Earlier this year, Indagare’s creative director Simone Girner went on a scouting trip to Tunisia, exploring this fascinating North African country, which should be on your radar for 2023.
“I have to tell you,” said our Tunisian guide Ab-de while standing in front of the soaring Temple of Jupiter at the Roman archeological site of Dougga. “Even though I have visited these places many times, they still make me emotional.”
Rendering people emotional—whether locals or visitors — is what Tunisia excels in. It may happen in the hushed arches of the Andalusian-tiled El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, where Muslim and Jewish communities have lived side by side for centuries. It may happen among the Saharan sand dunes that rise just outside southern Tezeur, their edges wind-blown and eternal. It may happen at such Roman sites as Dougga, Kerkouane or Carthage: ancient places whose history throbs beneath your feet. And most of the time you’re visiting this small but mighty country, you wonder what took you so long to come.
Wedged like a triangle between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is often treated like the little sister of more established tourism powerhouses Morocco and Egypt when, in fact, this country (only slightly larger than the state of Georgia) packs a potent punch that is powerfully its own. With stunning landscapes that range from southern desert expanses to verdant farmland up north, and experiences as varied as archeological sites, postcard-perfect seaside villages and a buzzing contemporary scene in Tunis juxtaposed with one of the world’s oldest Medinas, Tunisia is perfect for travelers interested in history, culture and getting off the beaten path.
It is also an opportunity to experience an Arab nation that defies the stereotypes an increasingly unnuanced world may hold of it. Before our trip (I scouted with my colleague, Lisa Kolodny Johnson), we asked our hosts whether it would be culturally sensitive to bring a veil, especially when touring the “more conservative rural regions” as one of our guidebooks suggested. The answer came swiftly: “No, absolutely not necessary.” Walking through buzzing, modern Tunis, surrounded by school kids thronging street-food vendors, stylish women clacking down the pavement in towering heels and old men in traditional grab sitting at small tables smoking shishas, we laughed about it with our hosts, Mariem and Hazar, two women who epitomize the energy of post-Revolution Tunisia. “We joked about whether we should tell you guys to bring a burqa,” said Mariem with a wink, “just so you could see the contrast when you’re here.”
A country of contrasts—and surprises—is indeed a perfect description of Tunisia, a place whose mélange of influences and cultures is immediately intoxicating. Most notably are remnants of the French, who colonized Tunisia from 1881 until independence in 1955, leaving behind Art Nouveau edifices and wide boulevards, their education system and language (Tunisian Arabic is a melodic mix of Arabic and French). But traces of all those who came before—Phoenicians, Romans, Arab Muslims, Normans, Ottomans—are also present throughout the country, in the architecture, food and local customs. For a traveler, this means an onslaught of impressions, many times in the course of a single day. In Tunis, for instance, you can spend the morning walking among the ruins of Carthage, one of the ancient world’s most fabled sites, then head into the Medina to take a lesson in calligraphy or bookbinding with a craftsman who learned his trade from generations before him, then continue on to shop the city’s cool new crop of design boutiques, and end at sunset in a seaside town that looks straight out of Greece.
For lovers of history—especially Phoenician and Roman—the treasures cannot be overstated. You could spend an entire day in the Bardo Museum alone, marveling at mosaics whose artisanship and sheer size are overwhelming. Another must-see is the former Roman settlement of Dougga, a two-hour drive southwest of Tunis, with a number of showstoppers, including an imposing Capitole, a theater that once seated 3,500 spectators, baths, private residences and temples. The town of El Jemm is home to a colossal Roman amphitheater and can be combined with a visit to Kairouan, the country’s most important Islamic center founded by Muslim Arabs in 670AD and home to the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba (parts of which non-Muslims are allowed to tour with a guide). Scenic seaside Kerkouane, surrounded by vineyards, is the site of a former Phoenician settlement, shockingly complete down to its bathtubs.
But even though travelers come for these sites, Tunisia is hardly stuck in the antiquities department. Especially in Tunis (but also afield), you can’t help but be swept up by the forward momentum of a country that only relatively recently emerged from decades of dictatorship. This December will see the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the so-called Jasmine Revolution that ousted former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, inspiring Arab Spring uprisings across the region. But even though dictators toppled elsewhere, none of the neighbors managed Tunisia’s tightrope act of transforming from autocracy to democracy (the country’s National Dialogue Quartet, responsible for the transition, received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize). Today, Tunisia is the Arab’s worlds only fully democratic sovereign state.
Of course, not everything about the transition has been painless. The parliamentary democracy is still in its infancy, with hundreds of parties jostling for a say; the currency has been largely devalued since 2011, resulting in economic hardship for many; and just as Tunisia was finding its post-Revolution stride, two terrorist attacks in 2015 practically shut down the tourism sector, one of the country’s main revenue sources. Unemployment remains high, which is particularly frustrating in a place whose education system is excellent (it is not unusual for your driver to have a Master’s degree and most everyone you encounter speaks at least four languages). Yet everyone we spoke with remained firm in the belief that the struggle is worth it for the country’s new-found freedom, and that while the ideal future state may be a ways off, they will never go back. A single line of graffiti on the side of a Tunis residence summed up this sentiment: “It takes time to live the dream,” it read.
However, there is an impressive local cast, especially artists, social entrepreneurs and creatives thinkers already working on that dream right now. On a scenic side street in historic Tunis lies Dar Ben Gacem Kahina, a beautifully restored guesthouse that opened in 2019 and whose owner, Leila Ben Gacem, is one of the movers and shakers of the Medina. A petite powerhouse who exudes can-do energy, Leila is an accidental hotelier and social entrepreneur (in her former life, she traveled the world as a biomedical engineer), but her passion for preserving the ways of the Medina while also helping it shape a future-self is utterly contagious.
“In our part of the world, we have a tendency to underestimate the potential of our historic districts,” she said as we were sipping mint tea on the guesthouse’s chic rooftop, the sun stark against billowing white curtains, the sky behind them a braggard in blue. “Part of our work is also about changing minds and perceptions.” At either of her two guesthouses, Ben Gacem offers to connect her visitors with artisans who hold short in jewelry-making, calligraphy or bookbinding. “When I first approached the craftsmen,” she says with a laugh, “a few didn’t understand why a tourist would even want to learn their craft. It took some convincing that what they are making is, in fact, of great interest to travelers looking to have an authentic experience.”
Having authentic experiences is what Tunisia is all about, in part thanks to the fact that it’s not been as over-touristed as a Morocco or an Egypt. Not everything is polished and delivered on a silver platter (yet). Rest stops along the way of a road trip are basic; restaurants outside the capital are simple family affairs (often this is a plus when it comes to the homecooked dishes of couscous and vegetarian stew chatchouka); and in the more remote regions, it helps to speak some French.
But there are hints that Tunisia’s time is coming (travelers looking to go before the rest of the world does should book a trip now). Late 2019 saw the opening of a gorgeous new resort in Tozeur, a sleepy Berber town that happens to be the gateway to the Sahara. Sprawling across 100-plus acres, the Anantara Tozeur was thoughtfully conceived to blend into its setting, the spacious rooms and suites set in squat clusters like their own little desert communities. Built with mostly local materials, including lots of wood and stone, it is a property of shadows and light, the colors taking their cues from those of the surrounding expanses: light pink in the morning, blinding gold midday and saturated reds, blues and purples in the evening (sunrise or sunset here would have made J.M.W Turner’s head spin).
As tempting as it would be to stay put at this beautiful place, which has three pools and a wonderful spa, there is a lot to be explored in the area. You can road-trip from to charming small town of Douz, crossing Chott-el-Djerid, an enormous salt lake that happens to be one of the world’s most silent places. You can shop in Tozeur’s own small but scenic Medina, or visit such nearby mountain oases as Chebika and Temerza. And then, of course, just an hour out of town, you will find yourself in the talcum-powdered sands of the Sahara, so perfectly captured by Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient: “The desert could not be claimed or owned –it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East (…) It was a place of faith. Fire and sand.”
Anthony Minghella shot the book’s film adaption in Tunisia, and fans will recognize the camel-shaped Ong Jamal mountain, as will devotees of Star Wars (in fact, the somewhat dilapidated set of Mos Espa, George Luca’s imagined spaceport settlement on the planet of Tatooine, lies at the bottom of a great dune and can be visited). It’s a photographer’s dreamscape and also a place that inspires meditation, like holding communion in an eternal place. “The wind sounds softer here,” said Lisa, after some time of quietly sitting in sand the color of mustard. When we returned to the hotel, our driver El Hadj Saleh surprised us with two small water bottles that he had filled with the fine sand, so we could take a piece of his home to ours, he explained. Thoughtful and unexpected, this gesture mirrored many of the interactions we’d had during out time in Tunisia. Everyone—from our charismatic guide Ab-de to people we encountered at the hotels, in the Medina and on the road—welcomed us with unforgettable genuineness and warmth.
On our last morning, I took a walk by myself among the empty streets of hilltop town Sidi Bou Saïd (a feeling akin to waking in Taormina or Capri and taking advantage of those precious hours before the day-trippers arrive). I came across a little café with a panoramic view of the bay below, the colors still soft except for the bright emerald-colored sea. An old waiter approached, saying he would be happy to take my photo in front of this stunning backdrop, and when I told him how much we had loved exploring Tunisia, how beautiful his country was, his face drew into a wide smile. He threw open his arms and exclaimed, “Mais Madame, c’est votre pays aussi!” But Madam, it is your country, too!
It was an almost comically perfect ending to a trip that harbored many moments full of grace. We left Tunisia utterly humbled by the generosity, tolerance and kindness of everyone who had opened their arms to us on this journey, reminding us that we are indeed all citizens of the same precious, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful world.
Suffice it to say that saying good-bye as our plane took off was…well, emotional.