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Tunisia Trip Report

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I just went to Tunisia for 4 & 1/2 days. I live in Cairo & went with 30 people who belong to ARCE, the American Archeological Society. All of us live in Cairo although most of us were originally from other countries. We all had traveled throughout Egypt, so we were well familiar with ruins.

These were different than the ones in Egypt. Obviously, there were no pharonic ruins. We mostly saw ruins from the Roman occupations and Carthage, although there were some pre-Carthaginian and post-Roman ruins. Additionally, there are a lot of tiles -- again mostly Roman & Carthaginian. More on this later.

Tunis is a country of 11 million and about the size of the state of Washington. Only the southern part is covered by desert, so the remainder of the place is clean, dust free and litter free. For those of you who've been to Egypt, you can imagine what a shock it was to our systems.

The people are nice, but a little quiet. Not at all crazy and loud and chaotic like Egypt and Egyptians. Don't get me wrong -- I love Egypt & Egyptians, but a little calm and quiet is nice every once in a while.

The French settled it and all the educated people & the young speak French fluently. Not much English there. There are broad boulevards in Tunis with wide sidewalks dotted with sidewalk cafes. It closes down early there -- 7 p.m. Tunis has beautiful suburbs on the Mediterranean with hills and greenery and ruins of Roman baths and Carthaginian ports across the road from lovely and very expensive homes.

In Sidi Bou Said, an artist colony near Carthage, the buildings must be painted white with blue trim. You can stroll up the main drag (no cars allowed) and purchase all sorts of Tunisian arts & crafts & gallabayas & watercolors in varying sizes of white buildings with bougainvillea surrouding the blue doors.

We ate at a pleasant restaurant serving Tunisian food there whose name escapes me. It's hard to remember these things when you don't plan the trip & you're short term memory deprived due to being a woman of a certain age. The restaurant was about 400 meters from the beginning of the main shopping drag on the water side.

A USD gives you about $1.35 Tunisian dinars. After being in Cairo where it's a 1 to 5.75 ratio, it was hard to remember that 25 dinars was worth 18 or so USD and not 3 USD as it would be in Egypt. So I overpaid for everything.

Tunisian food is spicy and varied. Seafood, eggs in everything, couscous, lamb, chicken, good dates & other produce. Harissa is spread on meat, bread, fish & gives it a quite spicy or even hot tang.

Our best meal was at Dar el Jeld in the old city of Tunis which is in a beautiful old mansion with lots of tile and antiques to decorate it. We were 32 people and didn't fill the place up. We also ate La Pacha by the French Gate (La Porte Francais) on the edge of the kasbah. It was not as good as the other two, but it was good. A nice seafood restaurant in Sousse was Daurade. All of these places except for Dar el Jeld served beer & wine. (Note: Actually, Dar el Jeld may be called Saraya.

Down on the eastern central coast there are a number of beach resorts which are very popular with the Italians, French, Spanish & Russians. All sizes & prices. We stayed at a pretty bad one -- Diar al Andalus Hotel which is listed as a 5 star, but was more like a bad 3 star. There were no locks on the doors to the rooms and a woman in our party had the man who was checking for Honors Bar purchases walk right in on her when she was standing there in her nightgown. She wasn't amused.

I swear I got fleas there. I didn't have them when I left the Hotel Africa (a business/tourist hotel which was clean & flealess) in Tunis & did the day after when I had stayed at the Andalusia. But I could have picked them up out in the wilds of Tunisia.

Ah, the ruins! As I said, not at all Pharonic. There were many ruins which are in the process of being restored. Since the current trend among archeologist is to leave the tiles at the sites instead of bringing them to museums, you get a much better idea of how their houses looked at those places. One of the Roman towns was near the Algerian border (Bulla Regia?) The houses were two stories -- the top story was at ground level and there wasn't much there. But the second story was underground where it was cooler and it was pretty well preserved with all the rooms and a lot of tile floors and walls intact.

Another one (Dougga) was a huge town. Many acres. Since it was above ground, it was the usual ruins type place.

The Bardo Museum is in a Tunis suburb & has many, many Roman tiles. Well worth the trip. We saw some other cool museums full of artifacts & tiles which were smaller. All charged 1 Dinar for photographs.

I thought about making the title of this How To Visit An Islamic Country Without Seeming To Be In One. The current president for life rules with an iron hand just like the one before him. He's outlawed religous clothes, including scarves, in the schools and "other public places." Consequently, you don't see woman wearing them in the towns except for those from other countries. And men and woman socialize easily.

The call to prayer goes on 5 times a day, but I believe that I heard that the mosques are closed to Tunisians except during prayer. The two Egyptian Moselms who were with us went in & prayed without a problem. No one asked us for our religion -- unlike Egypt where that's the third question after what's your name? & where are you from?-- and it has the feeling of the non-Bible Belt US where religion exists, but is not all encompassing. You don't see men praying on cardboard in the streets as you do in Cairo.

And then there was the Amphitheatre at El Jem which is well preserved enough to be used as a concert center these days. You can go down where the slaves & the wild animals were held. It was amazing. The third biggest one in the world they told us.

And I got to stand on ground on which Russell Crowe trod which was only slightly less exciting than standing on ground where Alexander the Great stood in the Temple of Ammon in Siwa, Egypt. For Monty Python fans, part of The Life of Brian was filmed there, too.

We saw a lot of places & did a lot of driving in the 4 days we were there. Not enough down time or wander time. I would add at least two days to replicate the trip. I wouldn't make the trip less inclusive, just longer. Resort time would be additional or even a destination in itself. And you can go on a desert safari, too.

The troops did rebel on the last day & we went to Kairouan & shopped in lieu of seeing more old stuff -- and mind you this was a group of fans of old stuff -- where we wandered the souk & bought stuff: cakes & pastries, postcards with 3 panels worth of decorative doors, gold hands of fatima (9 or 18 karet of different sizes-- they don't sell them in gold in Egypt) short sleeved Egyptian style blouses -- they don't sell them short sleeved in Egypt, bowls of olive wood, pottery, etc.

Kairoun is best known for being the third or fourth most holy city in the Islamic world and for it's carpets. Most of the rest of the people on the tour bought rugs or at least looked seriously at them. I sat outside in the not so hot sun with a gentle breeze and had my first downtime & half of the best afternoon on the trip. The other half of the afternoon was spent walking around another large ruin of a Roman city which still had tile on the floors of the building. The sun was going down, the wind was gently blowing & the clouds were in interesting shapes.

I'd definitely go back. It's only an hour plane flight from Rome and a much better deal than southern Italy or the south of France.

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