Cultural Travel, Tunisia

Side trip to Tunis, Tunisia, North Africa

We were in Palermo, the capital city in the autonomous region of Sicily, when we decided to spice up our southern Italy trip with a side excursion to Tunis, Tunisia, which is only 362 km away across the Mediterranean sea.  But it turned out that the best connection over this very short distance was a flight with Air Alitalia from Palermo north to Rome, then south to Tunis.

New City

Tunis is the capital of Tunisia.  Located in north Africa on the Mediterranean coast but lacking much in the way of beaches, it does not attract many tourists compared to other popular African destinations.  Founded by the Berbers in the 2nd millennium BCE, the city of Tunis has been controlled by Phoenicians, Romans, Arab Muslims, Ottomans, Spanish, French and Germans, finally achieving independence as the capital of Tunisia in 1956.

Modern architecture in new city

Tunis is an interesting mix of new and old, including colonial French buildings, the souq (market) and the medina (old city).

Souq, the old city

We arrived at the Hotel Metropole after a short taxi ride from the Tunis-Carthage international airport.  We selected this hotel for its perfect location next to the medina and the main boulevard.  The reception staff spoke French, Arabic and English.

We started our orientation by exploring the medina and the nearby souq.  Both places were rather low key and quiet compared to others we have visited in other countries.  The vendors treated us as a curiosity  rather than potential customers.

Port de France

Then we headed over to the Place de la Victoire and the Port de France, a large free-standing gate that used to be the entrance to the medina, dividing the old city from the European style new city.  Unfortunately, it was covered up for restoration work.

Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul

We continued with our exploration of the new city along Ave De France to the Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul, the largest surviving building from Tunis’ colonial era.  Ave De France was quite busy as it is lined with shops and eateries and has quite a number of architecturally interesting buildings.

Ave Habib Bourguiba

Going east we walked along the Ave Habib Bourguiba, the largest avenue in the city, a Tunis version of the Champ Elysee, lined with many shops and fashionable dressed people socializing over food and drinks outdoors.

The Hotel Metropole is also located quite close to the Tunis main train and tram station.  On the following day, we woke up early and after a quick breakfast from the hotel , walked over to the train station for a trip to the city of El Djem,  200 km south of Tunis.  We had comfortable seats on the train for the 2.5 hour ride.

The Amphitheatre of El Jem

The Amphitheater of El DJem is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site since 1979.  The amphitheater was built around 238 AD, when modern Tunisia belonged to the Roman province of Africa.  It is the fourth largest in the Roman world,  only coming after Rome’s Colosseum, the Pozzuoli amphitheater near Naples, and the one at Carthage, of which little survives.

Capacity for 35,000 spectators

El Djem is one of the best preserved, and certainly very unique, in Africa.  It was easy to locate, a short 8 minutes walk after disembarking from the train station.  Incredibly, we only met 2 other tourists during our exploration of the entire complex that can hold up to 35,000 spectators.

Free to roam, few tourists

We were free to roam throughout the 3 levels and porticoes; the top level provides a good view of the El Djem city.  We walked through the underground alleys and rooms where the lions and captive Christians were held. This part was much more intact and accessible than the equivalent in Rome’s coliseum.  We saw the animal elevating devices to bring them into the arena.  After the Amphitheater, we paid a  quick visit to the nearby El Djem Archaeological Museum, then walked back to the train station for the 2.5 hour train ride back to Tunis.

Punic Tophet, in the Phoenician city of Carthage

On day three, a shorter 35 minutes train ride, passing by the Lake of Tunis and the port of Tunis have us at Carthage, a city of the Phoenician and Punic periods from the 6th century BCE. It was the base of a powerful trading empire spanning the entire south Mediterranean and home to about 500,000 people. The citizens defended the city against the Romans in 146 BCE, but lost, and Punic Carthage was completely destroyed by the order of the Senate.

The site was redeveloped by the Romans a century later and Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa. Carthage was also inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979.

The main historic site is at the Carthage Museum and the Acropolium (St. Louis Cathedral) on Byrsa Hill overlooking the town of Carthage.The Byrsa Hill dominates both the ocean gulf, the lake, and plain of Tunis inland to the west, and was therefore the most strategic point for the empire.

Byrsa Hill

The Carthage Roman ruins are spread out all over Carthage, so it involved quite a bit of walking to see all of them.

Today Carthage is very affluent, with elite schools, wealthy residents, the President’s own seaside residence, and a private tennis club.

Elite school

After a lunch of Tunis food, cous cous dish with many different kinds of meat and roasted vegetables; plenty of fresh baguette always accompany every meal, we 

Meat and cous cous

headed over to Sidi Bou Said, a small village famous for the white houses with blue roofs and windows, perched on a hill, with an amazing view of the Mediterranean and the Bay of Tunis.   Unlike the other areas we have visited, we noticed many more foreign tourist on the main street of Sidi Bou Said.

Sidi Bou Said

French dessert crepes

We arrived back to Tunis center in the evening  and strolled over to our favorite Café on Ave Habib Bourguiba for a light dinner.  We had the most delicious ham and cheese crepe for dinner and chocolate almond fruit crepe with mint tea for dessert. We were such good customers with our daily coffees & ice creams that they gave us a special sparkler to mark the occasion.

The final morning before our afternoon flight to Malta, we visited the Bardo Museum.  This is one of the most important museums in the Mediterranean region and the second museum of the African continent after the Egyptian Museum of Cairo by richness of its collections. It traces the history of Tunisia over several millennia and across several civilizations through a wide variety of archaeological pieces.  The museum is modern, bright and contain a splendid Mosaic collection.

Bardo Museum collection




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