Exploring Tunisia and Algeria on an eye-popping North African land tour

By Dawn Vincent
This article appears on page 6 of the December 2020 issue.

I was blissfully ignorant of what my travel future held for me when I boarded a plane in Memphis, Tennessee, on Feb. 15, 2020, headed (via Toronto and Frankfurt) to Tunis, Tunisia.

My plan was to spend six days in each of two North African countries, Tunisia and Algeria.

This would be my third attempt at trying to visit North Africa. Twice before, a friend and I had taken a Viking “South Mediterranean” cruise with port calls in Tunis and Algiers, but due to unforeseen circumstances, the ship failed to stop in one or both countries. (On the first cruise, we missed both because of bad weather. The second cruise did make a port call in Algiers, but when a member of the group fell down some stairs and hit her forehead, which began bleeding profusely, the decision was made to bring the whole group back to the ship.)

For my 2020 North African adventure, I decided against taking a cruise in favor of going on my own on a land tour with a private guide.

After an internet search, I chose a company called Mosaic North Africa (Manitoba, Canada; 267/317-4700, mosaicnorthafrica.com) to help me make arrangements as a single traveler (CAD8,500, or $6,375, for the 13-day private tour, including ground transportation, guides/drivers, all entrance fees, accommodations, breakfasts in Algeria and breakfasts and dinners in Tunisia).

My contact was the company’s owner, Kevin Dyck, who lives in Tunisia. He was a tremendous asset in helping me gather all of the information necessary to obtain an Algerian visa. (Tunisia was a snap — no visa required.)

I had to submit my entire work history, a letter of invitation from the Algerian tour company and a detailed itinerary with dates and hotels, along with my passport and $160, to the Algerian consulate in New York City, plus, of course, pay the postal fees for sending everything by registered mail. It took about three weeks, but my passport with the visa was returned, and I was set to go!

Getting there

The only problem I had with Mosaic North Africa was that they don’t do flight arrangements, and I had not arranged my own flights since I retired years ago. I ended up choosing to fly into Tunisia, then fly to Algiers for the second part of the tour and fly home from there. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t always.

Before I left Memphis, I had been reading about the coronavirus outbreak in China. This was of special interest to me, as I had worked for many years as a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and our department was very involved in preparing for influenza pandemics. I knew that there was a new ban on travel to and from China, but what I was hearing in mid-February was that the virus was contained there, so I continued with my travel plans.

I had asked for special assistance in boarding/deplaning because of my age (82). It isn’t that I am physically unable to walk distances, but I easily get lost in strange airports and appreciate having some help.

I wish there was more consistency among airports in how they handle special assistance, but, in my experience, even bad assistance is better than none at all!

The man pushing my wheelchair spoke no English, but I had studied French in high school, college and beyond and remembered enough to carry on the basics of a conversation.

There was a bottleneck on the way to the luggage carousel; my assistant explained that they were checking our temperatures because of the virus. I passed and was dropped off at the baggage carousel.

Once I found my bag, I went to the arrival hall, but I did not see anyone with the expected card bearing my name, so I went to an information booth to have him paged. Soon, there he was: Nadhem! He was very friendly and spoke perfect English (as well as Arabic, French and Spanish).

Touring Tunisia

The next morning, my first official sightseeing day, Nadhem drove to the site of ancient Carthage, located in a suburb of the capital city, Tunis. Not much remains, and what is there is below the current street level.

We then drove to an area that reminded me of the Greek island of Santorini, with its white cottages and Mediterranean blue rooftops, but without the crowds. We had lunch at a nice café, where I had fresh sea bass that was totally delicious! Fresh catch of the day, of course.

The afternoon was spent in the Tunis Medina, which was crowded.

After checking out of my hotel the next morning, Nadhem and I went to the Bardo National Museum, housing an amazing collection of mosaics depicting the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, before continuing to the enormous Roman archaeological site in Dougga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best Roman ruins in Tunisia.

In fact, I found that all of the Roman ruins in both Tunisia and Algeria were far more extensive and better preserved (not to mention, far less crowded) than the Colosseum and temples on display in Rome itself.

At Makthar, there was a huge forum, Trajan’s Arch, baths, amphitheaters, a temple with statues of Rome’s big three — Jupiter, Juno and Minerva — and a Vandal church dating from a somewhat later era.

We then drove to our 5-star hotel in the important Islamic city of Kairouan, La Kasbah Kairouan, a fantastic place! I wish we had had two nights there.

Our first visit in Kairouan was to the Grand Mosque Okba Ibn Nafaa, where my hooded jacket provided enough head covering for me to enter. The rest of the morning was spent mostly in the car. At noon we were in Sbeitla, with wonderfully preserved mosaics, churches and baptisteries as well as temples, baths and the Arch of Diocletian. Nadhem bought bananas and oranges, which we shared for lunch, sitting in the ancient Roman forum.

Then it was off to our hotel in Tozeur, where I learned the lesson to take the water from my room to dinner, as the hotel’s restaurant charged for tap water (filtered, of course, but not commercially sealed).

The high point of my stay in Tunisia was our visit to the Sahara and the mountainside oasis village of Chebika. Chebika was the site of an old Roman settlement that became a mountain refuge for the native North Africans, the Berbers. With Nadhem’s help, I climbed to the oasis’ source spring in the rocks.

Stories on the internet warned that Tunisia was high risk for travel, primarily because of hostilities near the Libyan border, but I figured that if Mosaic North Africa was willing to go, it was probably OK. Nadhem said tourism was so slow that he was happy to get even one single lady!

The next morning we set out for El Djem, where one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world is located. Constructed between AD 230 and 238, it is believed to have, at one time, hosted between 30,000 and 45,000 spectators. It was enormous and in much better shape than the Colosseum in Rome. We could go down to the rooms where the gladiators awaited their battles, and — best of all for me but perhaps not for Tunisia’s tourist industry — it was almost deserted.

Nadhem again bought delicious fruit for our lunch, and we ate seated among the ruins.

Transfer troubles

The next day I left for Algiers. Following my flight, I stood in line at passport control for about 20 minutes, but when I reached the agent, he asked for a form that I didn’t know I was supposed to have filled out. Since I’d been seated at the back of the plane, I was almost the last person in line, so I dutifully took the form and filled it out, then got in line again.

The agents didn’t speak much English, and my French wasn’t all that great, but I finally understood that writing “retired” as my occupation was not acceptable. When I said that I had been a microbiologist, they asked me a lot of questions about coronavirus as I tried to explain that it had been years since I was in the lab.

Finally, my passport was stamped and I headed toward the baggage claim, only to notice a man heading in the opposite direction with my suitcase! I showed him my claim ticket, and he gave me the bag.

“Où est-ce que Je depart?” (“Where do I go?”) I asked in deplorable French. He pointed to a door, and out I went. There were people milling around, but it obviously wasn’t the main arrival hall. I never did find the main hall, so I thought I’d better get some local currency for a taxi, but the airport bank was closed and my debit card wouldn’t work.

A man who had been watching me, apparently, approached and said he would be glad to exchange $100 into Algerian currency for me. I am sure the rate of exchange was exorbitant, but what could I do? He also led me to the taxi stand.

When I asked how much it would cost to go to my hotel, the driver said about $40, as it was far. He actually would have preferred the US dollars! C’est la vie.

I was able to text Kevin Dyck on my iPhone after leaving the airport, and he told me that my guide was still waiting for me at the airport, but he assured me I would be reimbursed for my taxi fare, as I had prepaid for my transfer.

I was relieved when we arrived at the Space Telemy Hôtel, where I freshened up a bit in my room before my guide, Ghanou, and the local Mosaic North Africa manager arrived to apologize for my troubles and promise all would go well from then on. Ghanou seemed very nice, and he spoke English well.

Exploring Algeria

Ghanou was right on time the next morning, and we set out for a visit to a museum of Roman artifacts before traveling on to Tipaza to visit this famous Roman site on the Mediterranean. The historic basilica there is said to have been the largest in North Africa when it was built, in the 4th century.

We left Algiers the next morning, and drove almost six hours through the Kabylie mountainous region to the ancient Roman city of Djémila. On the way, we stopped in Sétif to visit the National Archaeological Museum, home to the amazingly intact “Procession of Bacchus” mosaic.

Djémila contains the ruins of both a pre-Christian pagan city — with thermal baths, a theater, a forum, etc. — and later Roman Christian sites.

After some exploration and lunch, we drove about three hours to Constantine, where we were staying at an Ibis hotel, a chain I knew from France.

I was notified the next morning that Ghanou had to leave to attend to a family issue and that a new guide, Rafik, was coming from another city and would meet me at 9 a.m. Poor Rafik had had to drive most of the night and didn’t arrive in the city until 5 a.m.! But when we met, he seemed amazingly alert.

He was often on the phone, but he explained that he had to make arrangements for all the police escorts. I had not realized it, but almost all travelers in Algeria get police escorts outside of Algiers, which is perhaps too large a city to make that practical. When we were driving in the countryside, we had to change escorts according to whatever province we were in, but they were always ready and waiting for us. And we always got great parking places at the museums!

Our morning destination was the nearby hillside site of Tiddis, a former Roman city that today is in ruins. Located on the Gorge of the Khreneg, it was beautiful, though, because of the constant wind, not as well preserved as most of the Roman sites I’d seen so far. I managed to walk most of it, except for a rather steep climb at the top.

The city of Constantine is absolutely gorgeous — pun intended, as it was built on a mountain gorge over which was erected a magnificent suspension bridge. We first visited the National Museum Cirta, where we ran into a touring group of schoolchildren. They congregated around me, giggling and staring. Following me from room to room, they were clearly more interested in antique me than in the antiquities of their country!

Located 110 kilometers south of Constantine, the UNESCO Site of Timgad sits on a mountainous site of great beauty. It is a consummate example of a Roman military colony created out of nothing, with an orthogonal design based on two perpendicular routes running through the city. During our visit, there were very few people touring this vast site.

Rafik and I went out for lunch — chicken and eggplant on a skewer for me and fish and something non-carb for Rafik, who follows a keto diet. (He gave me his French fries!)

Later, from the TV in my room, I learned that an Italian visiting Algeria had been put in quarantine for COVID-19. I wondered if I might have to go into quarantine myself when I returned to the States. The hotel’s front desk said that no flights between Algiers and Germany (I would be connecting in Frankfurt) had been canceled, just to/from Italy. So far, so good.

The next morning would be my last full day in Algeria. After breakfast, Rafik and I set out for Algiers, exchanging police escorts along the way. The police were always prompt and cordial, but I felt guilty using a police escort for just myself.

When we arrived in Algiers, it was time for lunch, and Rafik took me to a wonderful fish restaurant overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea. Nowhere else in the world had I seen such a blue as that! The fish had been freshly caught that same morning and tasted divine.

After lunch, we went up to the top of a hill, I believe the highest spot in Algiers, to visit Our Lady of Africa. This Neo-Byzantine Catholic cathedral is remarkable.

The nearby Great Mosque of Algiers is one of the few remaining examples of Almoravid architecture, with a 14th-century minaret. From there, we went straight to the Casbah.

I don’t know what I thought the Casbah was, probably a place to buy things, full of souvenirs, but I discovered it’s a walled central area in any North African city. In Algiers, it was old and dingy outside but elegant inside, with living quarters that residents had fought hard to retain when the authorities wanted to tear it down to build other structures. Today it is a UNESCO Site, so its future seems secure.

Rafik wanted to take our car to the top of the hill, park it and walk down through the Casbah, then take a taxi back up the hill, but it took him 30 minutes to find a parking place! Tourism in Algeria was slim, as I’d seen, but you would never have known it there!

At the end of our explorations, it took a half hour to find a taxi to take us back up the hill.

It had been a very eventful day, and I really wasn’t hungry, so I ate a protein bar, packed my bags and went to sleep. The next morning, Rafik took me to the airport and filled out the form I would need to exit the country.

A changed world

Landing in Frankfurt, I was met by my special assistant, who put me on the shuttle to the Radisson airport hotel, where I had made my reservation online for an overnight before my flight home the next day.

The room was sparse and small, but the TV provided me with the latest information on the coronavirus epidemic. More cases were being detected worldwide, but travel had not been restricted from Europe yet (although, in retrospect, with what I’d learn about the coronavirus entering the Eastern US from Europe, perhaps it should have been).

At the time, I had no idea that COVID-19 would soon be pronounced a pandemic. For years I had worked with virologists who were preparing for another influenza epidemic. That would have been bad, but our scientists knew how to make influenza vaccines and could no doubt speed them up. This new virus, however, behaved in strange ways, and there were no clues of how infectious it was, how dangerous it could be, what kind of illnesses it caused.

I thought about the book “The Plague” by the French-Algerian author Albert Camus, about a fictional bubonic plague in Oran, a large port city of Algeria. Camus envisioned the whole city of Oran being quarantined for several months in the mid 1940s. His book was allegory. This was real.

Soon, the three other trips I had planned for 2020 were canceled. I had felt that, at my age, this would be my last year of overseas travel. Being there is not so hard, but getting there is, and I don’t envision that it will improve. Now I am so glad I went to North Africa, and if it is my last overseas adventure, at least it was a great one!