Tunisia is a small North African country that sits wedged between Algeria and Libya. For its accessibility, tourist facilities, and cultural history, it seems much closer to Sicily and Malta, its neighbors across the blue Mediterranean Sea, but Tunisia is doubtlessly an Arab country with a heritage and tradition primarily influenced by Islam.
Since Aeneas washed up on the shores near Carthage, Tunisia has been an important place of refuge and rejuvenation.
Today, package tours from Europe regularly land at the Tunis-Carthage Airport, just a few kilometers from the spot where Dido staged her tragic farewell to the founder of Roman civilization. Most visitors are trundled off to the seaside resorts where sun and sand and sea can restore them, just as they did the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Spaniards, Ottoman Turks, and the French who took their turns occupying this piece of North Africa.
For many who visit, Tunisia is a comfortable step into the mystery of an Arab culture, but the step here is never far from Europe. French troops marched into Tunisia in 1881 and soon held sway over the country and didn't relinquish colonial control until independence in 1956. French is still the language of commerce and shares official status with Arabic. German and English are now being taught in schools and contribute to the international sense that few Arab countries can match.
Most everyone begins a visit in Tunis, the national capital. Mosques and markets dominate the medina (the old city). Souq el-Attarine (the perfume market) is a wondrous treat for the senses. The French made their colonial contribution to the architecture of the capital at the start of the 20th century in what is still called la ville nouvelle.
The unusual architectural composite of the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul is the stop here. Tunis also has the best museum around, according to almost everyone. The Bardo lines up artifacts and statuary from the entire parade of Tunisian history.
The coastal resorts of Hammamet, Nabeul, and Sousse cater to group arrivals, who are spread thick along the beaches during the European holidays. They've attracted the shops, restaurants, and discos you'd expect, but the overlooking medinas are constant reminders that this is a different place.
The best Roman ruins are in Dougga, about 100 km inland and uphill from Tunis. Each July and August, the 3,500 seat Roman theatre hosts the Dougga Festival of classical drama. For the full load of antiquity, get to El Jem, inland and south of touristy Sousse, to see the biggest, and arguably the best, coliseum outside of Rome.
This is North Africa, however, and the desert's song lures many to the oases of the south. Tozeur is the most frequently visited, and the Dar Charait Museum there is second only to the Bardo in Tunis. Walk through reconstructed rooms from different periods of Tunisia's history for an eerie sense of the past. Gabes, on the coast, is an unusual combination of oasis and seashore.
A major bus stop farther south, put more firmly in the tourist route by Lucas Films, is Matmata, where the Star Wars desert scenes were shot. And, yes, the extraterrestrial cantina scene was filmed here, too, in a hotel bar that's still open.