Tunisia's list of attractions would do justice to a country twice its
size. The country has only two neighbours, Algeria to the west and Libya to the
southeast. The northern and eastern extremities face the Mediterranean Sea. With
its feet in the Sahara and its head in the Med, Tunisia covers a lot of scenic
ground.On the coast, a Mediterranean climate with rainy winters and hot, dry
summers. From the Roman-era hot springs at Hamman Mellegue to the space-age sets of
Star Wars (parts of which were filmed at Matmata), its lush-to-lunar
landscapes have seen more action than the New World nations combined.Spend a few days here and you'll agree: daydreaming at the famous Roman ruins
of Carthage and El-Jem is almost as good as stepping into Virgil's Aeneid
and knocking one back with Dido, while a day's dawdling on the north coast's
beaches will leave you wondering why Hannibal ever left.
Very early on the morning of your first full day in Tunisia, it begins to
sink in that this is an altogether exotic place. You might well be awakened
before dawn by the chant of the muezzin loudspeakered from a nearby minaret. Is
it a dream? You sink back to sleep, lulled by the sound of the lapping sea and
the twittering birds.The bewildering contrasts of the familiar and the foreign add spice to the
Tunisian experience. The people are dignified and friendly, with a quick sense
In the north the velvety hillsides might remind you of Europe at its most
bountiful. The south lives up to everybody's image of a desert of dunes
interrupted by green oases, where the dates come from. As for beaches, Tunisia's
1,300-km (800-mile) share of the Mediterranean shore runs from hidden coves to
endless white sand beaches that nature's generous master plan might have
designed for children.
The metropolitan area of Tunis covers so much ground, and so many centuries,
that you may need a cure for culture shock. Tunis itself, the capital and
biggest city of the country, is in the present tense - high-rises, modern
tramway and all - but superimposed on layers of the distant past. And the
suburbs range from the wonders of ancient Carthage (interspersed with many
flower-decked modern villas) to the most photographed white village in Tunisia,
Sidi Bou Saod, so charming it's almost mythical.
Your first impression of Tunis is likely to be the efficient,
late-20th-century airport, or the sea-port, which started as a medieval feat of
engineering. To get your bearings, though, stroll beneath the subtropical canopy
of starling-infested fig trees lining the main boulevard of the modern city.
Until an ambitious reclamation project of the late 19th century it was all under
water, part of the marshy Lake of Tunis. Under the French protectorate the
modern district of Tunis took rather stately form - a promenade striding proudly
from the gate of the medina to the edge of the port, a grand compound for the
colonial powers, and a grid of shopping streets reminiscent of a provincial city
someplace in southern France.
Tourism remains very low-key throughout most of the country, though if you're
looking for resort life you can find that too. Be it Tunis' French-Arab culture
collage or the Sahara's unthinkably massive expanse, you're going to be
impressed with what you find in Tunisia. After all, they've had 3000 years to
prepare for your visit.