|deserted Sidi Bou Said!|
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.