Unlike my previous stops in Barcelona and Genoa during this trip, my visit to Tunisia was a completely new experience. I had never been to Tunisia, or the continent of Africa for that matter, until today.
Because I knew so little about Tunis (aside from the fact that it was the site of the ancient empire of Carthage, more on that later…), I opted to take a ship-organized tour. MSC, the cruise line, offered a number of different excursions for this port. I chose the Historical and Cultural Tour, because the itinerary seemed to cover a good amount of interesting sites.
The port, which had a North African village theme, was pretty cool.
The camels and musicians in the foreground acted as the welcoming party. It was a delightfully warm and festive reception that I wasn’t expecting, as many ports don’t bother with a welcome at all.
Within an hour, I had met up with my excursion group, and we drove into the city.
The landscape slightly reminded me of war footage I had seen from the Middle East, but with more green. Mosques and minarets are a common sight here.
Twenty minutes later, we reached our first stop: the port of Ancient Carthage.
In case you’re not a history buff, Carthage was an ancient military and commercial superpower in the western Mediterranean. Fleets of Carthaginian ships would sail out of harbors like this one, to trade all over the Mediterranean. Hannibal (the guy who crossed the Alps on a bunch of elephants and nearly destroyed Rome, not the cannibal) was a Carthaginian.
The modern day city of Tunis sits on the site of the ancient capital city of Carthage. Carthage was such a hated enemy of Rome, that when Rome finally conquered the city in 146 BC, they completely tore down the city and burned what remained. All of the over 300,000 inhabitants of Carthage were either killed or enslaved. Legend has it that the Romans sowed salt into the fields to prevent any crops from growing, as a final “screw you” to their defeated foe.
With this kind of history, it’s no wonder I was pretty excited to be here.
The ancient port is now a dock for small vessels. It is also shaped like a donut, which is impossible to capture from the ground level, so here’s a shot from Google Earth. That yellow thumbtack is where I shot most of my photos:
From here, we headed to a very interesting little town called Sidi Bou Said.
You’ll know you’re entering Sidi Bou Said when nearly every building around you is white and blue.
White and blue are the main colors of the town. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the gorgeous Greek island of Santorini, which is also largely white and blue, Sidi Bou Said can feel strangely similar.
We visited a house which doubles as a museum. Some nice arts and crafts were scattered throughout the house. The whole town really feels like one big piece of art.
We were given a cup of traditional mint tea. I’ve never been much of a fan of mint-flavored beverages…they just tend to taste like I’m drinking liquified toothpaste. This, sadly, wasn’t very different.
I’m really, really liking this blue and white color scheme. It is clean, simple, and eye-catching.
We went up on the roof, and got a nice view of the surrounding city.
We left the museum and continued to explore the town on foot. The streets are filled with shops selling everything from carved wooden camels, to leather duffel bags, to fake watches. Even those Dr. Dre Beats headphones have been counterfeited.
As I was strolling along, I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Suddenly, I came across a little stall selling what appeared to be freshly-made donuts.
I asked the guy throwing up the peace sign: “How much?”. “Half Euro”, he replied. I beamed a smile and grabbed my wallet. Half a Euro? That’s it? This was likely going to be the cheapest thing I’d buy on this whole trip.
Every element of an ideal donut–the right texture, the right temperature, the right flavor–was here in this little pastry. It was very fresh, warm and crispy. The outside was lightly dusted with sugar. The inside was as soft as can be. It was about as simple as a donut could be, and delicious. Not bad at all for only half a Euro.
After Sidi Bou Said, we headed to the Carthage National Museum. While we saw a lot of ancient pottery fragments and artworks, the view of the city was likely the most impressive. The museum sits upon a hill in the heart of ancient Carthage, and you get a good view of the ancient ruins juxtaposed with the modern city down below, along with the ocean.
Our last stop of the day was at the old Roman baths. It was delightfully quiet.
In the Ancient Roman world, most Roman citizens didn’t have bathrooms. They would come to bathhouses like these, called Thermae, to clean themselves, socialize, and even work out. Thermae often contained libraries, lecture halls, weight rooms, and eating areas, all of which were used by Romans of all social classes. It was a place where both the poor and the rich ancient Romans could mix and mingle.
I learned all of the above from a class on the Roman Empire, which I took about a year and a half ago. It was really cool being able to walk through places that, until today, I had only read about.
We then headed back to the ship for a rest and dinner. Though the tour lasted a little more than half a day, I was pretty beat!
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first arrived. By the time I had left, I had a much deeper appreciation for Carthaginian history, and Tunisian culture. My group felt safe the entire time, and the vendors weren’t as aggressive as I had expected them to be.
All in all, I had a fantastic day. If you ever take the opportunity to visit this relatively off-the-beaten-path country, I’m sure you’ll have one too.