Carthage may be a ruin of a ruin, but Tunis is Terrific
Now I know that ancient Carthage doesn't have a high profile in travel, so much of the anticipation was conjured by my own imagination. Yet having been to so many ancient sites and enjoyed them all, I was most definitely expecting rather more than I found...
I looked out over the remains of one of the great capitals of the classical world, and found it to be rather disappointing. I was sweaty thanks to the 36C in the shade heat, but there wasn't isn’t a single portico or plinth to provide any shade. There was however, a shabby museum, a few meagre foundations and the odd scrap of masonry, but I’ve seen more statuary in a garden-centre cafe. It’s wasn't what I’d been expecting. One newspaper's travel section claimed that “Carthage is a mind-blowing place even if, like me, you soon tire of ruins, statues and frescoes”, while another gushed that it “would take a week to explore properly”. Really? Could I have gone to the wrong place by mistake?
My day hadn’t started well either. When I’d arrived at Carthage-Salammbo station, there was no obvious sign to “ancient Carthage”, just smart suburban villas, neatly trimmed bougainvillaea, and parked cars. I followed my nose towards the sea, until I got to a little kiosk. The ticket I bought there told me I was at the 'Tophet'. Apparently it was a walled garden where the Carthaginians buried thousands of their own children that they'd sacrificed to the gods — for good luck don’t you know. They did this every time the threat of war loomed, which surely in the long run may have contributed to their terminal losing streak. Either way, it’s a pretty grim spot. The bones and ashes of 20,000 children, along with those of sacrificial animals, were buried in little urns.
I left the mud-floored vault of baby tombs when the hairs on the back of my neck couldn’t take any more, and walked along Rue Hannibal, where I came to a couple of suburban ponds fringed with modern posh housing. This unimpressive water was all that was left of the Punic port, in its day the most impressive navy base on the Mediterranean. Spurting sweat and swatting flies, I almost gave up and scuttled back to Tunis city centre, but I'd flown from the UK to see this, so I regrouped and reopened the guidebook. Apparently, the Roman centurion to-do list for the sacking of Carthage included: kill the men, rape the women, sell the children, and burn everything to the ground. The latter probably exceeded expectation, as it's said that the city of Carthage burnt for 10 days. Then they wiped away any trace of it by removing the stone for new builds elsewhere.
And to rub salt into the wounds, they did exactly that, and rubbed salt into the soil to destroy it. It's no wonder that 'Carthaginian' has entered the language for meaning complete over the top annihilation.
What is there left to see, then? Extremely little it seems, but the guide book implored that I should “capture something of the flavour of its epic history by climbing to the top of Byrsa Hill”. To check I wasn’t in a parallel universe, I walked up the steep residential streets of Byrsa Hill and, as I went, reflected that things could have been so different. I love poking around ancient sites. The Acropolis, the Coliseum, Petra and the Pyramids, all are superb. But here I am at the summit of Byrsa bloody Hill, and there’s nothing of Carthaginian Carthage left. The Romans wrecked it all. I so should have gone to a better school.
Just then, I heard an anguished curse and looked round to see a teenager swearing in Italian after stubbing his toe trying to kick a stone. But wait, what’s that behind him? In the distance I see a large pillar; a whole, intact, standing-upright-so-you-could-hug-it pillar. It’s part of the Antonine Baths, the remains of the second-largest Roman baths in the world. But I’ve had enough of the Romans frankly, so I go back to the beach near to Sidi bou Said.
Writing an article for a newspaper or magazine usually means having to be more polemic that you might otherwise be. And just like when taking a picture of something, you have to choose where to point the camera and how much of the scene to include in the shot, so it is with writing.
With Carthage, it's true that if you arrived entirely unaware and unprepared, you probably would react as I did above. But couching the article in rather naive terms meant that I sound as though I hadn't ever heard of Carthage and was expecting to see something more substantial like say the Lighthouse at Alexandria or the Colossus of Rhodes - just kidding.
As it happens the site is in a beautiful location overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, and although I cropped the piece to focus in only on the ruins there, I actually explored Tunis for a few days after my visit to Carthage. I've been several times and love the place, and especially it's seaside cliff-top village of Sidi Bou Said.
Carthage old and new. Vibrant textiles in local shops, and performer at the Carthage Festival. Photos Tourism Tunisia
The Carthage Jazz Festival is in its 12th year and in 2017 takes place between March 31st and April 9th. Performers include Liam Bailey, Myles Sanko, Tom Odell, Pink Martini, Cocoon and Aaron. See Carthage Jazz Festival. Villa Didon comes as quite a surprise - a swish hilltop property with a terrific restaurant terrace and super modern rooms with great views over the Gulf of Tunis. It has a smart swimming pool and snazzy rooms with Star Trek-like sliding doors.
Some places to look out for when in Tunis;
The Medina of Tunis
The tourists in the narrow-laned souks are Tunisian or French. And it’s a hassle- free antidote to Marrakech. There are magnificent mosques and madrasahs, and calming mint-tea vendors; try the Ottoman-era opulence of Café M’Rabet, too.
An unusually quiet moment in the gorgeously atmospheric Café M’Rabet in the Medina of Tunis. Photo Richard Green
The Bardo Museum
This superb museum houses one of the best collections of Roman mosaics in the world, from tea-towel-sized portraits to the 1,400 sq ft depiction of Neptune astride a horse-drawn chariot. Open daily, except Mondays; £2.70.
The TGM train
This little line runs from the city centre, across the lagoon, to La Goulette. Join the rest of Tunis here for a fabulous Friday fish supper: Avenue Franklin Roosevelt is lined with promenaders and huge ice-beds of fish. Next stops are Carthage, Sidi Bou Saïd and the seaside suburb of La Marsa. Trains every 20 minutes, 65p one way.
View of the Bay of Tunis, as seen from Sidi Bou Said. Photo Tourism Tunisia
Sidi Bou Saïd
This clifftop village is an arty retreat full of brilliant white houses and vivid blue doors, like a Punic Portmeirion. Check out the super cliffside restaurants and cafes, such as Café Sidi Chabaane and Dar Zarrouk.
A doorway in Sidi Bou Said. Photo Richard Green
Dar El Jeld
The most atmospheric dining room in Tunis, in the courtyard of an Ottoman mansion. Excellent local dishes and wines match the stylish surrounds and service. There is also traditional live music, or for a seductive Berber dance display, hit Café M’Rabet on a weekend evening. See Dar el Jeld
Getting there: Tunisair is the national carrier and flies from Tunis across Europe, North and West Africa, the Middle East, and to Montreal. Other airlines flying to Tunis include Air France, Alitalia, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines.
Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.
For more information see Discover Tunisia