Last summer, I spent two months interning in a software company in Tunisia. During my brief stay, I was surprised at the historical riches present in this country. Carthaginians, Romans and Byzantines have all passed through this land, leaving their mark behind, buried over and over by sand and wind. During a week long trip throughout the country, I also discovered its vastly different landscapes – pristine beaches, the quiet Sahara, and also rugged mountains where villagers still carve out their homes. I met its people – Arabic, French, or Berber speakers – but almost always ready to talk over a good meal of couscous, with a generous plate of harissa, an essential spicy condiment.
Here are a few things you should know about my road trip through Tunisia.
Tunis & Surroundings
I started off in Tunis, the capital city in the north. A must-see here would be the Bardo Museum, with incredibly preserved Roman mosaic tiles. Some day trips are Sidi Bou Said, a seaside town; Dougga, an ancient Roman city on an isolated hillside that you can wander through as you wish; and Kerkouane, a site with Punic ruins and pristine beaches in nearby Kelibia.
Kairouan, Sousse, and Djerba
In central Tunisia, we find Kairouan, Sousse, and Djerba. Kairouan is also known as the city of mosques, and she has an incredible Islamic heritage as well as great red date pastries! Sousse is a seaside city with a charming blue and white medina. A delightful find was the Dar Essid museum, a preserved nobleman’s house with intricate interior design. Djerba is known for her beaches and tourists, but I personally loved getting to the untouched Western coast, with abandoned Star Wars filming sites and local children playing on rockier beaches.
In the south of Tunisia we reach the Tozeur region. Tozeur is an oasis town famous for her sand brick houses and unique architecture. Her people are friendly and relaxed in the heat of summer. In the surroundings, deserted mountain villages can be visited by 4 wheel drives. When we drive west across the giant dry salt lake nearby, Chott El Jerid, we head into the next part of the adventure.
To adapt to the desert, locals have been finding ways to stay cool for hundreds of years. One of the most striking structures I encountered in my trip would be the Ksars – communal granaries often built onto a hill so that villagers stocking their food there can see when attackers come. These quaint looking structures feature in several Star Wars film, but are strangely aesthetically pleasing in real life. Herds of dromedaries can be found at various watering holes in the desert!
I stayed in a campsite in the Sahara desert for one night. The sunset over the slowly transforming sand dunes, the profound quiet of the night sky sparkling with starlight, the rosy sunrise the next morning – all of this made me realize that the desert can be incredibly peaceful and beautiful. The end of the trip was at Chenini, a Berber mountain village where the mountains form a natural amphitheater to echo back the prayer calls and the donkey brays!
Good to know before you road trip through Tunisia
First of all, as a young Asian woman traveling alone, I was a strange sight to the locals, especially as I wandered further south and out of the large cities. While I have met amazingly generous people on my trip, the constant staring and catcalls from street side men did grow a little tiring at the end! Solo female travelers can consider a tip given by a friend I made while traveling: simply wear a fake wedding ring, and you’ll be left alone.
Secondly, use the “louages”! The cheapest and most convenient mode of transport in Tunisia is the louage – 9 seater vans that take you from almost any city to any city, at a little less than 8USD for two hours of road. I’ve never met another tourist in or around the louages, but the locals use them to get everywhere. The only catch is that drivers set off whenever the louage is full, so your time of departure depends entirely on how many people want to travel your way at the moment you arrive! During my stay, I traveled almost entirely by louage, other than 3 days and nights by a 4 wheel drive with a tour company to get into the Sahara desert and visit mountain villages. Sometimes, my fellow passengers were young adults who were eager to practice their English or French, and we struck up interesting conversations.
Lastly, I found that being able to read the Arabic script, while not strictly necessary, was extremely useful for getting around, especially in rural areas. I could easily read the signs in the bus and louage stations to figure out which counter from which I should buy my tickets. I’ve found that locals were pleasantly surprised and became in general very friendly when I tried out my rudimentary classical Arabic on them, even if I only managed to say “Hello” and “Thank you” most of the time. I communicated mostly in French, and once outside the larger cities, encountered only a rare few who could speak English fluently.
And that’s it! Tunisia is a diverse country and holds many hidden treasures and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I hope I’ve inspired you to visit; for a more detailed itinerary, feel free to visit my blog!
This is a guest post by Cheong Yu Jia.