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Trip Report Tunisia -- Trip Report

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Based on my research prior to my trip, I had very high expectations about Tunisia, all of which were exceeded during my December 2005 trip. Some of you may recall the terrorist bombing in Jerba several years ago, but I felt very safe during my trip, and all the other tourists I met during my trip expressed the same view. In addition, the Tunisians with whom I interacted were among the friendliest, most helpful people I have encountered -- I never felt inhibited or restricted by my inability to read Arabic or fluently speak French.

Friday, December 23 -- I flew from JFK via Milan to Tunis, arriving in Tunis around noon. The line to clear customs was short (no visa required for Americans or Western Europeans) and quick, and after retrieving my bag, I walked into the departure area where I located my airport transfer (I arranged it through the hotel / about $8.00 for the transfer, which was a sign of very low prices to come). I spent a lot of time researching Tunis hotels. Most of the top tier hotels are anonymous, 1960s structures, and I generally prefer a hotel with a bit of local character. I booked the Hotel Carlton, a restored structure from 1926, with a great central location and nice room (satellite TV, nice bathroom, helpful staff) for $42 per night. After checking in, I wandered to the Tunis medina (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 1 on my trip). I popped into a local barber, where I got a nice, close shave for $3.00. I wandered aimlessly throughout the medina and its many souks, stopping for mint tea from time to time, and visiting a few mosques along the way. Jet lag caught up with me around 6:00, and after a quick meal, made my way back to the hotel.

Sunday, December 25 (Christmas) -- I awoke early and walked to the nearest Tram stop, where I caught Tram 4 (less than $1.00), for the 20 minute ride to the Bardo Museum (listed as one of the 1,000 sights to see before you die in the recent book of the same name). Bardo holds a lot of mosaics from the sights I'd visit over the next several days, and it houses one of the world's best collections of Roman mosaics. I spent around two hours in the museum, and then made my way back to the tram. I jumped back on Tram 4 and took it to its final station (Tunis Marine), where I switched to the suburban TGM line (also less than $1.00) for the 30 minute ride to Carthage (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 2). I visited Byrsa hill (the sight of ancient Carthage, with wide open views of the Bay of Tunis), the Carthage Museum, Roman Villas and the ancient baths. Not much remains of ancient Carthage, but with a bit of imagination, you can envision what the sights much have looked like before they were vandalized. I spent several hours wandering the sights of Carthage (all of which can be visited on one ticket, around $5.00). From Carthage, I caught a taxi to Sidi Bou Said (5 minutes from Carthage and another of the 1,000 sights to see before you die). Sidi Bou Said is a whitewashed city, with beautiful blue window frames and doors, but it was inundated with several large groups from two cruise ships, so after a mint tea, I caught the TGM back to Tunis. Upon arrival in Tunis, I stopped by the train station to purchase a ticket for my trip the next day.

Monday, December 26 -- I caught the 6:00 am train from Tunis to El Djem (around $8.00 in first class for the three-hour trip). El Djem is home to the world's third largest Roman colloseum (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 3), and its in better shape than its more well-known counterpart in Rome. December is the tourist low season, and there were only a handful of visitors. After visiting the colloseum, I walked to the louage (shared, private taxi) stand, and asked for the louage to Sousse (from where I'd catch a louage to Monastir, before returning to Sousse). The louage (around $2.00) filled after 20 minutes or so, and an hour later I was at the Sousse louage station, where I caught another louage to Monastir. Monastir is home to Tunisia's best preserved ribat (Islamic fort), which may be familiar since its a popular film location (some of Monty Python's Life of Brian was filmed in the Monastir ribat). After an hour or so wandering the ribat, I caught a louage to Sousse and headed for its medina (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 4), and I spent a few hours wandering the medina, and visiting its mosques, markets and ribat. From the medina, I walked to the station and caught a late train for the two-hour return to Tunis.

Tuesday, December 27 -- In the morning, I headed to the Tunis louage station, and I asked and was directed to the louage to Tebersouk (around two hours from Tunis and only $4.00). Tebersouk is the nearest city to Dougga, a well preserved Roman city and UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 5. From the Tebersouk louage station, a taxi drove me to Dougga and the driver agreed to return for me at a set time. I spent a few hours wandering Dougga (again, very few visitors), including its theater and ancient capitol. At the set time, the taxi returned and drove me to the louage station, where I caught the next louage back to Tunis. I arrived in Tunis around 6:00, and headed again to Carthage by TGM, this time for dinner at Spoon, the Alain Ducasse restaurant in Villa Didon, perhaps the best hotel in the Tunis area, but very new and not in any of my guidebooks. I'm not sure if I would have stayed there since its 30 minutes outside Tunis, but its a very nice hotel.

Wednesday, December 28 -- I intended to spend the day re-exploring the Tunis medina, but first visited the central market (very similar to wet markets in China, with lots of fish, live poultry and, if you like horsemeat, a very large horse section, including some meaty horseheads). I took a roll of photos at the market, and then walked to the Tunis medina for lunch at Dar El Jeld, which has the reputation as the best restaurant in Tunis (its a restored building, and its beautiful, and while I'm not a couscous expert, the meal was tasty). I spent the entire day in the medina, including a lot of time in its ancient cafes drinking mint tea.

Thursday, December 29 -- I awoke early for my 6:00 am flight to Milan, from where I caught a flight to Naples. I was out of my Naples hotel before noon and wandered the city center (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 6). I headed to Brandi for lunch (the last time I was in Naples it was closed), one of Naples' famous pizzerias, and the pizza was excellent, but its very busy and service is slow. After lunch, I walked around central Naples to the Archeological Museum, primarily to see what was in the Gabinetto Segreto, the collection of ancient erotic sculpture and mosaic, which had been off limits to the general public for decades until 2000. The museum also holds a lot of mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, both of which I intended to visit the next day.

Friday, December 30 -- I took the train from Naples to Pompeii (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 7), which I had visited in December 1999, but that visit was brief and there were some sights I missed since some of the villas were then closed. I spent several hours wandering around Pompeii, and finally was able to see the erotic frescos at the Casa dei Vettii, and the sculpture and mosaics at the House of the Faun (both places were closed on my prior visit). On the return to Naples, I stopped off at Herculaneum (included with Pompeii in the same UNESCO designation) and spent an hour wandering around the excavated town. After arrival in the Naples train station, I went to Da Michele, the most famous pizzeria in Naples, but I thought their pizza was like eating a wet rag with flavorless sauce. After that, I caught the train to Rome (I had stored my bag in the Naples station so I didn't need to bring luggage to Pompeii nor return to my hotel).

Saturday, December 31 -- I hadn't been to Florence since November 1993 and wanted to revisit, and with the high speed train from Rome, it would take a bit more than one hour to get to Florence. I spent the day in Florence, first visiting the Museo Zoologica "La Specola" (closed on my first visit), which holds an excellent natural history collection, but most interestingly, a historic collection of 18th-century anatomical wax models once used for medical training. Following my visit to the museum, I wandered around Florence (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 8). After dinner, I caught a late train back to Rome (which I last visited in December 1999).

Sunday, January 1 -- In the morning, I visited the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which some count as a separate "country" due to its claim of sovereignty. I then walked to Vatican City (UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 9), arriving in St. Peter's Square at 11:45 am, 15 minutes before the Pope's weekly Sunday greeting. I stayed to listen, and then walked to the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and on to the Colosseum (Rome's city center is UNESCO World Heritage Site No. 10).

Monday, January 2 -- I had a 1:50 pm flight back to New York, so I started early, and I was at St. Peter's Basilica as it opened at 7:00 am. I wanted to see John Paul II's tomb and at that time there was no line, unlike the mile long lines just after his death. I made a very quick visit to the Vatican Museums, primarily to see the cleaned ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. After this visit, I headed to the airport and was back in New York around 7:00.

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