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Fishing boats at Hammamet.
By Cornelia Bannister and Jack Morrison | SUBMITTED
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Tunisia: Exploring an exotic world
By Cornelia Bannister

Why are you going to Tunisia? Why not go somewhere normal? Remember the movie 'Patton?' " 

I traveled throughout Tunisia because I teach Latin and French. Tunisia has several Roman sites and is a French-speaking, Francophone country. As a post-modern culture in a 99 percent Muslim society, women are educated, own businesses and participate in government as elected officials. Tunisia is a safe country for travelers and is especially welcoming to Americans.

I met my fellow travelers in Tunis on Christmas Day. Our band of 10 hailed from New York City, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois, Colorado and California. We had a wonderful tour guide who teaches foreign languages to future tourism professionals. He led us throughout his country, which he described in great detail and with great pride.

We began our 11-day jaunt in Tunis/Carthage at The Bardo Museum, a former Ottoman palace, which houses one of the finest collections of Roman and Carthaginian mosaics in the world. From The Bardo we drove to the ancient Punic site of Carthage. We walked through the ruins of the palaces and baths, and of course, I was thinking about Virgil's epic poem, "The Aeneid." Aeneas was destined to sail on to Italy, leaving the Phoenician queen Dido to passionate self-destruction as she sees her love depart from the shores of Carthage. The well-protected grounds of the presidential palace are nearby.

We spent time in the Tunis medina and in the picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said, with its whitewashed buildings and bright-blue doors.

We headed to the northwest of Tunisia and drove on scenic, rural roads, not far from Algeria. In fact, we were in the Maghrib region of the Atlas Mountains before coming upon Bulla Regia. Bulla Regia is a well-preserved Roman site. Most interesting is the underground architecture of columns and mosaic-tiled floors, where life was more tolerable during the hot summers.

From Bulla Regia to Dougga are lovely green hills, where we made a couple of photo stops for pictures of shepherds and their flocks. Dougga is another spectacular Roman site. Covering about 60 acres, it is known as the city of temples and is thought to date back to the fourth century B.C.

South from Dougga, we reached Sbeitla, a Punic city later used by the Romans for its flourishing olive oil export trade to Italy. The capitolium of Sbeitla was especially fascinating. 

Every major Roman city had a capitolium of three contiguous temples dedicated to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno.

As we drove even farther south, we came upon camel herds and date-palm oases near the city of Tozeur. The Mountain Oasis is a great tourist attraction. Young boys in Tozeur scale date palm trees to harvest huge bunches of dates.

From Tozeur, we drove along a desolate area with the Sahara Desert just south of Chott-el-Jerid, a large salt lake, which is mostly dry during the winter months. Roadside toilets and signs pointing to Algeria seemed to be plopped down in the middle of nowhere.

Arriving in the town of Douz, we got our first sightings of the Sahara, its beautifully sculptured sand dunes and camel caravans. I spent about an hour riding a camel named Abu.

The troglodyte dwellings are not far from Douz. These homes are carved out of sand. We visited a troglodyte home and lunched in a troglodyte restaurant. The craterlike topography was used in the filming of "Star Wars."

For New Year's Eve, we boarded a ferry to the Tunisian island of Djerba. Djerba has several five-star resort hotels that attract German, French and Italian vacationers. At our hotel, we celebrated the end of the year with a 10-course Arabian Nights dinner, snake charmers, fire-eaters, belly dancers and popular American songs.

We visited one more Roman site, El Djem. Known as Thysdrus during Roman times, El Djem has a huge amphitheater that rivals the Coliseum of Rome. 

We made our way north along the east coast of Tunisia. Resort towns and rug and pottery production centers are in this area and are great places to purchase souvenirs. We visited to the holy city of Sousse, its mosque and medina. Alcohol, including wine, can be purchased throughout Tunisia except in the holy city of Sousse.

We stopped for a farewell dinner in the resort town of Hammamet. The next day, we were taken to the Tunis airport for our flights home to the U.S. My impressions of Tunisia and its people are memorable and lasting.

We were always safe. As we approached villages and cities, local officials contacted our guide by cell phone to inquire if we were enjoying Tunisia and what they could do to make our trip even more enjoyable.

As a former French colony, there is a wonderful blend of the Arab and French cultures, which is expressed in their languages, dress and foods. But its history dates back to the Phoenicians during the 12th century B.C. The Romans ruled most of North Africa as a proconsular province, which included Tunisia.  

Tunisians are welcoming and friendly. Their colorful clothing and the delightful charm of the medinas provide superb opportunities for photos and souvenirs.

Our meals of couscous, olives, chicken and lamb dishes, tangerines, breads, red and white wines and even camel steak were plentiful and delicious.

I visited Tunisia because I wanted to see ancient archeological ruins of the Roman Empire. I wanted to experience the culture and communicate in French with these wonderful people. And, I wanted to get a taste of its extraordinary history, which includes the Kasserine Pass and Gen. George S. Patton. Unfortunately, the U.S. cemetery near Carthage was closed. 

Mountains, desert, oases, beaches, resorts, cities, villages, shepherds, ancient ruins, modern history, mosques, Berbers, Bedouins, camels, donkeys carting goods, women shaking olive tree branches to harvest the olives, date palm groves, beautiful sunsets, medinas, pottery, rug-making and more ... Tunisia!


Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )

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