Coming into my summer adventure abroad, I had no idea it would lead me to Tunisia. I had not originally planned the trip, the country was not even on my radar. Yet, when I was transferred from the Normandy region to the Rhône-Alpes region to teach English in France, I began to consider a weekend escape. I had not left France in over a month and my new camp site was not very far from Lyon. I began researching cheap weekend trips from the Lyon Airport when I stumbled upon, originally, a weekend in Monastir, Tunisia. I thought about Monastir and realized if I was going to spend a weekend in a new country, I was going to see the sights I wanted to see. When it come to Tunisia, the site I most wanted to see were the ruins of Carthage. So, I then looked into flights to Tunis. I discovered the prices were very affordable (my flight and hotel package was $300 for 2 nights), and quickly booked my tickets with only a week’s notice. The next weekend, I was in Africa for the first time.
I landed in Tunis on a Friday night and quickly cleared border control. Before I left the
airport, I withdrew Tunisian Dinars (the Tunisian currency) as Tunisia has weird restrictions on bringing their currency into the country, and I did not want to risk anything. Leaving the airport was interesting. There are so many taxis and everyone wants to take you to your hotel, but there are police officers patrolling the taxi area to make sure you hop into a legitimate government appointed taxi (I almost did not). These government taxis all have an information sheet on the inside of the window validating their authenticity. I felt so safe and the taxi was very cheap (only $10). The taxi man was even nice enough to walk me to the front door of Hotel Carlton. The hotel I stayed in, I also highly recommend! Hotel Carlton is located on the Champs-Elysee of Tunis, the main road, is close to the metro and train station, and the staff is very, very helpful. Once I was settled into my hotel room, complete with a free liter of water (it is unsafe to drink the tap water), I then went to explore.
Since I left the hotel after sundown, the streets were packed! When I was in Tunisia, it
was Ramadan and Tunisia is part of the Arab World and predominately Muslim. So, everyone ventures out after 9:00 to eat, grab coffee, shop, and get ice-cream. It was amazing to see just how many people, even young children, were out so late! Even more astounding was the next morning, no food places were opened! Luckily, my hotel provided breakfast or I would not have been able to find food until sundown. Even non-Tunisian restaurants, such as the French food chain Pomme-de-Pain, were closed until night. It was interesting to spend another Ramadan in the Middle East and to see how different Tunisia was from Israel. For, food places were still opened in Israel!
Aside from the food situation, which was understandable given the circumstances I visited Tunisia in, my full day in Tunis was magical and everything I hoped it would be. In order to visit both the ruins of Carthage and the massive Roman amphitheater at El Jem, the two things I wanted to do the most in Tunisia, I had to start my day early. By 7:15 am, I was on the metro (less than $1 for a ticket) to Carthage. By metro, it took about 30 minutes to reach Carthage and there are five Carthage stops. I got off at the second stop, however, many who visit the ruins get off at Carthage-Hannibal, the third stop. At the second stop, I walked around the Byrsa Hill leading to the Carthage Archeological Site and Carthage National Museum. I was able to glimpse at Carthage from the past while looking down at modern Carthage, it was a unique contrast in development.
The Carthage Archeological Site and Museum was nowhere near crowded. Because of the lack of people, I was better able to wander at my leisure and examine the ruins without the annoying tourists getting in the way. The ruins themselves are fascinating and the signage really helps with understanding what the ruins are of. I viewed the remnants of various temples, housing, baths, roads, and marketplace. The Punic Quarter was ancient Carthage, the Carthage of the Phoenicians. The Romans proved very, very effective at destroying the settlement as seen by the lack of ruins in Phoenician Carthage. Away from the Phoenician site, the Roman Carthage showed temples to Roman deities and Roman societal constructs. Also, the Roman essence of Carthage was better preserved, perhaps due to the lack of a world power attempting to eliminate all opposition (what the Romans did to Carthage). The museum, in addition to the archeology site also proved interesting. The museum showed Punic, Roman, and Byzantine relics. My favorite exhibit was the reconstructed mosaic of The Lady of Carthage, a Byzantine relic. However, I enjoyed the sarcophagi discovered in the necropolis (Punic), stele (Punic), and Byzantine Christian mosaics.
*For the history nerd who desires to see more of Roman Tunisian artifacts, go to the Bardo Museum in Tunis!
After exploring Byrsa Hill and the museum, I wandered down to the port. From the waterfront, I was able to understand just how Carthage was able to be such a dominant naval power. Moreover, I was able to see more Carthage ruins down by the waterfront, although not as well-preserved nor as popular as the ruins on Byrsa Hill.
By noon, I was on the metro back to Tunis, where I then rushed to find the SNCFT train station to hop on a train to El Jem. For $15 I was able to take a 6 hour RT (3 hours each way) train ride to El Jem from Tunis, talk about a deal! The train ride to El Jem was beautiful! Tunisia has a gorgeous and varying landscape that changed as the trip progressed. By the time I arrived in El Jem, the landscape was more semi arid/desert. There was so much dust and dirt! There were even camels wandering around! Once off the train, it was a simple walk through the souq (Arab marketplace), to reach the massive amphitheater. The Amphitheater of El Jem is one of the best preserved and largest amphitheaters in the Roman World and is the largest in Africa. The amphitheater was massive! I was able to freely wander about the grounds and explore the underground, specter stands, and floor of the structure. I was even able to walk into the middle of the arena! This amphitheater is in such great condition that there are still events held in it to this day! Plus it is used as a film location, most notably seen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The amphitheater was worth the long train ride!
All in all, my weekend in Tunisia was amazing and has been my favorite weekend trip to date. I cannot wait to go back to the amazing country one day!
Tips for Tunisia
- Dress conservatively! For women, no shoulders showing and no booty shorts. It is preferred for women to wear pants
- Tunisian people are extremely nice and helpful!
- Things in Tunisia are extremely cheap
- Always bring bottled water everywhere you go
- As a solo traveler, women should book first class tickets to avoid being approached by swarms of men on public transport
- As a white woman, you will stand out and be stared at, get used to it
- During Ramadan, all food places will be closed from sunup to sundown
- Respect their religion
- The pomegranate juice is spectacular
- The country is pronounced too-knee-see-a
- There are not many tourists and very, very little beggars
- Tunisia is a beautiful country and one I highly recommend visiting!