ABOARD THE MSC SPLENDIDA-To visit the most exotic country on our cruise -– Tunisia, North Africa – required that we give a “Visitors Embarking Card” and for the first time, show our passports, to the local port authorities as we left the ship this morning. Our tour choice: a historical and cultural look at the area, which began by driving through La Goulette, the fishing village where we docked. A lot of Italians and Maltese make their home here, and its most famous citizen – at least to Americans and Italians – is the film actress Claudia Cardinale. The village goes back to the 13th Century A.D. and was named after a holy man who was known for his meditation. La Goulette dates back to the 13th Century A.D. and was founded by Andalusian Arabs, Spanish and Jewish people.
We passed through La Goulette and drove about eight miles to the pretty town of Sidi Bousaid, known by tourists as “the blue and white village” because everything here is painted white with blue trim. Although Sidi Bousaid is not on a mountaintop, some call it the “Tunisian Santorini because of its colors.
Every door, every window trim, wrought iron and wooden gate or fence or balcony, park bench, even trash bin and in some cases the head scarf of the women in this Muslim village, is the same intense, French blue color to set off the white of the Moorish style whitewashed buildings. Some of the wealthiest Tunisians in this poor country (with a 15 percent unemployment rate) live in Sidi Bousaid, and among the poets and artists it has inspired are French novelist Colette and Swiss painter Paul Klee.
Even the mosque in Sidi Bousaid is trimmed in blue. Sunni Islam is the main religion of Tunisia, although five percent of the residents are Christians and three percent Jewish.
It’s as if city planners said to the residents “Use only this particular blue; it will draw tourists to our town,“ which it absolutely does. We chose it over the shopping tours that visit the medina and the souks of Tunis, because the well known haggling and bartering and pressuring of the medina in Morocco we visited a few years back were enough for us. There’s only a small souk in Sidi Bousaid and a few handicraft shops. Tunisia grows lemons and limes, olives and flowers and barley and wheat. The jasmine flower is the flower of Tunisia and the olive tree is the symbol; the country has 60 million olive trees, and in addition to producing olive oil it produces perfumed oils for massaging and soothing the skin. One of the shops in Sidi Bousaid offers oils in the scents of well known perfumes such as Chanel No. 5.
After Sidi Bousaid we stopped at several places in nearby Carthage, the ancient city that began in the 6th Century B.C., and saw the “Punic tophet,” a memorial made of stones that are said to be the site of the ashes of humans who were sacrificed to the gods and buried here. There are more than 35 cities around the world called Carthage, but this is the first one, the original, whose most famous citizen was Hannibal, the general who crossed the Alps with his elephants to do battle with the Romans. The country has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Spanish and French, and during the 12th to 16th Centuries Tunis was considered one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Arab world.
The Romans built a large harbor here to keep their fleet (right where Hannibal Street ends at the waterside), and we saw a miniature replica of what the original maritime center must have looked like.
The ruins of the Antonin baths, the largest Roman bath complex outside Rome are here, and we walked under the archways and through the tunnels and around the cisterns and marveled at the decades of work it must have taken to build the aqueducts back in the 2nd Century A.D. that brought drinking and bathing water down from the mountains more than 50 miles away.
Another stop was the ancient Roman theater, being readied as we visited it for an international music festival that will take place in July and August.
Other tours in Tunis included the Bardo Museum, a former 13th Century palace famous for its outstanding collection of mosaics. The Bardo is akin to the Louvre in its extensive and impressive collection of exhibits. Those who like shopping enjoyed the spice markets and Tunisian carpet sellers, and those who like to explore palaces could visit the Sidi Bousaid Maison Baron d’Erlanger, home of the French painter and musicologist Rodolphe d’Erlanger, which is now a museum with beautiful old instruments and examples of folkloric music.
MSC is one of the few ships that offer a stop in this exotic country, but each Tunisian tour was only a half-day long because the ship has us heading back across the Mediterranean later this afternoon in order to get back to Barcelona on schedule by Friday.
May 22, 2014
Photos by Julie Hatfield