The last section of our trip. After enjoying the Berber villages of Chenini and Douiret and getting our fill on the picturesque Ksours, we made our way back north towards Sfax, El Jem and the lovely resort town of Sousse. Here we spent a few days with a day trip to see nearby Mahdia and Monastir before shooting due west to Islam’s 4th most holy city of Kairouan. One day here was plenty, and then we finally backtracked to Tunis to spend our last few moments in this phenomenal country. Tunisia is truly one of a kind. A welcoming country with a shocking wealth of diversity…from medinas to beach resorts, desert sand dunes to a bustling city life, Roman ruins and ancient Mosques. We thoroughly enjoyed our 2 week vacation here and wouldn’t hesitate for a return trip!
24 March: It was surprisingly chilly all night long…we were missing the southern desert temperatures already! Even though our hotel is right next to a mosque, the early morning call to prayer never sounded so we were able to sleep in until 7 am. Today we were taking a day trip to Mahdia and Monastir, two coastal cities that could easily be reached by the metro. Our plan was to check out Mahdia first, backtrack to Monastir and head back to Sousse in time for dinner. A one way ticket from Sousse to Mahdia was 2.5 Dinar and the ride took just under 2 hours. The metro was clean, comfortable and had plenty of seating, so we enjoyed this mode of transportation. Both of our guidebooks and a helpful poster on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree website advised that Mahdia is full of charm and a “must see” sight so of course we had high expectations. Imagine our disappointment when we discovered Mahdia is just OK. Nothing bad, nothing great, just mediocre. We did experience a bit more hassle walking down the main pedestrian zone of Mahdia than we had elsewhere. The Borj el-Kebir (a 16th century fortress) was noted in our guidebooks for its views, but again, we were not impressed. The views over the medina weren’t even worth mentioning. The author of the guidebook who called it “mesmerizing” is definitely mistaken! The 7 Dinar entrance fee to the fortress was vastly overpriced…we both recommend skipping Mahdia’s fortress. Neither of us complained when it was time to hop on the metro to Monastir. Since Mahdia has the reputation of being the nicer of the two coastal cities, we were dreading to find out what was in store for us at Monastir. The metro ride from Mahdia to Monastir was 1,900 Dinar each and the ride took over an hour. Monastir instantly impressed and we were quite pleased that we had included an afternoon visit in our itinerary. The Ribat (which has been used in Monty Python’s Life of Brian) dominates the coastal skyline and we definitely felt the 7 Dinar entrance fee was well worth it for the views alone! Awesome vistas of Monastir and the Ribat itself, and we thoroughly enjoyed clambering up and down in the labyrinth of this massive complex. Since the nearby mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba was only open on Thursdays from 2 – 4 pm, we had to cut our visit to the Ribat short, so we could check out the insanely popular mausoleum with the rest of the masses. If you don’t know who Habib Bourguiba is, check out his biography. He single handedly led his country to independence from France, promoted women’s rights, fought against Sharia law by putting in place major reforms, and increased literacy in Tunisia…truly a remarkable man. His mausoleum is befitting of a man who did so much for his beloved country, and we were happy that we were able to visit when it was open to visitors. It was late afternoon when we caught a metro back to Sousse (1 Dinar each), and we found dinner at a schwarma joint we had scoped out yesterday in the medina. Delicious and a bargain at only 5 Dinars for two sandwiches. Our room had been made up while we were out sightseeing…definitely a step up from what we were used to on this vacation. The Hotel Medina was the perfect base for our Sousse activities.
25 March: Today was a full day of Sousse sightseeing! We started off visiting the the Ribat (7 Dinar entrance plus 1 Dinar photo permit) and immediately climbed the tower which offered phenomenal views over the medina up to the Kasbah’s Khalef Tower looming on the hilltop above. Stunning! Plus from our vantage point, we could peek into the nearby Great Mosque’s courtyard, which looks more like a fort than a mosque due to the lack of a minaret. The Ribat was a great way to kick off our morning, and we followed that visit wandering through the medina towards Dar Essid, which was supposed to be another highlight of the city. Unfortunately, it was closed when we visited. Too bad, as the traditional home (now a museum) looked pretty amazing from the outside, and we could tell there was a lookout terrace to look out over the medina. So we pressed on and got lost in the medina, checking out the intricate doors of Sousse. While wandering the souq area, we stumbed upon a colorful cafe called “No Stress”, and the friendly owner convinced us to stop for a cup of tea and coffee. After our siesta, he led us on a walking tour of the medina, taking us to two traditional houses (also open to the public) which we would never have found on our own. After following him around for the better part of an hour, we thanked him with a 5 Dinar tip and he seemed quite happy with that and made us promise to add him as a facebook friend, ha. We strolled up the picturesque Rue Souk el Caid and passed through Bab el Gharbi before skirting the exterior of the wall looking for the entrance to Sousse’s archaeological museum in the Kasbah. The entrance fee was 9 Dinar a piece with a 1 Dinar photo permit fee. As anticipated, the mosaic museum was excellent. We had been told that after the Bardo Museum, the Sousse museum was the next best in Tunisia and found that to be the case. The Medusa and Bacchus mosaics were especially interesting, as well as the Baptismal font…just wow. Unfortunately, the Khalef tower has been taken over by the Tunisian military and today it functions as a lighthouse for Sousse so we weren’t able to climb it for views over the city. The fish market at Bab el Jedid rounded out our afternoon excursions and we were both starving so we hit our favorite shawarma stand again. The boys were happy to see us and teasingly offered to make our sandwiches extra spicy. The chapati shawarma wraps were even tastier today and incredible value at only 6,400 Dinar for two massive sandwiches. We are going to miss Sousse! Such great value. The nearby shopping center of Soula beckoned. Its a massive 4 storey building full of fixed priced souvenirs and was full of tourists (domestic and foreign). A scam artist tried to prevent us from going in, claiming to be the chef from our hotel and come see his brother’s store with cheaper prices. When we questioned him which hotel, he was taken aback…apparently he hadn’t thought that far ahead. He quickly said “your Sousse hotel” and we laughed him off. The security guard for Soula Shopping Center had been watching our interaction with him and warned us to steer clear of him as he was bad news. No advice needed, we knew to keep our distance! Soula is popular and deservedly so with lots of nice souvenirs. Back at the hotel, we hopped onto wifi to get caught up with the latest world news. Tomorrow’s adventure will be getting from Sousse to Kairouan by louage. We will certainly miss Sousse which has been a great base for us over these past few days.
26 March: After checking out of the Hotel Medina (144 Dinar for 3 nights), we caught a taxi (2.3 Dinar) to the louage station and paid 4.8 Dinar each for a ride to Kairouan. We were the last 2 passengers to load up and of course were made to sit hump in the middle and rear rows of the van. Thankfully, the ride took less than an hour and we found out the louage station is about 1.5 km away from the medina. Rather than take yet another taxi, we decided to hike the distance to our hotel, Hotel Sabra just outside Place des Martyrs. At all the other hotels, a member of the staff could speak English but we had to resort to French and Arabic to communicate at the Hotel Sabra. Since we were early (10 am), we wanted to check into our room to drop off our bags so we could sightsee all day. The quote was overpriced at 40 Dinar for a double to include private hot water shower, but we weren’t in a position to negotiate. So we agreed, dropped off our stuff and immediately hit the rooftop for a panoramic view over the medina. Off in the distance, we could see the three tiered minaret of the Great Mosque, which was to be our first destination. Wandering through the medina was a bit chaotic as it was full of motorbikes, pedestrians and vendors but we made our way over to the Great Mosque where we were able to buy the multi-entry day pass for Kairouan’s main sights for 10 Dinar (plus 1 Dinar each for photography). Becky remembered visiting the Great Mosque over 20 years ago. Robby was Mr Popular with a rambunctious group of teenaged boys who fought each other to take a photo with him…hilarious. Kairouan is considered Islam’s 4th holiest city, and the Great Mosque has the distinction of being North Africa’s holiest Islam sight. The original version was built in AD 670 but it was destroyed. What stands today dates from the 9th century, built by the Aghlabids. The prayer room is closed to non-muslims but the doors are propped open for a peek inside. After taking photos to our hearts’ content, we brainstormed our next destination. The ticket sellers advised us to see the sights in the medina first, because they would all close by 2 pm. Our next destination was the poor camel at Bir Barouta, a circa 1676 well dug by the Ottoman ruler Mohammed Bey. Locals believe that the well waters are linked to the well of Zem Zem in Mecca. The poor camel walks around in circles all day pulling up water from the well and posing with tourists. Needless to say, this place is extremely popular with local tourists. Next up was the Mosque of the Three Doors, which is one of the few structures dating from the 19th century. Then we took a hike out to visit the Zaouia of Sidi Sahab (Mosque of the Barber), an intricate tomb complex of one of the Prophet’s companions who always carried 3 hairs of Mohammed with him everywhere he went (one under his tongue, one on his arm and the other closest to his heart). This zaouia was popular with locals, and we could easily see why with its beautiful blue and green tile work. From here, we walked over towards the Aghlabid Pools, stopping enroute at a fantastic grocery store Monoprix. There we scored a half roasted chicken, delicious wheat grain bread and water for under 5 Dinar. Our picnic lunch was awesome! The Aghlabid Pools really aren’t anything special to look at, but what a feat of engineering. Water from aqueducts almost 40 km to the west brought water to these massive pools (128 meters across by 5 meters deep). From here we hiked over to the Zaouia of Sidi Amor Abbada, which is noted for its 7 white cupolas. The occupant was a blacksmith who liked to supersize everything. His zaouia has been transformed into a museum showcasing the exaggerated objects he created. Kinda of a meh moment. Next up was to be the Zaouia of Sidi Abid-el-Ghariani but it was locked up for the day. Even though we had been promised it would stay open late, that was not the case at 2:30 pm. So instead we decided to take in a tour of the Maison du Gouverneur, the 18th century residence of the former Beys (Pashas) of Kairouan. The exquisite level of detail from marble to teak, latticework to plaster moulding and tile work is breathtaking. We had been forewarned that a visit (while free) would entail a carpet demonstration and a hard sell. Since neither one of us expressed any interest whatsoever in any of the beautiful mergoums or kilims, we were let off easy without the hard sell. Such a shame since the prices truly were fantastic.
It was now late afternoon when we walked back to the Great Mosque, detouring to check out Bab el-Khoukha, the oldest gate of the medina. We circled the Great Mosque in the afternoon sunlight, stopping to check out the Lalla Rihana Gate (dating from 1294). The cemetery adjacent to the Great Mosque was also lit up in the afternoon sun so we took a few photos before asking for permission to climb to the rooftop of a nearby carpet store which had a nice panoramic view of the Great Mosque. The shopkeeper half heartedly tried to entice us to buy some carpets but quickly saw that we weren’t shoppers. We settled for getting 11 postcards of Tunisia for 1 Dinar…yup, big spenders here! The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering back alleys of the medina. It seemed that Kairouan, unlike all the other Tunisian cities, had the most hassle. Anyone speaking to you in multiple languages always had an agenda, whether it was to serve as an impromptu tour guide, or a “come look at my carpet shop”, etc. It got old quickly even though we played it cool. There really aren’t many foreign tourists here right now so we can easily understand why we look like an enticing target but getting accosted every few minutes by another helpful fellow just wasn’t welcome at the end of a long day. Finally, we retreated to our room overlooking the bustling Place des Martyrs and settled in for the night.
27 March: As forewarned, the Hotel Sabra was quite noisy all night long. We slept as late as we possibly could but were still up for breakfast at 7 am. The kind cleaning lady asked us if we were interested in buying any postcards or carpets from her side business and we reluctantly told her no. Breakfast was typically Tunisian, a jug of hot milk, hot coffee, boiled eggs accompanied by bread and lots of butter and jam. This morning, we figured we would try to revisit the Zaouia of Sidi Abid el-Ghariani again to see if we could catch it while it was open. Sadly, even though we stopped by a few times, the doors were firmly shut. So we had one last stroll through Kairouan and both agreed that one day here is sufficient to take in all the sights. Now onward to Tunis! We checked out of the hotel and hiked across town to the louage station. There, we wandered around until we found a ticket counter and correctly guessed to queue in the longer (and slower) line. Our rides to Tunis cost 10,250 Dinar each and we were shown the correct louage to load up into. We were passengers 2 and 3 and decided to pile into the back row. Amazingly, a group of 5 teenaged boys joined us just a minute later and we were off mere seconds after they settled in. Our driver was no nonsense, taking the highway and getting us to Tunis in record time. According to our google map, it should have taken 3 hours from Kairouan to Tunis but our driver shaved 45 minutes off that estimate. A taxi driver saw us standing on the side of the road once we reached Tunis so we didn’t even have to wait for onward transportation to Place du Kasbah, our next destination. 3 Dinar later and we were in the square, which the police had completely cordorned off. We unwittingly strolled through the no-go zone and were immediately questioned by security personnel who chalked our mistake up to dumb tourists and allowed us to continue on our way. Back at the Dar Ya, the receptionist remembered us from our first visit and welcomed us back. Booking directly with the hostel instead of on the internet reduced the room price from 45 Euros to 32 Euros a night, including breakfast. Since we had a full morning of sightseeing scheduled for tomorrow, we decided to hike to the north end of Tunis and check out Belvedere Park, detouring enroute to pick up a picnic lunch at a nearby Monoprix supermarket. Since today was Sunday (and Easter to boot), thousands of other Tunisian families had the same idea of hanging out at Belvedere Park. We couldn’t believe how insanely popular it was with long lines to enter the zoo and hundreds of children running their parents ragged. After enjoying our picnic lunch here, we people watched for a while and really loved how nonrestrictive and free Tunisian society is. If women don’t want to cover up, no big deal. Boys and girls of all ages (from children to teenagers) playing sports together…again not a big deal. How refreshing to be in a country that has stood up against and resisted the super strict (and twisted) interpretation of the Koran which always ends up with men and women being completely segregated and the women being brutally suppressed? Its one of the main reasons why we really like Tunisia so much. Tunisians really know how to live and are fun, happy, loving people who are extremely welcoming to strangers. Tunisia definitely wins hands down for being the most inviting and tolerant of all North African nations…we really feel that this country is truly one of a kind and it will always have a special place in our hearts.
After Belvedere Park, we wandered passed an Arabic billboard for coca cola and just had to have one. Quite effective advertisement. 1.5 liters of an ice cold coke was 2 Dinar, well worth it after our long, hot trudge back to Dar Ya.
28 March: Our last day in Tunisia! All good things must come to an end, sadly. Our flight was scheduled for later this afternoon at 1740, so we had a full morning to explore the medina of Tunis. After packing up our gear and checking out of our room, we set out to see Tunis on the cheap. First stop was at Dar Lasram, a magnificent mansion that is open to the public (free). Next up was Palais Khereddine, a 19th century palace that today serves as a free art exhibition hall. We then explored several of the medina’s souqs in depth before heading over to Tunis’ central market. By the time we reached it, it was past noon so most of the vendors had packed up already but we still managed to get a feel for the market place. On our way back to the medina, we strolled past the Grand Hotel de France, which we originally planned to stay at but were told had no vacancy. Instead, we popped in for a quick peek and decided that we were happier to have stayed at the Dar Ya once we took a look at the competition! Back in the medina, we did a 3 km walking tour, strolling past souqs, medersas, and mosques. Dar Othman was another 17th century palace that we were able to explore for free. Its amazing how many beautiful mansions you can walk into for free in Tunis! We wanted to visit the highly recommended Dar Ben Abdallah museum (one of the medina’s finest palaces that is open to the public) but it was locked up when we visited so that was a bust. At 2 pm, we had a quick picnic lunch and then reluctantly headed back to the Dar Ya to retrieve our bags and head to the airport.
Our taxi ride was 5,500 Dinar so surprisingly cheap to get to the airport where we checked in for the Alitalia flight to Rome – Istanbul. We hadn’t been able to confirm whether the 30 Dinar solidarity stamp was indeed obsolete and waited on pins and needles at the very long passport control lines but we needn’t have worried. Khaled from Dar Ya was correct in telling us that the departure tax has met its demise in late 2015 and was no longer a requirement for departing tourists. Good thing since we had managed to spend all of our Dinars!
Visiting Tunisia first to kick off our round the world adventures was starting the long overland trip off right! What an amazing country!!! We both loved it…all of it. The wonderful people, the amazing sights, the rich and diverse history and the fantastic Spring weather. The perfect place at the perfect time. Thanks Tunisia for all the memories…we promise to return again one of these days.