The Port in Tunis
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Tunis (La Goulette) Overview
Tunis is the capital of Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, but the city feels neither Arab nor African. It's a place where old and new mix without any seeming conflict, in both the architecture (with Moorish and French influences) and way of life.
On one corner in the capital city of 2.5 million, you might see a group of girls in tight jeans and tops with dangling earrings possibly heading to one of the modern shopping malls. On another, an old lady with a traditional head covering stands with her camel. (Women have not had to cover their heads there since the mid-1980's.) Meanwhile, a street sweeper wields an old-fashioned thatched broom while he chatters away on his mobile phone.
Outside the very Arab souk (main market) in the well-preserved Medina (Old City) is a square with a fountain where we spied men sitting and talking dressed in garb that would look at home in Rome (one wore a light tan suit -- his blue shirt open -- and tasseled loafers without socks). Passing them were men in traditional red skull caps.
Tunisia's history dates back over some 3,000 years. The country has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Spanish and French. During the 12th to 16th centuries, Tunis was considered one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Arab world. It finally gained independence from France in 1956. Tunisian presidents are elected, although the same leader ruled from 1957 to 1987. His successor, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ruled from 1987 to 2010, when nationwide demonstrations over unemployment, corruption and poor living conditions forced him to resign from office. "We have elections, but we know the outcome of these elections before they take place," said our guide, noting that the system is more a wink to the concept of democracy than reality.
This is a poor country, with a 15-percent unemployment rate. It is one of the world's largest producers of olive oil. Other products include citrus, wine and dates. Tourism is an important business here (more than five million tourists visit each year, mostly French and German), though cruise calls are still pretty exotic and limited largely to European ships (like those from Costa and MSC Cruises) and U.S. lines that offer more exotic Mediterranean itineraries (such as Oceania). And though it may be considered a third world country, we saw few genuinely poor folks. The streets and towns were extremely clean, and crime (though we heard of the occasionally run-in with pickpockets) is low.
To be sure, if you get off the ship on your own rather than a shore excursion, you will immediately throw yourself into a foreign atmosphere including cab drivers at the pier haggling to give you a tour -- more intense haggling than I've come across in other places. And the souk is very much a place where Arab traditions rule -- so are many coffee houses, which are for men only.
But all in all, you'll find a laid-back city, very liberal by Islamic standards, and much more Western than you'd expect.
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The official language is Tunisian Arabic. Children learn French and another language, generally English, in school. In the souk, we heard a lot of "Hey, lady" and had no problem conducting negotiations in English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Tunisian Dinar (TND). (Current conversion rates can be found at www.xe.com.) U.S. dollars and euros are usually accepted. There are banks downtown, as well as ATM's.
Where You're Docked
Some ships dock at the commercial pier in La Goulette, a fishing port eight miles north of Tunis, but a new wharf was recently completed, adding two new docks and corresponding cruise terminals. The 2,165-foot-long quayside area also includes a tourism and recreation complex, Goulette Village Harbor, which offers everything from shopping and dining to banking services and spa treatments.
The docks are only about half a mile from downtown La Goulette; though the port once catered only to cargo ships, an upgraded terminal building at Goulette Village Harbor welcomes cruise passengers with a souk. In addition to its shops, the facilities are also home to a Hammam (Moorish bath), where you can opt for a scrub-down or one of several other interesting treatments, including one where fish eat dead skin off of your feet.
The town of La Goulette itself features some of Tunis' best seafood restaurants. Otherwise you're better off heading to Tunis, about eight miles from the port, or to attractions just outside of La Goulette, like Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. Three phones for public use are available inside the cruise village; they accept both dollars and euros.
By Taxi: Cabs are available at the gate to the port. Fares are fixed by the number of seats (four, six or eight) and by destination. It can be difficult to find a cab back to port, though, so you might want to make arrangements with your driver to stay with you or come back to pick you up later.
By Train: There are also electric trains from La Goulette to downtown Tunis.
By Bike: Bikes are available to rent inside the cruise village. Guided tours by bike are also provided for affordable rates.
Watch Out For
Heed local customs: Do not wear clothing that is overly revealing. Knees and shoulders should be covered. Pickpocketing is not a major problem here, but we did hear of a few instances (including one passenger who asked a local for directions and found the guy's hand surreptitiously in his pocket). Also, Tunis can get very hot. Pace yourself, and stay hydrated.
The Souk: It's a cobweb of shops in a huge covered building, where tradition has existed for hundreds of years. It's located in the heart of downtown (open daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; the entrance is at Bab el Bahr). This is the city's commercial and social center. Stalls of dates, carpet weavers, handicrafts galore (camel skin shoes, silver jewelry, inlaid boxes, spices, ceramics) and cafes line the passageways.
In the souk, La Rachidia serves up fine quality antiques and art objects and has been in the same family for generations. It is near Cafe M'rabet, on Souk Ettrouk, 11. For rugs (and heavy negotiating), check out the rug shop across the way at Souk Ettrouk, 6.
Souk shopping can be confusing and it's a good idea to go with a ship guide (on a shore excursion). Haggling is second nature there, and you should never pay the first price you're given. We snagged a small, woven Berber rug for $160, getting the price knocked down from $450, after much negotiating and walking out of the shop twice. It's actually exciting to bargain, to feel part of an ancient culture. And even if you're not a shopper, the sights and sounds in the narrow alleyways will amaze you. Keep an eye out for the tea men who offer mint tea served elaborately on a silver tray and poured from a height. (A tip is requested.)
Editor's note: Remember, if you start bargaining it is considered rude not to complete the deal when a fair price is offered. Also be aware the mostly male vendors are not beyond grabbing your arm to get your attention. Once you stop to look at something, haggling will begin.
The Bardo Museum: Le Bardo (closed Mondays; open other days 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), is located in a glorious 18th-century white- and blue-trimmed palace near the Tunisian parliament building, and features a very impressive collection of mostly ancient Roman mosaics displayed on walls and floors. There are also collections of marble statues and jewelry from the ancient world. Note: Le Bardo is quite a distance from the port and is not really close to any other attractions, so you may want to investigate cruise-ship tours that visit there.
Ruins of Ancient Carthage: They're just a quick taxi ride from the pier. Interestingly, our ship's shore excursion manager downplayed the site -- it's not as complete a ruin as, for instance, Ephesus -- but we found it absolutely fascinating. Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians in the ninth century B.C., was destroyed by the Romans after three wars and then rebuilt to become one of Rome's most intriguing provincial capitals. The ruins are scattered, and a modern residential neighborhood has been built over most of the area. It's lovely with lush gardens and obviously expensive homes -- one of the nicest places to live in Tunisia.
We started with the Antonin Baths -- an elaborate bathhouse and entertainment center that sits on a most scenic coastal spot (the presidential mansion is atop a hill overlooking the baths). You can climb down into the basements and admire hieroglyphics and lush gardens. As well, don't miss the Acropolium, though admittedly the French-Moorish cathedral is a newcomer (built in the 19th century!); it's now a cultural center. Also on site: the Carthage Museum, which showcases found objects that range from a real-life skeleton to gold jewelry, and Byrsa Hill, an archeological site.
Editor's note: Even if you visit via a ship tour, be prepared to pay a fee (on our trip, one euro) for a ticket allowing tourists to photograph the ruins.
Sidi Bou Said: Described as a Tunisian Santorini, this village clings to the hillside above the blue sea; comprising charming, white-washed and blue-shingled houses, no wonder it has inspired poets and artists, such as French novelist Colette and Swiss painter Paul Klee. The village, which was once a major summer resort, features a main street/souk that is awash with small shops, selling typical souvenirs like magnets, as well as pretty ceramics, leather goods and bird cages.
Don't miss a visit to Dar el Annabi, a "typical" Sidi Bou Said house that's open to the public. The house is built right on the road and is not prepossessing from the outside, but its charm is that it stretches infinitely back, with lovely rooms that are decorated in mosaic tiles and skylights; there are even a courtyard and a prayer room. A sample of mint tea is complimentary with the entrance fee (which, on our trip, was 2.50 euros).
More peaceful is the marina below the retail mayhem and narrow, cobbled streets of the village.
Been There, Done That
North Africa American Cemetery: This burial ground in Carthage (about 14 miles from Tunis), covers 27 acres near Ancient Carthage. White crosses and Jewish stars sit in neat rows. Here lie 2,841 American military dead, or about 39 percent of the military burials originally made in North Africa and Iran (construction was completed in 1960). Most gave their lives in the landings in and occupation of Morocco and Algeria and subsequent fighting, which resulted in the liberation of Tunisia.
Fish, couscous with vegetables, grilled meat, eggplant salad and cookies filled with dates and fried in olive oil are all on the must-eat list here. Casual eateries tend to serve light meals and snacks throughout the day; restaurants, on the other hand, generally are open until about 2 p.m.
Best Choice in La Goulette: Enjoy a fish lunch at La Victoire (01, Avenue Franklin Roosevelt) or La Petite Etoile (Port de la Goulette).
Best Choice in Sidi Bu Said: We had a lovely, elegant lunch at Dar Zarouk (Rue Hedi Zarouk), a boutique hotel and restaurant perched on the edge of the mountain and overlooking the sea; the fish dishes are specialties. Another good spot for catching your breah is Cafe Sidi Chabaane (Rue Hedi Zarouk), which has a terrace built on the side of the cliff, also overlooking the mountains and sea.
Best Choice in Tunis: Dar El Jeld (5, Rue Dar El Jeld) is considered among the best eateries.
Staying in Touch
There is a Wi-Fi zone in the food court of LaGoulette Cruise Terminal.
Best Choice for Overall View: Book the all-day tour to the Bardo Museum, Carthage & Sidi Bou Said. View the mosaics at the Bardo, visit the souk, enjoy a lunch buffet at a local restaurant, admire the Phoenician and Roman ruins at Carthage, and take in the pretty village of Sidi Bou Said. This tour will give you a good comprehensive view of a fascinating country.
Editor's note: Check your ship's roster for shorter tours that break up these attractions; for instance, you may be able to combine the museum and a souk visit.
Best Choice for Thrill-Seekers: Check out the nomadic life of the Berbers on a 4x4 tour (you drive yourself and a guide escorts the caravan). You visit the town of Takrouna, located on a cliff with views of the Gulf of Hammamet. Continue through small villages and across fields to visit the hilltop village of Zjaradou. Rural traditions and lifestyle are on display.
Editor's note: This is your chance to observe Berber life. But be aware you may witness things like the killing of live chickens and goats.
Best Choice for Explorer Types: Go trekking in a natural reserve called Ichkeul. The area was designated a biosphere reserve in 1977. The park's freshwater area is the largest in Tunisia and provides water for much of the country. After your hike, stop by the Roman and Punic ruins and museum at Utica, a Phoenician settlement founded in 1100 B.C. Discoveries on display here include mosaic floors from Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine times.
For More Information
On the Web: Tunisia Tourism and La Goulette Village Harbor
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Africa & Middle East
IndependentTraveler.com: Africa and Middle East Travel Guide
--by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief