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Several nights in Tunisia


TUNISIA | Monday, 6 April 2009 | Views [494]

I look up at the bricks of the vaulted ceiling for a time before I remember the strange place where I went to sleep.  Eventually, the profound sense of dislocation fades. It's about 8:00 a.m. Monday morning and I've slept more soundly than I have in ages. 

By the time I finish showering, Lee is out in the courtyard having breakfast.  In what becomes a welcome ritual, we get coffee, some very fresh orange juice, a basket of bread and various spreads ranging from cheese, to fruit preserves to a nutella-like chocolate.  While not a coffee drinker, I decide I better take my caffeine where I can, so I have a cup as well.  After Lee finishes and heads back indoors to shower, I make nice with a cat that has slinked into the courtyard.  I try not to be too offended when it bites me on one of the knuckles of my left hand. 


Like most train lines, the tram from Sidi Bou Said into Tunis doesn't offer a lot in terms of scenery.  Mainly the backs of buildings and the fairly drab blue and white stations.  There's lots of stops for Carthage,  but one gets no sense for how relatively posh the suburb actually is.  What we do have, however, is a pretty good opportunity to do some people watching, as we seem to be the only tourists on board. Lots of people who seem to be on their way to work , a couple of older gentleman in the traditional fez-like chechias...a child standing with his father near one of the doors who's throwing up.  I try to focus my attention elsewhere. 

The final stretch of the line is down a long causeway that cuts through the middle of decidedly un-scenic Lac Tunis.  We emerge from the Tunis Marine station and the eastern end of Avenue Borguiba, the broad, traffic heavy main street of the new town that leads to the medina.  We cross a couple of the menacing main intersections and walk past the looming, gaudy clock tower in the median of the avenue.  

And then, we meet Ali.  Only later did we realize how completely by the book was his approach.  He walked up to Lee and said something about recognizing her from the hotel, something about working as a night clerk and wanting to work on his English.  Before we know it, we're following him toward the medina.  He knows a good route into the medina that will avoid all the tourist souks, all the markets selling t-shirts and sneakers.  He tells us that today is the last day of a special Berber exhibition.  That sounds good, right?  We'd like to see the Berber exhibition.  Although I was more uptight about trailing Ali than was Lee with her typically good nature, I was still somewhat taken in by Ali's pitch.

So, into the medina we go, not through the grand Place de la Victoire but through a passage on the south side.  I get used to seeing the back of Ali's white windbreaker and his baseball cap as we walk quickly into the medina.  He kicks a soccer ball with a kid, he says hello to vendors and workmen.  Who is this guy,the mayor of of Tunis?  Had we given him enough enough time, he probably would at least have claimed to be related to half the people in the medina.  

I'm annnoyed, because in just trying to keep up with Ali, I have even less sense of direction than I would otherwise.  Plus, I don't want to spend half of my first day being dragged around by this guy, even if he is eagerly playing tour guide.  But I try to keep my cool.  

After browsing quickly through a couple of the older souks, we're taken to a large shop that is supposed to offer a good view from its roof. This, we eventually learn, is another typical come-on.  Come in for the view, stay for the sales pitch.  We parade up to the roof and it certainly is a refreshing view of the medina after being in the more claustrophobic lanes below.  The skyline, such as it is, is pretty cluttered, but there's some colorful ceramic tiles along the ledge of the roof and a very good vantage point from which to look at the impressive minaret of the great mosque.  

Ali takes our picture, which turns out to be the only valuable product of this encounter for me and then we're ushered downstairs for the sales pitch.  The special Berber exhibition is a rug sale.  Not a sale, just the selling of rugs, which happens in Tunisia with the regularity of of a clock ticking.  We're lead into a room, the door is closed and the pitch begins.  

Without any real encouragement from us,the proprietor has his assistant unroll all manner of rugs on the floor before us.  Some of them are quite lovely.  But I'm not buying a goddamn rug at this point unless someone puts a gun to my head.  Perhaps our rug seller senses my mood, because the sales pitch goes on neither as long nor as aggressively as we expect. We assure him that we're not interested in any rugs today and we're politely sent on our way.  

We're not done with Ali just yet though. He drags us to a perfume shop, which apparently is owned  by a brother of his.  What good fortune! Lee is presented with a variety of scents.  On 20 dinars for a small bottle, for this is pure perfume, which can be diluted in water and used to freshen the home, delight the senses, blah, blah, blah. Perhaps to get on with our lives, Lee generously agrees to buy a couple of bottles. By this time, I've had my fill of Ali.  Lee stops him long enough to say that we want to explore the medina without him.  He asks for 20 dinars, a sum that I had already decided upon as worthwhile to get rid of the pest. At last, we're left alone to explore the medina.

The medina is a labyrinth.  What says Rue de la Kasbah or Souk des Femmes is just a narrow lane that fits perhaps three people across.  And straight lines seem to be the exception, not the rule. I pride myself on having a good sense of direction, but I'm hopeless in the medina.  I have a feeling we're not in our grid-like Chicago anymore, Toto.  

We're wandering around in the central medina now, trying to get our bearings.  As a project, we decide to find the posh Dar El Medina hotel, a place we are considering for our last night in Tunis after we have completed a circuit of the country.  Not only is it hard to find, Rue Sidi Ben Arous is undergoing road work of a sort.  We have to step over workmen and more than one hole the ground to get there.  The hotel seems every bit as exceptional as its website indicates, but I can't imagine hapless tourists finding their way to and from this location.  We're allowed to look at one of the of the rooms, all ample space and simple elegance, as well as the view from the roof deck, where we are greeted unenthusiastically by an Italian couple, but we decide to pass on the hotel for now.  I don't fancy the idea of dragging our bags down the torn up lane.  

By this time, sitting down and having a cup of tea is sounding like a highly desirable activity.  So we decide to try to find one of the cafes we had seen on our earlier peregrinations.  Of course, we had seen so many things earlier.  

To my surprise, now that we have wandered back toward the central medina and the Souk des Chechias, there's the very cafe I had in mind.  As it turns out, this lovely cafe, which extends to both sides of the lane on which it resides, is the Cafe Chaouechin, the oldest in Tunis.  We get off our feet, have a couple of teas with pine nuts and plan an escape route from the medina.  However, I do want to come back to the medina and the Souk des Chechias.  I really want a chechia.  "Traditional Tunisian clothes can look rather silly on foreigners," my guidebook warns.  "Shut up," my stubborn, silent retort. 


This is what I had in mind.  Place de la Victoire. Although it felt like a long walk, we were able to extricate ourselves from the medina without too many wrong turns.  And here we are at the fairly grand expanse of the eastern entrance to the medina, at the end of Avenue Bourguiba, with it's modest, triumphal-looking arch, Bab el Bahr.  This is the place where I wanted to enter the medina before our friend Ali swooped in.  

We take a couple of requisite pictures, but we're really ready for lunch. As we walk into the new town, first back down Bourguiba, then down the adjacent Rue de Yougoslavie, the contrast of medina and the new town couldn't be more obvious.  It's a contrast that obviously extends beyond traditional Arab and European ideas of architecture and housing to simple matters of expression, thought and interaction.  All well and good, but we're hungry.  

We find a sandwich shop and are lucky enough to quickly find ourselves in a booth, particularly given that every available table and chair in the place seem to be occupied.  After we order our sandwiches, another fine ritual begins for us.  A basket of bread arrives along with a small tray with olives and harissa paste.  A gentleman who seems to be the proprietor stops at our table as I'm regarding the harissa and I finally understand that he means to warn me of its heat.  I wish I could say in Arabic that it's okay, I've eaten enough vindaloo back in Chicago to heat a city for a month.  But I can't even say "yes" in Arabic.  So, I just nod knowingly.  The harissa is very spicy. 

The suited gentleman's next visit has him inquring of our politics, instead of our palattes.  "Obama?" he asks.  We both say yes and give him what we assume is the universal thumbs up signal.  He smiles and walks away.  Later in the meal he comes back and says "Iraq?"  Iraq?  Um...a country in the Middle East?  Neighbor to Iran?  Big mess?  What are you looking for here?  At last, he conveys that he wants to know what I think of the situation.  "The sooner we get out, the better" I say.  Right answer.  He smiles broadly, shakes my hand and leaves us to our lunch.

This, as it turns out, is our only non-sunny day in the country.  The sky had been steadfastly overcast since morning.  But since it's not actually raining, we decide to explore Carthage on our way back to Sidi Bou Said. 

Of the half dozen Carthage stations on the tram, we decide to disembark at Dermech, since it looks closest to Byrsa Hill and the Carthage museum.  As we go from historic site to historic site in the country, I will appreciate that there's not a sign every three feet to tell us where we are.  But at a place like Carthage, where the ruins are strewn over a considerable distance, amongst residential areas and other private properties, it requires a bit of exloring to find these world famous remains of another age. 

After a discursive ascent up Byrsa hill we find the 19th century Cathedral of St. Louis and the adjacent Carthage museum.  The cathedral is now a music venue called The Acropolium.  How long, I wonder, did it take someone to make the first A-crap-olium joke? Moving heartlessly by the forlorn-looking souvenir stands, I make straight for a refreshement stand to purchase a bottle of Diet Coke, whose Arabic label delights me almost as much as The Acropolium.  We purchase tickets that will admit us to all the Carthage sites and wander amongst the ruins in a lot next to the museum.

We can generally walk and climb where we will.  I love actually putting my hands on architecture, performing a kind of connection across time touching of fingertips, placing my palm against cold stone.  Back in Chicago, I get particularly handsy whenever I walk by Louis Sullivan's exquisite music store facade in Lincoln Square.  There's plenty of opportunity for this sort of thing at the mismash of ruins outside the museum before we head down the hill to the theater and the Villas Romaines. 

The theater, cut into a hillside, is not particularly impressive. There's a large stage and a big, metal framework in the middle of the bowl of seats.  These sterile incursions of the modern world get very much in the way of any historic reveries into which a visitor might try to escape. But I suppose it makes for a cool setting for the Carthage International Festival.  And it is a satisfactory place to have a seat and enjoy a bit of serenity.  

Now on a narrow street beyond the thater, we walk by the modest Portuguese embassy and forgo the services of a couple of possible tour guides before walking into the Villas Romaines, or at least the foundations thereof.  Atop a nearby hill, we shuffle through high grass to see the foundations of a Roman odeon.  Although rather smaller than the large, restored theater from which we had come, there's something more compelling about this overlooked site which has been almost entirely reclaimed by nature.  

Not only is the odeon nearly overrun with vegetation, it's also overwhelmed by the nearby, colossal mosque, whose looming minaret can be seen for miles.  Apparently it can accomodate up to 12,000 people.  It was built in honor of, and presumably at the behest of President Ben Ali. What do you do when the previous president had virtually every main street in the country named after him?  Build a really, really big mosque.  

As we exit the Villas Romaines area, I look at a couple of tables covered with souvenirs.  What a sad, sporadic business it must be.

We have managed to save the best for last.  As with the Villas Romaines, what we see at the Antonine Baths is really just the foundation or basement of what once was.  Maybe it's our mutual love of ruins, but we're very happy roaming around these massive foundations, through what were mainly subterranean passages, all of it just stone's throw from the sea.  "Those Romans," we say, not for the first time this day and certainly not the last time on the trip, awed by their engineering prowess and crazy ambition. 

 The wife of a French couple whom we had seen on the train - they approached Lee, asking if she spoke English and inquiring as to the best place to disebmark to explore the site - recognizes us and we chat for a moment.  It doesn't sound like they're having a good day.  She speaks of the difficulty of getting here from Hammamet where they're staying, and further travails with taxi drivers.  While we were finding our way from Bursa Hill down to the theater, we had seen them in the distance on a horse-drawn coach.  Despite our over-priced taxi ride yesterday and brief hijacking by Ali just hours earlier, I feel like we're more at peace in the country, adapting better than these two.  Generally, I think if you can be lured into a horse-drawn carraige in a tourist area, you're kind of in trouble.

We speak of other Roman ruins.  They're not going to make it to Dougga, but that have already been to the ampitheater at El Jem and she reports that it's stunning.  I'm glad to hear of their good time and the happy prospect of our visit there in a couple of days.  It's nearly closing time and she's spotted her husband.  She actually seems quite nice.  I hope enjoy the rest of their trip. 

It easy nearly closing time, so we meander toward the front gate to the site, stopping by an early Christian crypt.  When we get to the gates, they're closed and there's no one else around.  And the gate seems to be locked.  But fortunately, the other gate is not locked and we escape. 

Once back in Sidi Bou Said, we wearily climb the hill back up into town, I'm reminded again that we still haven't stopped to see the guy's house on the main street and then we're home.  Ah, the pleasure of the late-afternoon vacation siesta....

To cap of this first full day in Tunisia, we have decided to dine at the fanciest joint in town, Le Bon Vieux Temps.  It is apparently the place where all the dignitaries check in while in Sidi Bou Said, affording as it does a great view from its dining room out to the bay.  And they serve alcohol.  Bibulous heathens that we are, this has quickly come to mean a lot to us in this relatively dry country.  We dress up as much as we can and stroll over to the restaurant. 

We're among the first diners and as we sit the wait staff outnumber the customers.  They're quickly on top of any of our needs.  The food is about as good as expected and we enjoy a white wine from nearby Carthage.  In fact, we enjoy it again, in the form of another demi-bottle.  We're in an elegant restaurant, there's plenty of wine, we're together and we're in Tunisia.  We walk back down to the town center and then back up to the hotel with a strong sense of well-being. 

Tags: carthage, sidi bou said, tunisia

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