South to Sousse

After spending a few days in and around Tunis, I took a train two hours south to the seaside city of Sousse. Sousse is considerably smaller in size than Tunis, and has a much more relaxed vibe about it. Like Sousse, it also has a World Heritage medina, containing a maze of winding alleyways that are easy to get lost in, quaint souks, and small cafes and stands selling fresh kebabs and shawarma. I stayed in a pretty little dar (traditional guesthouse) in the heart of the medina, which I would recommend for a truly authentic experience.

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The Kasbah of Sousse, which currently houses the archaeology museum

Some of the other highlights of Sousse are its Grand Mosque, which, unlike most mosques, allows entrance to non-Muslim visitors (although only Muslims can enter the main prayer hall). It also has an impressive ribat (medieval Arab fortress), as well as a very interesting archaeological museum with its share of beautiful ancient mosaics (although it pales in comparison to the Bardo in Tunis). Overall, I preferred the more laid back atmosphere of Sousse compared to the loud and frenetic pace of Tunis.

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The Grand Mosque of Sousse

While most of Sousse can be covered in a day or so, there a number of interesting side trips only an hour or so outside the city. The best of these is El Jem, which contains the second largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, after the Colosseum in Rome. A number of famous movies were partially filmed here, including Gladiator and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. With a capacity of about 35000 people, the amphitheatre in El Jem is roughly 2/3 the size of the Colosseum, and is much better preserved. For example, unlike the Colosseum, the main floor of El Jem’s amphitheatre is completely intact. In addition, while the Colosseum is packed to the brim with visitors year round, I was the practically only person at El Jem for the entirety of my visit! It was really fantastic having the whole place to myself, and very surreal to wander around the stands, the floor, and the underground area, wondering what it must have been like as a spectator or gladiator at one of the performances.

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The Roman amphitheatre at El Jem held up to 35,000 spectators!

Another interesting day trip was Monastir, an ancient city only 30 minutes south of Sousse. Its main feature is the huge ribat (medieval fortress) that was used to defend the city against attacks from the Byzantine empire. Built in the 8th century, the ribat is a sprawling building with several floors, a maze of inter-connecting rooms, and a tall watchtower that you can climb for great views of the sea. Speaking of which, after my visit to the ribat, I took a walk along the pretty waterfront, and then climbed over some rocks to munch on a kebab and soak in the sublime views and atmosphere. It was a very peaceful, relaxing experience.

Unfortunately, as I was feeling under the weather during my last couple of days in Tunisia, I did not get a chance to visit Kairouan, which is home to the oldest mosque in North Africa, dating back to the 9th century. To this day, it is considered to be the fourth holiest site in Islam. Also, non-Muslim visitors are apparently allowed inside, although not into the main prayer hall. The mosque is a World Heritage site, and being relatively close to Sousse, you should try to set aside a day to see it if you’re visiting the area (and if you’re feeling well).

Up next: After spending a couple of weeks exploring Tunisia, my travels took me back up north to the storied isle of Great Britain.

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