Tunisia is a small diverse North African country tucked between Libya and Algeria, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and in the south the semi-arid interior merges into the Sahara.
In the north of the country not far from the eastern end of the Atlas Mountains lies the African mainland’s second nearest points to Europe after Gibraltar.
The arid central hinterland is among the world’s premier areas of olive cultivation and Tunisia’s eastern Mediterranean coast is home to long white sandy beaches lined with five star resorts.
The first job after arriving was to check into the Marina Cap Resort and find a car and driver and then see as much of the country as reasonably possible in a week.
Several years ago Tunisia was a popular holiday destination for sunseekers from the UK and Europe with about five million visitors annually, mostly to several coastal resort towns, like Sousse and Monastir. Then in early 2015 three terrorists with guns killed twenty-two people in a local Museum.
The nail in the coffin for tourism occurred a few months later when a lone terrorist walked along the beach near Sousse with an AK47 assault rifle and shot seventy six tourists, killing 38, mostly British.
My guide/driver in Monastir tells me the only tourists that kept coming were Russian and Ukrainian. Walking through the Monastir medina I was not surprised to hear the local shop keepers now speaking Russian.
I was most keen to visit the Roman Amphitheater/Colliseum at El Jem. Built in 237AD and with a 35,000 seat capacity, it’s one of the most accomplished examples of Roman architecture still standing, with the added bonus of no other visitors.
The walls of the main arena and the underground passages and rooms are practically intact. The entire amphitheater has a whole other level underground and it was eerie walking around under the main arena past the Lion pens and holding cells where gladiators and slaves waited to die in front of 35,000 cheering onlookers.
After El Jem we drove to the town of Kairouan and visited the oldest mosque in Africa with the World’s oldest minaret.
We stopped at the impressive Roman Mosaic Museum where I photographed the Little Owl mosaic below, created in the third century AD. Not long after leaving the museum I found a real Little Owl at roadside stop.
We continued our journey south through the coastal towns of Sfax and Gabes, with olive fields stretching to the horizon for over two hundred kilometers.
At Gabes we turned right and headed into the mountains and towards the Berber town of Matmata. As we approached I saw the first doorway on the side of the hill and no other sign of habitation. I thought some crazy hermit probably lives in that cave but as we drove further west the caves entrances became more common.
We eventually stopped and visited a Berber house dug into the soft sandstone cliffs to escape to soaring summer temperatures. The local tribes have been digging out their homes and living underground for over a thousand years.
We drove hundreds of kilometers past large date plantations, crossed the huge Chott el Djerid Salt Lake and skirted around two mountain ranges, travelling west to within a few kilometers of the Algerian border.
Before long I was once again in the Sahara Desert but this time only for one day.
On the way back east we drove through the mountains and stopped at an oasis fed by a mountain spring with accompanying palm grove. It was a welcome break from the travelling and heat.
No trip to Tunisia is complete without a visit to the ancient city of Carthage, which was one of the oldest, largest and most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean.
That was until the Roman Empire commanded by Scipio arrived in 146BC and subsequently captured the city, towed all the Phoenician ships into the harbour, burnt them, then went house-to-house and captured 50,000 inhabitants and sent them into slavery and as a final encore, burnt the entire city to the ground.
Our final stop in Tunisia was the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said, which sits atop a steep cliff overlooking the Med. The buildings are white-washed with blue doors and windows and the streets are cobble-stoned and fringed by Bougainvillea and Date Palms, reminiscent of Greece or Morocco.
Tomorrow I fly south to more adventures in the two small African nations of Lesotho and Swaziland or as its now called, ‘The Kingdom of eSwatini’.
Bye for now.