we did — proceed a bit further into ancient Carthage to the remains of a Roman Village. Perhaps because the walled site is next to the Embassy of Portugal in a neighborhood of mansions, and its time-worn mosaic terraces overlook the Mediterranean and the current Presidential Palace, it is much easier to imagine life in Carthage under the Roman Empire at this site. With our guide Monsef, (DT6 admission plus DT10 guide fee to him at the door), we looked at house foundations on one village street which revealed the remnants of a Phoenician-era geometric mosaic floor at one level, then just across the worn stone lane, a Roman era pictorial mosaic; and above that, the Byzantine era mosaic floor that one family had built home on top of Roman ruins.

Other Carthage sites include the an amphitheater, Thermes de Antonin, a large pool amid the ruins of several hammam (thermal baths) and treatment rooms. This site is well located to catch strong breezes from the seaside. The Tophet or Punic Sanctuary does not offer much more comprehensive ruins but it is of interest for the many small stellae (tombstones) thought to mark the graves of children. Plutarch and other ancient historians wrote that first born children used to be sacrificed in honor of the god Ba’al Hammon at this sanctuary dedicated to the moon goddess Tanit.

In nice weather, follow up a visit to Carthage with some of Tunis’ most famous ice cream at Au Petit Salem (98 318 015) on the Esplanade at Marsa-Plage. All day and well into the night, they serve cups and cones in dozens of traditional flavors to families and couples heading out for a seaside stroll.

Tunis’ Arab Architecture & Cultural Heritage

When the urban bustle of green and blue electric trolleys, silver and glass skyscrapers, and businesswomen on mopeds fools visitors into believing that Tunis is just like any other city, it’s time to tour the Medina. Tunis’ fascinating walled medina or old town encloses a prosperous market with hundreds of shops, several mosques, tiny restaurants and a labyrinth of pedestrian-only souks or lanes earmarked for shoemakers, or hat vendors, poultry sellers or blacksmiths, beauty products or Islamic votive offerings.

Hotels or the local tourist office can recommend a licensed guide to help travelers discover what’s behind the ornate door of the Dar Ben Abdallah, a restored mansion exhibiting traditional costumes, cookware and more; or another home, the Dar Lasram. Guides will point out the first Arab university in the Ez-Zitouna Mosque compound; the Turkish mosque of Sidi Mehrez; and the 13th century Sidi Kacem El Jellizi, all within the medina.

For a casual stroll sans knowledgeable guide, enter by the pretty landscaped Place du Gouvernement where a former royal guesthouse, the Dar El Bey, is now used as the Prime Minister’s office. Pass by the Mosque of Youssef Dey with its octagonal minaret then straight down the crooked Handcrafts Lane, where you can see local caftans, inlaid wood boxes, jewelry and silverwork, leathergoods and more. Several of the lanes are shaded by overhead drapes that keep them surprisingly cool in the hot summer sun. Leave behind the embroidered pillow cases and quilts and make a quick detour for a fig pastry in the Bakers Lane. Notice the tiny cafes where men sit and smoke chichas, the traditional shared waterpipe. In Taxiphone stalls, vendors offer long distance call service metered by the minute, just like the local taxis. Pass through the Bab el Bahr, or Sea Gate, and time travel into Tunis’ Nouvelle Ville at Place de la Victoire. After pausing at Café Dinar for a mint tea, avid shoppers will be ready to hit the department stores along Avenue Bourguiba. Families who are seriously interested in local handcrafts should explore the Maison de l’Artisanat where quality and authenticity are guaranteed.

Year round, the neighborhood and temperate climate of Sidi Bou Said, along the tall cliffs above the Mediterranean north of Carthage, attract visitors. This elite hilltop suburb dates to the 16th century, when its domed stucco homes were built to honor the Sufi mystic (sidi or holy man) Abou Said Khalafa Ben Yahia. Off limits to non-believers until the 1820s, the community was rediscovered in 1912, largely in ruins, by expatriate musicologist Baron d’Erlanger. He undertook its restoration, insisting that all buildings be whitewashed and all woodwork by painted in a vivid blue color, and convinced local authorities that it should be declared a protected zone. Today, a cobblestone pedestrian zone, it is reminiscent of the Mediterranean towns of Italy, France or Greece.

After the cruise ship hordes depart at noon, stroll uphill from the nearest taxi halt, or take the blue TGM tramline (from downtown Tunis it costs DT 1.650 and takes 20 minutes), to Sidi Bou’s whitewashed lanes for a delightful excursion. The kids will love peeking into the narrow stone alleys off the main street, the many small art galleries, the shopkeepers selling souvenirs, and the best bambbaloni, or donuts, in town. Don’t miss Dar El Annabi, an 18th-century mansion that has become a private house museum. The DT3 admission fee covers a glass of mint tea, access to the roof terrace for spectacular views, and a shaded Andalusian style patio with a central fountain and lush jasmine and bougainvillea plants.

Contemporary nightlife is one of unusual cultural attractions in this Muslim country, and in summer, the social scene swirls around the seashore. The picturesque neighborhood of Sidi Bou Said, with its cliff top views and outdoor cafes, is even more appealing at dusk, when the rosy sunlight bathes the whitewashed mansions clinging to the cliffs. It’s our first choice for a totally safe and delightful evening stroll without spending much money.

Teens should be aware that indoor/outdoor discos whose names change each season abound downtown and along the coastal roads. Monthly tourist publications in English and French note concerts and other special events; Mariah Carey played the Olympic Arena at our visit. There are also summer music festivals all over the country with international stars.

Devote another evening to Boulevard Ben Bourguiba, the city’s main avenue in the Nouvelle Ville or turn-of-the-century French town. In addition to the French Embassy and grand Church along its length are department stores, patisseries and many small snack shops. In the heart of the city you’ll find young couples in jeans holding hands, women in caftans sitting at cafes with their husbands, cinemas playing the latest American action film, and several small parks filled with strollers and those seeking fresh air. There are several noted restaurants in this quarter.

Day Trips from Tunis Back in Time

Tunisia has overlays of centuries of conquering civilizations, all of which grew and prospered on the backs of each other’s work. Although Carthage is the country’s best known ancient city, in fact, Dougga, Bulla Regia and El Jem are fascinating excursions into the past, and much better preserved than ancient Carthage (part of which was dismantled and used to build other sites.) Dating back centuries and of even greater import to the culture of Islam is Kairouan, one of the most important holy shrines in the Muslim world.

The Roman sites, many of them great ports in antiquity, are today reached by narrow mountain roads. Driving and public buses are slow. Families should plan their time according to interest and consider a road trip with overnight stops at the beach resorts (noted below), to fit in as many sights as possible. Note that almost all the sites are open 8:30am-5:30pm daily in winter, till 7pm in summer; admission is DT3 per person plus a DT1 photography fee. Licensed guides wait for clients by the ticket booth, and charge DT 10-15 for a guided site visit lasting one to two-hours. We recommend hiring a guide because the signage is usually scarce. While many of the archeological sites have small museums, the country’s most important finds were either spirited away to le Louvre by the French, or preserved and elegantly displayed at the Bardo in Tunis.

Dougga, spreading over 74 hectares of dry scrub brush, impresses with gracious Corinthian columns at the Temple of the Three Deities, still standing at eight meters high in honor Jupiter, Juno and Diana. The enormous Roman Bath of Caracalla, a public bathhouse with sophisticated plumbing and heating systems still visible, stands behind ancient Dougga’s tall stone walls. Near the Roman road that connected Dougga to Tebessa in Algeria is an ancient bordello.

Bulla Regia is a much more unusual site. The parched 65 hectares of hilly land that have been excavated (there’s much more to go) revealed an entire Roman city built both aboveground and underground; that is, large two-story homes were built with duplicate bedrooms and livings spaces completely above and below ground to avoid the summer heat. This type of troglodyte housing was unique in the Roman world. Bulla Regia prospered from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD as an agricultural center, with an estimated 6000 citizens and 20,000 slaves. Archeologists have uncovered the extensive Memmian Baths complex, where men and women bathed together prior to the arrival of Christianity, in addition to huge multi-bedroom homes with frescoes and gorgeous mosaics (some still in situ). It is thought that Bulla Regia’s wealthy landowning residents commissioned the construction of living and entertaining spaces on the ground floor, summer time bedrooms on the lower, below ground stories, then used a sophisticated cooling system of vents, air wells and terra cotta pipes filled with cold water to make the basement rooms habitable. In these spacious chambers, some of the country’s most beautiful Roman mosaics have been found. Our superb local guide, Ayadi Amel ( 216 96 014141 ), kept a bottle of water to sprinkle on the ornately tiled floors and their newly revealed brilliance took everyone’s breath away.

The small site of Utica is notable as the first Phoenician settlement prior to the founding of Carthage, and is the place where traces of new civilizations underfoot form a graphic timeline. It’s easy to find the clumsy geometric tiles of a Phoenician floor lying beneath the tiny colorful stone tessera used for Roman mosaics and, nearby, to see the large clay tessera depicting a religious figure that indicates this was a Byzantine-era home. The site, whose restoration was funded by California’s J. Paul Getty Museum of antiquities, has been excavated to a minimum and does not warrant a long drive for most travelers.

Stunning Wonders of Bygone Eras: El Jem & Kairouan

In contast is El Jem, the second largest coliseum in the world after Rome’s legendary home of gladiators. This must-see sight is in much better shape than the Colisseum and therefore breathtaking in its scale. From the outer shell of seats accommodating 30,000 screaming spectators, visitors can look down and see the lower corridors where gladiators, wild animals, slaves and others slated to perish before the crowds were kept. Similar to the Carthage site, El Jem hosts a music and performing arts festival throughout the summer. One notable exception among the country’s archeological museums is the mosaic collection at El Jem. The small Musee de El Jem contains dozens of intensely bright and vivid mosaics found at homes near the coliseum. Additionally, the museum has reconstructed the House of Africa, a large Roman home whose mosaic flooring tells stories of North Africa, in its garden. Stand within its walls, circle its courtyard and feel the daily routine of these 2nd century A.D. Romans come to life.

From Tunis, a visit to El Jem is easily combined with Kairouan, the fourth most holy city in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and Jerusalem in Israel. The spiritual requirement that every Muslim pray at Mecca once before his death is waived for those who have paid seven devotional visits to Kairouan. UNESCO has declared the entire city a World Heritage Site, preserving its 135 mosques and 300 mausolea (marabou on signposts) in excellent condition. Guizani Kalifa of the Bassin des Aghlabites Syndicat d’initiative ( 216 98 578 920 ) was our guide to this fascinating city, where most monuments are open until 2pm daily or noon on Fridays.

Kairouan was founded in 670 AD during the third wave of Arab invasions on an extremely hot and inhospitable plain. It is said that Oqba Ibn Nafi selected the site when his troops discovered a golden cup which he recalled losing at Mecca. A spring nearby was thought to be connected to Mecca’s holy well of Zem Zem. In a harsh land populated only by nomadic Berbers and Byzantine settlements, he declared the caravan stop, Kairouan, his capital.

Outside the old town is the Tomb of the Barber, built in the 17th century Andalusian style by Arabs returning from Spain. It houses the ornate mausoleum of Abous El Am Belaoui, a friend of Mohammed said to be buried with three hairs from the Prophet’s head, thus the “barber” name. Within its walls are several holy tombs where bodies were buried lying on their right side, eyes turned to Mecca. Non-Muslims can admire the carved plasterwork of the coffered ceilings and the carved Lebanese cedar mehrhab (altar) and mimbar (stairs) in many prayer rooms. The complex has been added onto continuously since the 7th century and how houses a medressah or Koranic school, where 300 students from Mali study, and the square minarets typical of the African-Muslim style of architecture.

Kairouan’s Grand Mosque, adjacent to a picturesque walled Medina from the 12th century, is stunning in its simplicity. The dust-colored courtyard is surrounded by 354 assorted columns signifying the number of days in the Arabic calendar. To expedite the five-domed mosque’s construction for Ibn Nafi, the columns were taken from ancient Carthage and other Roman era sites and shipped to Kairouan, where they form a veritable museum of styles. Even casual visitors will note the red and black granite columns that were pillaged from Egypt, and the white marble ones with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian capitals that were brought from Italy and Greece. This tiled courtyard rests above a large cistern supported by an estimated 50 columns belowground; rainfall is still collected and distributed to local farms. The 17 giant carved cedar doors of the otherwise unembellished mosque are a replica of the 17 doors at the Grand Mosque of Medina. They lead to the very large and simple prayer area, center of the annual Mouled celebration that draws Muslims to Kairouan from around the world. The Grand Mosque is still used on Friday for prayer.

The Medina of Kairouan shelters 20,000 citizens and 110 mosques behind walls restored in the 18th century by the Turks. Pass by the Souk des Cisternes, whose shops are tucked into an arcade created by an ancient cistern. Don’t miss the public well thought to be fed by springs from Mecca, 1000 kms away, that dates to 8th century AD. It is hidden under an ancient building but, up a steep flight of steps, guests can watch a camel tethered to a wooden waterwheel that brings the holy water up. Take pictures, sip from the well and return at dusk to watch the camel walk down the steps and through the medina to its corral.

In addition to the walled homes that hosted Western luminaries such as Paul Klee and Andre Gide, there are dozens of practical and tourist shops. One of the more interesting is the Societe Tapis Sabra (77 233 068)on Rue Sidi Abid, a restored bey’s palace that serves as a carpet museum and shop. Habib and his staff explain the styles of rugs that are woven in Kairouan, where more than 5,000 local families produce knotted rugs or the local specialty, mergoum or woven rugs, for this cooperative. When you’re ready for a lunch break (or an overnight stop), drop by the gorgeous Hotel Kasbah outside the Medina, one of Tunisia’s finest lodgings.

Details, Details

For more information about Tunis hotel s and restaurants, click on FTF’s Tunis, Tunisia Family Friendly Hotel Guide.

For more travel information, brochures and maps prior to departure, contact the offices of Tunisian National Tourism in the US ( 202/466-2546 in Washington DC), Canada (514/397 11 82 in Montreal) or Great Britain (171 22 45 598 in London) or visit www.tunisiatourism.com.


This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.