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Timeless Tunisia

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									Timeless Tunisia

By Veronica Sliva
                                      As I was preparing for my trip to Tunisia, friends
                                      and family remarked, “Tunisia...where’s that?”
                                      followed by, “Why would you want to go there?”
                                      Many people don’t think of Tunisia as a vacation
                                      destination (if they consider it at all). Too bad,
                                      because Tunisia is one of the best kept travel
                                      secrets. Sandwiched between Libya and Algeria,
thanks to far-sighted government policies and help from European Union trading
partners, Tunisia has managed to distance itself from the turmoil of its neighbours and
is very safe. The median age of its residents is only 29 years and the country has an
almost 75% literacy rate. Citizens enjoy a good retirement pension, a national health
service and the crime rate is low. It’s a country rich in history and culture that is both
exotic and yet familiar thanks to the European influence of its neighbouring countries
that share the Mediterranean Sea.


I eased into vacation mode with a week in the resort town of Hammamet. Hammamet
comes from the Arabic al-hammamat, which means "the baths". This spa town has
been known since Roman times for the healing property of its waters. In the height of
the tourist season Hammamet swells to up to 70,000 inhabitants. Those kinds of crowds
aren’t for me, so I opted to visit in late February when the weather is fresh and spring-
like, perfect for strolling and touring without fighting the European holiday makers that
come later in the season.


                                    Hammamet proved to be a good starting point for day
                                    trips to nearby tourist sites. My first outing took me to
                                    Tunisia's oldest Arab city and Islam's 4th most holy
                                    centre, the City of Kairouan. For me the highlight of
                                    the day was visiting Sidi Oqba, the Great Mosque that

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is situated in the centre of the medina (an ancient walled city). This is one of the oldest
and largest places of worship in the Islamic world. Most of what exists today dates back
to the 9th century. The sacred area is enclosed by a wall reinforced with projecting
buttresses. Two stone towers are intersected by nine doorways. The marble-paved
courtyard is flanked by three porticoes made up of long naves whose roofs are
supported by arches. These arches are supported by dozens of lovely marble columns,
all of them different. I was surprised to learn that various Arab rulers and builders
moved them to the mosque from more ancient Roman and Byzantine sites. The most
outstanding feature of the mosque is the minaret that was from 724 to 728 AD. Standing
three stories tall, 103 feet high by 34 feet wide, it is the oldest standing minaret in the
world and is widely recognized as one of the greatest gems of Islamic architecture. It
was jaw-droppingly beautiful.



Roman Ruins
Tunisia it is the smallest country in North Africa.
Thanks to its prime real estate on the
Mediterranean Sea, this strategic location has
ensured a long and turbulent history. The
Phoenicians, Romans, Turks, Arabs, and the
French have all coveted and fought for this land.
The remnants of all this plundering is the many
well-preserved ruins throughout the country. The most famous is the once mighty
Roman city of Carthage, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All that remains today
are drifts of wildflowers that grow among the scattered ruins. On the site the Carthage
Museum stands majestically on a hill top surrounded by an expansive lawn. It houses
many artefacts that help visitors imagine what everyday life must have been like.


El-Jem is the second largest amphitheatre in the world, second only to Rome. It was
once the crowning glory of the ancient market town of Thysdrus. Now a World Heritage
site, it is massive with a seating capacity of 30,000. Walking into the centre and gazing
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30 metres upwards to 3 tiers of seating, I could imagine the roar of the crowds as
gladiators and unfortunate animals were thrust into the arena to provide entertainment
for the masses.


Tunisia is full of Roman ruins and though they grab my
imagination on this trip it was the Sahara desert and its
salt lakes that I was most anxious to see. The Sahara
Desert extends into southern Tunisia and covers about
40% of the country’s land area. 'Chott' is a Tunisia word
for lakes that stay dry through the hot season, but which
hold some water in the winter. The largest, the Chott el Jerid, covers 5,000 sq km and
lies in the middle of Tunisia, close to the Algerian border. I got my first glimpse of it in a
Jeep. To say the ride was bumpy is an understatement. My derriere may never be the
same! Our first stop was the oasis of Chebika, an old village perched on a rock platform
and surrounded by palm trees and steep gorges. It was once a Roman outpost and a
mountain refuge for the Berber people. From Chebika we moved on to Tamerza with its
breathtaking views of salt                                      lakes and river gorges.
Later that afternoon as we                                      approached Tozeur, for the
first time I saw a palm tree                                    oasis. Tozeur was once a
stopping point for caravans                                     who traded along the
coastal cities of the                                           Mediterranean. Today it is
famous for the stately palm                                     trees that produce world
famous dates known as                                           deglet nour or "fingers of
light". These groves of over                                    200,000 palms are watered
by hundreds of natural                                          springs. It was remarkable
to find all this lush greenery                                  in the middle of such a
desolate landscape. Remember the movie, “The English Patient”? It was filmed in
Tozeur.


The English Patient wasn’t the only movie that was filmed in Tunisia. Both George
Lucas and Steven Spielberg used Tunisian villages as landscapes for their movies “Star
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Wars” and “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Last Ark. The desert mountain town of
Matmata is one of them and a must see. The village features a lunar-like landscape with
subterranean cave dwellings that are home to the Berbers. The Berber people first dug
homes out of the ground over 1000 years ago in order to escape the midday heat. They
are known as troglodyte homes and consist of a courtyard, 5 to 10 meters deep from
which a labyrinth of small rooms for sleeping, grain storage and family gatherings are
cut into the soft rock and interconnected by narrow passageways. Matmata was the
location for the disco scene in the first Star Wars film. The Hotel Sidi Driss was the set
for the cantina in Star Wars.


After four days in the desert, we left for Sfax. With a population of around 400,000 it is
the second largest city in Tunisia. Sfax is not touristy. It is an old but vital city where
people live and work. The souk (market place) of Sfax is the real deal and not aimed at
attracting tourists. And that’s what is so good about Sfax. This is where ordinary
Tunisians come to shop and go about their daily business. It was a great place to get a
real sense of how ordinary Tunisians live...not all that different from the rest of us.


We ended our Tunisian vacations with 5 days in Sousse. It was founded by the
Phoenicians in the 9th century BC and served for a time as Hannibal’s naval base.
There are still many remnants from that time for visitors to explore, but today it is a
popular resort with sandy beaches, an excellent market place to hunt for bargains and
lots of shops and restaurants to please even the most discriminating tourist.


Tunisia is a top notch destination for those looking for a little rest and relaxation or for
the tourist on the move who wants lots of history and activity. But, one of the most
appealing reasons to visit Tunisia is that it is one of the most affordable vacation
destinations...a real bargain.




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