- Lifestyle & Sports
- 20 Nov 14
The Arab Spring put the capital of Tunisia on the world map. Today, calm has returned to its ancient streets – making it an overlooked gem with lots to tempt the adventurous traveller.
Where exactly is it?
Tunis is the capital of Tunisia and has a population in excess of 650,000. Close to the country’s north coast, it is connected by canal to the Mediterranean inlet known as the Gulf of Tunis.
How do I get there?
The easiest route is to catch a flight to London Heathrow and connect with a Tunisair flight to Tunis-Carthage International Airport (flight time three hours). If you’ve a little time to play with why not fly into the stunning Algerian capital, Algiers, spend a few days there and then travel east by train along the Mediterranean coast to Tunis?
What language do they speak?
Tunisian Arabic is the official language of Tunisia and the most widely spoken. However, small minorities of inward migrants from the country’s arid south communicate in a variety of Berber languages. French is also spoken by the majority of the population, a result of French colonialism in North Africa during the 19th and 20th century. A small bit of Leaving Cert Français will go a long way...
What is the local beer like?
When it comes to alcohol, Tunisia is regarded as a progressive Muslim country. This is due to the fact that alcohol is more widely available than most of its near North African neighbours. Beer, wine and spirits are served in many cafés, hotels and are available in supermarkets, but drunkenness is frowned upon socially. The local beer of choice is Celtia, a light pale lager and other commonly available brews include the pilsner 33 Extra Dry and the sweet, pale lager, Stella. The major international beer brands are also widely available, but the local tipples are certainly worth a try, especially when served ice-cold on a hot afternoon..
Tunisian wine production expanded rapidly under French rule, but can be originally traced back to the Phoenicians. The fertile soil and cooling Atlantic winds make for perfect conditions. The local rose varieties are especially good, accounting for over 70% of production. There’s also a choice of full-bodied reds. A sizeable percentage of the produce is exported; Tunisian wines are increasingly popular in France. For something a little different, order boukha, a sweet, aromatic brandy made from figs!
What is the transport like?
Tunis boasts a highly efficient and extensive urban transport system. No matter where you need to get there’s a bus, light-rail or regional train line that’ll take you there. If you fancy some adventure, and are keen on exploring the country’s regional highlights, car hire is affordable and excellent motorways connect Tunis with all major towns and cities. However, avoid hiring a car unless you’re planning a road-trip. Driving Tunis’s busy, narrow streets, trying to find a parking spot is an experience to be avoided! Taxis are plentiful and affordable: be sure to request the meter is turned-on prior to departure. Buses connect the state capital with the regions and many companies offer comfy, air-conditioned coaches with a regular service to the regions.
What’s the food like?
Tunisian food is tasty and wholesome and often very spicy! It’s the result of multiple influences over many centuries, including Phoenician, Arab, Berber, French and nomadic tribal traditions. Amongst the chief ingredients are a large range of herbs, spices, olive oil, dried fruits, vegetables and everything from lamb and beef to hare and turkey meat. Watch out for harissa, a popular, spicy condiment served with many dishes, which contains a broad mix of spices including chilli, black cumin and coriander! One of the most celebrated Tunisian dishes and a daily staple is couscous. It’s prepared in a split-level boiling pot known as a kiska and is normally served with a meat and spiced vegetable. In coastal areas lamb is substituted for fish, such as sea bass or red snapper. Unlike Morocco, Tunisian tagines are more similar to quiche and consist largely of an egg, cheese, meat and vegetable bake. Despite the richness of Tunisia’s culinary heritage, restaurants are not as plentiful or as visible as one would imagine. Ask in busy cafés and you’?‘ll soon get pointed in the right direction.
What’s the nightlife like?
Tunis can boast a bustling nightlife, even if it’s sometimes a little difficult to find! Thankfully, most visitors to the city aren’t banking on a banging party. The city’s limited number of bars are, for the most part, ‘men only’ and certainly aren’t an overall reflection of the citizens social habits. So, in order to experience a real taste of Tunis nightlife, forgo the beer and dive into the city’s bustling café culture. Avenue Habib is thronged with bustling cafés late into the evening, as is the Sidi Bou Said district. Here, busy waiters serve up mint tea, coffee, and confectionary to packed terraces, whilst groups of men, absorbed in conversation, smoke water pipes. On a balmy evening, these large café terraces are the places to be. There are clubbing options in Tunis, just nothing to write home about.
Why should I go?
Since the turbulent days of the ‘Arab Spring’ Tunisia has returned to relative calm. Tunis is once again open for business and it is well worth the trip. The excitement, colour and atmosphere of the narrow, winding shopping streets of the medina is intoxicating and a true taste of Tunisian social culture. The café terraces are alive with discussion and there’s plenty of fascinating sights, including the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage, which is only a short trip away.
What are the touristy things to do?
Tunis’s Bardo museum is regarded as one of the world’s best and is home to a huge collection of mosaics. In order to gain a true appreciation of these beautiful creations a guided tour is recommended (it won’t set you back very much). The Roman mosaics which once decorated villas throughout the region are particularly stunning. Tunis’s old shopping quarter or medina is a must! Be prepared for lots of haggling and an engaging experience wandering its narrow streets, lined with shops selling just about anything. Amateur photographers will be in their element as Tunis’s medina isn’t a resurrected tourist attraction, it’s the real deal. The medina is adjacent to the thousand year-old plus Zitouna mosque, which boasts a breath-taking courtyard, open to tourist visits. A short trip from Tunis is the picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said. It’s a wonderful place of white buildings, set against blue doors, balconies and cobbled streets.
There’s lots to see just beyond the city limits of Tunis! A trip to the vast sandy expanse of the Sahara Desert is a must as is a visit to the ancient ruins of Carthage, only a half-hour away from the downtown by bus. Founded by the Phoenicians in 814BC, Carthage became the stronghold of Roman rule in North Africa and it boasts a rich and turbulent history. Famous residents include the military commander Hannibal and the poet Virgil.
Anything to avoid?
The unrest of the ‘Arab Spring’ has hit the Tunisian tourist industry hard. The reduced flow of foreign investment has led to an increase in petty crime. Be discreet when you enter the medina shopping district, flashing a large wallet could prove too tempting to pickpockets!
What should I bring home?
The medina’s souks are the place to go for souvenir shopping and there’s an impressive choice. Popular gifts include ceramics, jewellery, camel-skin sandals and rugs. Tunisian crafts are stunning and affordable, so be sure to leave some space in that suitcase!
When should I go?
Late spring, April or May, is the ideal time to visit Tunis. The temperatures are much more manageable than the searing summer heat and accommodation more competitively priced. Likewise, autumn is a suitable time to visit the Tunisian capital.
What’s my challenge?
Immerse yourself in the bustling daily life of this fascinating city. Wander the narrow ancient streets of the old city medina, experience Tunisian café culture and explore the varied architecture that reflects the city’s storied past from Roman to Byzantine, Punic to the French colonial period. Beyond the city limits lies the ancient ruins of Carthage and the stunning Mediterranean coastline.
What’s the currency?
The Tunisian Dinar (TND).
Something to remember...
In December 2010, Tunis witnessed protests that spread like wildfire throughout the Arab world and become known as the‘Arab Spring. A lack of free speech, the absence of political choice, poverty and inflation were amongst the reasons thousands flocked to the streets of the state capital. Whilst calm and a modest level of political stability have since been restored, the region could yet see a return to the revolutionary unrest which dominated world news throughout 2011.