On the road There are priceless benefits of entering a community of travellers who can be a valuable source of information and even a good chat.
Hostile to hostelling?
While Tunis' airport is situated only 8km from the city centre, the above ground metro that connects the capital doesn't run there. The best way to get to one's hotel then is by taxi, which can pose a problem. In general, taxis in Tunis, are abundant, use metres and are reasonably priced. An exception, however, is that sometimes drivers picking up arrivals at the airport try to take advantage of their passengers' newness to the country by sneakily hiking up the fare.
The morning I landed at the airport I easily found a ride at the taxi stand and requested before we left that the driver turn on the metre, which, he pointed out, he had done. In addition, however, he had also extended the collapsible cup holder in the centre console above the metre, thus obscuring the numbers displayed. Upon reaching the Medina, the man tried to charge me US$7.50 (Dh27.5), though my guidebook had warned not to pay more than $4.50 (Dh16.5), which is what I handed him before closing the door behind me.
Soon, I strolled into the pedestrian-only Medina in search of the hostel where I was to stay. A narrow lane led downhill to a sign pointing to a black-and-white banded archway, beyond which I found an aged building with a big, yellow wooden door. I clanked the knocker and it creaked open to a tiny man who I followed into an atrium lined with painted tiles and upstairs to a room with six bunk beds.
How much? I asked the attendant at the Auberge de Jeunesse, a hostel in an 18th-century building that was recommended to me for its palatial setting and cheap rates by a travel writer who had sojourned in Tunisia. Twelve dinar, the Peter Lorre look-alike scribbled on the bedpost with his fingertip. The price was right - about $9 (Dh33) - but I wished there were a single room available. While hostelling is common for solo travellers in Europe, I have avoided the Euro zone since its high-flying currency put most of the continent outside my budget, preferring instead inexpensive destinations where one wouldn't consider a hostel because hotels cost but a pittance.
In Phnom Penh, for example, I was offered a double room for $2 (Dh7) per night. A triple was a dollar more and so, with Goldilocks in mind, I gladly forked over another note so at least one of the three mattresses would be just right. Yes, a colony of bats roosted in the walls, but my accommodation was cheap and I had my privacy. Tunisia is a relatively low-cost country, too, but it's not Cambodia and it seems to be becoming more expensive all the time with boutique hotels such as the Dar El Medina - $205 (Dh753) per night for a double room - popping up in the once-budget friendly Medina and other ones gearing towards high-end holiday-makers in the temptingly pretty but touristy nearby town of Sidi Bou Said.
So with some trepidation, I sucked it up and did what I haven't done since university - bunked with a bunch of guys. I heaved onto the bottom bed assigned to me and pulled off my boots, laying them beside someone's belongings scattered on the floor. Within minutes, a chatty American and then an equally eager Frenchman entered the room and began to tell me all about themselves. Unlike in a hotel where one can put a "do not disturb" sign on the door, this gregariousness comes with hostel territory, where people come to meet one another just as much as to see the sights.
I organised my belongings for a hasty escape and asked the little man downstairs how to get to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. While his English and my French weren't enough to communicate, he guided me to other hostellers who translated and offered precise navigation through the maze-like Medina to the correct Metro: left and continue downhill; stay on the cobblestone path instead of the paved one; upon exiting the market head towards the clock tower. Instead of receiving the usual incomprehensible directions in a language I don't understand, these were spot on. And so I saw advantages to a hostel where travellers share what they have learnt along the way.
When I arrived at the station I took a train costing $0.37 (Dh1) across Lake Tunis to Carthage, which is an important historical site that has been largely destroyed over time, most famously by the Romans who rased the city in 146BC. Travellers looking to witness the glory of ancient North African civilisation are probably better off seeking out the more intact Roman-era remains elsewhere in Tunisia such as the coliseum at Al Jem.
In Carthage, I hiked a dirt path leading up Byrsa Hill. The view of the ruins of the ancient dwellings below is mostly rubble and the $6 (Dh22) entrance fee to the cluster of 12 sites does not include a ticket to the interesting L'Acropolium, a deconsecrated French church built in 1884 to honour Saint Louis the crusader, which is another $3.75 (Dh14). The most intriguing spot is easily the Sanctuary of Trophet where ancient Carthaginians sacrificed their firstborn sons to the gods in burnt offerings, of which urns and markers remain today.
As it was raining, I had hired a taxi to take me around Carthage and onward to Sidi Bou Said for $13 (Dh9). While blessed with a plenty of charm, Sidi Bou Said can have a commercial feel and the main drag of the iconically blue-and-white painted hillside village is full of touts and usually plenty of tourists. In chilly December the throng of visitors is thinner, but the touts don't seem to mind the cold, and I received endless offers of overpriced handicrafts. It's best to rush through the area closest the train station and walk further into town, which is still primarily a residential area, albeit a postcard-perfect seaside one.
When I rested at a cafe overlooking the water, however, I was charged $3.75 (Dh14) for a 200ml Orangina. A better option than the pricey eateries here would have been to pack a picnic, but with temperatures barely hovering in the double digits that seemed an uncomfortable proposition. In total, I was pleased with what amounted to a pleasant day trip, and was glad I had decided on inexpensive accommodation in Tunis' Medina rather than a pricey one around Sidi Bou Said or Carthage where the sights nicely fill up a few hours in between Metro rides but don't require lingering overnight.
When I returned to the Auberge, I was treated to a communal dinner of paella - included with the room - and even emerged from my standoffishness and made friends. It was then that I came to fully appreciate that not only was I staying among sumptuous scenery for next to nothing, there were priceless benefits of entering a community of travellers who can be a valuable source of information and even a good chat.