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Several nights in Tunisia


TUNISIA | Friday, 24 April 2009 | Views [594]

The train ride into Tunis already seems like old hat as the stations go by and the suburbs give way to the long causeway across Lac Tunis.  This will be our day to go to the Bardo Museum.  But first we have decided to check out the Hotel Maison Doree as a possible resting place our last night in the country when we return to Tunis at the end of next week.   Not that we're particularly eager to think of our last day in the country at this point. 

The Maison Doree is down a backstreet between Rue de Yougoslavie and the Place Barcelone.  Both the building and the room we're allowed to examine have a modest post-colonial charm and we make a reservation. 

Before we proceed to the Bardo, I want to find an internet cafe and send word to my mother that I have not (yet) met with air disaster, kidnapping or food poisoning.  We spot the faded purple sign of the Publinet and enter a building through a side door.  There's a sign that says "Internet" on a wall atop a first set of stairs.  The funny thing is that the sign looks more weathered than many of the area colonial structures as we walk by an door open to a restaurant kitchen and up the stairs in the the grim, grey interior of the building.  Once on the second floor, there's no indication of our destination.  I feel like we're in some Soviet-era beurocratic hive.  But a decidedly non-Soviet-looking man appears and directs us down an unlikley short hallway to the cafe. 

So, a very unusual setting for an internet cafe it is, this second floor room looking out to the Place Barcelone.  We both get computers and set about conquering the differences provided by the Tunisian keyboard.  Okay...the A is up where the Q should be, the M is where the apostrophe should be...and as for the location of the apostrohope, Dannys guess is as good as Lees.   

I was curious to see the sort of attention Lee would get among the men of Tunisia, the sort of treatment to which she would be subjected.  As I watch her trying to purchase tram tickets for us at a Place Barcelone booth, I see men not gesticulating in impatience at her slowing the line, but helping with the communication between she and the ticket seller in the booth.  When she returned to me with the tickets, she confirms that one or two of the men behind her had been helpful. 

Without much delay, a tram, one with the memorable terminus of Den Den, pulls up.  Compared to what we've seen on the ride in from Sidi Bou Said, a relative war horse of drab blue-grey, this tram is smaller, sleeker and bright green. 

We cross the broad Avenue Borguiba and wind our way up to the neighborhood of the Bardo.  The exanse of the museum is obvious enough when we get off the train, but finding the entrance and getting safely across the converging nexus of streets adjacent to the station is another matter. 

Once we find the entrance to the museum grounds, we decide to get some lunch before contemplating all that art.  We parade through a typically male-filled cafe and spot a sandwich shop not far away along a roadside. 

It's a narrow little shop.  I leave Lee at the back holding a table while I jostle with the lunchtime crowd (mainly guys in suits) at the counter.  It's chaotic.  Between my ignorance of the protocol of the joint and the inevitable communication challenges, I probably wouldn't stick around if I were on my own.  But I perservere, ordering a sandwich for Lee and a "Pizza Maxi" for myself. The latter turns out to be a good pizza, albeit one topped with thon, which is to say, tuna.  Stranger still, I actually like it. 

Even if you know none of the history of the Bardo - and I know virtually none - it is still easy to come to the conclusion that it's a palace; at least it used to be. The scale is not so overwhelming by the standards of major big city museums, but the quality of variety of the interior decoration is stunning, even without considering the all the Roman mosaics that cover its walls.  

And if you're a fan of the mosiacs, as is the case with Lee, there can't be many better places on Earth to wile away a couple of hours.  We roam around gaping at the mosaics, finding favorites, taking pictures.  Every room seems to have it's own color and style of decorative tile on the walls and elaborate paint schemes on the ceilings.  The Bardo lives up to the hype. 

We're standing outside the small museum shop across the street from the Bardo, still in the museum complex, Lee with a bottle of water, me with my usual botttle of Diet Coke, and the mid-afternoon sun makes its presence felt.  We retreat back to the shade along of the edge of the building to look at a map and contemplate our next move. 

Before heading back to our comfortable suburban home away from home, we want to check out a real Tunis faubourg, or neighborhood.  Just a few stops on the same tram line back toward the city center, we get off to explore Halfouine.  Before we get very far, Lee's attention is captured by a patisserie at the head of Rue du Miel.  We decide that it would be wise to fortify ourselves before proceeding further.  Many an expedition being tragically derailed by a lack of pastry. 

Duly fortified, we walk down Rue du Miel.  It's neither as narrow or covered as many of the medina lanes, but still close by our standards.  We're seemingly the only tourists to be found in Halfouine, but we don't arouse a great deal of curiousity.  I might think twice about wandering into the neighborhood by night, but I don't feel at all uncomfortable in the plentiful light of the afternoon. 

We're privy to men sitting outside shops in langorous pairs or trios, the odd group of children kicking a ball around and all the varied traffic and transactions of a main artery.  And the street smells good. 

After looping around a boulevard at one end of which we find one of the lovlier cafes we've yet seen, it's expanse of plentiful, narrow rectangular windows covered largely by intricately-painted designs, pale green in contrast to the darker green of the posts and trim.  It seems all the more alluring seen through the leaves of the trees in the boulevard's median. 

Around the corner from the cafe, we reach our main destination, Place Halfouine and the Youssef Sahib et Tabaa Mosque.  We regard the mosque from the midst of a modest market, used clothing and oranges and lots of empty plastic crates about us. 

The mosque itself is a sprawling mishmash of Arab and Italian influence, the latter manifesting itself mainly in a rare mosque colonnade, metal railings and, as my guidebook points out, "flamboyant black marble." 

We venture back out of Halfouine on Rue Souiki Bel Khir, playing dodge the occasional car with the other pedestrians, walking under a very picturesque, ruinous covered passageway over the street, grass growing on it's terra cotta tiles and finally out to Bab el Kahdra, the fourteenth century gate recreated in the late-ninteeth century. 

As the tram snakes it's way back through the afternoon traffic of the city center, it occurs to me that we haven't yet had a real travel mishap.  And don't the travel gods just love that sort of hubris?  When we get back to Place Barcelone, I assume the tram will proceed to the end of the line, conveniently dropping us at Tunis Marine, where we can catch a train back to Sidi Bou Said.  By this time, we're both tired and really wanting just to be carried dumbly to our final destination.

However, when the tram again crosses Borghuiba, I have a bad feeling.  Sure enough, as I begin to pay attention to the stations I realize we are heading back whence we had just come.  Hey look, it's Bab el Khadra!  I was hoping to see Halfouine again...someday.  But here we are again.  For those keeping score at home, this is travel mishap #1.  Lee is a good sport about my mistake.  We cross the tracks and take another tram back to Place Barcelone.  From there, we walk wearily out to Tunis Marine.

By this time, the train back to the suburbs is crowded with people returning from their day in the city.  We find ourselves standing sore-footed at the back of the car amongst some schoolgirls and a somewhat strange-looking guy.   He's between Lee and I, and I can't quite tell if he's staring at her, or if his left eye is just operating independent of the right.  Whatever the case, Lee is a bit creeped out and moves over to my right. 

Our friend eventually takes a seat when it opens up, and I can tell from the reactions of the other locals around him, including look askance from a guy I have already dubbed "the dude" -jeans,black hoodie, black cap, under which the edges of his dark hair are visible and periodically checked with his fingertips - that we're not the only ones who find something amiss with this guy. 

The hill up to Hotel Bou Fares seems especially steep as we slog our way up from the station.  Our would-be tour guide and his affronted house both look upon me darkly as I pass by.  Fortunately, I'm way beyond caring.  We finish trudging up to the hotel, drop our bags and nap happily.

Running out of dinner options in Sidi Bou Said, we decide to try the restaurant Tam Tam.  I'll all for goofy business names and it does evoke a certain something.  Maybe not so much the exotic as a kitschy evocation of the exotic.  Plus, they're supposed to have a bar.  Mainly it's that last thing.

Well, here we are and there's absolutely nothing kitschy or exotic about the Tam Tam.  I think they're going more for sleek and modern.  The establishment seems to be spread out over a few levels and we're ushered down a short flight of stairs to a modest-sized seating area.  To our left is a flat screen t.v. projecting out from a metal arm.  As I occasionally look at it over the course of the meal, it seems to be showing some sort of automotive infomercial.  To our right is another hallmark of the modern world:  guy yammering on cell phone, largely ignoring date. 

Tonier still than all the cool surfaces and busy atmospherics is one of the more frou-frou bathrooms I have yet encountered.  Eventually I figure out how to make the sink work. 

Despite the silly ostentation, the food is surprisingly solid and unpretentious.  I have a pretty satisfying little bowl of lasagna and am ready for a drink. 

But wither alcohol in this multi-level eatery?  With our check paid, we walk back up to the greeting area and Lee finally decides to ask the woman who seems to be in charge where we might find Bar Tam Tam.  Bar Tam Tam?  she repeats, with a smiling incredulity.  Bar Tam Tam?!!  We are made to understand there is, in fact, no Bar Tam Tam.  Or perhaps just not for us.  Maybe we were supposed to respond to the strange lady by grinning demonically, nodding our heads and reapeating Bar Tam Tam!! Bar Tam Tam!!  Who knows.  We depart with stomachs full and whistles un-whetted. 

We're not too far into the Sidi Bou Said night, but the town is already mighty quiet.  Most of the businesses have closed up shop.  There are the cafes with their requisite male clientele, but even they seem subdued. 

We walk back up the hill.  As we approach the stairway up to the hotel, Lee recommends that we walk on a bit.  I'm happy to comply, as I'm feeling rather restless.  It's been a full, tiring day, but all the same, it's not yet nine o'clock and I'm not quite ready to close out this part of our trip just yet. 

As was the case Sunday afternoon, we find ourselves walking to the lighthouse and the nearby overlook.  Oh, a large body of water at night.  When you can't see it so much as sense it.  The breeze and crashing of waves below the loudest sounds in the world.  It's breathtaking and satisfying and I am now ready to call it a day.

Fortunately, Bar Dan Dan is open, in the form of a flask full of Jameson's, which I had brought for just such occasions.  We take the odd nip as we lay in bed and read for a short while, Lee in the good company of Dawn Powell, me finishing the short story "A Way You'll Never Be" from The Snows of Kilimanjaro. 



Tags: bardo museum, sidi bou said, tunis, tunisia

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