19 Aug TUNISIA: AN ARCHEOLOGICAL TRIP
We visited Tunisia few years ago during Winter time, as we found a low-season offer to spend six days in a resort in Hammamet, a touristic destination at the Eastern coast. As both of us were studying our degree in History and Art History, it was an exciting trip which we remember in particular. We used the little-old-fashioned huge hotel (which was almost empty on that time of the year) as a “base”, and explored the country with our rental car and a road map.
Tunisia is really an exciting county: it has that Mediterranean essence and charm of countries in North Africa, with a laid-back character and nice and extremely kind people. On another side, it’s a county full of archaeological sites due to its rich history, which every traveller discovers in almost every town. Most of these sites date from Roman period, when Tunisia was part of the Roman Africa Province. Rome took control of Carthage after the Third Punic War (149–146), when the country was ruled by Berber kings. This old city (nowadays part of Tunis) became the third city of the Empire, and transformed its province into a cultural and cosmopolitan area. Every traveller can still today imagine that magnificent period though its ruins, preserved in the north half of the country.
At the end of 2010 in Tunis, the capital of the country, an ambulant seller committed suicide as a protest against the authorities, as a consequence of the situation of population under the dictatorship. This fact was actually the outset of the Arab revolutions, a range of protest that extended into several countries through which people demandes social rights and democracy. In Tunisia, the dictator Ben Ali was shut down (when we visited the country his photographs were ubiquitous, sometimes in huge dimensions). However, after those facts, the country has not changed in the aspects peopled demanded, and the socio-politicual situation is still very complicated.
I am aware that unfortunately is no longer that touristic destination that used to be because of some incidents occurred during 2014 and 2015 (in El Bardo Museum and in a Hammamet resort beach), but I am pretty sure Tunisia is still a safe country, and its people are as kind and welcoming as always have been.
Anyway, I want to share with you what was one of our favourite trips ever. Note that I wasn’t very much for photos then, and from this trip I actually have more memories than digital images, which is not a bad thing at all (despite revising the photos I feel a bit sad for not capturing some of the stunning views of the country…). You must also know that it’s mandatory to pay a fee in case you want to take pictures in some monuments.
Tunis is the capital of the country. Despite we didn’t spend much time there, we could enjoy the Medina (the old quarter), the most interesting part of the city and actually a UNESCO world heritage site (one of the big amount in the country). Following a middle-ages structure, its streets are actually an extension of the houses, so characteristic of Arabic countries. You will enjoy its special architecture, full of Andalusian and Oriental influences, but also mixed with Roman vestiges, which are still visible in some of the columns and capitals.
Tips: spend a morning shopping (always bargain!) at the souk and watch out the amazing doors of the buildings. They are amazing!
When in Tunis, you should visit the recently renovated Bardo National Museum, which hosts a great collection on roman mosaics and sculptures, with also archaeological remains from other ancient civilizations. However, as you will see, I definitely suggest to complete this visit with other archaeological sites, where you will find those elements in situ.
One of this sites, very interesting but not the most especial (for us), is Carthage, easily reachable from the city centre by public transport. There you will be able to introduce yourself into Tunisia history, as this site contains historic vestiges ranging from Phoenician era to Islamic times. I suggest you to take a good guide (even a good book will be very useful), as could be difficult to enjoy your visit by yourself.
Dugga ruins are the most important of Roman Africa. In addition to its exceptionality for the extension of the site and the great preservation of the buildings, we were fascinated for two more facts: its location and the lack of tourists. It actually happened to us during all the trip, and at some point this made it even more special: we were THE ONLY visitors while in Dugga, Bulla Regia and El Djem, all of them situated out of touristic areas (which in Tunisia are mostly located on the coast). It was probably due to low season, but for us was what made the experience so unique. In Dugga, the only presence during the long hours we spent at the site (apart of the person at the ticket office, which was not easy to reach) was a young boy with his donkey and two oxeas, who came to the site to fill water from one of the fountains. Again, I recommend you to bring a good guide to read the necessary information, in order to place yourself in the different buildings and parts of the former Roman city. The Capitolium is amazing.
Our other great experience was in Bulla Reggia, where again we had all the Roman site for both of us. There are not such monumental buildings as in Dougga, but here the exceptionality is in its mosaics, both outdoors and indoors. We couldn’t find a place in Europe with so good preserved mosaics in situ, because most of them are located in museums, out of its original context. The beauty and peace of the landscape made even more especial our visit: it’s located on the foot of Mount Rebia, surrounded by olive trees.
After another afternoon shower (which didn’t avoid us to visit the whole site during few hours), we took refuge in a bar in a lost village in the middle of nowhere. We assumed they were not very used to see tourists, as I was not allowed as a woman to get into the bar itself: instead, they kindly opened the family home and we drank our tea in their dining room. My aim is not at all to judge this fact, but note that these “remote” areas in the country remained very traditional and conservative, which did not happen at all both un the capital and the touristic areas.
Bulla Regia was in former times an ensemble of opulent villas, which nowadays is still visible in the richness and superb quality of its mosaics. Most of them are located on the undergrounds of these constructions that worked as cellars, built to protect the wine (and the Romans themselves) of the warm climate during Summer months.
Sousse is a typical seaside city, probably more crowded during summertime, but with a special charm in winter sunny and even warm days. You must visit its Medina, surrounded by high ramparts and full of small white houses with blue doors distributed aleatory through narrow and rambling streets. Forget about the map and get lost, it’s a very pleasant experience. Stop at a once to have a sweet thé à la menthe, and bargain to get a good price for a puff (we did both).
I didn’t have the habit to write a travel diary then, so I cannot recommend you many places to eat in Tunisia. However, I luckily picked the card of one of the restaurants in Sousse I enjoyed the most, Café Seles. It’s located right in front of the ramparts, and they serve delicious tajine and orange juice. If it’s open, enjoy the terrace at the rooftop, it has very nice views of the city and the sea 🙂
As told before, we stayed in Yasmine, a resort area in Hammamet. Outside the hotel area, this is also a beautiful coastal city (maybe more faced to tourists). One of the things we enjoyed the most of the city (freaks of us) were its bookstrores (Mot à Mot et Le Printemps, which I presume is closed nowadays) where we bought some books on history and art. Stroll around the city and, of course, have a drink at Sidi Bouhdid, right at the Kasbah, in front of the Mediterranean.
We also visited El Djem, a city to the south of the country that hosts the third amphitheatre of the ancient world, only after Rome and Capua. I am so sorry, but I didn’t take a single picture: I just kept it in my mind!