Two weeks in Tunisia

I heart Tunis sign, Tunisia

It may seem as though Tunisia, perched on the northern end of Africa, is very far away and inaccessible, but really that’s not true! With nine international airports, and visa-free up to 90 days for many nationalities, getting in and out of Tunisia is not all that difficult.

Since Chris and I were already very near Tunisia geographically, we decided to take a GNV ferry from Sicily to Tunis. However, if you’re in Europe, many international airlines fly into the Tunis-Carthage airport as well as the other main airports of the country, including Lufthansa, Air France, Alitalia, Turkish Airlines, and Emirates. (Also TunisAir if you’re feeling really brave).

The tomb of Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba

We started our two weeks in-country in the city of Tunis. The Carleton Hotel provided a soft landing for us, at a very reasonable rate. This century-old hotel has friendly staff and an amazing breakfast. Our first day here was part of the Eid holiday, so we visited the medina and found it was almost empty, but a few shops were open. We returned the next day to experience it with a bustling crowd, and then went back that night for a tour with Salah, who we found on Guruwalk. We were really impressed by the small details he pointed out to us- embellishments and motifs we never would have noticed on our own- and the number of beautiful antique buildings he got us into, hidden behind otherwise nondescript doors.

Al-Zaytuna Mosque, built 698 AD, in the middle of the Tunis medina

It’s fairly easy to get around Tunisia, as long as you have a bit of patience. We wanted to visit some cities in the south, so we got a train ticket (24 Dinar/$8US) for one of the 3 daily trains departing Tunis and arriving in Gabes. From there, we got a collective taxi (called a “louage“) for just 2 Dinar each to take us to Matmata, which happens to be where they filmed several scenes from two of the Star Wars movies. It’s very easy to walk around Matmata and visit the Hotel Sidi Idriss- also know as Luke Skywalkers’s family homestead- on your own (1 Dinar entry), or you can book the hotel via their Facebook page for approximately $20 a night. The small town of Matmata actually has a tiny tourist information office, and they sent us with a guide to show us the Hotel Sidi Idriss, as well as a Berber troglodyte (cave) house, where we had tea and bread with olive oil with the family living there. Again, you can do all this on your own, but we enjoyed chatting with our guide and didn’t mind the 30 Dinar ($10US) fee.

Matmata is considered “the doorway of the Sahara”, so from there you can choose to head further into the desert to see other Star Wars filming locations such as Nefta, Ksar Hadada, or Ong Jemel, or you can rent quads and go out to the sand dunes, or visit an oasis. Since Chris and I use to live in the middle of the Sahara desert, we decided instead to head north to El Djem, a small city two hours north of Gabes. El Djem is home to the third largest Roman coliseum (after the ones in Rome and Capua). Seating 35,000 people, it was built by the African Emperor Gordion the Third around 238 AD. Entrance to the colosseum is 12 Dinar ($4US) and also gets you in to the nearby Archaeological Museum, home to dozens of mosaics and other Roman artifacts found in the town, which the Romans called Thysdrus.

From El Djem, it’s a quick one hour train ride north to Sousse. Since this train will already be in progress coming from the south, it will likely already be a) late and b) full. Be prepared to stand for a while, even if you purchase first class seats (5 Dinar), or ride at the end of the car with an open doorway, hobo style. At least there’s a nice breeze!

Chris is ready to ride the rails

Sousse is home to a pretty good sized walled Medina, and the second best archaeological museum in Tunisia. For the past year, the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, which shares a building with the National Assembly, has been closed due to politics. There are no stated plans to reopen the museum, so if you’re into history, geography, and archaeology, head to the Sousse museum. At 10 dinar entry, it won’t break the bank, and it only takes an hour or two to visit. You can spend the rest of the day or the evening in the Medina of Sousse, or hop on a louage to go the short distance to Montesir, another walked city on the coast featuring a ribat (fort).

Heading north once more from Sousse and Monastir, we took a louage to Hammamet, a beach town full of resorts near Tunis. You can find hotels in this town for anywhere from $25 a night in up to $400 if you’re super fancy. We are not, so we stayed at the Hotel Residence Romane, complete with pool and a somewhat “private” beach across the road. Even better, there’s a German bakery next door, so we were quite happy with our choice. They also have a tour desk, and can get you set up with a 2 day/1 night tour to Matmata, El Djem, and the Tozeur desert at a pretty reasonable rate.

The Residence Romane

After three days at the beach, we wanted to visit Carthage. You can take a louage from Hammamet to Tunis, and from there switch to their light-rail system. It only has a few stops, and one of them is quite close to the Roman ruins, while the next station is at the foot of the hill that the blue and white city of Sidi Bou Said sits upon. Both areas are worth at least a full day and an evening of your time, if not more. Another nice place to visit, very close to the ruins of the Ancient Roman theater, is the American North Africa military cemetery.

We enjoyed wrapping up our trip in the center of Carthage, staying in a small bungalow owned by a family that lives on the edge of Sidi Bou Said. Pro tip: we had a washing machine, so we were able to launder everything while we prepared for the next part of our trip. After one last stroll around the serene blue-and-white city, we were ready for our overnight ferry out of Tunisia.

Comoros Travel Guide

Comoros Flag

Ranked as #193 in the world as far as tourism, it’s not easy finding information on Comoros. But since we were in the Indian Ocean area, Chris and I were determined to visit. After much research into finding a flight, a plan began to come together. Here’s all the information I could gather, in the hopes that it helps other travelers who want to see this seldom-visited island nation.

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South Africa

Long March to Freedom Bronze Statues South Africa

As Chris and I looked at flights out of Mauritius and into Comoros, we found that most flights made use of the Johannesburg airport. Since we have friends in South Africa, whom we have not seen since we left Khartoum in 2011, we decided to stopover for a week and visit the area.

We arrived in Johannesburg, connected to Durban, and were picked up by our friends Paula and George. It was great seeing them and reminiscing about our days of the Khartoum Hash House Harriers and the crazy adventures we used to get up to in Sudan. We stayed with them for four relaxing days, and explored the area near Durban.

Nice to see a friendly face on our travels!

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Cruising the Indian Ocean: Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Reunion

Costa Cruise boat Indian Ocean

We had planned to go to Central Asia after India, but since it’s cold and wintry there in February, we spotted a cruise that was visiting four Indian Ocean islands. After considering the prices for lodging, meals, and airfare to such remote places, the cruise turned out to be a good deal- being flexible with our dates, we were able to get a heavily discounted fare for an upcoming sailing. We signed up- and got a free $50 onboard credit from Expedia!

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Interview with Chris: Bahrain, Kuwait, Eritrea, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus

Lebanon, Beirut

After visiting Qatar and Oman for Christmas,  I had to fly back to the States to return to work.  Chris stayed in the Middle East to do a little more exploring. Here’s an interview with him about his six-country tour:

So, tell me about Bahrain.

“Well, it’s a small island and most of it is one big city. A lot of bars, nightclubs, and nightlife catering to the Saudis coming over on the weekends. I visited Bahrain fort using public transportation, as well as the old souq, but mainly it’s a lot of skycrapers. The city is pretty spread out, not a very walking friendly.”

What was Kuwait like?

“Kuwait was pretty similar to Bahrain. The main downtown has skyscrapers and businesses, with a big souq/mall area in the center. The biggest tower is closed to the public, but you can go up inside the iconic Kuwait Towers, which look like giant balls skewered on sticks. The view from the inside is very nice. Public transportation is readily available but not all the places I wanted to get to were on a bus line. I went to the Al Qurain Martyrs Museum, where a bunch of Kuwaiti resistance fighters tried to hold off the Iraqis in 1991. It was closed when I got there, but the caretaker let me in after I told him I was in Desert Storm in 1991. The fish market and the corniche are a really nice area to walk around. “

Eritrea is a hard country to visit- tell us about it.

“Getting the visa prior to going was difficult but I finally managed one from DC. The visa only gets you into the capital- if you want to visit another area of Eritrea, you have to get a permit from a government official in Asmara. Asmara is a sleepy town with really nice people who are eager to speak to the few tourists they get. It has some nice old Italian buildings and a coffee culture. You can visit the tank graveyard from the war with Ethiopia (you will need a permit). I took a 3 hour bus to Massawa- spectacular scenery as you go from 9000 feet to sea level. Hardly any guardrails on the road so I was glad the bus was pretty slow. Massawa was practically deserted- it took “sleepy little town” to a whole new level. Very few tourists, a few business owners. I was able to do some snorkeling with their dive center but since there wasn’t any other tourists, we couldn’t organize a dive. Even right off the island of Massawa the coral was pretty good. A lot of the times the restaurants didn’t have much available on the menu but did generally have spaghetti and injera.”

What did you do in Jordan?

“In Jordan I visited the city of Amman, and then went up to Umm Qais to see the Roman ruins right at the intersection of Golan Heights, Syria, and Jordan. Then I went to Jerash to see other ruins. I took a public bus down to Petra and hiked all around- get the two day pass, it’s worth it. I went very early in the morning and there were no other tourists yet. I met a Swedish guy in the hostel back in Amman so after taking the public bus to Petra, he and I wound up sharing a taxi on the way back to the capital so we could see the Dead Sea. Jordan was great- the food, the beer, the people. A little chilly in the wintertime but not freezing like up in Europe. Definitely worth a visit”.

Did you go to Lebanon just because Deah has already been?

“(Yes). I spent all my nights in Beirut and used it as a base- I did a winery tour in Bekaa Valley where we visited three wineries, and saw the Roman ruins at Baalbek- the local microbus system is easy once you figure that out. Byblos is just a short hop up from Beirut and it’s cool to see the Phoenician ruins and crusader castles, as well as where the alphabet began. Also north of Beirut is Tripoli, kind of like a border town, so close to Syria. They have some crusader castles up there too. South of Beirut there’s Tyre and Sidon, and you can see where soap was originally made. There’s two UNESCO sites down in Tyre- it’s easy to take public buses from Beirut down to the sites. In Beirut itself it’s fun to wander through the various neighborhoods- the walking tour was really nice, and you can visit the big mosque. I stayed at Saifi Urban Gardens hostel, which also has a bar and a language institute, so it’s a nice mix of locals and tourists, and of course great beer.”

What do we need to know about Cyprus?

“From Beirut I flew Cobalt Air into Larnaca, which felt like an off-season beach town. I wanted to get to Nicosia, so I took a public bus to get there. Nicosia is a nice walled city, but it’s split in half with a UN-guarded line between the Greek southern part and the Turkish northern part. There’s no problem getting back and forth, as long as you enter Cyprus from the south (the southerners consider it illegal to enter the northern part first). The two sides of the island have a different vibe- Greek food versus Turkish food, lira versus euro, Keo beer versus Eres. While on the Turkish side I took a bus over to Girne, which has a big castle that was variously controlled by all the different empires over time. It has a nice little harbor and locals there spending a day at the coast. I also visited Limassol, which felt like a beach town with a small Byzantine crusader castle.”

From Cyprus, Chris flew Aegean Airlines to Frankfurt, and then Wow via Iceland to Washington DC, taking advantage of their $99 one-way fares. Overall, he says, the hardest part of the trip was the variable weather with lots of rain, but still a fun, off-season foray into an area he’d always wanted to visit.