Driving a Fiat Uno around Tunisia

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Africa » Tunisia
March 31st 2006
Published: January 17th 2007
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Having been to Morocco the previous year, we knew we were fans of the North African holiday experience and decided that a trip to Tunisia would be right up our street. We had reckoned on good weather (we were right) and interesting sights (turned out to be even better than expected). And so in March 2006 we went for what was probably the best trip I have ever been on.

Day 1

We started off by flying into Tunis, the capital city. I had had tonsillitis before leaving and was still feeling a bit ughy, but going away definitely helped to make that better! Upon arriving in Tunis we had to haggle straight away as the taxi drivers were trying to rip us off. We eventually managed to get in to town for 10 dinar (about £4.50). Ridiculous amount really but probably less than lots of other tourists! We quickly got into a hotel (Transatlantique) and went about exploring. We saw the medina’s main streets before wandering up to the Government area. In the medina we got into a medersa (religious school) and got invited into plenty of shops! Later in the afternoon we wandered the new town, with its impressive Cathedral and French architecture. Large Tunisian towns all have the same pattern of a French-style new town, with an arabic Medina next to it. There has been talk about running a big road through the centre of the Tunis medina from the new town to the Government area, but luckily for now the plans are on hold.

In the evening, we went to the top of a big hotel on the main street of the Ville Nouvelle for a drink at sunset, with great views across Tunis. The evening was spent in an expensive (by Tunisian standards!) restaurant - yum.... Despite being on antibiotics I managed a glass or 2 of Tunisian wine and was soon feeling ready for a long sleep after a very long day.

Day 2

First thing in the morning we went to the market in Tunis and stocked up on supplies for the day - bread, cheese, pancakes… Barry spent a while looking for ham, until I reminded him that he was unlikely to find it in a predominantly Muslim country. The market was lots of fun - and I think we were the only foreigners there. Our understanding of it all was not great, but we got plenty of good food for very reasonable prices so I claimed it as a success! After that we took a train out to Carthage (a suburb of Tunis). This very ancient site is well worth seeing. Not a huge number of the sights are left, although the baths were still in quite good condition as were some other bits. However, the location is amazing, and the views over the bay of Tunis are lovely. We spent time visiting the Carthage museum with some interesting mosaics and also looking at the sights spread out across the coast.

After exploring Carthage we moved on to Sidi Bou Said. This is a small coastal town, with lots of whitewashed houses and blue doors. We wandered around for a bit and went to a lovely old house which is now a museum. I would love to live there, especially sipping the free mint tea they kept giving us! We then went down steps that were cut into the cliff to the beach below, where we played on the sand with a ball (so much fun!). After an hour on the beach we made the long walk back up the steps to a gorgeous cafe looking out over the sea. Mint tea time!

In the evening, we went back to Tunis and went for a very cheap meal in the restaurant ‘noir et blanc’ very close to our hotel. Excellent value and a very tasty brik a l’ouef.

Day 3

A very early start (Barry likes those) got us to the airport to catch an internal Tuninter flight. However, we had completely forgotten the hour change over night (to summer time) and so when we thought we were at the airport an hour and a half early, it actually turned out we were only half an hour before leaving. Still, we made it (we were the last there) and got our flight which in an hour landed down in Jerba - an island off the east coast of Tunisia. At the airport we went to the Hertz car rental kiosk where we negotiated to hire a car for a day with the option of extending for a week if we liked it. Now, one important thing to note is that Barry doesn't drive and I therefore had to do all of the driving. I am a big fan of driving, but had never driven abroad (on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car!) and so was happy to take it slowly at the beginning. It was very helpful to start the driving on Jerba, where there were quiet but well-paved roads.

So we drove into Houmt Souk (the main town), found a very nice Fundouk hotel (where traders used to stay - like an 'inn' in the UK) and explored the place a bit. It is a very pretty town with a small medina and lots of white houses. We drove out to see some of the sights of the island, including the synagogue (a centre of North African Jewish pilgrimage and site of an Al-Qaeda bomb in the 1990s), some mosques and the beach. We went to the beach and played around for a while (met a man called Mustafa Couscous - honestly! - who wanted us to go parasailing but we said no) and eventually hired a pedalo for an hour. Now, pedalos are always a laugh, but on this occasion the sea was a bit choppy, which meant that at one point we were heading out to sea and a big wave came, the pedalo 'duck-dived' and the wave came up completely over the boat and soaked me. Oh well...!

After that we got back in the car and drive back to Houmt Souk. We left the car for the evening and went off to relax. We enjoyed a very nice meal at a local restaurant (The Carthage) where I had a yummy pizza and Barry had Merguez.

Day 4

After breakfast in the courtyard of our hotel, we set off early for the airport to tell the man we wanted to keep the car for another 6 days (eek!) and then we set off down to the bottom of the island. We joined a long queue to get on a ferry to take us on a 25 minute crossing to the mainland.

We reached the mainland (at the town of Jorf) and started driving… After a while we got to the Mereth line museum. This is the place of the Mereth line, which was highly strategic in WW2. Unfortunately the museum was closed, but there were still some interesting things outside (such as bunkers and old guns) and it was a nice place to stop.

After our stop, Barry decided he wanted to take some of the scariest roads in history to see some small mountain villages. At one point Barry said with a big smile “ooh, it’s like the tour de france” - I didn’t smile..! Anyway, after much slow bumpy driving (and some great scenery) we made it to this little town (beginning with a "T" but can't remember the exact name). It turned out to actually not be as amazing as we had hoped and we didn’t even end up stopping there. Instead we kept going on to Matmata where we started with lunch. This is the place famous for its underground Troglodyte homes. We saw one which was used in Star Wars and is now a hotel (very cool) and also went to one which was a home but is now a museum. It was very interesting and the girl showing us around was very knowledgeable.

After we had done these we decided to push on and left Matmata behind. We kept going on to get to the desert town of Douz. We arrived in Douz feeling completely exhausted. We checked in to our hotel and drove down to the place where the Sahara desert begins in Douz. It was a great idea as we made it just for sunset making for some lovely pictures. After that we headed back into Douz, wandered around for a bit and went to Ali Baba’s restaurant for a meal. It was a great place - we sat outdoors. Very good food, but we were the only people there and it would have been nice to have a bit more of an atmosphere. Accommodation that night was at the excellent Hotel 20 Mars in central Douz.

Day 5

On Tuesday morning we wandered around Douz for a while before taking the plunge and going back to the desert for a camel ride. Very exciting. It was only for a hour but was really enjoyable. My camel (Ibrahim) was very well behaved, but Barry’s (Ali) was a bit more fidgety. Well, who wouldn’t be with Barry sitting on their back?! I’m glad we just did an hour though. Whilst it was all lots of fun and definitely a worthwhile experience, I’m not sure my leg muscles could have taken too much more.

After the camel riding we drove back into town hoping to go to the Museum of the Sahara. After being moved on by the army for parking in the wrong place (oops) we got to the museum only to find out it was closed for restoration. Oh well, at least it gives us something to go back for. And so we decided to leave Douz and head west.

After a bit more driving we started to cross the Chott el Jerid. The Chott is a huge salt flat that is mostly dry for 10 months of the year and absolutely great fun to drive across (via a causeway). We stopped at various points on the way to take photos of a mini red lake and then to go wading through a gorgeous mini blue lake. However, this left big salt deposits all over our legs - and the hire car - oops!

We kept driving and eventually made it to the other side of the lake and headed on down to the large town of Tozeur. We drove in (through a v busy street - lots of tourists!) and got to our hotel. After a brief rest we headed down to the nearby posh Oasis hotel and went for a swim in their pool. It was rather chilly water but very nice after the sweaty day we had had. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring Tozeur, with its interesting architecture.

In the evening we tried to go to a restaurant recommended in the guide book but it was not opening until the following day (after restoration). However, the very friendly owner suggested a different place 50m down the road which we went to instead. There I got to try Camel brochettes (kebab). Very tasty and quite a lot like beef steak. I just wish there had been more meat! After the meal we went back to the Oasis hotel for some light alcohol relief. That night, we stayed at the perfectly acceptable Residence Warda, an easy walk from the centre of Tozeur.

Day 6

We woke up to the sound of lots of birds and got ready for another day. I drove us out of town to the west. After a while (with camels wandering across the road) we made it to the town of Chebika. This is a very touristy spot (lots of the 4x4 gangs). However, on the hill above the town is the old village and then above that are some lovely rocky hills to climb and a waterfall. We wandered through (with the tourists) and managed to scrabble up various rocks (less touristy). It made for some lovely views and photos. After a while we headed back down through the abandoned village to the car and continued our journey.

We headed even further west and eventually reached the remote town of Mides. This is just 500m from the Algerian border, which meant that there were lots of Army/police guys on the way making sure we behaved ourselves. It is an amazing place with an old (abandoned again!) village sitting on top of a rock surrounded by huge drops down into a ravine on 3 sides. The location is stunning and it seems such a shame it is now abandoned. Although, it has been used in films such as the English Patient. After walking this area for a while we got back in the car and made our way back along the road we had come in on.

We stopped at Tamerza for a late lunch where we went to a little restaurant recommended in the guidebook. It was really lovely, with tasty food and a lovely outdoor seating area. After lunch we went down the road to see a local waterfall. It was a bit of a disappointment, but nice all the same. We soon started heading back towards Tozeur although we did stop again to see another waterfall on the journey.

We arrived back in Tozeur after our long day out and after some relaxation got back in the car again. We drove to the outskirts of Tozeur to see the Belvedere rocks. These are set up in Tozeur looking out over the town and the oasis and then in the far distance the Chott el Jerid. It was a bit of a weird place though with these big faces carved into the rock. And lots of kids playing about on camels! After that we headed back to the hotel for a bit before going out to the restaurant that had been closed the previous evening, just opposite our hotel.

Day 7

On Thursday we enjoyed a quick breakfast in our hotel before heading back on the road. First we headed north to a town called Metlaoui. Here we went on this very touristy thing which Barry was very keen on but I was less so. It is called the ‘Lezard Rouge’ and is an old train which goes through the gorges and rocks nearby. It was ok with some nice scenery, but all a bit silly, very touristy and shockingly expensive (nearly £10 each!). After that we got back in the car (although had to wait for everyone else to leave 1st as we were the 1st ones in) and headed north again to Gafsa. This is the main town for the region. It was a pleasant enough place and we were able to go to the market to get some bread, cheese, fruit, etc. We sat out in a park munching through these before setting off to do a little exploring. We wandered through the medina, and eventually came out by the old Kasbah (fort). We had a quick mint tea here and a wander around before heading back into the medina and eventually back to the car.

Another hour or two of driving took us further north to the town of Sbeitla, where we were able to visit the museum and ruins of the Roman town of Sufetula. Some parts were in very good condition. There is a big triumphal arch, a theatre and the baths still have lots of their mosaics covering the floor. There are also 3 temples and a church (built after the Romans converted to Christianity) and baptismal baths which are still wonderfully preserved. The best thing was that the site was very quiet. I think it is quite far off the tourist track, but I think it was easily one of the best things we saw on our trip.

After enjoying the sights we got back in the car and made our way north again towards Kairouan, which we reached at dusk. The low light levels, mixed with street names only in Arabic and street names that have changed 4 times in the last 10 years we ended up getting a bit lost. We knew we were fairly central but we couldn’t quite figure out where we had gone wrong. Eventually when we stopped at the side of the road to look at the map, a man on a moped stopped to help us. He told us the hotel we wanted was closed (we later found out this was a lie) but that he could take us to another place (which was also recommended in the guide books but was double the price). We followed him as we did not know where we were and just wanted to park the car! The hotel (called hotel Tunisia) was fine and had parking outside so we took it. And had to pay the man for helping us get there of course!

Once we had dumped our stuff we headed out to do a quick bit of exploring. We saw the main street of the Medina and the main parts of the Ville Nouvelle. We then went for dinner in a posh hotel just 1 street away from us. It was nice (I had fish - still with the head on!), we had wine and plenty of food. But… we were the only people in the whole restaurant. This was mildly amusing but also made the atmosphere a little quiet. After that, it was bedtime.

Day 8

(Baz’s Birthday!)

Yey, it is Barry’s birthday! Big celebrations! As Barry is a little crazy he decided that he wanted to get up at the crack of dawn on his birthday and go to a hammam. I told him this was fine with me but I would stay in bed! Once he got back I gave him his pressies and card and we headed (after breakfast at the hotel) to explore Kairouan. We went in to the medina and worked our way northwards, taking in the mosque of the 3 doors before getting to the big ‘grand mosque’. This is a very holy Islamic site and only open for limited hours. We went in and saw the main courtyard, with its wells and sundial and looked in to the prayer hall.

After that we explored the rest of the medina, taking in some more mosques, some zaourias (crypts), a camel pulling water up from a well (strange) and the souks. It was a very nice medina, with pretty streets and not too much hassle. Maybe the fact I was getting very tanned by this point helped a bit?! We got back on the main street and then headed out of the other side of the medina to wander through a street market. There was loads of fruit, veg and meat on sale - always interesting. We then got a bit lost before finding another zaouria.

Getting hungry, we headed back to a restaurant just behind our hotel where we had had a mint tea the previous evening. We had lunch there and then got in the car to head to the outskirts of the town. A bit confusing to find(!) but we eventually found our way to the tourist office which had views out over the roman Bassin des Aghlabites - the site of the original water system supplying water to the city. The man showing us the views said I was worth lots of camels - ha ha!!

We then left and headed just a little bit down the road to the Mosque and Mausoleum of the Barber. He was a friend of Mohammed and carried around some of his hair - hence the name. This was a very nice site with lovely tiles and bright white walls. However, we did get a bit stung on the way out as a man managed to sell us some ‘berber’ jewellery that we didn't want for about 80pence. Not loads, but annoying all the same.

After that we got back on the road. We were not 100% sure where we were going and so stopped to ask some policemen if we were going the right way to El Jem. They said we were and then one of them wanted us to take along his friend (another policeman) for the journey. We pretended we didn’t know what he was talking about and eventually they let us go. Phew! I think my driving was ok, but certainly didn't want a policeman sitting next to me.

About an hour later we arrived in El Jem. An otherwise normal town apart from the fact that it has this amazing Roman amphitheatre rising up in the middle of it. We went in to the very interesting amphitheatre, and also enjoyed a drink outside after. We also went to the museum in the town which had some really interesting mosaics in it. The man there showed us around (for free) and had been involved in some of the restoration work. There were very few people at the museum which seemed a real shame, as it had some excellent artefacts.

After El Jem we made our way ever onwards to Sousse. This is a big city and the drive in was quite difficult. It was made especially traumatic when we saw a man lying in the road who had been knocked off his moped. It looked very serious and made me think carefully about my driving. After a few wrong turns we eventually parked just behind the main street of the Ville Nouvelle (Avenue Bourghiba) and managed to get a nice hotel (Residence Monia).

After settling in we went for a little wander in to the medina, to get our bearings. When we had stopped at one point to read the guidebook a group of kids circled around us and were singing really loudly. Cute but kind of embarrassing! After that we went for a meal at a restaurant just a few doors from our hotel. It was called ‘La Caleche’ and was rather posh but had reasonable prices and wine. As it was Baz’s bday we did of course have wine, and onion soup, and pizza. Yum! The meal was slow in coming though (and the bill even slower) so that we were there for some 2 and a half hours.

Day 9

In the morning we got dressed, filled up loads of bottles with water and took them out to wash the car. After getting it into a vaguely decent shape, we drove the 5 minutes to the Hertz rental place in Sousse. After a thorough look around the inside and outside of the car, the man said it was in fine condition, but that we had not fully filled up the petrol tank. I was absolutely amazed that he hadn't found any further problems with it - ie. that we had completely ruined it by driving through desserts and stuff. However, Barry and I decided that we weren't going to hand over the money for the petrol as the tank wasn't full when we had been given it originally at the start of the week. Thus ensued a big argument with the Hertz man. After much shouting and "why are you so nasty to us" we eventually haggled our way down to about a quarter of what he had originally asked for...

And so, after that excitement, we walked down to Sousse seafront to take a breather. We sat on the Tunisian equivalent of a Promenade and enjoyed the freedom of not having to worry about our little car any more!

We went back into Sousse to do a bit more exploring and wandered through a great food market. In the next few hours we managed to see all of the main sites. This included the very impressive Kasbah and Ribat. These have both been built with defence in mind, and they certainly were imposing. There are great views over Sousse from the top of the Ribat. The kasbah is home to an excellent museum with many mosaics. It is also built next to the city walls which you can climb for more views over the city. We also went in to see Sousse mosque. It is housed in a massive complex, although as non-Muslims we were limited to staying in the main courtyard. Interesting note - you won't see a minaret here - the nearby Rabat was already in place when the mosque was built and so used instead.

Sousse is a very tourist-oriented place, but the medina has still managed to retain its charm. It is a great place to get lost, wandering through the alleyways, but unfortunately we ran out of time as we had to head to the train station to continue our journey back to Tunis. The rest of our evening was spent in Tunis, and getting re-aquainted with the Hotel Transatlantique. We also (of course) went for another lovely meal. This time it was at a small berber restaurant where I ordered a couscous big enough for 5 people.

Day 10

And so, all to quickly, it was our last day in Tunisia. We spent the morning exploring the less-touristy parts of Tunis. We went deep into the medina, following random side streets and alley-ways. Eventually we made it out to the Halfaouine district, which lies to the north of the medina. This area had plenty of interesting sights, and as it wasn't a touristy part we were mostly left to go about as we pleased. We saw a stunning mosque, with almost Italianate design as well as a market selling everything from fruit to soap.

Despite only having ten days in Tunisia I think it is fair to say that we covered quite a bit of this amazing country. I found it such a fascinating place, with very friendly people, great food, interesting sights and a perfect climate. All in all, my best holiday so far!

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


25th October 2007

We're thinking of going here and this was a wonderful travelog. Such daring travelers. I'll have to go on a tour, however, as am not brave enough to drive around like they did!
8th November 2007

This was wonderful reading, as my then 10-year old son and I did much the same thing at the same time as you! Imagine! I totally agree that this was one of the best holidays I have ever had. Loads to see, and the country is small enough that you can get around its diverse places. Just about the only places you mentioned that we didn't do were Djerba and Tozeur, and that's where we're going this winter! Can't wait!!! By the way, we used public transport all the time and found it comfortable, efficient, cheap and great fun for meeting locals!
19th January 2009

I love Chebica Regarde http://tunezja2007.googlepages.com/chebika
28th February 2010

Well done
We are 2 Aussie women ( one 55 & one 61) I think this trip sounds fantastic.
25th August 2010

bell vill
12th March 2011
Tunis cafe

thank you
Thank you for sharing your pictures. I was first drawn to your wonderful photography of the home on Djerba. I enjoyed learning about Tunisia based on your trip. Thanks for putting the driving miles in for me! Laurel

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