Tunisia. What an amazing country! We spent 2 weeks doing a whirlwind trip around this petite North African nation and had an absolute blast. This portion focuses on what we did the first few days after our arrival in Tunis.
14 March: Our flight from Rome to Tunis was uneventful and we landed right on time at 11 am. Since we didn’t have any check-in luggage, and getting through passport control was a breeze, we quickly exited the arrival hall to find the owner of Dar Ya (the hostel we had booked for the next 3 nights for 45 Euros a night, incl breakfast and located near the medina of Tunis) waiting for us. Khaled was welcoming, and showed us the closest ATM so we could withdraw some money. We asked about the departure stamp (which we had read about online) but were told that it had only been for 2015, and had been discontinued this year. We still need to reverify that with a second source…hopefully that is true!
10 Euros for a shuttle from the airport is good value, because there is no way in hell we would ever have found the Dar Ya on our own. Instead, we were dropped off at the Place de La Kasbah, where a Dar Ya caretaker led us through the alleyways to our home for the next few nights. After dropping off our bags, we grabbed our cameras and immediately pulled the door handle off as we were about to head out. Robby managed to wiggle the door shut, and we head out for a few hours, ready to explore Tunis’ magnificent medina. The wooden doors so typical of Tunisia are strewn through the medina, making for wonderful photographs. We loved the charm of the old city…it was a pleasure to get lost for several hours as we explored by foot. The highlight was a visit to the Zaytouna Mosque, which is smack dab in the middle of the medina. There are several entrances that are restricted to non muslims, so we made sure to enter in the non-muslim entrance. Therefore, imagine our surprise when a local came up to tell us we couldn’t visit. Just as we turned about to exit, a Tunisian who was heading inside to prayer grabbed our arms and turned us back around, telling the first guy that we were his guests. What a nice man…we appreciated the gesture because the courtyard of Zaytouna is a must see if in Tunis! After checking off a few more medina highlights, we were both ravenous so we found a traditional Tunisian restaurant in the medina and stopped for a bite of merguez (spicy lamb or goat sausages) doused with harissa (made from crushed dried chili, garlic, salt and caraway seeds mixed with olive oil)…yum and good value at 5 Dinar each. After lunch, we strolled over to the Place de la Victoire and through the Bab El Bhar which led us to the main street of Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The first building to catch our eye was the Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul, built in 1883 (Gothic, Byzantine and Moorish architecture). Next stop was the clock tower followed by the tourist information office where we picked up several medina and Tunis maps. The sun was setting when we decided to head back to the Place de Kasbah where dozens of boys were playing soccer. We took a few panoramic shots of this peaceful scene before heading back to Dar Ya to crash for the night. Becky attempted a shower but the hot water heater was either non existent or broken, because the shower was freezing! The heater in the room didn’t kick on either, so it was quite a chilly night indeed. Since we had been up since 3 am, it didn’t take either one of us long to crash for the night.
15 March: Thank goodness we set the alarm because it jolted us awake from a deep sleep at 7 am. Breakfast of pastries, boiled eggs and yogurt was already laid out and we were the first ones to self serve. Today we were taking a louage to Dougga!!
The walk from Dar Ya to the Bab Saadoun louage station was pretty straight forward and it only took us about 20 minutes to get there. A drive saw us and right away started shouting “DOUGGA, DOUGGA, DOUGGA” to get out attention. Brilliant…the shared taxi filled up in no time and we were on our way. A girl in the front seat spoke good English and she welcomed us to her country, thrilled to find out we were Americans. We knew the louage ride was supposed to be cheap but we didn’t know how much so we asked her and she thought it would be around 5 Dinar. The drive flew by and in just over an hour, we were in Teboursouk. Our louage driver gave us a round loaf of wheat bread to munch on and we were charged 12 Dinar for the ride…not bad! He also called a friend to serve as our taxi driver from Teboursouk to Dougga and return. The quoted price was 25 Dinar and we tried to bargain him down to no avail. Not wanting to hike the 7 km distance each way, we eventually agreed to the extortionate price. Needless to say, our taxi driver was pretty thrilled and he agreed to come back at whatever time we wanted to pick us back up for the return trip to Teboursouk. We felt that we could easily spend 4 hours here so we coordinated a 3 pm pick up.
Dougga (entrance 7 Dinar each plus camera permit of 1 Dinar) was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. Becky was shocked to see so many tourists, with the majority of them being Tunisian. Back when she first visited in 1995, her group of cadets were the only tourists visiting. Nevertheless, Dougga still wows. The amphitheater is magnificent, the Capitol never fails to impress, and the Roman ruins are surprisingly intact. Becky met several super friendly Tunisian girls and happily obliged their request to take photos with them. Tunisia is simply amazing!
By 3 pm, we met our anxious taxi driver in the parking lot, and he was quite happy that we didn’t keep him waiting. As requested, we were dropped off at the louage station where we were the first two passengers bound for Tunis. A relatively long wait ensued, but the driver’s patience paid off as he finally got the 8 passengers he needed for the return trip. Once we got going, our louage flew on the highway road back to Tunis and we were dropped off at 6 pm. The return ride cost the two of us 13 Dinar, so there must be some wiggle room in what the louage drivers charge since this ride was 1 Dinar more than the morning’s ride.
After withdrawing the remaining Dinar needed for the trip at an ATM, we dropped our gear off in the room and had a chance to talk to Khaled (owner of Dar Ya). He explained that he bought the building (circa 1850s) about 3 years ago. 2 years were spent on renovations, and the hostel had been in operation for a year now. We were quite impressed to hear that he put us up in his favorite of the 14 rooms (each named after a family member. We scored the honor of residing in Chamber 4, “Narjess” which was named after his wife. His two daughters also had rooms named after them, and his next favorite room was named after his beloved mother). He jokingly told us he had to name a room after his mother-in-law to keep the peace! The name of the hostel “Dar Ya” means “House of the Grandmother” and it was evident how proud Khaled is of his place. The closest competition is the youth hostel in the medina, run by a grouchy owner who locks up for the night at 9 pm (the curfew imposed on University students in Tunisia). Someone didn’t tell the tourists about that so many of them end up locked out of the hostel for the night! Yikes, with horrible customer service like that, we have no doubt Dar Ya will become super popular once the word gets out.
Dinner was in the new town (shawarma sandwiches and french fries and a drink for 8,300 Dinar for two), so we had to practically sprint through the medina since we had been advised to avoid it at night. We were thrilled to discover hot water during our shower tonight..what a difference from the icy shower last night! Tomorrow should be Bardo Museum…
16 Mar: Today we were visiting the world famous Bardo museum, known for its fantastic mosaics housed in an old palace. First, we wanted to take in some sights near the Dar Ya. Just before we were leaving, Becky found out that due to strikes, the overnight train we had planned to take from Tunis to Tozeur was not operating. Bummer! We had counted on getting some shut eye on the train ride. Ali (our guide from Tozeur who had been the bearer of the bad news) suggested that we either fly or take the bus. What to do? Rather than let this unwelcome news distract us, we figured we could deal with it later tonight and set out to explore on this fine day. The weather forecast had been all doom and gloom, predicting a 90% chance rain so we packed our rain jackets just to be on the safe side. First stop was Zaouia Sidi Brahim (free), the tomb of Sidi Brahim.The only requirement was for Becky to cover up with a head scarf. Next was the Zaouia Sidi Mahrez, which was full of locals paying their respects so we decided to move onward to the Halfaouine market which was a super colorful stop where we bought some dates (the cheapest we saw was 1 KG for 1,800 DT), cashews and almonds. From the market, we decided to hail a taxi to the Bardo Museum. The internet is rife with taxi rip offs in Tunis but the driver we had was honest and the fare was only 3 Dinar to the front gate. Ever since last year’s terrorist attack on the museum, security has been tight and we were screened at the main gate just to be allowed access to the museum grounds. Then we went through a second security check point and saw a memorial on the wall commemorating the victims killed in the March 2015 massacre. Entrance was 12 DT each, plus 1 Dinar for a camera fee. Robby had to drop off his backpack but Becky was allowed to carry her camera bag…go figure. The museum is absolutely world class….the mosaics were stunning and truly mesmerizing. The collection of mosaics found throughout Tunisia is just mind blowing in their sheer size and phenomenal condition. Before we knew it, it was almost 2 pm before we could drag ourselves away. Lunch was a picnic in the museum’s grounds before we made our way over to the Metro system to figure out how to catch line 4 back to the city center. Tickets were sold at a nearby booth for just over a Dinar each, and we joined the throng of locals waiting from the next tram. When it showed up, it was a pushing match to board. The poor folks waiting to disembark had a difficult time being allowed to get off the train! It is pure madness during non peak hours. We can’t imagine using the metro during peak times. Our next destination was the Tunis Marine TGM station. There, we bought tickets to Sidi Bou Said, a city north of Tunis that reminded Becky of Santorini. The TGM tickets were dirt cheap at a mere 1,400 DT for the both of us, and 35 minutes later we were in beautiful Sidi Bou Said. Our first stop was Dar el-Annabi, a lovely 18th century home that is open to the public. Definitely a worthwhile stop for a glimpse of yesteryear. We wandered the streets of this labyrinth like village, and of course had to buy one of their famous Italian donuts, aka a bambaloni (super yummy fried donut hole smothered in sugar), which is a local favorite. Yum! Last stop was at Cafe des Delices for its view over the bay. The sun was setting as we made our way back to Tunis and this time, we were lucky enough to score some seats. Back in Tunis, we took photos of the clock tower against a red sunset before heading back to our fast food restaurant for a dinner of rotisserie chicken. Back at the Dar Ya, we stayed up late coming up with a game plan for how to get to Tozeur on time for our desert excursion. This required making a couple of schedule adjustments and trying to figure out what time the bus would leave Tunis tomorrow morning. According to the internet (and the bus schedules are notoriously unreliable), the first bus was at 11 am. So our plan was to take that to arrive in Tozeur at a reasonable 6 pm.
17 March: We slept in a bit since the only thing we had to do today was make our way over to Tozeur. Khaled from Dar Ya tried to call the bus station several times for us but no one answered the phone. So we packed up, made a reservation to return to Dar Ya at the end of our trip, and caught a taxi to the southern bus station at Bab Alioua. There, we found the correct line to inquire about a bus to Tozeur, but we were told the next bus would leave at 1 pm. Since we had arrived several hours early, we figured we could do better with the nearby louages so we headed there. No one had told us that the louage station is actually split up into two sections. One section for louages headed to Hammamat, and another section for those going to Sousse, Tozeur, etc. There were at least 30 people waiting in line ahead of us..well, actually not a line but a scrum. And not a Tozeur louage in sight! It didn’t take us long to realize we should head back to the bus station to try our luck with the 1300 bus. With tickets in hand, we joined an overanxious group of passengers waiting for the bus arrival. When buses for other destinations arrived, it was a wild and chaotic scene. People were literally shoving themselves to board the bus, fighting and pushing their way up the stairs. Inevitably, there were more tickets sold than there were seats available, and the conductor kicked several people off the bus (perhaps they didn’t have valid tickets?). We saw this scene repeat itself several times, so when our bus finally arrived, we were ready. Becky pushed her way up the steps, and frantically searched for open seats. Amazingly, we scored the last pair of adjoining seats together, and happily sat down until we realized that the seats were better suited for midgets. Boy it was going to be a long and uncomfortable ride! Since we originally expected to be in Tozeur at 6 pm, we had to call Ali to tell him about our later arrival and he told us that we would get picked up at the bus station. The ride was just as expected, long, uncomfortable and exhausting. But we arrived to Tozeur on schedule and were picked up by two of Ali’s friendly colleagues and whisked away to our hotel, Residence el Amen. The receptionist spoke excellent English and welcomed us to Tozeur. Cost for our hotel for 2 nights to include breakfast, hot water showers and free WiFi was $25 per night. No doubt, there are lots of cheaper options in the city but we were happy with our accommodations as they were clean, comfortable and just what we needed after a long ride.
Ali met us in the lobby at 9 pm and we settled our upcoming itinerary and paid for everything (food, lodging, tour, quad bike ride through the dunes, Red Lizard train) for $663 for the two of us for the next 4 days. Not bad value since we were joining a group of 7 Tunisian tourist who had agreed to split the costs with us. We liked Ali instantly, felt comfortable in his presence and had no problem handing over our small fortune.