Tunisia (March 2008 visit)
Vaccinations. We visited a travel medicine clinic about 2 months before traveling to Tunisia and were revaccinated for typhoid. I'd recommend having a current tetanus vaccination and being vaccinated for Hepatitis A if you aren't already.
Dengue Fever. A nasty tropical (or it used to be tropical) viral disease that can't be treated, is present in Tunisia so come prepared with good insect repellent: 35% DEET or 20% Picardin (available in Europe and much more pleasant to use.) We also used plug-in devices that release a stream of toxins in the room air as you sleep to kill the little guys. Treating your clothes with Permethrin is also a good preventative measure.
Water. Our Lonely Planet guide book said that the water was generally safe though we later read elsewhere that it was not. We took the middle ground and drank only bottled water but brushed our teeth and washed our produce in the tap water.
Other Precautions: We also took Acidophilus tablets daily for 2 weeks before departure and during our stay on the advise of a Travel Medicine nurse. We also blanched most of our produce in boiling water after washing it with detergent, just to be sure.
Actual Experience. The dengue-carrying mosquitoes that we understand are daytime biters weren't out while we were there so we only dealt the with nuisance biters at night. Even with being very mindful of avoiding food/water borne illnesses, I did pick-up a bug after a week in Tunisia. I was lucky, I didn't feel sick other than to have diarrhea, which responded well to Imodium.
It can be cold in March and we were very glad to have all of our cold-weather clothes with us. Many of our rooms were cold at night and we dreamed of having a small portable space heater to temper the chill. High season is in the sizzling summer months when most tourists come for a package-holiday at the beach.
Respecting the Culture
Modesty is appreciated, which means long sleeves and long pants for both men and women. Wear socks with your sandals. High necklines are best. Tight fitting clothes seem to be OK, which seems a bit odd. It is polite to avoid male-female touching in public: no hand-holding, no arm around the shoulder, certainly no kissing. The young people are beginning to challenge these prohibitions in the city, but we opted to be more respectful of the culture. (Picking your nose in public however seems to be just fine.) Avoid prolonged eye contact.
Public toilets are a rarity.
Small shops selling food items may also sell bottled water even if it isn't displayed--just ask.
Shops generally close for lunch.
French is the unofficial second language so a French phrase book is worth carrying.
The people are friendly and helpful and theft didn't seem to be an issue.
Favorite Come-On's by the Tunis Touts
"I saw you at the hotel--I work there......."
"This is the last day for a special exhibition in the Medina and it is ending in a half hour, come quickly, I will show you" (my brother's rug/incense/leather shop).
Tout Defensive Strategy
Select the name of a hotel in the general vicinity of yours to offer when those friendly guys who didn't say they saw you at the hotel ask where you are staying.
Tourists seem to come to Tunisia for 1 of 2 reasons: to sunbath on the beaches or visit the archeological sites--we chose the later. Of the ancient sites we saw, Carthage near Tunis on the coast was #1, primarily for the models and diagrams that accompanied a few of the sites. Inland Dougga in the north was #2. #3 was Kerkouane east of Tunis. Bella Regia and Chemtou were other sites we took in.
Tunisia is known for its Roman-era archeological sites and they are grand. Carthage, Dougga, and Bella Regia cover many acres and the some of the ruins are multiple stories high instead of the usual knee-high sites of Europe. The downside of the sites is the almost complete lack of descriptive material. Tunisia isn't a good place to learn about Roman structures, but it is a good place to see them.
Many meager sites in Europe do much, much more to educate the visitor and do it with much less in the way of finds. At them you can learn about the heating systems in the baths and some buildings, the standard layouts of the many rooms in the baths, the function of different civic buildings, and what the furnishings and decors were like. None of that information was presented at any of the sites we visited in Tunisia--you had to know and fill in the blanks yourself. So, I would hold off on visiting Tunisia for the archeological sites until you've learned more of the story yourself or visit with a tour group that will provide that background information.
Some sights aren't accessible without your own wheels, either in terms of a rented vehicle or on a tour bus. We spoke with a repeat visitor to Tunisia who considered a rental car essential to seeing all the sights. Some places, like Chemtou, can be seen by lining up a taxi to drive you to the site, wait while you visit, and then take you back. From Jendouba, that cost us 30 dinar or about US$25 for a 3 hour visit. It's our last-choice approach as it is expensive and requires predicting how long you want to visit the site before you see what it has that interests you. Not wanting to drive in Tunisia, we had to reconcile ourselves to missing some sites.
Our Itinerary, Spring 2008 (city
lodged in: day trip tourist sites)
Tunis: Carthage & Mt Byrsa, Bardo Museum
Jendouba: Chemtou & Bulla Regia
(should have gone to coastal Tabarka next)
Hammamet (don't bother)
Tunis: Sidi Bou Said (pretty but low content)
Biking in Tunisia
We didn't bike Tunisia as we have considered North African Muslim countries as off-limits for a woman on a bike in these more radicalized times, but it might be fine. We never saw a woman on a bike, but then not all that many men rode them either. In Turkey, some communities don't allow their women to ride bikes in public but as a modestly dressed cyclotourist there I never got any sense of it being a problem. We certainly were stared at in Turkey but had no reason to think that gender was the issue.
We did speak with a 40-ish French-Columbian couple who had ridden for many weeks in Tunisia and they loved the experience. They didn't look like hard-core cyclists but were hardy, French-speaking travelers with low-end bikes and gear. They had spent a lot of time in southern Tunisia and slept in the homes of locals as hotels frequently weren't available. They found the Tunisians generous and welcoming. The police stopped them numerous times (a common experience for visitors and locals alike) and were repeatedly told it wasn't safe on a bicycle. They however disagreed and were delighted with their experience.
Out of courtesy to their culture and religion, we wouldn't recommend wearing Lycra cycling clothes. Modesty for both men and women is appreciated in Muslim countries. The young women do wear tight fitting clothes but neither men nor women show much skin other than hands and faces. Short sleeves weren't done when we were there in the spring and very little leg flesh was ever shown on women. Some women did reveal more than their collar bones but the vast majority of men and women keep their collars pretty high. Outfits that look like street clothes would be best for cyclists; second best would be full length tights and long-sleeved jerseys. We were endlessly stared at in modest street clothes so any length cycling gear would no doubt being turning heads, not just collecting stares.
Most of the roads we traveled by bus in northern Tunisia looked like they'd be fine for biking. They were 1+ lanes wide with dirt shoulders. The traffic volume was very low and the drivers were accustomed to sharing the road with mules. The couple of western visitors we spoke with who drove didn't think much of the Tunisian driving style, but it looked pretty ordinary to us for countries with a more liberal interpretation of motoring.
The northern interior countryside in early March was gorgeous. Planted fields of vibrant greens carpeted the rolling hills and were interspersed with some small forests. It was hilly, so one would have to plan the mileage with significant elevation accumulations in mind on at least some of the days. But it looked like an idyllic backdrop for biking, like central Italy or France in the spring.
We generally had delightful spring weather for our 3 week stay from late February until the middle of March. A 30% chance of showers was predicted everyday for our first week, but none materialized. Day time temperatures were probably in the 60's F and it could feel quite warm in the direct sun and chilly in the shade. A couple of days we had a fierce, icy cold wind in more mountainous Le Kef when a cold front was affecting southern Europe as well.
From a services standpoint, confining one's tour to the north, perhaps only going as far south as Le Kef or heading south along the eastern coast as far as Sfax would be prudent. On the northern loop you could venture a little farther south than Le Kef to Makthar though our Lonely Planet described the only hotel with strong language: "unbelievably unappealing", "dilapidated", and "derict." It listed the hotel as being 12 dinar or about US$10 for 1,2 or 3 people in a room and we decided to skip Makthar because of the poor accommodations. In contrast, our cheapest tourist class hotel was a 2 star for 35 dinar or about US$29 for 2. Ours was a plain room with some peeling plaster and a bathroom long due for a remodel but we could stay there for more than a single night without cringing. Lonely described this hotel in Jendouba as "musty" though my often too-sensitive nose didn't find it so.
The French-Columbian couple who biked in southern Tunisia loved the experience, but you must be more adventurous tourists than we are to do it. We like space and privacy at night to do our laundry and prepare our meals. The lack of hotels in the south would mean accepting other people's unplanned hospitality in their homes and having little control over what you eat, the quality of water you are consuming, how much cigarette smoke you inhale, and your privacy. Of course in return for that lack of control, you have a much deeper cultural experience and more face-to-face contact with the people. Their experience and hospitality received was likely much enhanced by being fluent French speakers, which we are not.
We relied heavily on our Lonely Planet guide book's recommendations for lodging and avoided staying in one town because of their harsh review of the only lodging choice. In Tunis, we stayed at Hotel Carlton on the main street: 31, Av. Habib Bourguiba; Tel: (216) 71 330 644; www.hotelcarltontunis.com. The staff speaks English, its centrally located, and it was a reassuring place while we became acclimated to Tunisia.
According to Lonely Planet, tipping is not expected except in the better restaurants, though rounding up or spare change is often done as a small tip. However we found plenty of people who expected or demanded a tip. Museum toilets were posted "Gratis" but that didn't keep the more aggressive attendants from chasing us down for money.
Volunteer 'guides' would demand a tip and we couldn't ever figure out what was sufficient. One desperate looking old guy who may have been a freelancer at a remote Carthage site refused our 1 dinar tip, about US$.80 and wanted 2 dinar or nothing (we left the 1 dinar coin behind). You can make a short hop in a cab for that or buy 3 or 4 big baguettes, so we were surprised it was so inadequate.
I asked twice at hotels as to what was an appropriate tip when bellmen wrestled our bags away from us. The front desk folks weren't much help--perhaps 1-2 dinar at 3 star hotels. Other times the front desk clerk trotted up the stairs with one of our bags and clearly wasn't expecting a tip.
Telephone Country Code: 216 (dialing from the US, precede with 011; from Europe, precede with 00)