text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Welcoming people, stunning scenery and cheap prices allure visitors to smallest North African state

A night in the desert.jpg

If you take an early morning stroll through downtown Tunis, you are bound to immediately note three things. Forget the horror stories of violent demos, ruthless police, tear gas and the sort of stuff the international media likes to propagate. Tunis in particular and the whole of Tunisia in general are remarkably safe.

In fact, they are safer than Sofia, notwithstanding what some might consider to be the rather haphazard traffic. People sit at cafés drinking coffee and reading newspapers, early-morning commuters go to work, shopkeepers are opening their shops. It could have been anywhere in the Mediterranean. The colonial French architecture, the UNESCO World Heritage Site medina and the typically laid-back atmosphere of an Arab land just add value. Most of the police you are likely to see in the street are traffic cops.

Then you will meet the locals. I have travelled far and wide in the Arab world but rarely have I encountered so friendly and welcoming people as the Tunisians. Even if you venture into one of Tunis's souks you will feel at ease as haggling will be limited, conversational and at no point threatening. People as a rule go out of their way to show you things and will not wait for a baksheesh afterwards. A bit of French (mine is rather rusty) will take you a long way.

Playing in the backstreets of Sidi Bou SaidPlaying in the backstreets of Sidi Bou Said

Then, when you are about to leave your café, you will be struck by the prices. Prices for anything in Tunisia are several times lower than their Bulgarian counterparts. Basically, the cash you need to go to a budget hotel anywhere in the Mediterranean will take you into a four- or five-star establishment in Tunisia. Excellent food and fantastic local wine will be served to you at a fraction of the Bulgarian prices. If money is an issue (and these days it is), Tunisia holds some pleasant surprises.

Tunisian teenage girls going out for stroll in the dusk hours in Sidi Bou SaidTunisian teenage girls going out for stroll in the dusk hours in Sidi Bou Said

North Africa's smallest country is one of the continent's most varied. In the north what you get is the typical Med. Sandy beaches, a not-yet overbuilt coastline and remarkable culture (from Roman to Ottoman and from French Colonial to modern Western) will keep you busy for a long time. My advice, however, is to go south. There is nothing like the Sahara, and Tunisia has a fair chunk of it. Bear in mind that of the 12 African countries with an area in the Sahara Desert, only two – Tunisia and Morocco – are welcoming to visitors. In Tunisia you can do your camel safari, your motorglider flight or your tour of the remnants of George Lucas's Star Wars stage sets a lot cheaper and in a much more relaxed fashion.

The Bardo Museum in Tunis has the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the worldThe Bardo Museum in Tunis has the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world

Back to Tunis, do not forget to pay a visit to the biggest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. The Bardo museum stuns. Comparable to or overshadowing Italy's Ravenna and Istanbul's Chora Church. Then go to the ruins of Carthage. Located at the sea shore, the Roman era's most important site outside Rome will evoke tales of war, carnage and elephants crossing the Alps. The site is remarkably well preserved and exploring all of it will take at least half a day.

Remnants of ancient Carthage at the Mediterranean coastRemnants of ancient Carthage at the Mediterranean coast

If you get too tired, the picturesque traditional village of Sidi Bou Said a few miles away will be your place for relaxation. Nice bars, good restaurants and a few pints of local lager, called Celtia, will make you dreamy. Just what Tunisia warrants.


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