This is an amazing site. I didn't know about it until I took a tour to the Sahara but it is a truly magnificent building. You really do feel that you have been transported back to Roman times.
We hired a car in Hammamet, and drove south, via Kairouan, to stay in the desert town of Douz on the edge of the Sahara.
The Tunisian Sahara is known as the Grand Erg Oriental – and erg translates as ‘field of dunes’.
Our journey took us across the Chott El Jerid, the largest salt pan of the Sahara, where temperatures can soar to 50° C. Halfway across, we parked at the edge of the sun-baked road and tentatively stepped out onto the salt crust. Mirages of castles and spaceships shimmered in the distance, as elusive as rainbow-ends.
Eventually we reached Douz, where minarets and blue-shuttered houses appeared ghostly in the half-light of dusk, and the pale dunes, as fine as icing sugar, rolled into the seeming infinity of the Sahara.
Google map: bit.ly/RNbhjJ
We visited Tunis in September 2011, mere months after the Arab Spring died down in the country. We weren’t apprehensive about the stability of the place but we were excited about seeing an almost brand new nation. We did all the natural touristy bits but our highlight was stumbling across an art gallery called Palais Kheireddine (transformed into Le Musee de la Ville de Tunis) buried deep in the Medina that was once a former palace. It was virtually deserted but it was filled with artwork by local artists who had enough pent up aggression, borne out of years of oppression, to produce some really earthy art. The setting was perfect: a quiet space to wander around, with tall, white pristine arches framing works that were poignant, relevant and at times showed a zany sense of humour. A kindly caretaker took us under his wing and showed us some of his favourites, which included the gallery's sparkling mosaic tiled roof terrace overlooking the equally deserted square below. Round the corner is another gallery called La Dar Lasram, with subterranean looking arches that housed photographs from the protests taken by local photographers. Tunis felt like the most untouristy place on earth when we visited. Hopefully as democracy settles in, these local artists will reach a wider audience eager to know more about what makes this nation tick.
Rue du Tribunal, Place Kheireddine, 1006, Tunis
+216 71 561 780
For a hidden and secret spot which will allow you to enjoy the best views over the souks of the old Medina of Tunis and the mosque of Ezzitouna for free, you need to leave the tourist trail and delve right into the heart of the souks. Only a few shops in the souks provide access to their rooftops from which you will be able to enjoy these views, you will have to specifically ask the shop owners if you can get to the roof. The rooves themselves are something to experience, with their intricate tiling and magnificent blue and white colours. From here the whole Medina can be seen with its labyrinth of small covered streets,its myriad of colours and sounds, all against the backdrop of the Ezzitouna mosque "Minaret". The best views are available from one particular shop in the Souk "El Kachachine".
Here's how to get here: head to the Souks of the old Medina, ask any taxi to take you to the "Kasba" square in the centre of Tunis, which is the main government square. Head down to the jeweller's souk (called "Souk El Birka"), coming from the "Kasba" square behind you,and follow this street right in,with the prime minister's office (the actual "Kasba") on your left. Right at the end of this street, you will find a perpendicular covered street which marks the beginning of the "Souk El Kachachine", with its carpet shops. Turn left down this covered street, and you will find on your right the biggest shop on the street selling crafts, carpets and traditional Tunisian artefacts (you cannot miss it). Enter this shop, and ask to visit the rooftop. You climb two flights of stairs, and once you reach the top, you will be able to enjoy clear views of the whole Medina, and especially the Ezzitouna Minaret. Take loads of photos!
If you master the “louage” system of shared taxis, you can get anywhere in Tunisia at very reasonable cost and often share a cab with a friendly local who will give you useful tips. From Sousse we got to the amazing Roman city of Sufetula, with its virtually intact theatre, temples and triumphal arch, the staggeringly beautiful Kairouan – fourth holiest site in Islam - where we bought a hard wearing kilim carpet, and the glorious oasis of Nefta, with its 400,000 palm trees – where we were taken out into the desert to see a mirage.
I was lucky enough to spend a year living in Tunis and loved the beautiful white blue bougainvillea sparkling under the Mediterranean sun. Often on weekends we would have late lunch at Le Neptune, a super relaxed and delicious seafood restaurant just by the sea. Literally, by the sea. The outside terrace gives a beautiful view on Tunis bay and Cap Bon on the other side, happily it is rarely crowded but usually lively so no real need to book. The menu is simple but delicious and reasonably priced (less than 15 quid ahead for three courses and wine). If you like clams they do a delicious version with lots of lovely garlicky sauce to sop up with your baguette. The restaurant is a favourite for middle class locals who want a relaxing lunch with decent Tunisian wine (go for the white!) and if you are visiting its a break from the souk and occasional hassle. The staff are always accommodating and the waiters have clearly been running the place since way before Ben Ali. After lunch you can go for a leisurely stroll around Carthage to work off the clams and meander up to the small fishing port of Carthage and envy the villas before hopping into a taxi for tea and nargileh in Sidi Bou Said. Enjoy!
2 rue Ibn Chabbat, 2016 Carthage
Dar Bibine is quite simply the most lovely place I have ever stayed. Tucked away down a side street in a quiet village on the relaxed island of Djerba, it is run by two welcoming Belgian expats with a true love for their adopted homeland. We arrived in the wee hours following a very late flight from London via Tunis and despite the late hour were welcomed with continental kisses through the bougainvillea draped doorway into a white and blue fairyland lit with candles and scented with jasmine and orange blossom by both Isabelle and Gerard who dealt with our luggage and even offered to pay the taxi for us and add it to our bill to ensure we weren't cheated.
Gerard is an architect and his eye for design comes through; four beautifully decorated rooms surround a small but perfectly formed swimming pool while above the roof has been converted into a relaxing space to eat, sunbathe, read, or quietly cuddle (the last made possible by the area being divided into sections with flowing drapes and bountiful bougainvillea.) Isabelle is an accomplished cook and often came and found us while we relaxed in the sun to deliver tasty snacks (cool melon, tangy cheeses, olives) or cold beers. The building is situated not far from the village mosque and the calls of the muezzin drift across the walls and into the courtyard without being loud enough to cause disturbance. One side of the guest house is also bordered by a Jewish synagogue (Djerba has an ancient tradition of Islam and Judaism peacefully coexisting) and it was truly magical one Friday evening to sit as the moon rose and listen to both the muezzin calling and the gentlemen of the synagogue sharing their respective faiths in their steady tones across the evening air.
The hotel provides breakfast, with options to your taste but can include fried eggs in the shape of fish, with dots of fiery hot sauce for bubbles, or the really delicious chocolate cous cous and tiny pastries, always accompanied by very strong coffee and cold orange juice. Evening meals, also prepared after a discussion of your tastes, can be provided (and anyone staying there should absolutely do so one evening) for an extremely reasonable extra cost, given the quality of the food. Choice in the village itself is limited but taxis are cheap, reliable and readily available and the main towns on the island are only a very short drive away.
A highlight for us was the tour of the island which Isabelle arranged for us with Faisal, a lively native who managed to speak bits of English, French, German and Italian - often in one sentence! He spent several hours showing us sights including Roman ruins, underground mosques and potteries (the heat made working and praying underground a necessity in times past) and even climbed trees to retrieve dates, olives and pomegranates for us to sample claiming (as he did about nearly everything) that these were the best available tout le mondo! At the end of the tour we were so enchanted we ended up paying him nearly triple what he had requested, certainly the best value £40 I have ever spent. I did consider suggesting Faisal as a tip himself but suspect he doesn't have a website and might need to be contacted by friends of friends (he was that type of chap).
A good tip would be to go prepared to exercise any lingering school French. Isabelle has excellent English but the locals have almost none and we found ourselves racking our brains for long forgotten vocabulary to describe what we wanted. That said, everyone was extremely friendly and patient and rather delighted to be muddling through with us.
Our visit to Djerba was so excellent that we have often said that we aren't sure we'd want to return in case it was all a dream.
Rue Abdel Wahab 7, Erriadh, Djerba
It is not very often that one gets the chance to sleep in a troglodyte cave. Better still, the Hotel Marhala is a troglodyte cave hotel offering a very special stay. The hotel was excavated into the ground and offers some of the most unusual rooms to be found anywhere in the world.
The beginning of the film 'Star Wars' was filmed in the area. Luke Skywalker looking out over the barren, lunar landscape at the twin moons as he dreams of space travel.
The restaurant serves a delicious Tunisian brik, which is an egg stuffed fried turnover.
Hôtel restaurant Marhala Matmata ancienne 6070 Matmata Gabès Tunisie
+216 75 240 015
I spent a wonderful morning visiting the Medina and the souks of Tunis. The narrow lanes lined with shops were bustling with activities. After my shopping expedition in the souks, I had built quite an appetite for a couscous, a traditional Tunisian dish and walked into the first restaurant that served it.
I then took the tramway to Carthage, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located only 13 miles away from Tunis, where I spent the rest of the day visiting the town’s ancient ruins. The area also offers magnificent views of the Gulf of Tunis.
Missing your real ale? Tunisian lager too fizzy? This brew pub serves three German style beers (including a dunkel) which are truly fantastic!
Opposite the medina on the central square in Hammamet.
Brasserie Le Berbère, Place des Martyrs
A beautiful unspoiled fishing town.
Good transport links to Tunis and the south. A short shared-taxi ride to El Djem. The town is five miles south of a 'tourist compound' of huge hotels, etc. to be strictly avoided if you want to meet Tunisians and live as the locals do.
Google map: bit.ly/v6GI12
Needing to get far away from the traditional family UK Christmas, but eschewing airports, my daughter hit the search engines. On 18th December we two headed south to Marseille, with three tight-knit trains delivering us from Brighton in time for a late fish supper on the port. The next morning we boarded – along with over 2000 Tunisian ex-pats, going home for the holidays – the huge ferry to Tunis. Bad weather delayed us a little, but we got to know our fellow passengers and had warm invitations which ensured we eventually arrived intact in Mahdia, where we had rented a beautiful flat, very cheaply, for three nights. After exploring this unspoiled coastal town – and nearby El Djem - we caught the coast train back north to Tunis. Warm hospitality again met us at the Dar Ed Medina hotel, in the old city, where the fantastic staff ensured that we had a non-Christmas to remember. We’ve often thought gratefully of our kind hosts as their society has been in upheaval this year. But Tunisia is still welcoming independent travellers… get booking!
Travel details: Eurostar and TGV London to Marseille.
Ferry SNCM: www.sncm.fr/
Marseillle-Tunis return. Journey approx 19 hours. Very comfy cabins.
Tunis-Mahdia by train: daily, 4 hours.
Mahdia: Villa Zouila Mahdia, only £25 per night for the beautiful Olivier apartment. Great meals cooked by neighbour on request.
19 avenue Taieb Mhiri, 5100 Mahdia
+32 479 414 910
Tunis: Hotel Dar El Medina www.darelmedina.com/
Atmospheric rooms and a stunning rooftop terrace, in the old walled city.
64, Rue Sidi Ben Arous Tunis 1006, Tunisia
+32 71 563 022
Port El Kantaoui comes into it's own at this time of year. It is still hot enough for a beach holiday without being uncomfortable. The port is a purpose built tourist resort and only a short drive to the older town of Sousse with it's traditional medina. The Hotel Kanta is a lovely hotel in the centre of the port with easy access to the beach and marina. It has a choice of pools and very friendly staff, all you could want for an enjoyable holiday.
4089 Port El Kantaoui Tunisia
+ 216 73 348 666
The souk in Sousse is absolutely amazing with hundreds of shops and stalls selling Tunisian souvenirs like carpets, blankets, cloth, copper ware, pottery and jewellery. Some of the leather and tiles for sale were the best I have seen. I would highly recommend the soft, fresh dates, displayed still attached to the branch where they grew and tasting nothing like the hard, sugary dates found in British supermarkets.
Haggling is, of course, expected and part of the fun. For those that prefer not to haggle, quite a lot of the shops selling tourist-aimed items are 'prix fixe', (fixed price).
We found the shopkeepers at the souk to be very friendly and felt both safe and comfortable.
The souk is situated in Sousse's Medina, a warren of streets contained within ancient walls. A map is highly recommended.
Google map: tinyurl.com/3alqae2
The Douz Festival is based on an ancient Bedouin gathering when Saharan tribes met to trade and, legend has it, to marry off their daughters. Instead, today, the Saharan Bedouins compete in camel, horse and dog races, folklore performances and traditional plays. Their backdrop is the 150-mile salt lake of Chott El Ferid, which set the scene for the film, The English Patient and the golden sand dunes that were a setting for Star Wars.
Walk about, listen to bands from competing tribes, ride a camel called Mustapha, attend a busy market and eat fresh fish, such as red snapper, sea bass, bream, grouper, red mullet, tuna and prawns. The sweet baklava is to die for.
Usually during Ramadan, there is a great scarcity of food in restaurants as all respect fasting norms during the day. Most restaurants are closed so the only place you'd find food is the hotel where you are based. This causes travel hardships as you cannot stop at different places to have lunch or afternoon meals while travelling.
Dar Said is the former townhouse of a wealthy Tunis family, in the pretty seaside and artist’s village of Sidi Bou Said, perched on the cliffs in the northern suburbs of Tunis. It's a picture-perfect place of warm sun, cobbled streets, whitewashed houses with bright blue shutters and ornately decorated doors, with tall cypress trees and bougainvillea flowers spilling over garden walls.
Dar Said has been listed many times among the world's best boutique/individual hotels, and it feels small, quiet and intimate (how staying away from home should be!). All the rooms are spacious, cool, well-furnished, with opulent bathrooms, and open onto small courtyards of jasmine and gurgling fountains.
A gorgeous pool is set among terraces overlooking the sea, and breakfast is served poolside every morning.
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