[AD – this was a press trip]
My first trip to Tunisia* has left me keen to go back to explore more of this welcoming country. I was there on a three-day press trip in April, with fellow bloggers Cathy Winston and Nichola West, and we were hosted by the Tunisian National Tourist Office. Tunisia is the northernmost point of Africa, and sits just 37 miles across the Mediterranean Sea from the Italian island of Pantelleria.
Tunisia is easy to get to from the UK – we flew from London Heathrow with Tunisair to the capital, Tunis, in just under three hours. Visitor numbers from the UK to Tunisia dropped after the 2015 terror attacks, but are now increasing again. When we were there, we saw no crowds or queues anywhere. We stayed in the north of the country and went to Sidi Bou Saïd, Zaghouan, Monastir, El Jem and Mahdia. I think that this is a great time to explore this diverse and fascinating country. Here are my Tunisia highlights.
Our first full day in Tunisia was a Sunday, which was great because apparently, in Tunisia, Sundays mean music and dancing. When we arrived at the ancient Roman water temple at Zaghouan, I was surprised to see a trumpeter, a saxophonist and a couple of drummers playing traditional music in a corner of the temple ruins. The temple sits at the start of a 77-mile long Roman aqueduct (substantial stretches of which we saw along the road as we drove to the temple from Tunis) which once carried water from a mountain spring to the ancient city of Carthage. The musicians were surrounded by a small crowd of smiley Tunisians of all ages, many of whom were dancing. When I asked our guide what the occasion was, thinking that it must be a festival or a celebration of some sort, he told me simply that it was Sunday. We saw similar happy groups of musicians and dancers in the ruined Berber village of Zriba El Alia and at Dar Zaghouan farm restaurant, which we visited on the same day. It was a privilege to experience this joyful local custom.
We came across very few tourists and no other British visitors at all during our trip. Wherever we went, locals seemed pleasantly surprised to see us, and were keen to tell us how much they liked us Brits. The Tunisians that we met were invariably friendly and kind to us, from the baker at Dar Zaghouan who gave us some pieces of tabouna bread to taste as we watched her cooking using a traditional clay oven, to the grocery shop owner who beckoned us inside so that we could take better photos, but made no attempt to sell us anything, to the lady who gently encouraged me (in French – Tunisia is a former French colony) to join in with the dancing at the water temple, but didn’t mind when I self-consciously declined. Before the trip, a few people had warned me that we’d probably be hassled in Tunisia, but I’m pleased to say that we weren’t hassled at all, even when we weren’t with our guide. At no time did I feel uneasy or unsafe in Tunisia.
In case you don’t know, souks are traditional shopping districts with streets of small shops and market stalls. We visited the souks in the towns of Mahdia and Monastir and it was a delight to browse the rich variety of local handicrafts on offer, particularly the ceramics, textiles and jewellery. It was fascinating to see the street food stalls and the piles of fresh herbs and spices on sale. To give you an idea of prices in the souks, there are about four Tunisian Dinar (TND) to the pound, and we ate delicious fresh bambalouni (a type of doughnut) for one TND each, we saw pretty handmade baskets for 12 TND each, and intricate silver pendants for 25 TND each. With an eye on getting out of the airport quickly on my return, I’d travelled to Tunisia with just hand luggage, although my ticket with Tunisair did include a checked-in suitcase. Once I’d seen the beautiful things which were on sale in the souks, I wished that I’d taken a suitcase with me – I definitely will do that if I go back there.
The town of El-Jem was once one of the richest towns in Roman Africa, and today its best-known historic site is its vast 3rd-century amphitheatre. If you’ve ever queued to visit Rome’s Colosseum, you’ll be astonished by the tranquillity of this place. The magnificent structure stands tall amongst the town’s shops and homes. There are no crowds here, no ‘gladiators’ posing for photos, no guides waiting to show you around. We passed a couple of camels on the square outside, waited briefly for a security guard to come and check our bags at the entrance, and then we were in, free to explore this huge and ancient space, and to imagine the dramas which must have taken place here, centuries ago.
Sidi Bou Saïd
Sidi Bou Saïd is a gorgeous seaside village which sits on the cliffs above the Gulf of Tunis. The buildings in Sidi Bou Saïd all have whitewashed walls and blue doors and shutters. Exploring the village’s peaceful cobbled streets on a sunny day, with blue skies above and views of the Mediterranean below, it was hard to imagine anywhere prettier. We spotted some boutique hotels here, and this is definitely somewhere where I’d think about spending a few days if I return to Tunisia.
We had an enjoyable lunch at rural Dar Zaghouan restaurant, which reminded me of an Italian agriturismo. Dar Zaghouan is a welcoming place, and it was full of Tunisian families enjoying a sunny Sunday. Our table was on a pretty covered terrace, and I ate tasty rice and grilled vegetables – the meat-eaters had couscous and grilled meat, but the couscous was cooked with meat somehow, which meant that us vegetarians couldn’t try it. There are rooms to rent if you want to stay at Dar Zaghouan, but they were all full when we were there, so we couldn’t look at them. There’s an outdoor swimming pool for guests, and the farm is home to some traditional workshops where locals make products such as bread, cakes and olive oil. It was interesting to pop into the workshops and see how the products are created.
Zriba El Alia
The ruined berber village of Zriba El Alia is high in the hills of Zaghouan province. We drove as far as we could and then walked the final few hundred metres to reach the picturesque village. Most of the buildings here are empty, but we found a courtyard which was thronging with locals, picnicking and dancing to traditional music. This probably isn’t a place to make a special journey to, but if you’re in the area it’s definitely worth a detour.
Where to stay
We stayed at the luxurious Royal Thalassa Hotel, which is on the coast just outside Monastir. It’s a large, modern hotel with excellent facilities, including a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a gym and free, fast WiFi. The extensive spa has thalassotherapy pools and a hammam, as well as some private hammams. The hotel gardens lead to a wide beach of pale gold sand. My amazing room (number 520) was a spa suite – and it was enormous and beautiful.
The climate in the north of Tunisia, where we were, is Mediterranean. It felt wonderful to leave London on a chilly grey day, and to arrive to three days of blue skies and temperatures in the low twenties in Tunisia. It does get very hot in Tunisia during the summer months, but when we were there in spring it felt very comfortable. I wore T-shirts, light cotton trousers and sandals every day there.
The time difference
There was no time difference at all between the UK and Tunisia during our trip. This is because the time in Tunisia all year round is GMT+1, which is the same as British Summer Time. So there’s just a one-hour time difference during the winter months, when the UK is on GMT.
More on Tunisia
You can read more about our trip in these excellent posts by Nichola and Cathy:
We posted about our experiences in Tunisia on our individual Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts – you can find our posts by searching for #FamilyTunisia .
Over to you
If you’ve been to Tunisia, how was your trip? If you haven’t been there, would you like to do so? If there’s anything that you’d like to know about our Tunisia trip, do let me know in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer you.
*Disclosure: I went to Tunisia on a three-night hosted press trip with the Tunisian National Tourist Office. All opinions, words and images are my own and are completely independent, as ever.