At this time of year about five years ago (holy crap! has it really been that long?) I was cruising around Tunisia with Mr. Field Notes. If I wasn't pregnant and if the economy weren't so horrible that we both face the real possibility of unemployment, I would have sprung for 2 tickets back there next month.
Tunisia is an amazing place to go on vacation. The small, Mediterranean country in North Africa offers a lot: quaint seaside towns (like Sidi Bou Said), ancient and very well preserved Roman ruins, deserted beaches, bird watching, cultural experiences (like meeting and staying overnight with a Bedouin family), delicious and cheap food (a perfect mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food), and varied landscape ranging from beaches to mountains and fertile valleys to the Sahara Desert. It's awesome — and I totally want to go back.
Sidi Bou Said, a town that looks straight out of an advertisement for visiting one of the Greek isles, is the place I'd start. For starters, I love the white washed buildings and accent paint in a turquoise blue — a particular color that I still refer to as 'Sidi Bou Said blue.' The streets are narrow, windy and coblestone. Pull up a chair in a cafe and have mint tea or dark, rich espresso. Watch the sunset over the beach to the sound of the call to prayer. It's seriously laid back. We were warned there's nothing to do there — 'Go to Hammamet' — by the cabbie we hired to take us there. I think he just wanted the extra dinars to take us 45 miles instead of four.
We did eventually spend time in Hammamet at the end of the trip when we still had four free days and needed to drop off the rental car. I wouldn't go back. It was utterly boring.
So boring, in fact, that we resorted to making little beach creatures out of trash and god-knows-what. The round balls were not, in fact, camel turds but that's what we jokingly called them at the time. That, and 'Tunisian Turd Birds' after the 'Montana Turd Birds' I saw all the time in tourist traps growing up there.
The next time I'm in Tunisia, we'll take the train to Mahdia instead. Mahdia is the center of weaving wedding wraps in Tunisia. We never ventured in to find them because we only had one overnight stop planned there on our way to somewhere else. Mahdia had the best beach we saw in Tunisia — clean, white, and mostly devoid of people. And the luxury 5 star hotel was a steal at $80 a night. Of course, so was the super cute room we had for $8 a night in Sidi Bou Said.
Right down the road from our Sidi Bou Said hotel was a sweet garden where we sat and shared pocket sandwiches. We called them the 'Everything But the Kitchen Sink Sandwich' seeing how they were always full of all kinds of unidentifiable but delicious vegetables, plus hard boiled eggs, tuna, humus and french fries on top. We ate a lot of those sandwiches in Tunisia!
We also drank a lot of mint tea and espresso. In Tunisia they put pine nuts in the tea. I think that adds a little something special. They soak up the flavor of the tea really well but retain their nutty flavor.
Negotiating the cafes as a woman is a little unsettling though. Cafes are an almost universally male affair. I never got harassed at a cafe, but didn't feel completely comfortable amidst a bunch of men who looked a lot like the same guys who would offer 10,000 camels to Mr. Field Notes for me. That was actually funny all of the times it happened. Apparently, based on the report of a friend who recently visited Jordan, offering camels for foreign women is pretty typical and part of the shtick in the Arab world.
The cafe with the white washed dome was uniquely 'family friendly' in the sense that it may have been the only cafe we patrionized our entire three weeks in Tunisia that actually had women and children at it.
In spite of the overtly male-dominated culture, I felt very comfortable traveling around Tunisia and the people were the most warm, inviting people I have ever met in a foreign country. They bent over backwards to welcome us, even after and especially after, finding out we were Americans. I thought that was pretty damn cool seeing how at the time it was a year into the Iraq War.