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Introduction

Tunisia is a popular tourist destination thanks to the beautiful Mediterranean beaches, its close location to Europe and its domestic stability and safety. However, it is from the interior that the typical Tunisian warmth emanates, and also where you can find many historic treasures. Douz, the ?gateway to the Sahara?, has fascinating cave dwellings and Islamic architecture. There are also caves in Matmata, the area where the movie Star Wars was filmed.

Before 1,000 BC the Phoenicians established a trading port in Carthage. A few years before 150 BC the area known as Tunisia was taken over by the Romans after the war and Carthage was destroyed. Later, in the 7th and 8th centuries the Islam swept through North Africa. As you travel throughout the country, you will see these influences reflected in the art and architecture and in the cities themselves. Tunisia finally became an Ottoman territory and remained one until the 1800's, when France had begun to be more and more powerful in North Africa. Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. The country's first president, Habib Bourguiba imposed a one-party state and ruled for more than three decades. President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has been in power since 1987.

Most of Tunisia's 10.3 million people are Arab-Berber. The official languages are Arabic and French, but English is spoken in the cities and resort areas. The nation is nearly entirely Muslim. The most popular months for visiting Tunisia are July and August, a time when many national and local festivals occur. This is the time also when it gets very hot. April and May are also delightful months, and less crowded. Often you can beat the summer rates, and during those months it is not quite as hot to visit the desert south.

The capital, Tunis, is home to a famously ancient medina, a World Heritage Site, and features souks, or markets, virtually unchanged since the 13th century. In the south, at the edge of the Sahara desert, there are a series of oases. Villages stand out as islands of lush green in the midst of an ocean of sand. Also in the south are the Matmata Caves, which are craters dug as homes to protect against invaders. Visitors enter by tunnel. The coast is a common draw for tourists. Popular resort areas are Sousse, Moustair, Tabarka, Hammamet and the coast of Catharge, close to Tunis. There you can see the ancient ruins of both the Carthaginian and Roman empires. The shady, winding roads around Tabarka are also great for hiking and exploring. More for leisure than for transport, bicycles are available for rent throughout the country.

The cities with international airports are Tunis-Carthage, Monastir and Jerba. The national airline, Tunis Air, flies to many cities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. There are only four airports offering domestic travel in Tunisia, thus if you are planning on seeing a few places while you are there, you may want to plan on using buses or trains. The buses run by the national company are in good condition, air-conditioned and fast, and they have very comprehensive routes. There are also regional bus companies (slower and not air-conditioned). In the summer buses operate at night to avoid the high heat. The trains are not as comprehensive, but are modern and run on schedule. Another option is the louages, which are 5-seater long-distance taxis. They only depart when full, cost only slightly more than buses and are more direct.

For accommodation, Tunisia has everything from hostels to extensive resorts, which are mostly located on the coast. The hostels Auberge de Jeunnesse, of Hostelling International, are very well kept.