AFRICA // Tunisia: A Roadtrip (Pt 1)

23.7.13

Panoramic view of Tunis from atop the medina.

How we ended up on our Tunisian road-trip is a bit of a long story. It involves a disappearing tour rep, a Tunisian tragedy and one very, very busy coach.

The short version is this: having looked forward all week to a coach trip north from Hammamet to Tunis, we were devastated to find that the excursion was fully booked and our names hadn't made it onto the list. We'd been looking forward to this trip for the entirety of our time in Tunisia, so to say we were disappointed would be quite the understatement. 

Thankfully, a dashing young replacement tour rep stepped in and saved the day, turning what was very nearly a disastrous end to our holiday into the best day of the trip!

And so it was that, after a number of phone negotiations, we found ourselves being picked up from our hotel at 7:30am on our last day in Tunisia by our own personal driver in our own private-hire car.

Admittedly, we were a little apprehensive about this set-up to begin with (four young woman in a foreign country, alone with a complete stranger?), but it turned out to be better than we could possibly have wished for!

Sure, we lost out in terms of the 'tour guide' information that would have been provided on a coach trip, but we more than made up for it in terms of the local, in-depth knowledge of our driver and the freedom to come and go entirely as we pleased. Fed up of looking at these ruins? Let's hop back in the car and go! Want more than an hour for lunch? Let's sit back and chill!

It was the ideal situation for us and I would thoroughly recommend a private hire car (with a driver - you'd have to be ridiculously brave to take on Tunisian roads alone) as the best way to take in multiple sights in one day.

What's more, all these added benefits actually ended up costing us less. The coach trip organised through Thomas Cook should have cost us 95 dinar a head, including transport, entrance fees (but not the additional 2 dinar camera charges) and lunch. Our private car cost us 140 dinar altogether. With entrance and camera fees on top (a total of 21 dinar each) and a very substantial lunch with drinks (about 25 dinar each, at a generous guess), our total for the day came to around 81 dinar a head. That's a saving of at least 16 dinar each for a far more enjoyable trip!

It was by far the best form of transport we experienced in Tunisia and I would suggest speaking to your hotel staff who should be able to point you in the direction of a reputable hire company.

Al-Zaytuna Mosque, from atop the medina.
So, what did this road trip of ours involve?

Well, after a long and interesting journey from Hammamet to Tunis in rush hour traffic (Side note: I definitely picked up some tips - next time I'm stuck in motorway traffic, I'll just squeeze in and create my own new lane! Why didn't I think of that before?!), our first stop took us into the old heart of the city, down the Avenue de France to the medina.

By this point in our trip we were kind of medina'd out - all that aggressive salesmanship gets pretty overwhelming - and almost asked our driver to skip this part of the trip. I'm glad we didn't. The medina in Tunis is immense and makes the likes of Hammamet pale in comparison. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it houses somewhere in the region of 700 monuments (isnt that ridiculous?!) amongst its labyrinthine streets and boasts incredible views across the city if you can find your way to one of its panoramic points. 

We spent some time taking photos from one of these vantage points, made a quick stop at a shop selling sandals (after my friend's broke on the cobble stones) and then (eventually) wound our way back out of the maze-like streets. The remainder of our time there was spent outside the medina itself in the surrounding main streets which play home to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul and the Porte de France (or Bab El Bhar) - a rather unexpected replica of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe.

In fact, most of the main street here was built to replicate Paris and the journey into the city centre is worth while for this road alone. Housing the government buildings of Tunisia, signs of the recent revolution still linger - all barbed wire fences lining busy pedestrian streets and a rather intense police presence - and it let us see a more sombre side to Tunisia that we hadn't witnessed previously.

The second stop on our trip was a ten minute journey East through the city to the National Bardo Museum. Set in a 13th century palace and boasting the world's largest collection of Roman mosaics, the museum provides a fascinating visual history of Tunisia.  With its "101 masterpieces" over five different eras (Prehistoric, Carthaginian, Roman, Christian and Islamic) there is so much to see that you could easily find an entire day disappearing here.

Having read a number of reviews suggesting a lack of information available in English, I was a tad apprehensive about visiting the museum without a guide, but I found there was ample information and our experience was greatly improved by the ability to roam around at will. I must admit that the knowledge of the glorious sunshine waiting outside somewhat distracted me from all that the museum had to offer, but if History or Religious Studies are your thing then the temptation to get lost in this place is very, very real.

For us? We left after a solid two hours browsing - without having seen the entire collection - feeling eager to see what else this little road trip had to offer!

(Part 2 to follow..) 

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