Impressions from a self-drive tour of Tunisia
by Steven Cole; Grand Rapids, MI
Most travel stories try to whet your appetite for a destination, but mine, about Tunisia, may actually discourage you from going there. That’s not because this North African nation has nothing to offer but because it doesn’t deliver as big a bang for the buck as many of its Mediterranean neighbors.
We chose Tunisia because it has a history and culture similar to those of Morocco, which we love, along with many Roman ruins like another of our favorite places, Turkey.
So during the last week of March ’03, my wife, Sharon, and I took an Air France flight via Paris to the capital of Tunis.
We had reservations at the Majestic Hotel (36 Ave. de Paris; phone 332 848 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), a once grand and now somewhat run-down hotel near Avenue Habib-Bourguiba, the city’s main thoroughfare. Our room was large and clean, and for $40 a night, including breakfast, we overlooked crumbling plaster and threadbare draperies.
When we went exploring, our first big disappointment was the lack of good restaurants in this formerly French protectorate. Usually, we had to settle for dismal cafés serving soggy pizza or sandwiches.
In the medina, we expected the exotica of Moroccan cities or Istanbul but again were disappointed. We found mostly Western goods and overpriced souvenirs and crafts, including pottery, rugs, cheaply made jewelry and picture frames made from camel bone.
Our guidebook suggested the government-run crafts center SOCOPA at the corner of Avenue Habib-Bourguiba and Rue de Carthage, and there we found much better quality goods at fixed prices.
The Musée National du Bardo, which has the world’s largest collection of Roman-era mosaics, made up for earlier disappointments. Some of the mosaics, from floors, walls and ceilings of ancient buildings, are as big as 12 by 30 feet and are truly impressive.
We also enjoyed the 247-acre Parc du Belvédère and zoo, where we watched families relaxing and children playing. The zoo is surprisingly large and well maintained, with a wide variety of animals.
Carthage, now a Tunis suburb, is among the most famous of ancient ruined cities. However, there isn’t much to see, and guidebooks recommend that those with limited time skip it.
So, we took a commuter train from downtown Tunis along the coast, past Carthage, to Sidi Bou Said, a village situated on cliffs above the sea. The town was once a magnet for famous artists and writers but today mainly attracts tourists.
While the buildings with their famous blue doors were picturesque, the tacky souvenir shops and the lack of good restaurants were disappointing. Nonetheless, the temperature was in the high 60s with bright sun, and so we did enjoy strolling the quiet streets and looking out to sea.
We’d been in Tunisia only a few days before becoming frustrated over the language barrier. Most Tunisians speak both French and Arabic and often mix the two languages in conversation, making it very difficult for visitors relying on high school French.
From Tunis we rented a car and headed 70 miles east to Hammamet, a beach resort town popular with Europeans. Again, disappointment. There were no sights to see and little in the way of restaurants or shopping.
However, a highlight of our trip was the nearby town of Nabeul, known for its ceramic tiles, most of which can be had for about a dollar after a bit of haggling.
In Nabeul we discovered it was the season for enormous, succulent strawberries, and every day thereafter we purchased some. Along with bread and cheese, they made a great picnic lunch.
Some good, some bad
From Nabeul we headed south toward the fringe of the Sahara, stopping at El Jem, a small town with a Roman amphitheater built in A.D. 230-238. (It is the third largest after those in Rome and Capua.) The awesome site was well worth the stop.
Continuing south, we reached Sfax, an uninteresting industrial city, then turned southwest for 200 miles through farmland, desert and dusty villages to the town of Gafsa. Here we encountered the worst of several bad hotels.
The Ulysses Travel Guide for Tunisia said the Maamoun was clean and comfortable, but our dingy room and its inoperable toilet gave us a miserable night.
The next day found us deeper in the Sahara as we headed another 125 miles to the oasis of Nefta. The town is known for one of Tunisia’s prime tourist attractions, a huge grove of date palms. But driving the dirt road through the grove and staring at thousands of dust-covered palms was boring.
A night of luxury
We backtracked 25 miles to the town of Tozeur, where the luxury Hotel Ksar Jerid (phone 2166 454 357) made up for the miserable Maamoun. Since it was off season, the affable manager gave us the Presidential Suite for the same price as a standard room. The 600-square-foot suite was divided into a large sitting room with king-size bed, two cozy sleeping alcoves with double beds, a walk-in closet and bath, all for $50 with breakfast and dinner!
Tozeur’s market was touristy and there were no sights to see, so we moved on.
Heading southeast, we crossed the Chott el Jerid, an immense, mostly dry lake that reminded us of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, to the town of Kebili, then continued south 27 miles to Douz. Here we stayed at the beautiful Mehari hotel (Zone Touristique).
Most Tunisian resort hotels provide breakfast and dinner, and the Mehari’s menu was typical: a tomato-based soup, “mystery meat,” a pasta or two and a pudding-like dessert.
Douz sits on the edge of millions of acres of trackless Sahara, and there are many tour companies that tout “authentic” desert experiences. Unfortunately, many of these excursions go no more than a mile or two from town.
In summer, the Sahara can reach 120 degrees, but in early spring the temperature was a perfect 78, so we hired a driver with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle for an afternoon trip to the dunes. We expected huge mounds of sand stretching for miles, but the dunes were no more than 30 feet high and covered a small area.
Kairouan and Dougga
From Douz, we drove 100 miles east toward the coast and encountered wild camels grazing by the road, an exciting experience and one of the trip’s few highlights.
At the coast, we drove north to Kairouan. The Hotel Continental (Ave. de la Republique) was dismal, but the nearby medina was among the best we saw, and we managed to buy one of the town’s signature rugs for a good price.
Northwest of Kairouan, we were rewarded with countryside that became increasingly hilly and more beautiful with each mile.
Heading into low mountains, we stopped at the Roman ruins of Dougga, where startlingly green vistas reminded us of Ireland. Only one large building is still standing, but we found the small ruined homes with their intact mosaic floors highly interesting.
A disappointing end
Beyond Dougga, we climbed higher into mountains toward the resort village of Ain Draham. With little warning, we were engulfed in the thickest fog we’d ever seen. We crept to the nearest hotel, where we learned that July is the only month when the town isn’t shrouded in fog. So much for mountain views.
The next day we descended 20 miles to the resort town of Tabarka on the north coast. Besides the usual dearth of restaurants, shopping and sights, the beach was dirty and the local banks refused to take American currency that was even the slightest bit used.
Tunisia’s embassy (phone 202/862-1850) in Washington had assured us that the cold, rainy winter would be over during our visit and that we would encounter only the briefest of showers in the northern region. Wrong. It started pouring in Tabarka and didn’t stop for two days as we wound our way back to Tunis.
When we turned in our rental car, the agent was astounded that we’d driven 1,300 miles, a phenomenal distance in a country that is mostly desert with few roads. We covered this distance easily in 10 days because there simply wasn’t that much to see or do.
We felt Tunisia was an experience, but it was certainly no vacation.