As a frequent traveler, I have heard a lot about the supremacy of Turkish Airlines’ Lounge Istanbul at the Ataturk Intenrational Airport as one of, if not the BEST airline lounge in the world.
So after a week traveling with 10 wonderful strangers, I was able to transfer 80,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points (that I acquired having the Chase Sapphire Preferred card) to become 80,000 United Miles so I could book 2 free first class (Turkish Airlines’ first class is actually called “business class” and there’s no higher level) flights from Tunis to Istanbul and from Istanbul to NYC on Turkish Airlines. Other than being excited for the flight experiences themselves, I was actually more excited this time to finally get access to the venerable lounge in Istanbul.
Getting through Tunis-Carthage International Airport was a relative breeze so I was on my Turkish Airlines flight from Tunis to Istanbul within minutes of arriving at the airport.
While waiting for takeoff, they handed hot towels and took my order from the menu below:
And at about 10 minutes after takeoff, I was served with a selection of cheeses and bread spreads. FYI, on business class they let you watch movies on the stowaway video screens even as you’re taking off and landing!
After I was done with the cheeses, they were quickly swapped with a satisfying vegetable omelette.
We landed at IST (Ataturk International) airport about 2 hours later, where I went through another round of security to get to the international transfer area. The lounge is so big you’ll notice it immediately.
No check-in needed! Just scan your flight ticket in at their turnstiles.
Once your inside, it could take you up to half an hour to explore the entire place, which covers nearly 6000 square meters. There’s a reason why they call this lounge “bigger than some airports.”
With 2 wide floors of entertainment, this massive space houses a movie theater, public lockers, virtual mini-golf, a kids playroom with a slide, popcorn machines, pretzel stations, about 20+ standalone kitchens serving all types of international cuisine, limitless and unlimited drinks of all types, and tons and tons of Turkish pastries.
Need a place to sit? Not a problem here; this place can seat up to 1,200 travelers:
This whole new process took about 30 minutes (it would’ve been much more if I weren’t in first/business class!) where they checked your flight tickets, asked you a few questions about your vacation, then opened up all your carry-on bags to look for said electronic devices. Once they found them you had to declare each one, shut them all down, and they’ll itemize each one before placing them in bubble wrap and placing each of them in hard suitcases. They then give you a tag for each device with which you can get these electronics back after the flight.
Then it was off to my flight.
The first/business class seating isn’t in a clamshell type but more of the standard 3 per grouping where those assigned to the middle seats may have an issue getting to the aisle. Still, they all can turn into flatbeds.
The footrests open up to store belongings:
Then they pass out these great Denon headphones to use during the flight.
There’s also the amenities kit, which although is in a nice leather FURLA bag, the contents are pretty standard (or am I getting more spoiled now?):
Their first/business class are also known for their in-flight dining with an extensive menu of drinks and food.
A chef comes out to take your requests ahead so he can cook it to order:
And then the ceremonious multi-course meal began:
They even give you a fake candlelight to give the impression that you’re having a candlelight dinner to yourself.
Their bathrooms are no joke either:
They’ll make your bed for you if you want to go to sleep, but I chose to stay up to readjust my circadian rhythm:
If you need a laptop to work with but had to check it in earlier, they can provide laptops for you to use during the flight. That said, their wifi was pretty fast for in-flight internet.
About 2 hours before landing, they begin to serve their light breakfast:
After about 11 hours in the sky, we promptly landed at JFK airport and I was the first one out the door. After getting through passport control with Global Entry, I waited for about 30 minutes at baggage claims before they were able to deliver me back my laptop, camera, and iPad from their cargo hold. Just don’t lose your tags that they give you before you board!
- At time of posting in Istanbul, Turkey, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 64% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
This very city ruled the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC before it was conquered and wiped out by the Romans in the 3rd Punic War in 146 BC. It eventually was rebuilt as Roman Carthage which became the focal point for the Roman Empire’s affairs in North Africa.
Heading along Rue du Maroc, one of the first things we passed on our left walking south were the ruins of Basilique de Saint-Cyprien.
Then getting back on Rue du Maroc, we walked by a very very long Presidential Palace complex, of which photo-taking were not allowed (thanks to multiple armed guards and policemen who took excruciating pains to remind us that along our stroll).
We then headed down further and made a left towards the entrance to the Antoine Baths.
Here for 10 dinars a person you can buy a ticket to all the ruins in Carthage, namely the Amphitheater, the Villas Romaines, the Theatre Romain, the Musée Paléochretien, the Musée de Carthage, Tophet de Salambo, the Antonin Baths, and the Quartier Magon. Just make sure you use it before 5pm as all the sights close by then.
The best one of all of them to see, if you had time to see only one, is the Antoine Baths, built by Emperor Antonine Le Pieux in the 2nd century BC where only the boilers and wooden reserves remain. It was one of the largest baths of the ancient empire (the largest being the Baths of Diocletian, which I actually visited 2 weeks ago when starting this trip in Rome) The 15m tall column otherwise gives an idea of the size of the actual baths.
Although this place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important tourist destinations in Tunisia, you’re allowed to climb down into the actual ruins and explore them up close with nary a tourist, or anyone for that matter, in sight.
Just don’t be a dick by touching or taking things with you because there’s literally no security watching you here.
After about half an hour here we headed back out and walked a few streets west to the ruins of Villas Romaines, a Roman country house:
At this point, especially after a morning at the hammam, we were getting tired of walking and decided to hire 2 cabs for 10 dinars a person to show us around the rest of Carthage’s ruins and then take us back to the Tunis medina. The cab drivers would also call the ticket offices ahead to keep the ruins open for us past the 5pm closing time. Not a bad deal!
So our next stop was up the hill to Saint-Louis Cathedral on top of the Byrsa hill. Built in 1884, it is now a cultural center for Tunisian classic music concerts.
Afterwards we were taken to the ruins of an old Roman amphitheater:
And then the old Roman aqueducts and cisterns (Quartier Magon or Cisterns of La Malga) that used to ferry and hold nearly 51 million liters of water from up to 90km away. These are the largest known surviving cisterns from the ancient world.
Then driving towards the coast we took photos of the Punic Ports of Carthage, which was once a military harbor and trade port built in the 2nd century BC and housed up to 170-180 ships.
And with that we returned home, washed up, and had one final group dinner together back at where we had our morning hammam at Palais Bayram.
It was pretty surreal to watch this group of 10 strangers come together so cohesively after a whirlwind 6 days together through 3 countries, especially when the nervous ones even admitted how wonderfully and unexpectedly surprised they were with their time in Tunisia.
It’s sad to say goodbye, but after nearly a week together on the road, it’s time to go home.
- At time of posting in Carthage, Tunisia, it was 23 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear with periodic clouds
To further prove how safe and tourist-friendly Tunis has remained, we booked a long session at the hammam at nearby Palais Bayram this morning. For a Turkish baths, mud scrub, and 30 minute massage, we got a great deal at about 120 dinars per person!
We spent about 4-5 hours getting pampered vegging out and drinking tea, before deciding to finally go for some sightseeing up north in Carthage, but more on that later. The first task was to find a way out of the medina so we could find the main train station.
Eventually we crawled back out the medina and towards the clock tower.
Then we turned right to reach the closest train station, Gare de Tunis at Place Barcelona.
For about less than 1 dinar a person, we boarded Train #6 heading 2 stops over to the train station Tunis Marine, which took about 5 minutes. Make sure you get on the train going in the right direction! People had to help us.
Afterwards we crossed a small street to get on the TGM line heading north towards Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.
Again for less than 1 dinar per person, we quickly ran on the TGM train before it departed.
Deciding that we had more than enough time to explore the sights north of Tunis, we decided to head all the way to Sidi Bou Said, a port town known for its blue and white houses hugging the coast, reminding everyone as being the “Santorini of Tunisia.”
If you’re heading south (as there’s no more north to go unless you want to hit the sea), turn left at any street to get views of the port and Lake of Tunis. They were totally worth it for the detour:
And from here we kept walking south along Rue du Maroc into Carthage.
- At time of posting in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, it was 23 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear with periodic clouds
And I give Tunisia lots of kudos as well. Although I started getting more of the “where are you from? Korea? Japan?” for the first time on this trip, Tunisia has been one of the rare few countries that I’ve been to in North Africa and the Middle East where the locals don’t stare, let alone even bother looking at you with the “what the hell are you doing here?” face. In fact we weren’t even noticed that much, as if we had been immediately accepted as part of normal, everyday society, which I found that refreshing and pleasantly surprising.
And getting through security as a USA passport holder was pretty effortless. However, as everything was proceeding smoothly, Alfred left his Ray-Ban sunglasses on the airplane and almost caused an international incident trying to run back and find them.
About 10 minutes minutes passed before we got a little worried and decided to look outside arrivals for him; a security guard even let Samin back into baggage claims (totally illegal!) to look for Alfred. After nearly an hour later Alfred finally found us, reunited with his $200 Ray-Ban sunglasses. Worth it?
Outside the airport, the games began. Although the cabbie touts didn’t initially rush us like most other countries I’ve been to, they nevertheless started with the shakedown beginning with 40 dinars for taking us from the airport to the city. I stood my ground while the other drivers (and my fellow monsooners) watched and learned the art of the angry haggle.
The next round got the price down to 5 dinars per person (making it 30 dinars) but again, I refused, knowing that it was supposed to be no more than 5-10 dinars for a regular car to the city. I then got a police officer involved, making them agree to turning on their meter. Eventually we settled on 20 dinars total for the van for all 6 of us including luggage. Victory!
About 15 minutes of driving we first passed by the Tunis Clock Tower:
Next to the clock is the Roman Catholic church, Cathedral Of St Vincent de Paul, the see of the Archdiocese of Tunis. It unfortunately was shuttered when we tried to visit.
And then eventually we were dropped off at the Port de France, the opening and official entry into Tunis’ historic medina.
Right by Fort de France is Place de la Victoire.
And into the medina we go:
It took about a 10 minute walk through the maze-like alleyways of the medina before we arrived at our lodgings at Dar Traki Medina de Tunis, where we were welcomed with tea and pastries.
After freshening up, we headed back out to explore more of the medina, of which the entire walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site:
But since we’re here during Ramadan, almost every shop is closed during the daytime:
All the mosques also had their doors shut, so the only highlight was Zaytuna Mosque, where although there were signs indicating non-muslims were not allowed inside, it was also the only mosque which had open doors for us to peek in and see. Nobody stopped us and those who did notice didn’t care enough to shoo us away.
We then walked out west of the medina to an open plaza marked by the Monument Place de la Kasbah, a government monument that’s situated right in front of Hotel de Ville de Tunis, Tunis’ city hall. There’s tons of security here.
It took about 2 hours going up and down, left and right before we pretty much saw everything there is to see in the medina, so we wrapped up with a beautiful rooftop Iftar (the meal after sunset when Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast) at El Mrabet, after listening to the adhan fill the sky around the city.
But alas, we were one of few to enjoy this dinner:
But the city comes alive after 10pm, most of whom come to El Mrabet for dessert, shisha, tea, and an outdoor concert:
The streets are no less lively late night during Ramadan, which is ironic because Tunis’ medina is usually completely dead at 9pm otherwise.
Well, except maybe this street.
and this one.
So far, we’re all safe and alive, and as one formerly nervous monsooner had just said to me 5 minutes ago: “I love Tunisia.”
- At time of posting in Tunis, Tunisia, it was 28 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
For about 4.5 euros each, we took the ferry to Malta’s northern island, Gozo, known for its more rural setting and scenic hills. It famously has been tied to the legendary island of Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s epic The Odyssey.
Ferries from the main island to Gozo and back run 24 hours a day, about once an hour.
While soaking up the sun on the bridge of the ship, a man named Joey approached us offering us 2 private taxis to drive us around to all the main sights of Gozo. His price was 100 euros total for 7 people, which didn’t have to paid for until the end of the trip (and only if we were satisfied). After a bit of deliberation, we decided to go for it.
After disembarking, we got into Joey’s cabs and headed off to our first stop: the capital of Gozo and its largest settlement, Victoria (also known to the Maltese as Rabat).
In the center of Victoria is The Citadella, a citadel inhabited since the Bronze Age and has continued to be the center of the island’s activities since prehistory. It’s free to enter and it layout is similar to Mdina’s walled city, but even smaller.
The views from the citadel’s top over the rest of Gozo are pretty incredible:
After about an hour here we got back into our cabs and headed to the Blue Hole, where we took 4 euro motorboat rides to see the now collapsed Azure Window.
If the Azure Window sounds familiar to you, it’s because just about 2 months ago it was all over international news for having collapsed after decades of natural erosion. It gained fame for being the film location for numerous films and TV shows including Clash Of The Titans and Game Of Thrones:
And so on March 8, 2017 at 9:40am local time (literally 2 months and 3 weeks ago!), this happened (thanks Samin for the find):
Yep, the whole thing’s gone. And we just missed it by 3 months. But we set off anyway to see it for ourselves:
And yet while most of your attention will be looking for where the Azure Window used to be, don’t forget how gorgeous the rest of the grotto is as well, especially for its “Gatorade blue waters.”
After 15 minutes sailing around the grottoes, we headed back into our taxis and took a quick peek at what is considered the world’s 2nd oldest (after Göbekli Tepe) known structure built by humans, the Ġgantija temples.
After a day exploring Valletta, we woke up early to see the way overrated “The Malta Experience” and nearby Saint Elmo’s fort before heading to the Bus Terminal and hiting a 20 minute cab ride to Mdina for 20 euros.
Why Mdina? Well, have you seen Game Of Thrones? King’s Landing was not just shot at Dubrovnik!
If you need a visual reminder:
The Mdina Gate is the very gate to King’s Landing! But more importantly (depending on where your tastes lie), in real life it also served as the gates to Malta’s former capital city during the Middle Ages before the Knights of St. John took over and moved the administrative capital to Birgu.
Within the gates is a tiny, romantic city with a population of 300. It takes a little under an hour to explore its myriad of gorgeous alleyways, but gosh it was a memorable hour.
Need another Game of Thrones reference?
Views from its northern Bastion Square:
Next stop: the northern island of Gozo!
- At time of posting in Mdina, Malta, it was 19 °C -
Humidity: 76% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear with periodic clouds