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TUNISIA | Monday, 20 October 2008 | Views [3532]

A traditional Tunisian door in Sidi Bou Said.

A traditional Tunisian door in Sidi Bou Said.

Unusually for me I have just visited Tunisia on a package tour, the first bucket and spade package I’ve ever been on. Convenience and cost were a factor of course plus the fact it was a new country only 2 ½ hours flying time away; but Tunisia has been on my ‘to see’ list for a long time, and it was a good opportunity to see the sun before winter began in earnest at home, which it did the following week.

Arriving at night you are soon aware that you have arrived in a developing country. The bus takes you through streets with flats made of poured concrete with the washing hanging up in the windows, and the streets are shuttered up and deserted. The only people about are men sitting out in front of cafes, which are just a bare rooms filled with plastic tables and chairs, just as they do all around the Mediterranean. On the roads there are lots of police, hanging around roundabouts and junctions, stopping cars at random. Large areas of blackness separate the housing blocks.

But Tunisia is very civilised. One surprise is how very French it is. Even though the colonial masters have been gone for 52 years, everyone speaks French to some degree, all the signs are in Arabic and French, as are all documents. And as in every former French colony I’ve been to, from Vietnam to Senegal, in the early morning people walk back from the bakers - carrying baguettes.

It also appears a very tolerant place, Islam is very unobtrusive here. There are mosques of course but apart from the odd minaret, one is unaware of them. The Adhan – the call to prayer is seldom heard and there isn’t the sunset ‘prayer rush’ that you see in other Muslim countries. The dress code for women seems to be pretty much up to them, from completely covered up, to West European. The older people wear traditional dress, women in brown robes with a headscarf, men dark jackets usually, but a few old men wear jelibias with the Tunisian fez, a blood red colour but more of a felt cap than the more traditional ‘bucket’ type fez seen in the rest of the Middle East.

I imagine that this tolerance comes from Tunisia being a truly rainbow nation. The descendents of slaves brought from across the Sahara have mixed their genes with the Mediterranean peoples, including the Phoenicians who came originally from the Levant, to produce a mix of colours from completely black or white to all shades in between.

I was staying at the beach resort of Hammamet, and made a couple of excursions out to Tunis, the capital, which is only an hour away by local bus. The motorway passes through a lot of vineyards, for a Muslim country Tunisia produces a lot of wine, another legacy of the French and their Rosé is pretty good. Along the way a old woman herding a flock of sheep along the hard shoulder - the traffic didn’t slow down for a moment.

Arrival in Tunis and you know you are in a developing country, the smell of low grade petrol and lots of battered yellow taxis, all French models of course. Surprisingly the taxis not only had meters that worked and which were used but the speedometers were connected!

The centre of Tunis has two distinct parts, the medieval medina and the new French city. The medina really was an unexpected surprise, as interesting and colourful as any others I’ve seen in the Arab world. The tourist tours to Tunis from the coast consist of half day ‘shopping trips’ to the Medina, where groups of tourists are herded around the streets that surround the Great Mosque (which you can look into, mornings only). The stalls sell the usual tourist fare, jewellery and handicrafts and after a while you realize that most of the shops are selling pretty much the same stuff.

If you get away from the ‘shopping streets’ and head into the souks around them, then you discover a vibrant community where people have lived and worked for centuries. Tucked up small alleys are artisans making furniture and jewellery in simple workshops, herbalists hang their wares outside their shops, all of which are tiny; and everything else that people need to live, the butchers, bakers, and the rest are scattered down the narrow lanes. The streets are so narrow many are built over, forming arcades, rather like an enclosed village and as no vehicles can get down them, everything is delivered by barrow boys. Tucked away are small community mosques and coffee shops were fez wearing waiters take the orders, and men puff away the day on hubble bubbles.

When you out of the medina into the New Town you are immediately confronted by miniature version of the Arc de Triumph, so that you are in no doubt; this part of the city is French. The main drag, the Avenue Bourguiba, in an impressive tree lined boulevard with wide pavements and ornate cast iron lights. Cafes spill onto the pavements and sitting under the trees, you could at a push - imagine yourself in France. Its like walking from 12th Century North Africa into late 19th Century Northern Europe.

On another day I went on an excursion to another part of Tunis, to visit the ancient city of Carthage, or what little remains of it. Tunis has a good tram and suburban train system which is very cheap and efficient and I took a train from the city centre, across Lake Tunis on a causeway and out to the suburb of Carthage. This is where the rich live, lots of large houses surrounded by high walls and barred windows, and looking just like wealthy enclaves on the Northern side of the Med.

The archaeological sites of old Carthage are scattered around a large area and seeing them involves quite a bit of walking around. The main site is on Byrsa Hill which has the remains of some houses and a very impressive museum. I was always under the impression that when the Romans finally defeated Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War they had effectively trashed the place, famously sowing the soil with salt to make sure it never rose again. What I discovered was that the Romans rebuilt it, making it even bigger and grander than before and the remains that you see are of this Roman city.

When you’re tired of archaeology, and you do need lots of imagination to imagine a great city here, then it’s time to head up to Sidi Bov Said, another must for the tour buses. This is a little village on a promontory overlooking the sea, a very pretty place with lots of white and blue and grand studded front doors that are a feature of Tunisia. It’s no wonder it’s been attracting artists and bohemian types for centuries. Walking up from the station you have to walk the gauntlet of traders flogging tourist tat but the village itself is lovely and surprisingly quiet. There are great views of the coast, the ferries coming into port, and the massive Palace of Ali Bey the President, whose beaming face is on almost every wall.

As this was for me more of a relaxation holiday I didn’t venture further. You can travel out to the edges of the Sahara, either independently or on tours but this involves a couple of days on a bus. I was happy with my trips to Tunis and pleasant days on the beach. Tunisia has sun and sand but even if you are staying at a resort with a little more effort you can discover a lot more.

Tags: arab culture, beaches, cities



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