Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tunisia Welcomes Back Tourists

Tunisia Welcomes Back Tourists

By Sarah Lynch of USA Today

TUNIS, Tunisia – Stationed throughout a cobblestone labyrinth in the capital's old quarter, shop owners await the revival of a tourism sector that sunk with the rise of a revolution.

The social and political freedoms Tunisians gained after the three-year-old ouster of a longtime dictator were worth the economic struggles, they say. Now, Tunisians are ready to welcome travelers back to their country.

"Tunisia is ready to bring tourism back," says Lasaad Essid, 54, hammering designs into a decorative plate. "And we'll even exceed what we used to achieve, seeing even more tourists than before the revolution."

With a vast coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, Tunisia is celebrated for its beach resorts, ancient ruins and sprawling desert. UNESCO praises Dougga, an expansive site in the northern part of the country, as North Africa's best-preserved Africo-Roman town that shows what daily life was like for those who lived there in antiquity.



In January, Condé Nast Traveler called Tunisia the next big travel destination, celebrating the country for its optimistic atmosphere and open-mindedness. Society's tolerance for diversity in the majority Muslim country not only helped propel the country on a path toward full democracy over the last three years but also allows for a vibrant nightlife where booze flows freely and music keeps partygoers out through the morning's early hours.

Tunisia's tourism minister Amel Karboul says the country could see a record 7 million tourists visiting this year.

"I tell Western tourists, come to Tunisia, the first democracy in the Arab world, to share this historic moment and support a democratic transition and also enjoy its sun, beaches, desert and culture," Karboul recently told Reuters.

The tourism industry declined with the start of the Jasmine Revolution, which kicked off in late 2010 and ousted longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. While the sector has since improved, it has yet to fully recover.

Many believe increasing political stability will bolster the industry, which employs 400,000 people, industry experts say, and accounts for 7.5% of gross domestic product. The country adopted a new and progressive constitution earlier this year and an Islamist-led government stepped down to make way for a caretaker cabinet. Elections expected to begin this fall will complete a democratic transition.

"With finalizing the constitution and with consensus among political groups, we are hoping for a more prosperous situation," says Borhene Ben Ghorbal, 43, who owns a tourist shop in the heart of the capital. "With the harmony happening around the country it's a good sign, a good push, but there are a lot of steps that still need to be taken."

In a volatile region, terrorism is a primary challenge facing the tourism industry. Some would-be visitors have been scared off by general unrest and militant attacks, and some Western nations continue to uphold travel warnings to citizens.

In a direct blow to the industry last fall, a suicide bomber struck a beach near a hotel in the tourist resort town of Sousse, underscoring the widespread militant violence that has plagued the nation since Ben Ali's 2011 ouster.

"The possibility of further attacks, including in the coastal resorts and desert areas cannot be ruled out," the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns citizens in an online summary of travel advice.

"There is a general threat from terrorism, including kidnapping," it says, advising against travel to some areas in Tunisia's south and near the Libyan and Algerian borders.

Still, Mohamed Ali Toumi, head of a Tunisian federation of travel agents, says that he and others who work in the industry are confident that the government has made security gains since authorities launched a crackdown last year on militants.

"I look at the bright side," Ali Toumi says. "Tunisian security forces and the police are doing their best to destroy terrorism."

In early March, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki lifted a three-year-old state of emergency in what was perceived as a largely symbolic move to signal that security is improving.

And the U.S. State Department followed suit, recently lifting a travel warning for Tunisia that was in place since September 2012 following an attack on Tunis's U.S. embassy.

"After assessing the current situation in Tunisia, the Department of State determined that circumstances did not merit extending the Travel Warning for Tunisia," a March 28 message to U.S. citizens said.

Tunisia aims to draw more German, Russian and British visitors and attract more tourists from its traditional market, France, tourism minister Karboul told Reuters. There also is potential to attract Canadians and Chinese, Ali Toumi said. Syphax, a private Tunisian airline, intends to begin direct flights between Tunis and Montreal and possibly between New York and Tunis, he said.

"With this proper, calm atmosphere, we are ready to welcome tourists," says Marwan Ben Ghorbel, whose family owns a tourist shop. "Things are picking up and getting better but we are hoping for more improvements with the new government."

Industry experts say revival efforts will focus on developing cultural tourism and drawing visitors through big events such as music festivals.

Inside the market in the capital's old quarter, shop owner Essid is optimistic that with a little work, Tunisians can draw tourists back.

"We are brave enough to do what we want to do," Essid says. "We made a revolution and now we will get tourism back on its feet and make it strong again."

For help booking a trip to Tunisia, contact a travel agent specialist at Tripology.com.


 

Tunisia-Home of the Arab Spring

Tunisia-3000 years old!!


Today was my first visit to Tunisia, in North Africa, a former French colony whose history dates back over 3000 years. 

Having been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Spanish and French, the nation finally gained independence from France in 1956.

Importantly, Tunisia is the birth place of the Arab Spring.  Fortunately, its tourism industry is slowly making a comeback as its government demonstrates some signs of stability.

From the modern port city of La Goulette, I took an all-day tour that included visits to the bustling capital Tunis,  Phoenician and Roman ruins at Carthage & the beautiful hillside, Santorini-like, village of Sidi Bou Said.  Our guide was knowledgeable, patient, and passionate about his native land.

Tunis
Tunis is the capital of Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, Muslim and Arab, and yet the city feels neither Arab nor African. It's a place where old and new mix without any seeming conflict, in both the architecture (with Moorish and French influences) and way of life.  Both French and Arabic are spoken widely.  My French came in handier than my English.

During the 12th to 16th centuries, Tunis was considered one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Arab world.  There are reminders of its former splendor everywhere.

We drove through the modern 20th century French colonial Ville Nouvelle (new town) where we saw lots of painted shutters and wrought-iron balconies reminding me of Marseilles or Barcelona.  Along the main boulevard in this section of the city, built on an orderly European grid, we saw lots of promenading, coffee drinking, friends conversing, and people watching.

We even saw the square where the Arab Spring protests began in January 2011.

In sharp contrast, the 8th century Medina is quintessentially Arab and its centerpiece is the Great Mosque, only open to Muslims.  We toured the surrounding maze of tunnels and alleys dotted with local markets, hidden mansions, backstreet workshops, groups of young people smoking in hookah cafes, and children playing football.  The sights, sounds, and smells were a wonderful assault on the senses.  The Tunisian people were warm and inviting.

The Souks inside the medina are a cobweb of shops in a huge covered building with vaulted archways where century’s old traditions are at play with stalls of carpets, jewelry, ceramics, spices, clothing, souvenirs, and other handicrafts, with cafes lining the passageways.

Ruins of Ancient Carthage: Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians in the ninth century B.C., was destroyed by the Romans after three brutal Punic wars and then rebuilt to become one of Rome's most intriguing provincial capitals.

We began our tour with visits to the only two remaining sites from the Punic culture: the graveyard where first born, year-old boys were sacrificed to the Gods (very moving) and the old port.  Why have so many anciently culture-- -independently ---concluded that their Gods desire human/animal sacrifice???
Next, we visited the Roman ruins located around Byrsa Hill and quarter, built during Hannibal’s lifetime, now a major archeological site.  Places we visited included the theatre; amphitheater (where prisons met the death penalty); and the Carthage museum which showcases artifacts that range from a real-life skeletons to gold jewelry, and pottery.  Most items here were discovered as recently as 1974. 

Over the past 30 years, the government has invested in archeological scholarship to excavate and uncover its lost rich past.

View of city from Byrsa Hill



The ruins are scattered, across a broad area and a modern residential neighborhood has been built over most of the land.  It's pretty with lush gardens and upscale homes – now, one of the nicest places to live in Tunisia.

Sidi Bou Said: Described as a Tunisian Santorini, this village clings to the hillside above the blue sea; comprising charming, white-washed and blue-shingled houses, no wonder it has inspired poets and artists, such as French novelist Colette and Swiss painter Paul Klee. The village, which was once a major summer resort, features a main street/souk that is awash with small shops, selling typical souvenirs like magnets, as well as pretty ceramics, leather goods and bird cages.  They are quite aggressive!
We also visited Dar el Annabi, a "typical" Sidi Bou Said house that's open to the public. The house is built right on the road and has beautiful rooms that are decorated in mosaic tiles and tropical flora, and skylights; there are even a courtyard and a prayer room. We sampled delicious mint tea in the courtyard before our visit began.

From the terrace above we saw spectacular views of the panorama of whitewashed with blue, peppered with colorful flowers,

I ended my day with finally taking a camel ride, after having declined several times in Egypt and in Morocco.

What a splendid day of learning, variety, and immersion in the beautiful sights, sounds, and smells of Tunisia.
And, incidentally, my visit here brought my nations visited count to 73.

Photos coming soon!!!

 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cinque Terre

5 (Cinque) Terre
 
 
Today, from the port of Livorno, Italy, I took a full-day excursion to the picturesque Cinque Terre, an immensely beautiful set of 5 villages linked together on the Northern Italian Riviera.  Known as traffic-free, lowbrow, sea hugging fishing and (mostly former) winemaking areas, they are a remote group of five communities who banded together during the middles ages to protect themselves from pirates.
 
Because they have remained isolated from the rest of Europe and Italy (tourism is in its infancy here) each village holds its distinct heritage and dialect, unchanged for centuries.  Geographically, they are located a on the Northern Italian Riviera, a few minutes apart by boat or rail, or they can be hiked.  Many residents use the train as their sole means of transportation among villages and to larger cities as gasoline is expensive and by train, the route is direct and the towns are only 5 minutes apart. 
 
All five towns are connected by good hiking trails in the National Marine Park that protects wildlife and maintains beaches, breakwaters, trails, walkways, and docks.  Some speed demons are even known to hike all five in less than two hours, but I hear that 5 hours allows for a more reasonable pace.  I saw several couples with walking sticks/(cross country skis) in the towns, a signal they are serious trail hikers.  At this printing, the trail is not accessible in its entirety due to residual damage from October 2011 flood (and “politics”).  A train or boat ride is required to connect some towns. 
 
 
The towns are (from East to West): 1. Riomaggiore IMHO, the most beautiful from the sea), 2. Manarola, 3. (The completely hilltop) Corniglia (smallest with population of 250 and inaccessible by water due to lack of harbor), 4. Varnazza, and 5. Monterosso (largest with 1500 residents).
 
We began our outing with a 1.5-hour bus ride from Livorno to La Spezia followed by a walking tour of the nearby charming village of Portovenere (Port of Venus), considered the gateway to the Cinque Terre.  Next, (11:00) we boarded a ferry and enjoyed spectacular scenery as we cruised along the entire Cinque Terre.  The weather was perfect, the sun brilliant, breezes pleasant, as we glided along, feasting on the picturesque sites.  I was fortunate to secure a prime viewing spot up front and starboard. 
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

People boarded and disembarked at each harbor.
 
Our tour guide Andrea, passionate and knowledgeable, told us all about the history of Livorno, La Spezia, Levanto and other places; shipbuilding in the region; Carrera marble (we passed the mountains en route) ; regional wines, local cuisine (birthplace of pesto and focaccia and famous for anchovies) and beverages, and even a few words in Italian.
 
Our first stop was a visit to Vernazza, with the only natural harbor among the 5 towns and known as the Jewel of the Cinque Terre.  I really enjoyed soaking in the local flavor and watching passerby as a sipped a strong cup of cappuccino in a local harbor front piazza café.  I had heard these villages are fiercely committed to preserving their traditions, architecture, heritage and overall look rather than succumb to the lure of commercialism that has rendered many places the status of “any town Europe”  Hopefully, it will be a long time before Mc Donald’s and Prada invade!!
 
Next, we visited the largest village, Monterosso, which most closely resembles a (small-scale) resort complete with beach and kayak rentals.  We took a brief guided tour that included Piazza Garibaldi, Church of St John the Baptist, and Oratory of the Dead, then, I explored the village’s narrow passage-ways and nooks and crannies, on my own.  Here, I discovered as in many southern European cities, it is common to encounter cobblestone streets, narrow walkways, pastel colored buildings, residents lingering over a drink in a café, and clothes lines displaying colorful laundry.
 
I truly enjoyed this excursion that exceeded my expectations.  It offered rich history, beautiful scenery, and interesting commentary on a variety of subjects.  I was especially impressed that our logistically complex tour (bus, to walking tour, to free-time, to ferry-ride,  to walking tour, to free-time,  to ferry ride, to walking tour, to free-time, to a walk to train station, to train ride to Levanto, to bus back to the ship—all in ten hours) was so smoothly implemented and free of problems.
 
I will certainly add hiking the 5 (Cinque) Terre to my bucket list




 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tunisia-Birthplace of the Arab Spring


Tunisia-3000 years old!!


Today was my first visit to Tunisia, in North Africa, a former French colony whose history dates back over 3000 years. 

Having been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Spanish and French, the nation finally gained independence from France in 1956.

Importantly, Tunisia is the birth place of the Arab Spring.  Fortunately, its tourism industry is slowly making a comeback as its government demonstrates some signs of stability.

From the modern port city of La Goulette, I took an all-day tour that included visits to the bustling capital Tunis,  Phoenician and Roman ruins at Carthage & the beautiful hillside, Santorini-like, village of Sidi Bou Said.  Our guide was knowledgeable, patient, and passionate about his native land.

Tunis
Tunis is the capital of Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, Muslim and Arab, and yet the city feels neither Arab nor African. It's a place where old and new mix without any seeming conflict, in both the architecture (with Moorish and French influences) and way of life.  Both French and Arabic are spoken widely.  My French came in handier than my English.

During the 12th to 16th centuries, Tunis was considered one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Arab world.  There are reminders of its former splendor everywhere.

We drove through the modern 20th century French colonial Ville Nouvelle (new town) where we saw lots of painted shutters and wrought-iron balconies reminding me of Marseilles or Barcelona.  Along the main boulevard in this section of the city, built on an orderly European grid, we saw lots of promenading, coffee drinking, friends conversing, and people watching.

We even saw the square where the Arab Spring protests began in January 2011.

In sharp contrast, the 8th century Medina is quintessentially Arab and its centerpiece is the Great Mosque, only open to Muslims.  We toured the surrounding maze of tunnels and alleys dotted with local markets, hidden mansions, backstreet workshops, groups of young people smoking in hookah cafes, and children playing football.  The sights, sounds, and smells were a wonderful assault on the senses.  The Tunisian people were warm and inviting.

The Souks inside the medina are a cobweb of shops in a huge covered building with vaulted archways where century’s old traditions are at play with stalls of carpets, jewelry, ceramics, spices, clothing, souvenirs, and other handicrafts, with cafes lining the passageways.

Ruins of Ancient Carthage: Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians in the ninth century B.C., was destroyed by the Romans after three brutal Punic wars and then rebuilt to become one of Rome's most intriguing provincial capitals.

We began our tour with visits to the only two remaining sites from the Punic culture: the graveyard where first born, year-old boys were sacrificed to the Gods (very moving) and the old port.  Why have so many anciently culture-- -independently ---concluded that their Gods desire human/animal sacrifice???
Next, we visited the Roman ruins located around Byrsa Hill and quarter, built during Hannibal’s lifetime, now a major archeological site.  Places we visited included the theatre; amphitheater (where prisons met the death penalty); and the Carthage museum which showcases artifacts that range from a real-life skeletons to gold jewelry, and pottery.  Most items here were discovered as recently as 1974. 

Over the past 30 years, the government has invested in archeological scholarship to excavate and uncover its lost rich past.

View of city from Byrsa Hill



The ruins are scattered, across a broad area and a modern residential neighborhood has been built over most of the land.  It's pretty with lush gardens and upscale homes – now, one of the nicest places to live in Tunisia.

Sidi Bou Said: Described as a Tunisian Santorini, this village clings to the hillside above the blue sea; comprising charming, white-washed and blue-shingled houses, no wonder it has inspired poets and artists, such as French novelist Colette and Swiss painter Paul Klee. The village, which was once a major summer resort, features a main street/souk that is awash with small shops, selling typical souvenirs like magnets, as well as pretty ceramics, leather goods and bird cages.  They are quite aggressive!
We also visited Dar el Annabi, a "typical" Sidi Bou Said house that's open to the public. The house is built right on the road and has beautiful rooms that are decorated in mosaic tiles and tropical flora, and skylights; there are even a courtyard and a prayer room. We sampled delicious mint tea in the courtyard before our visit began.

From the terrace above we saw spectacular views of the panorama of whitewashed with blue, peppered with colorful flowers,

I ended my day with finally taking a camel ride, after having declined several times in Egypt and in Morocco.

What a splendid day of learning, variety, and immersion in the beautiful sights, sounds, and smells of Tunisia.
And, incidentally, my visit here brought my nations visited count to 73.

Photos coming soon!!!



Corsica-birthplace of Napolean

Calvi, Corsica France
 


Today, I enjoyed one of the most relaxing and peaceful days of the cruise in the small beautiful port of Calvi, Corsica.  I ran into fellow cruisers throughout the day and the consensus was that this is a special place.  After hustle and bustle of big cities such as Barcelona and Marseille, we welcomed this low-key, laid back visit.









Corsica coat of arms



I climbed up to the citadel that sits high above the harbor overlooking the immense Bay of Calvi and walked its ramparts Walking the ramparts is a great way to see the surrounding terrain and take some dramatic photos of the mountains, some high enough to have a snow dusting year round, and of the serene, turquoise sea below.

Next, I and descended the hill and strolled the warren of narrow streets filled with quaint shops and cafes (Some just opening for tourist season).  At a foot of the ramparts, is the Quay Landry that features a lovely marina and a café lined promenade.   I could have stayed longer soaking in the serenity.

 Corsica, is a French island in the Mediterranean Sea, (off the southern coast of Both France and Italy), famous for its climate, mountains (2/3 of island), and coastlines making it popular among tourists for snorkeling and diving opportunities along with parasailing and paragliding.  Calvi is a small port in a large bay on the northeastern section of Corsica.  We arrived on land by tender.

It is most widely known as birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and the town of Calvi claims to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus.
Corsica's culture contains both French and Italian elements, and its constitution while a Republic was written in Italian .   Corsica is one of the few regions of France that retains its own language in everyday usage: Corsican, which is more closely related to Italian than to French.

Here are some photos that remind me of this peaceful day:


Monaco

Coming soon