Travel in Tunisia: 10 loves and hates to know before going

Travel in Tunisia: 10 loves and hates to know before going

Good: trains, food, French and Arabic influences. Bad: international zones, "tipsters," loss of real desert experience

The first of the Arab Spring nations to experience revolution, at the beginning of 2011, Tunisia has been enjoying a long democracy honeymoon ever since.

Tourists have been starting to return, and they're finding a lot to enjoy ... and a few things that could be improved.

As always, check your government's advice before traveling to potentially unstable areas.

Also on CNN: Has the revolution changed Tunisia?

1. We love the mix of influences

travel in TunisiaTravel in Tunisia is a unique blend of many cultures.Tunisia is a packed scrap of north Africa.

It's an Arab country that mixes elements of French culture with aromatic Oriental influences, chucks in timeless scenes of goat-herding and cave-dwelling and mixes in glorious slices of beach-hugging Mediterranean, before wrapping everything up in a southern skirt of Saharan sand.

All of that in a nation that's barely more than 350 miles, north to south.

Early Mediterranean history and recent colonial French legacy are culturally important, but both have been assimilated into a confident nation that’s proud of its Arabic foundations, with a uniquely Tunisian way of doing things.

2. We hate the corralling of tourists in ‘international resorts’

travel in TunisiaThe ancient world is within reach.Under Tunisia's old government, it was thought that tourism and local life were best kept separate. International zones were created, such as Port el Kantaoui and Yasmine Hammamet, where five-star hotels sit shoulder to shoulder, prices are high and restaurants serve international cuisine.

These are essentially soulless places that might be found anywhere in the world, or at least anywhere around the shores of the Mediterranean.

If you travel in Tunisia, consider instead Hammamet’s old section, where narrow streets lined with ice-cream parlors and patisseries twist away from the sea, or Sousse, the beach-and-port second city that has an ancient medina at its heart.

3. We love the medinas

travel in TunisiaClutter and chaos at their best.The old, walled city centers or medinas (particularly in Tunis and Sousse) are car-free labyrinths where people still live and blacksmiths, carpenters and leather-tanners still work.

Their lanes are studded with hammams, mosques and madrassahs -- Islamic colleges -- and there’ll usually be a tower to climb for a great view, often with a café attached (Dar Essid in Sousse, Dar El Medina in Tunis).

At the entrances to these medinas there’s a tangle of lanes lined with stall upon stall selling leather, carpets, glass, silk, brocade, carvings and perfume, and clogged with such a tide of humankind that you fear you may never get out.

But the crowds quickly thin and you’ll soon find yourself in a quiet maze of alleys that echo with murmured conversations and are filled with slinking cats.

4. We hate people who pretend to be your friend

travel in TunisiaA smile will take you far. Sometimes a long way out of your way.We’ve all experienced it, and it can be particularly irritating when traveling in Tunisia.

Someone approaches you, engages you in conversation, seems to be genuinely interested in who you are and then gives you a "tip" about a very interesting exhibition in one of the medina’s finest palaces.

"Quick," they’ll say, "I’ll take you there before it closes…." and it turns out to be just another carpet shop full of hungry salesmen. Duped again.

5. We love the Ksour, the ksars and the ghorfas

travel in TunisiaNo Jedi mind tricks here. We hope.Fortified abode villages, often in mountaintop locations, are typical of the arid region of southern Tunisia known as the Ksour, where the land rises up in dusty humps, like an elephant’s bristled hide.

Most of these honeycomb-like villages or ksars (the best-known is Ksar Hadada) have a network of "ghorfas" or grain storage chambers at their heart.

It's this landscape, this style of architecture, and the burnous-hooded cloaks worn by the Berbers who live here, which inspired George Lucas in his vision for "Star Wars." There’s even a town called Tatouine.


6. We hate the way the desert is treated as a theme park

travel in TunisiaPast the second dune you'll find a lovely five-star hotel.The Sahara is accessible in Tunisia, and ever since "Star Wars" put the place on the movie map, a lot of filming has been done here.

The oasis towns of Douz and Tozeur have added big hotel zones. Visitors come by the bus-load, go for a camel ride, visit the film sets and then depart.

The date palms that were once at the heart of the oasis economy have been cut down to make way for hotels, and the water that once irrigated them is now being used to fill their swimming pools.

A true desert experience is comparatively rare.

7. We love Tunisian trains

travel in TunisiaGreat views come via rail.Train travel is an eye-opener in most countries; on trains you get to meet fellow travelers, you peer into people’s backyards and you get eyefuls of landscape and cityscape that you’d never get from a traffic-clogged road.

Tunisia has a good network of French-origin trains that traverse the nation’s landscape of olive groves and vineyards in adequate comfort and with incredibly cheap fares.

The service between Sousse, Hammamet and Tunis is a good first-timer journey.

8. We hate the way Carthage has been smothered by suburbs

travel in TunisiaRuins being ruined?The 3,000-year-old city that was home of the Carthaginians, who once ruled the Mediterranean, and whose military commander Hannibal defeated the Roman Empire, is now all but submerged in the sprawling suburbs of Tunis.

Parts have been saved from encroaching housing, but the fascinating Punic port, for example, is down a humdrum set of roads, set apart from the most important ruins.

Most of the Carthaginian mosaics and sculptures of note are in the Bardo museum, in a different part of town.

9. We love the food

travel in TunisiaIf you don't know what it is, eat it and find out.Great fruit juices, refreshing mint teas, kebabs, salads, fresh fish, French bread and patisseries, even local wine … it’s all here, and at very good prices.


10. We hate not knowing the real price of things

travel in TunisiaShe may look relaxed, but she's one tough haggler.This is a country of haggling and caveat emptor.

Fixed prices are rare -– and to be distrusted. That’s fine if you’re a local, because you already know what everything costs.

For the visitor, there’s a nasty feeling that you’re being taken advantage of and paying inflated prices, even if most of the time you’re not.

Also on CNN: Inside the Middle East reports on Tunisia

Agree with us on Tunisia? Been there post-revolution? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Andrew Eames started out as a travel writer in the early 1980s, whilst living in Southeast Asia. Back in the UK he rose through the ranks of magazine publishing and then into newspapers, including a stint on the Times. 

Read more about Andrew Eames
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