deserted Sidi Bou Said!
I  had been meaning to go to Tunisia for years, but every time I planned to go, something happened. The 2011 revolution, terrorist attacks here and there, trouble with Libya... Yet, in early January, we decided to book a flight from Rome to Tunis. This time, it would all work out!

When demonstrations spread all over the country in late January, we started debating what to do, if to go at all etc - it's funny how the UK and US government warns against all travel to Tunisia, while most European countries gave a clear to all but the south and border areas with Libya.

In the end, we went and spent 9 days in Tunis with some side trips in the vicinity. We really should not have worried! Tunis is incredibly western, we might as well have been in Marseille or Naples - there's even a tram and light rail you can get around with, all the European chain stores and virtually no hassle. Even in the souq, nobody tried to sell us stuff or hassled us in any way. Girls loved to not wear headscarves but leggings with pants, I was really surprised!

If anything, it was too relaxed and safe! Tunis is definitely closer to major cities in Southern Europe or maybe Istanbul than anywhere else in North Africa. Even all the taxi drivers used their metres dutifully and didn't drive us around in circles. They were really amused whenever I tried to negotiated the price and just pointed at the metre! While everybody I talked to spoke French, a lot of people also seemed to speak very decent English, and I don't only mean those working in touristy places. Everybody was very pleasant and seemed happy to see that some foreigners decided their country in spite of all the troubles and negative media attention. 

It was really sad to see many hotels and restaurants as well as other businesses targeted at tourists going bust. This, of course, leads to further unemployment and instability in a country that heavily depends on tourism economically. And this was only in Tunis, which really isn't a very touristy place in Tunisia in general. I fiercely believe that by visiting places perceived risky due to Islamic fundamentalism, we can help stabilise things and give extremism no power.

To be honest, all things in and around Tunis can probably be seen in 2-3 days, and we did get fairly bored in spite of working during our time there. Given the current situation, virtually all the Roman sites at Carthage were closed, and Tunisia's poster village of Sidi Bou Saïd was completely deserted. 

My favourite place was the Bardo museum, which was equally devoid of other visitors, but oh so worth it, even if you don't like art or history. If you have eyes, go! The Roman mosaics were massive and better preserved than I've seen, and the museums was only renovated with lots of information plates, too. The building itself used to be a palace, so there is lots of amazing Islamic art, too. It was sobering to see there are still bullet holes from the shooting last year in some of the security glass. Out of all places, this was in the part of the building that used to be the mosque -  a stark reminder of how much respect for their religion those extremists really have.

Another sobering fact about Tunisia was that the food wasn't much too write home about. Everywhere at every price level offered the same - couscous with chicken and mixed salads, plus brick hard baguettes, in different combinations. Plus lots of Italian food (which wasn't half bad). I also sadly have to report that Tunisian wine should better be avoided - they all tasted like they'd been diluted with water.

Yet, people were nice and chatty without being nosey, we walked around town a lot and were definitely happy that we went. I know I'm repeating myself, but always take official travel advisories with a grain of salt. I would definitely recommend Tunis for a long weekend trip to anybody who wants a taste of North Africa without any hassle.

I know, it's already mid-March, but thinks have been speeding up a lot recently. Until the end of this month, we'll be passing through a grand total of seven (!) countries in March, and the busiest time is yet ahead of us!

However, February was a very quiet time, as we spent most of it in Rome.

Still not warming up to Rome

I mentioned in the last post and it still rings true; South-West Europe is just not for me. I can deal with the northern parts of Italy up to Florence (which is amazing for so many other reasons that the Renaissane stuff - the light, the arts, the student life, food and wine...). Yet, spending a whole month in Rome, even in the off season, wasn't my brighest idea.

I struggled to deal with supermarkets and basically everything else (even museums) taking siestas, eating out being limited to certain times (I'd love to eat your food, Rome, but I get hungry at other times than 12-2 pm and 8-10 pm!).

It will be considered a sacrilege by many, but Rome really didn't do an awful lot for me. Not the major sights, which are sorely lacking in information, not the neighbourhoods, which just felt like anywhere else in Southern Europe, not the churches... Moving to Rome is considered a rite of passage for Italians, and virtually all move away after a few months - I understand why. I usually like cities that are rough around the edges, but couldn't find any charm in the city. It's like the centre is made entirely for tourists, and everywhere else just had this depressing aura.

For a major European city its size, I was also surprised how monotonous Rome is culturally - trying to find food even from another European country was impossible, as finding most Asian ingredients - Rome's Chinatown mostly seems to do clothing retail.
Let's not even mention Eastern European or Middle Eastern food... I've got nothing against Italian food, but I like some variety during a longer stay. The visible foreign minorities (many Kurds, Africans and Chinese) seemed to be not integrated with the Italians, either.

In short, the city felt too one dimensional, conservative and boring to us. Yes, I said it, Rome was boring, even though I love history and have a good background in European art.

I thought a day trip to Pompeii might help shake things up. I had been eager to visit since first learning about the place, and yes, Pompeii is big, it neither provides a lot of information nor is it in any way as beautiful as ruins I've seen in the Middle East, North Africa or even many other places in Europe. With Pompeii, it's mostly fun to think about the volcanic eruption that 'destroyed' and 'preserved' the city, while a visit isn't actually that insightful if you are really interested in history.

We also visited the museum of archeology in Naples, which was in a sorry state compared to another museum of Roman art and mosaics we visited just a week later...

Tunisia, at last

I'll be honest: the main reason we spent time in Rome in the first place was because it's currently one of the only European cities with a direct flight connection to Tunis. I had been meaning to go to Tunisia for years, but whenever I meant to go, something happened - the revolution in 2011 and then terrorist attacks throughout 2015.

January 2016 saw demonstrations due to the high unemployment rates all over Tunisia, followed by an extension of the state of emergency and travel advisories not to go from many countries. For weeks, we debated what to do and watched the news closely.

We ended up going and spent 10 days in around Tunis. It was a very relaxed time and there was really no need to worry, yet the lack of other tourists meant that virtually all sights were closed or deserted. In that regard, it was probably smart not to travel to other areas - I would guess most places are equally safe, but also closed due to lack of demand. While it felt perfectly safe in the north of the country, I would say a shorter visit would be sufficient at the moment. I still hope I'll get to see more of the country another time, when the political situation has calmed down a bit.

This concluded February, probably our most relaxed month of travel since October 2015! I am really ready for a more fast paced, exciting place, but March will include lots of moving around mostly relaxing and easy destinations until the end of the month.

March will see us spending time in Tunisia, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, London and finally... Ukraine! 

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