Day six of our Mediterranean Cruise with MSC Cruises took us from Europe to Africa in just a few hours as we arrived in Tunisia. The modern port of La Goulette where the MSC Splendida docked was a 15 minute drive from the centre of Tunis and we had pre-arranged a private taxi to take us sightseeing for the day.
Just outside the cruise port we met our taxi driver, Mr Faouzi who took us first visit the pretty village of Sidi Bou Said, which was a 15 minute drive up the coast. The village is known for its picturesque white houses with blue painted doors and windows and is known as the Santorini in Tunisia. We arrived before most of the coach excursions with the souvenir stalls in the pedestrianized main street just starting to open.
Walking up street, we admired the pretty white and blue houses, every so often exploring down a side alley to investigate a hidden courtyard, old studded door or building draped with pink bougainvillea. We could see below us a small harbour area and the MSC Splendida at the port in the distance. We passed a few cafes and smart hotels with terraces overlooking the sea and at the end of the road was a viewpoint, where the path continued down the hill to the harbour. We retraced our steps, just as the cruise excursions were arriving and took a look around the small Dar El-Annabi Museum (€2.50 entrance).
I hope you enjoy the video below of our day visiting Sidi Bou Said and Carthage on our cruise stop in Tunis
This traditional house was built at the end of the 18th century and used as a family summer residence, but is now open to the public showing scenes from Tunisian life. The house had been set up as if preparations were underway for a wedding, with figures in Tunisian costume showing the bride being decorated with henna and receiving guests with her family. The internal patio at the entrance was decorated in Andalucian style, with a central fountain, flowering jasmine and bougainvillea and stairs up to a terrace with a panorama over the town. Through the big studded door were sitting rooms with figures in costume, leading to a large open courtyard where an underground cistern collected rainwater from the roof. We really enjoyed this insight into Tunisian life and highly recommend the museum for those interested in local culture.
Next on our taxi tour was the visit to Carthage, which is not a single site like Pompeii but a succession of different sites with residential and shopping areas in between, so it would be difficult to see them all without a car. The legendary city of Carthage was founded in 814BC as the capital of the Punic Empire and exerted influence over the whole Mediterranean for many centuries. The empire’s power waned during the Punic wars, fought between 264 and 146 BC when military commanders such as Hannibal were unable to avoid defeat by the Romans. Although Carthage was destroyed during this conflict, it was later rebuilt by the Romans and became the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Later the city was conquered by the Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs and fell into oblivion until archaeological excavations were begun in the 19th century and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our tour started at the Carthage Museum where the ticket (cost around €5) gave us entrance to all the different sites. The museum is situated at the top of the hill of Byrsa that was the site of the Roman Forum, with a commanding view over the ancient city and the sea. We had a look around the museum with some fine mosaics and larger statues from the site. Outside were gardens with fallen columns and their decorative pediments and we could also see the remains of Punic houses built on the slopes of the hill.
Next we drove to the Roman Amphitheatre, which had a capacity of 40,000 people and was used to stage gladiator combats, circus games with wild animals and mock naval battles. Only the perimeter of the arena remains today, with some of the internal walls, broken columns and the underground tunnels.
The Antonine Baths was the largest of the archaeological sites we visited, in a beautiful location beside the sea. The baths covered a very extensive area, including the cold frigidarium, sauna or tepidarium and hot calidarium in a large complex with a central hall supported by columns and domed roofs. The site that you can see today consists mainly of the underground portions of the building made up of storage rooms and boiler rooms, with only a single column showing where the ground level would have been.
The final stop on our tour was the Punic port which was considered a feat of engineering in ancient times. There were two communicating basins which can still be seen and we took a walk around the circular one with a central island where we could see the remains of the berths where war ships could be drawn up out of the water on wooden rollers. Now the basin is surrounded by desirable houses overlooking the water, with small boats moored up all around the perimeter and a few fishermen sorting out their nets.
After our visit to the various sites of Carthage, we drove the 20 minutes into the modern town of Tunis, for a look at the old town or Medina. We stopped for lunch in a café on one of the boulevards in the centre of town, planning to afterwards walk into the Medina. The weather had been overcast and showery all day, but since it was now raining heavily we decided against our walk and asked our driver drop us back at the cruise port, where we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on board.
Tomorrow we have a day at sea as MSC Splendida sails back to Barcelona where we will end our week’s cruise.
Options for visiting the main sites of Tunis
- The main things to see on a cruise excursion to Tunis are the various sites of Carthage, the blue and white village of Sidi Bou Said and the Medina or old town of Tunis. The Bardo Museum with ancient mosaics is also recommended but is situated in the suburbs of Tunis, so you may not have time to see this as well as the other places.
- Booking a cruise excursion is probably the most convenient option, but as always you will be in a large group of around 50 people, and will probably have to choose two of the sites above, as there is not time to see them all.
- Another good option is to hire your own taxi for the day to take you to the main sites of Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and the Medina. There are taxis waiting in a rank as you exit the cruise terminal and prices are posted on a board. The prices posted were €60 for Medina/Carthage/Sidi Bou Said for 4 seats, €80 for 6 seats, €100 for 8 seats. As I did not take the taxi from this rank I can’t confirm whether these were the fixed prices, but my general experience in North Africa is that even when the price is shown, you should agree a price with the driver before setting off and may need to bargain to achieve a price you are comfortable with.
- If you turn right out of the terminal and walk down the road to the port exit, you will pass a parking area where other taxis are waiting and some drivers may approach you to offer a taxi tour. Again, if you wish to take one of these you may need to bargain and agree a fair price before setting off on your tour.
- Once you reach the exit of the port (turn right and 10 minutes walk from the cruise terminal) immediately ahead of you there is an Oil Libya gas station and beside it is another rank of taxis. These are public taxis that do not have a permit to come into the port and many of these will also offer to take you on a tour. Again you may need to bargain to agree a fair price, and the price here may be lower than in the port.
- Because we wanted a private taxi tour but also the certainty of a pre-booked service and a pre-agreed price, we contacted a Tunis based travel agent that I had seen recommended in the Cruise Forums, Ben Jebara M. Tahar through his website http://www.expertraveltunisia.webs.com Twitter: @expertravel Although he was not able to offer us on a personal tour, he arranged a taxi for the day with an English-speaking driver at around the same cost as the official cruise excursion. Although this probably cost more than bargaining ourselves for a taxi, we were very happy with the service, which was arranged by e-mail, with a follow-up phone call via the driver’s mobile. This gave us a tour that was more flexible than the official excursion and with a less crowded experience, since most of the sites were empty when we visited them.
- If you are on a budget, there is a train that runs from outside the port to the centre of Tunis in one direction and to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said in the other direction. I did not take the train but you can find information about it on Cruise Forums.
MSC Excursion Options
The Historical and Cultural tour (4 hrs, £49 Adult) of Tunis features the archaeological ruins of ancient Carthage, ancient baths and a visit to Sidi Bou Said. The Beach Tour (4.5 hrs, £35 Adult) is trip to Gammarth, a lovely seaside resort a short drive from Tunis. If it’s shopping you’re after try the Shopping Tour (4.5 hrs, £45 Adult) to the old medina quarter and its traditional spice market with hundreds of stalls selling a huge variety of local produce. For a dose of colour there’s the History & Colours of Tunis (4.5 hrs, £42 Adult) tour to the Bardo Museum, a former 13th century palace famous for its outstanding collection of mosaics. Finally, choose Exploring the Colourful Souks of Tunis (4 hrs, £42 Adult) where you can stroll the streets of the medina for Arabian style shopping, admire the handicrafts and spices and visit a traditional carpet shop to learn about the history and traditions of the Berber people.
Other articles in my Mediterranean Cruise series
Join me on a week’s Mediterranean cruise with MSC cruises
All aboard at Barcelona – Day 1 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Bonjour Marseille – Day 2 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Palazzo and Gelato in Genoa – Day 3 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Naples and an excursion to Pompeii – Day 4 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Messina and an excursion to Taormina – Day 5 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Tunis and Carthage – Day 6 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
A day at sea and back to Barcelona – Day 7 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Thanks to MSC cruises who hosted Guy and Heather’s Mediterranean cruise. Heather and Guy travelled on MSC Splendida from Barcelona on a 1 week cruise calling at Genoa, Marseille, Naples, Messina, Tunis. Prices for a similar cruise start at around £700 per person. For more information, visit the MSC Cruises website or follow them on Twitter @MSC_Cruises_UK or on the MSC Facebook page.