Tunisia 2011 

Tunisia may be the smallest of the countries situated along the Atlas mountain range of North Africa, but it is packed with history and diverse natural beauty.  Beyond the balmy, sand-fringed Mediterranean coast lies a beautiful and under-rated destination where distinct cultures and incredible extremes of landscape can be explored.  Tunis City is a modern Arab capital, though both its long Ottoman, and not-so-distant colonial, past still have a powerful, palpable presence.  In the north, the ruins of spectacular Roman cities can be seen; lush forests cover the mountains; and gently rolling plains are dotted with olive and citrus trees.  To the south, the sands of the Sahara begin their march, and the traditions of the indigenous Berbers persevere.  Both played a prominent role in ancient times, first with the famous Phoenician empire of Carthage, then as the Africa Province which was known as the “bread basket” of the Roman Empire.  Later, Tunisia was occupied by Vandals during the 5th century AD, Byzantines in the 6th century, and Arabs in the 8th century, before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire, and finally a French protectorate in 1881.  After obtaining independence in 1956, and then becoming a republic in 1957, the nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba became its first president and set the country on the path towards the mix of modern and ancient that we see today.

This itinerary includes the cultural and natural highlights of Tunisia, taking in the length and breadth of the country.  The accommodations used are all spectacular, ranging from charming converted mansions to family-run country houses and beautiful hotels set in spectacular locations.

Day 01,                      February 19th

We arrive in Tunis City, capital of Tunisia, and transfer to our beautiful hotel, a converted mansion set in the heart of the souk.  This evening we meet for our Welcome Dinner.

Day 02,                      February 20th  

Today we explore the city of Tunis, visiting the ruins of the Phoenician city of Carthage, as well as the extensive Roman ruins, including Byrsa Hill, Antonious Baths and the Punic port.  We also visit the world-famous Bardo Museum, situated in a 13th Century Hafsid palace and home to a spectacular collection of Roman sculpture and mosaics.  Our day ends with sight-seeing in the old city and through the winding alleyways of the souks.  The old city is home to the Zitouna Mosque founded in 698 AD, as well as Dar Ben Abdallah, a palace which now houses a fascinating museum of Tunisia’s art and culture.  Tonight’s dinner is at a converted palace, which is now a restaurant celebrated for its delicious Tunisian food.

Day 03,                      February 21st  

This morning we leave Tunis City, and begin our exploration of the country with a visit to the picturesque village of Testour, perched on a hillside of the Medjerda Valley.  From here we visit the city of Dougga, which qualified as a World Heritage Site in 1997.  UNESCO described Dougga as “the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa”.  Dougga’s size, its well-preserved monuments and its rich Punic, Numidian, ancient Roman and Byzantine history make it exceptional.  Amongst the most famous monuments at the site are a Punic-Libyan mausoleum, the capitol, the theatre, and the temples of Saturn and of Juno Caelestis.  The site, which lies in the middle of the countryside, has been protected from the encroachment of modern urbanisation, and has not been pillaged as many other sites have been, meaning that visitors can really appreciate what life was like in Roman times.

This afternoon we continue to Bulla Regia, a semi-subterranean city built originally by the Berbers, and then subsumed into the Punic and then Roman empires.  The houses were built with their main rooms underground to avoid the intense heat of summer, while an open-air atrium allowed light to illuminate the wonderful mosaics for which Bulla Regia is famous.  After a busy day we drive to Le Kef, and settle in to the delightful country house hotel which is our home for tonight.  

Day 04;                      February 22nd  

From Le Kef we continue southwards, stopping en route to visit the Roman ruins of Sufetula, which house the best preserved forum temple in Tunisia.  Our destination is the oasis town of Tozeur, located at the edge of the Sahara desert.  Tozeur is set in an oasis of thousands of date palms, and was an important caravan stop for the camel trains that passed through here.  This afternoon we explore the maze of the old city, built in the 14th century, before checking into our charming hotel.

Day 05;                      February 23rd  

Today we explore the spectacular scenery around Tozeur.  South of town start the dunes of the Sahara desert, while north are a succession of narrow gorges, switch-back mountain roads, and lush date palm oases teeming with warblers, flycatchers and other birds.  These oases offer a vital refuelling stopover for migratory birds on their way over the Sahara.

Our first stop is the town of Metlaoui and a journey on the historic “Lezard Rouge”, or Red Lizard train, through the breathtaking Selja Gorge.  This train is an historic Tunisian institution, originally owned by the Bey (Ottoman leader) of Tunisia.  From here we visit the three mountain oases of Tamerza, Mides and Chebika, set in the mountains of the Djebel el Negueb, where we walk through steep-sided gorges and marvel at the vast stands of date palms.

Day 06;                      February 24th  

This morning we journey east, across the salt lake of Chott El Jerid, the largest salt pan of the Sahara.  Due to the extreme climate, with annual rainfall of only 100 mm and temperatures reaching 50° C, water evaporates from the lake leaving only salt behind.  In summer Chott el Jerid is almost entirely dried up, and numerous fata morganas (or mirages) occur.  Our itinerary is timed so that the weather here is pleasant, and not too hot yet.  We continue our journey, turning south into the desert, where a variety of lark species make their homes, including the spectacularly long-billed hoopoe lark.  Our destination is Ksar Ghilane, an oasis town in the middle of the Saharan sand dunes, which is also home to a Roman fortress, built there to defend the sand sea of the Grand Erg Oriental against invaders from the south.

Day 07;                      February 25th  

We bid goodbye to the desert and drive into the rocky mountains which are dotted with numerous troglodyte homes around the towns of Tataouine and Matmata.  Troglodyte dwellings were built to defend their inhabitants against the scorching heat of summer, and also to protect them against marauders sent by the Romans to subdue this area.  As well as subterranean homes, this area is also famous for its Berber ksours, or fortified villages with well-defended granaries.  We will visit two of the most spectacular: Ksar El Farch and Ksar Hadada.  After lunch we continue to Matmata, stopping at the beautiful Berber town of Toujane to marvel at its stone houses.  In Matmata we explore some of the troglodyte houses, including the Berber dwelling used as Luke Skywalker’s home in the Star Wars movies.

Day 08;                      February 26th  

Today we start our journey back north again, stopping at the remote Bou Hedma National Park.  The Park was established in 1980 to protect the endangered dry acacia savannah which grows along the base of the mountains here, and also to provide a safe home for the animal inhabitants of this area.  Since the mid-1980s several native antelope species have been reintroduced to the Park, including addax and scimitar-horned oryx, which were once widespread over the Sahara and Sahel regions.  Addax is now critically endangered, and scimitar-horned oryx is extinct in the wild, making these breeding populations vitally important.  Following the success of these reintroductions captive-bred Mhorr damas gazelles, extinct in the wild since 1968, were also released into the Park.  Together with dorcas gazelles, these antelopes are now thriving, and we will look for all of them during our time in the National Park.  In addition, there are populations of ostrich, and a variety of acacia species.  From here we continue our journey to the port town of Sfax, located on the Gulf of Gabes, for our overnight stay.

Day 09;                      February 27th

We start our day with a visit to the medina and fish market of Sfax, before driving to the town of El Jem, home to the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman world.  Declared a World Heritage Site in 1979, the amphitheatre still dominates the town of El Jem today.  Towering over neighbouring buildings, it is easy to imagine its seats packed with 35,000 spectators yelling for blood.  Since much of the amphitheatre is still intact we are able to explore significant parts of the building, from the highest “cheap” seats to the underground cells where terrified slaves and wild beasts were held before combat began.  Leaving behind imperial Rome we drive up the coast, heading first to the lovely seaside town of Mahdia to visit its picturesque harbour and maritime cemetery.

From here we continue to the town of Sousse, founded in the 11th century BC by the Phoenicians.  The town reached its ascendancy in the 7th century AD when the Arab Aghlabid dynasty established Sousse as its main seaport.  The town retains its Arab feel even today and its ribat, a soaring structure that combined the purposes of a minaret and a watch tower, is a highlight, drawing visitors from around the world.  In addition to the ribat, we also visit the ancient medina, declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.  As the afternoon draws to a close we drive inland to the town of Kairouan.

Day 10;                      February 28th

This morning we explore the beautiful city of Kairouan, visiting the breath-taking Great Mosque, and wandering the winding streets of the old town.  Kairouan was established by the Arabs in 670 AD as a military outpost for the conquest of the Berbers who were strongly resisting the Arab invasion.  The Aghlabites built the Great Mosque in the 9th century AD, establishing it as a university which was famed throughout the Islamic world.  During the mediaeval period Kairouan was the third holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

We bid farewell to Kairouan, and head back to the coast to visit the charming town of Hammamet, with its white-walled medina.  From here we continue our drive north, stopping to marvel at an extensive section of Roman aqueducts, which still stand intact in the middle of the countryside.  These aqueducts originally carried water all the way from the Zaghouan Mountains to Carthage.  Our final destination is the coastal village of Sidi Bou Said, one of the most picturesque places in all of north Africa.  Our home for the next two nights is a spectacular converted mansion, with beautiful views over the Mediterranean coastline.

Day 11;                      March 1st  

Today is for enjoying the beauty and serenity of Sidi Bou Said, for exploring the market, strolling the winding lanes and soaking up the atmosphere of this lovely place.  With its white-painted walls, and its blue doors and shutters, Sidi Bou Said is a photographer’s dream – not to mention an inspiration for the artists who have found their way here, most famously Paul Klee.  This is a delightful place to end our adventure. 

Day 12;                      March 2nd  

This morning we bid farewell to Sidi Bou Said, and transfer to the International Airport for our flights home.

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