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A Saharan Stop: La Goulette

La Goulette, Tunisia: A Holland America Port

The small, coastal country of Tunisia provides travelers with an unique opportunity to visit the Mediterranean coast of Northern Africa - a scenic place were low hills and countryside meet the Atlas Mountains. The port city gives visitors a peak into the Saharan community, its culture, architecture and popular shopping stops.

What to See
Medina, the Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with spectacular monuments that can go easily unseen if you aren't aware of what to look for. Research the rich area before stopping at the port, so you are able to enjoy its views and architectural sites. The city's atmosphere is wonderful for walking, and even though you may become temporarily lost in its maze of streets, there's no greater place to stroll and soak up the atmosphere.

The city's central street is lined with souvenir vendors. However, duck into some of the area's side streets to experience the authentic Tunis. Traditional tea shops seem to be everywhere, but each location provides a service that brings it faithful customers who congregate on a regular basis to share tea and friendly conversation.

Only Muslims are permitted to enter the central 18th-Century Great Mosque Ez-Zitouna (Mosque of the Olive Tree), since it is the nation's most revered shrine. Some observers claim the mosque was built in the 17th Century, when Islam arrived from Egypt. Despite its conflicted history, the Great Mosque Ez-Zitouna remains a respected site. Only highly-respected tradesmen are allowed to set up shop in its vicinity, making the area surrounding the temple the core of Medina. History stands near the building, as the columns surrounding its enclosed yard were salvaged from Carthage years ago.

Souk al Attarine (Perfume Souk) is popular near the mosque. According to Tunisian custom, these perfumed scents signifies particular cultural ceremonies and events. Fragrant oils are inexpensive, so while you are there you can mix purchased oils to create your own signature blend. The Prime Minister's official office, Dar el Bey, sits opposite the souk, where it was originally built in 1795.

When traveling, remember to keep your camera under wraps. Although Tunis is a very cosmopolitan area, it's also best to cover any bare skin. It's consider taboo to wear shorts or sleeveless tops as well. Following these cultural rules will keep you from being easily identified as a tourist.

Another incredible site to visit is the Dar Ben Abdallah Palace, which was built at the end of the 18th Century. Umayyad rulers began work on the detailed façade in 732 A. D., though the Aghlabites finished the work in 864 A.D. Preserved as a remarkable museum, the palace's displays reveal something of 19th-Century Tunisian life. Included in the displays are a series of traditional costumes, implements and everyday accessories.

The Bardo Museum, another favorite visit, is unchallenged as Tunisia's finest collection of art. Just west of Medina, the museum is set inside an antique palace surrounded by pretty gardens. The art holdings are organized according to the history of regional rule, and they offer visitors insight into the influences that shaped modern Tunisia. The Roman mosaic collection is magnificent, featuring tiled objects that were brought from nearby Thuburbo Majus - a Punic city favored among Russians.

History
In early Tunisian history, the expanding Sahara separated Berber tribes from ancestral Egyptians by 3,000 B.C., and strong cultural distinctions were formed. While permanent Egyptian communities rose from the fertile and water-rich Nile Valley, Berbers were forced to live mostly nomadic lives, following scarce and shifting water and food supplies. The powerful Egyptian Pharaohs could have led incursions along the coast, but their interest always remained focused on the fertile upper Nile Valley. Hence, they never attempted to extend their influence east or west. In turn, the remainder of the North African coast developed its own civilizations as Phoenician and Greek settlers began setting up trading colonies.

During this same time, the Punic Empire grew powerful, dominating the region for a period of time. However, after the Carthaginian commander Hannibal was expelled, the Punic Empire began to decline and Roman soldiers destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C. The Roman rule was eventually undermined when the emperors tried to suppress Christianity. In spite of their best efforts, the new faith spread across the land. In North Africa, however, Christians were supplanted by armies of Arabs who streamed out of the Middle East in the 7th Century with Mohammed's messages of Islam.

Read more on the Holland America10-Day Mediterranean Cruise.

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