Difference between revisions of "Tunisia"
Revision as of 16:06, 14 January 2011
Tunisia has a rich cultural history, ever since Antiquity. The Carthaginian Empire, Rome's arch enemy, was centered in Tunisia. Its capital, Carthage, is now a suburb of Tunis. Founded by Phoenician settlers from Tyre and Sidon (modern day Lebanon), Carthage was an ancient Mediterranean powerhouse. Three wars between Rome and Carthage (known as the Punic wars) were waged in the first few centuries before the birth of Christ. These culminated with the decimation of Carthage in 146 B.C. by the Roman general Scipio, who is said to have wept at its destruction.
Between the destruction of Ancient Carthage and the Arabic conquests of the 7th century, many cultures have made Tunisia their home. Carthage enjoyed a new period of prosperity under the Roman Empire until its collapse in the 5th century. Roman rule was replaced briefly by the Vandals, who made Carthage the capital of their kingdom. Carthage was then absorbed temporarily by the Byzantine Empire, until the rise of Islam in the 7th century.
After the dissipation of the Arabic Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire's Turkish Pashas ruled Tunisia. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia eventually became victim to European Imperialism in the form of a French Protectorate, along with neighboring Algeria.
Following independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba established a strict one-party state. He dominated the country for 31 years, repressing Islamic fundamentalism and establishing rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation.
Habib Bourghiba was quietly replaced in 1987 by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali, for short). His forced abdication was carried out under the pretext that he was unfit to carry out his duties as president, due to his ailing mental and physical state as a result of extreme old age. Nonetheless Bourghiba is still credited with the birth of the modern state of Tunisia, for which he fought his entire life.
In recent years, Tunisia has taken a moderate, non-aligned stance in its foreign relations. Domestically, it has sought to diffuse rising pressure for a more open political society.
Malta and Tunisia are discussing the commercial exploitation of the continental shelf between their countries, particularly for oil exploration.
There are several ways to enjoy your vacation in Tunisia, including spending your vacation on the gorgeous Mediterranean beaches, or planning a circuit of Tunisia. Numerous charter flight companies can arrange flight and hotel, many that waiver a visa to enter. There are also some agencies that have ongoing tours for groups and private travelers.
Tourism is pretty well developed in Tunisia, although not at par with other countries like Egypt and perhaps even Morocco. Hotel star ratings are not at par with European and US standards-- a 4 star hotel is the equivalent of a 3 star.
Temperate in north with mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers; desert in south.
Mountains in north; hot, dry central plain; semiarid south merges into the Sahara desert.
No visa is required for Americans, Canadians, European Community citizens, Great Maghreb nationals (Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania), Japanese, South Koreans and Malaysians. A landing visa (on arrival) is available for Australians. For New Zealand, other African and Asian countries' nationals, a visa must be applied for at the embassy of coverage.
Tunisia's main international airport for scheduled flights is Tunis-Carthage International Airport (TUN) near Tunis. From the airport, you can catch a taxi to the center of Tunis (beware, meters may be rigged). They are best hailed from the 2nd floor departure hall to avoid getting swindled, should cost no more than 5D to downtown Tunis (Avenue Habib Bourguiba area) during the daytime, and no more than 10D between 9pm-5am (during which meter rates are double daytime rates).
Alternatively, take bus # 635 or # 35 to Ave Habib Bourguiba for 0,470 dinars. The bus comes roughly every half-hour and stops in front of the terminal.
Official airport wifi requires purchase, but connection to the public "LINDO CAFE" network from a restaurant of the same name is free.
For cheap snacks and coffee/tea in place of overpriced airport fare, walk 3 minutes straight out of the airport's bottom floor (arrivals), past the fountain, through the parking lot, and you'll find a small convenience store and cafe selling items at local prices (espresso for 700 millimes). It is next to a utilitarian car wash.
Tunisia's second airport is Habib Bourguiba, Skanes-Monastir(MIR) which is served by low cost charter flights from all over Europe. Monastir is nearer to most of the holiday destinations. Inexpensive charter flights (at least from the UK) are available through airlines such as Thomas Cook. From May 2010, Jet2.com will also operate a service to Monastir. Other destinations with international airports include Tozeur and Djerba.
Other Airports countrywide are serving national and international flights, and here is a list of the Tunisia's Airports: Tunis Carthage Intl Airport near Tunis (North Tunisia) -  Habib Bourguiba Skanes Monastir near Monastir (Central East Tunisia) - Sfax Thyna Airport near Sfax (Central East Tunisia) - Tozeur Nefta Intl Airport near Tozeur (South West Tunisia) - Gafsa Airport near Gafsa (South West Tunisia) - Tabarka November 7th 1987 near Tabarka (North West Tunisia) - Djerba International Airport in Djerba Island (South East Tunisia) - 
Ferry services link Tunis to Malta, Trapani and Palermo (Sicily, Italy), Naples (Italy), Genoa (Italy) and Marseille (France). Travelling boats generally leave from La Goulette port (near Tunis). Other commercial ports are also available (Rades, Gabes, Sousse, Sfax, Zarzis...)
SevenAir is the domestic airline branched off of TunisAir. You can fly between Tunis and Tozeur, Djerba and Gabes, as well as flights to Malta and Bizerte. French-only website, booking still not online only through agencies SevenAir .
Tunisian highways resembles US Interstate or the Highways of Europe with a dual carriageway : A-1 runs from Tunis south heading to Sfax (The section from Sousse to Sfax has recenly been opened June 2008), A-2 runs from Tunis north heading to Bizerte, and A-3 runs from Tunis West heading to Oued Zarga. Tunisian highways speed limit is 110 km/h. It is possible to maintain that speed on that road very easily. The routes shown on some maps have a planned extension to Gabes then Ras Jedir (Libya Frontiers) in the South as of 2011-2014 and to Ghardimaou (Algerian Frontiers) in the West, but several years later. The remaining Highways have single carriageways, with traffic round-abouts at major intersections, which follow the European model (those in the roundabout have the right of way). Consequently, on roads other than the A-1,2,3 it can be difficult to maintain an average speed of more than 75 km/h most of the time as the speed limit is 90 Km/h. Almost all road signs are in both Arabic and French.
Driving in Tunis is very different than in the rest of the country, with traffic signals being widely ignored, and lane markings likewise treated as theoretical only. To see the Medina of Tunis, it would be best to park some distance from the Medina, and take the light rail (called TGM) in from Marsa/Carthage, the green tramway (called Metro) downtown, or perhaps a taxi in from the nearer outskirts.
Rental Cars are fairly easy to find, but somewhat expensive, at 100 dinars or so a day, for a medium sized car such as a four door Renault Clio.
Private taxis are reasonably priced even for long-distance travel, just be sure to agree on the fare before you set off. Sample fares for a four-seater are €40 for Tunis-Hammamet or €50 for Monastir-Hammamet .
The national train company SNCFT runs modern and comfortable trains from Tunis south to Sousse, Sfax and Monastir. There are three classes of service, namely Grand confort (deluxe 1st), 1st and 2nd, and all are quite adequate. Example fares from Tunis to Sousse are 12/10/6 dinars (6/5/3 Euros) in Grand/1st/2nd class. Although tickets are issued with wagon/seat numbers marked on it, that is largely ignored by locals. So if you are travelling with more people, try to get onboard quickly to find adjacent seats.
A good thing to do is to buy a carte bleue (blue card). It costs around 20 dinars for a week and you can travel all around the country using the banlieue (short distance train) and grande ligne (long distance). For the long distance you will have to make a reservation and pay a small fee (1,50 dinars or so). These passes can also be bought to cover 10 or 14 days. There are rarely queues at the booking office and a little bit of French goes a long way. Trains go also to Tozeur and Gabes in the south where it is easy to access the Sahara and Ksour regions respectively. In some stations where the frequency of trains is small (e.g. Tozeur), the ticket booth will remain closed for most of the day and reopen around the time of the departure of the next train.
A light railway (Called TGM) also connects Tunis northward to Carthage and Marsa. Take this light railway system to Sidi Bou Said as well. One-way light railway tickets will cost approximately 675 millimes (1 Dinar = 1,000 millimes).
Locals use louage or long-haul shared taxis where there is no train or bus. There are no timetables, but they wait in the louage station (which is generally near a train station if your destination is accessible by train) until 8 people turn up. They are nearly as cheap as the walk up train fares and operate with fixed prices so you won't get scalped. eg Douz to Gabes (120km) for 7 dinars. Be aware that while louages are very cheap, they can also be stifling hot during the summer months and tourists may be hassled. Furthermore, louages have the reputation to drive at a fast pace, and to be less safe than other transportation, so be aware of that. Louage departures are very frequent, a louage departs as soon as the seats are filled. All Louage cars are of white color, with a side stripe showing the coverage area. Louages between major cities are recognizable by their red stripe, louages within region are recognizable by their blue stripe and Louages serving rural areas are recognizable by their Yellow strips (the Rural Louage can be Yellow with blue stripes, or a van fully painted in brown color).
Long distance bus (called car) is also a safe and economic way to travel between major cities such as Tunis, Nabeul, Hammamet, etc. You will generally find a station in each major city offering many departures per day (every 30 minutes between Tunis and Hammamet). Some of the bus locally called "car comfort" offer higher standards (tv, air conditioner) at cheap prices.
Arabic is the official language of Tunisia and one of the languages of commerce, the other being French — a relic of Tunisia's former status as a French protectorate until 1956. The dialect of Arabic spoken in Tunisia, similar to that in neighbouring Algeria and Morocco, is Maghrebi Arabic, which is nearly incomprehensible to speakers of the Gulf dialect, so don't be surprised if you don't understand locals even if you are competent in Arabic. However, all Tunisians learn standard Arabic in school, so most locals will be able to communicate in standard Arabic if needed. Almost all locals are bilingual in Arabic and French. English is of limited use, but fine for use around tourist areas. Tunisians will often use what is known as code switching. This is when two or more languages are used within the same conversation, or even the same sentence. French and Arabic are used interchangeably.
History and archaeology
Although Tunisia is best known today for its beach resort holidays, the country has an amazing heritage with some exceptional archaelogical remains to be explored.
Little remains of Carthage, but what does is well presented and an absolute must see for every visitor to Tunisia. This great city of the Pheonician and Punic periods dates from the 6th century BC and was the base of a hugely powerful empire spanning the entire south Mediterranean. Its most famous general was Hannibal who crossed the Alps to battle the Romans. Hannibal suffered his first significant defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, and after over 50 years of being watched closely by Rome, Carthage was attacked in the 3rd Punic War and completely destroyed. The city was redeveloped by the Romans a century later, and Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa. What we see today are the remains of that era.
Both Monastir and Sousse are well known as beach resorts amongst sun-worshiping Europeans, but they are also towns with great historical heritage. Monastir has a history back to the time of Hannibal, an especially notable museum and a wonderful ribat (fortified monastery). Sousse is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its authentic medina and souk, which should not be missed.
El Kef has a splendid Byzantine kasbah rising out of the old medina with both Byzantine and Ottoman architecture evident. At El Jem you will find exceptional remains of a Roman ampitheater, yet another Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tunisia has some of the most accessible, beautiful Saharan desert scenery. George Lucas fans will recognise the village of Matmata. The troglodyte dwellings here were used as the set for the young Luke Skywalker's home of Tatooine. The central western desert towns of Tozeur and Douz are surrounded by beautiful Saharan dune scenery. In the northwest, Jugurtha's Table is a large mesa with a moon-like surface and deep crevasses and is normally accessed fom the town of El Kef.
Beach resort holidays in Tunisia are extremely popular, especially with Europeans. The main resorts are on the east coast from La Goulette (close to Tunis) south to Monastir. The southern island of Djerba is an alternative. Many water sport activities are widely available or you can just relax, taking advantage of the almost relentless sunny climate.
All of Tunisia can be proud of its beaches, you just have to know where to find the "undiscovered" ones. There is a beach not far from Sousse called Chott Meriam. The beach is clean with white sand and beautiful clean sea. The best beaches of Tunisia can be found in Djerba, Ghar El-Melh, Rafrafbeach, Sidi El Mekki, Sounine, Sousse and Zarzis.
Treks into the desert are an increasingly popular part of a visit to Tunisia, and the towns of Douz and Touzeur are good starting points. Close to Touzeur is the small town of Metlaoui, and this is the starting point of a great train journey. The beautifully-restored wagons date from 1904, and the luxurious train takes you into a truly stunning desert mountain landscape.
The national currency is the Tunisian dinar. Typical banknotes are in the values of 5 (green), 10 (blue or brown), 20 (violet-red), 30 (orange), and 50 Dinars (green and purple). The Dinar is divided into 1000 Millemes, with typical coins being 5 Dinars (Silver with copper insert), 1 Dinar (large silver color), 500 Millemes (1/2 Dinar: smaller silver color), 100 and 50 Millemes, (large brass), 20 and 10 Millemes (smaller brass) and 5 Millemes (small aluminum). It is prohibited to bring dinars in and out of Tunisia, so you have to change your money locally.
Prices are typically marked in Dinars and Millemes, with a decimal point like: 5.600 or 24.000 or 0.360 sometimes with TND as a label like TND85.500 . Markets typically sell items by the Kilogram. So tomatoes may have a sign "480" on them which means 480 Millemes per Kilo. Good cheese will be marked something like 12.400 or about $10 a Kilo. Most self-serve supermarkets expect you to put your purchases in supplied plastic bags and then bring them to the nearby scales where a worker will weigh them and apply a price sticker.
Tunisian cuisine is very much in the Northern African Maghreb tradition, with couscous and marqa stews (similar to the Moroccan tajine, however what Tunisians refer to as "tajines" are nothing like the Moroccan variety) forming the backbone of most meals. Distinguishing characteristics are the fiery harissa chili sauce, the heavy use of tiny olives which are abundant in the country, and tajines in Tunisia (not to be confused with their Moroccan counterparts) refer to a type of omelette-like pie prepared with a ragout of meat and/or vegetables mixed with ingredients such as herbs, legumes and even offal, then enriched with eggs and cheese and finally baked in a deep pie dish until the eggs are just set, somewhat like an Italian frittata. Lamb forms the basis of most meat dishes. Local seafood is plentiful.
Regrettably, Tunisia has a very underdeveloped restaurant culture and most food prepared outside of Tunisian homes is disappointingly bland and carelessly presented. These characteristics tend to apply across the price scale, though one can occasionally eat tasty couscous or "coucha" stew in some low-priced restaurants. One's best hope for good eating in Tunisia is to be invited as a guest in someone's home.
Being a progressive Muslim country, alcohol availability is restricted (but not greatly) to certain licensed (and invariably more expensive) restaurants, resort areas and Magasin General shops. Large department stores (Carrefour at Marsa/Carthage) and some supermarkets (e.g. Monoprix) sell beer and wine, and some local and imported hard liquors, except during Muslim holidays. Female travelers should be aware that, outside resort and areas of significant tourist concentration, they may find themselves with a beer in a smoky bar full of men drinking in a rather dedicated fashion. Some bars will refuse to admit women, others may ask for a passport to check nationality. Look around a bar before you decide to imbibe!
There are lots of fine hotels in Tunisia.
You can also rent a furnished apartment.Some private people offer their own apartments for rent especially in summer.
It is advisable to organise your accommodations online or by phone prior to your arrival.
The Bourguiba Institute of Modern Languages  offers intensive summer sessions in July and August for anyone interested in learning Modern Standard Arabic or Tunisian dialect. In the 2005 summer session there were over 500 students of all ages from throughout the world. This included students from the USA, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Norway, Croatia, Turkey, Japan, China, etc.
On the first day of class, there is placement exam. The levels range from absolute beginner to advanced, with 15 to 25 students per class. Only Arabic is allowed in the classroom. We used both a course book developed by Bourguiba Institute and also music videos in Arabic with the accompanying text.
The courses are daily from 8:00AM to 1:15 PM. In the afternoon there are activities and tours of the medina and museums. They also offer optional weekend excursions to sites in Tunisia. At the end of the one-month course there is both a written and oral exam.
Several students complained about the lack of cleanliness in the student dorms. Some students stayed in a hotel and then rented a beach-side apartment for the month. It's usually easier to negotiate rental prices once you are in Tunis.
Some students also expressed concern with the school's methodology, which appears to be antiquated and in need of great revision. If you have studied Arabic before, whether in your home country or in another school in the region, be prepared for a substandard continuation of your Arabic studies.
The school is in the city of Tunis. It's about a 20 minute metro ride to the beach. If you go to the summer school, be prepared for the hot temperatures.
Work issues are quite sensitive in Tunisia as job offers are limited even for Tunisian nationals.
An estimated 15% of the population is unemployed and many more survive on meager jobs. And as more and more of the new generation earn degrees predominantly in business, computer science, and engineering, those industries are getting saturated as well. For a foreigner, functional knowledge of Arabic and/or French will aid you well, and your likeliest bet for finding a job will be somewhere who has needs for your national language too. While pick-up restaurant and handyman jobs are common in other countries, these positions are much less likely to present themselves in Tunisia because of local competition. Safest is to arrange for a job before arrival. For a high level job, lots of experience and excellent skills are of course required. Low level jobs are mainly in the service sector as in much of the world. Salaries in Tunisia are naturally lower than those in Western Europe or North America, due to the lower cost of living.
Foreign investors are welcome to establish projects and the government is providing facilities related authorizations for such initiatives.
It is apparently not considered rude for a man to stare at a woman's body which should indicate that modesty will attract less attention. Women can expect to be the target of frequent catcalls ("Gazelle" seems to be especially popular). If you travel as part of a couple, stay together as much as possible as the female traveller should not wander around on their own if they don't want pestered. The pestering usually amounts to nothing more than bizarre words and the occasional touch but it can be extremely persistent and annoying.
Tunisian women often wear outfits that would normally be seen on the streets of any major world city (tight jeans, slinky top), but they do so while showing traditional modesty by exposing virtually no skin. Arms are covered down to the wrists, collars go to the neck (cleavage is non-existent) and a head scarf may be worn. Western women visiting can minimize attention by selecting clothes that minimizes skin shown. V-necks are fine if another layer with a higher collar is worn underneath.
Travellers report problems being pestered either to buy something or for other purposes. Persistence is a major complaint. Some say that a refusal often results in a bad reaction, "being hissed at" is one example, but those who have been advised to refuse politely with a smile rarely complain. "Non, Merci" is a very good response, with a smile. This seems to be borne out by the reports of sole female travellers who you would expect to receive the most attention, but who often report the least problems (from an admittedly small sample), perhaps because they are more cautious than accompanied females. It certainly seems to be the case that sole female sea bathers attract a good deal of unwelcome attention (even molestation) until a male friend arrives.
Theft of belongings, even from hotel rooms and room safes, is widely reported and the usual caveats apply - keep valuables in a secure place (e.g. supervised hotel safe deposit), do not flash too much cash, and keep wallets, purses and other desirable items where pick pockets cannot reach them. A good recommendation is only to carry enough cash for your immediate requirements and only one credit or bank card, provided you can be assured of the security of your reserves. Besides, most of the Automatic Bank-notes distributors are available and foreign credit cards are accepted. You can take cash (in equivalent Tunisian Dinar) directly from your bank account with a small extra fee (Bank transaction from €1 to €2 ).
Theft is also reported in the Airport. Keep your belongings under your direct supervision all the time.
Be aware that the export of Tunisian currency is forbidden and searches of wallets and purses can, and do, occur at Tunis airport. If you are found with more than about 20 - 30 Dinars, you will be invited to return landside to change them. The problem is that this "invitation" will come after you have already been through passport control and handed in your exit card; therefore it is not practical. You will then be invited to hand some or all of your Tunisian money (which in any case cannot be spent in the duty free shops) to the uniformed official. Arguing will get you nowhere and a request for a receipt will be met with an outright refusal. Judging from the way the money is swiftly palmed, you will have almost certainly just paid a bribe.
When it's time to settle the bill in a Tunisian cafe or restaurant, it's advisable to ensure that you are presented with an actual paper, itemised copy of a bill before handing over any money. Frequently, your waiter will claim to have calculated your total amount due in their heads and this will always be more than you actually owe. Also, check prices on menus before ordering. Some establishments will claim to have no menus, they usually have wall mounted menus. Tunisian workers are extremely low paid (£300 per month approx) and will frequently try and take advantage of tourists without their wits around them.
Always check with your doctor 4-8 weeks before traveling (The 4-8 weeks is important, as some vaccinations take weeks to become effective, and with Polio you can be contagious for a while too):
Tunisia is a Muslim country, and dress code is important, particularly for females. Whilst a lot of skin (even topless) is tolerated on beaches and within hotel complexes, a modest amount of exposed skin may be frowned upon outside these areas.
Be aware that the further south one travels, the more conservative Tunisia becomes. While most women wear western clothes in the Capital (which has a mix of Mediterranean, European and Arabic cultures), the south of Tunisia is practically devoid of any lingering European influence and is thus far more traditional.
Be warned that the Tunisian government discourages critical discussion of local politics, particularly in public forums. In general, it is wise not to discuss politics with anyone you do not know.
Public telephones are available in all towns and cities and in most villages under either the name of Publitel or Taxiphone - in cities simply look around - there is at least one on every street. International calls tend to be quite expensive (DT 1,000/minute to call anywhere in the EU). There are two mobile GSM operators, private Tunisiana  and state-owned Tunisie Telecom, both offering wide mobile coverage (including some oasis in the Sahara). In May, 2010, a third operator, Orange started commercial service with GSM and 3G (UMTS/HSPA) networks. Coverage is not wide, but roaming with Tunisie Telecom available. Rates tend to be quite low for domestic calls, but very high for international calls (around DT 1,500/minute). Ask for a carte prépayée for a prepaid SIM card.
Public internet access is available in many cities and towns, usually using the Publinet logo. Since home internet access is quite expensive in Tunisia, many locals will use these, so they are very widespread, especially in the non-touristic areas of cities. Look for a large purple sign with the Publinet logo. Access is usually 0.8DT/hour, and speeds tend to be quite low (512kbps is the norm in Sousse and 2048 in Tunis). Note that FTP and peer-to-peer access is not available anywhere in Tunisia, and access to certain web sites, particularly those that engage Tunisian political issues, is restricted by the government.
La Poste Tunisienne is quite efficient and fast. Post restante is offered in certain (bigger) offices. A stamp for international letters costs DT 0,600.
Rapide Post is the Poste's service for sending mail and packages quickly. Once a Rapide Post package enters the US it is handled by FedEx. It is the best and most secure way to send things in Tunisia.