Falling for Tunis

Tunis, Tunisia


I was up bright and early to catch my flight to Tunis. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the airport I learned that Tunis Air had changed the departure time to 11:30 a.m. so I was now at the airport 4 hours before my flight. When I could finally check in at 8:30, it took the two women at the desk over a half hour to get the computers working to check us in. It was comical to watch these two women press buttons, look around helplessly, and then press more buttons. They would periodically open up the back of the checkin stand to look at the printer and still nothing would happen. Finally, after a bunch of arm waving a young man came over and fixed one of the computers so the line became one long merge. Then the computer in front of the original line I was in was fixed and we were in business.

I finally got my boarding pass, zipped through security (overseas they have these special lines you can go through for business class … total security time was less than 5 minutes.)

Anyway, I hung out in the lounge and decided to wander down to the gate about 5 minutes before boarding was to commence since my gate was at the far end of the Casablanca airport. Once I arrived I realized boarding was going to be complete clusterf… because the same two women who were issuing boarding passes were now at the gate. The time for our departure came and went and still no announcement. The two girls chatted and laughed and did absolutely nothing to tell us anything about the delay.

Finally at about 12:15 the huge line that had gathered in front of the gate began to move through the boarding door and you have never seen boarding like this before. No preboarding. No rows called. Nothing. It was this ridiculous jumble of people pushing to the front to get on the plane. I waited until the end. I wanted no part of that mess.

We finally took off at 12:45 and we were on the ground in Tunis by 2:45. Then the next mess. I walked through the exit doors after clearing customs (and remarkably after finding my luggage) only to find no one with a sign bearing my name. What the hell? I’ve never had this happen before. I wandered around looking for my name on that golden sign and nothing. Good grief.

I pulled out my overseas phone and dialed the number of the agency in Tunis. No answer. Damn. I suddenly realized it was Friday prayer time, and I may not be able to get hold of anyone. I dialed the other number and yay … someone picked up. The fellow advised me that the man was at the airport. He was holding an “Orange Tours” sign. What the hell? What is “Orange Tours”? I soon learned Orange Tours was the name of the local Tunisian agency where my guide worked, but why the heck wouldn’t they have my name on a sign like everyone else in the world does when they are picking up someone?

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Square where Tunisians gathered during the Arab Spring

Anyway, I soon found my guide Hassan and my driver Hatem (yea that won’t be confusing at all), changed some money and we were off in the sparse traffic (Friday prayers will do that). By 4 p.m. I was finally ensconced in a lovely Mediterranean seaview room in The Residence about 30 minutes northeast of Tunis. I unpacked, changed and propped my feet up on a table on my deck and watched the sunlight fade.

I had a lovely meal in the hotel’s seaview restaurant (Tunis is famous for its seafood and the grilled stuffed calimari with spicy harissa sauce was spectacular) before I called it a night. Unfortunately, the weather did not want to cooperate and we had one rockin’ big thunderstorm that went on for a least an hour some time after midnight. My room was lighting up ever few seconds. It was spectacular, but I really just wanted to sleep.

So next morning we off and running at 8:00 a.m. in the very bright sunshine. My guide Hassan greeted me at the front door of the hotel and he was enthusiastic to say the least. Words like peppy, lively, effusive and energetic could all be used to describe my guide. This guy makes me tired just talking to him. However, he seemed very knowledgeable about his county and very excited that I was here so off we set.

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Produce market in Tunis

The drive into Tunis took about 20 minutes heading away from the Mediterranean. As we approached Tunis, Lake Tunis was on the right hand side of the city, the waterway created by the Mediterranean was on the left (along with a small port) and there was a very long bridge leading across the waterway.

As we crossed into Tunis proper, the first thing I noticed as we drove through the central part of the city was the plethora of barbed wire ringing some buildings. I knew that there had still been periodic demonstrations in Tunis (nothing like Cairo) to protest the new government that was elected after the revolution in 2011, and I presumed the barbed wire was to protect the buildings from protesters. (Apparently the new government is an Islamic party and they are a little too conservative for some of the folks.)

The second thing I noticed was the proliferation of western wear on both men and women. There were few hijabs visible (older women excepted), no long flowing robes on the men, and men and women were sitting together in cafes. Quite different from Morocco. (And one other thing, Tunisia was also under the French protectorate so both French and Arabic are spoken by all residents. However, it appears that Arabic is much more prevalent than it was in Morocco.)

Our first stop was the Tunis market. And this too was very different from what I have seen in past markets in the middle east. The fish were stacked neatly in large displays and all the fish was on ice (as opposed to left in the sun and surrounded by flies). The produce was all neatly displayed in a lovely, clean environment in a covered building. It was very, very different from what I have seen in other middle eastern countries. And the vendors were very friendly giving me grapes and whatnot to try from their stands. (I made sure to wash the grapes before I tried them and they were very tasty.)

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Door in the residential area of the Medina

After we wandered around the market, we moved on to the Medina (the original old quarter of Tunis). Unfortunately, the wall that usually surrounds the Medina was no longer standing and all that was left was a few remnants in places and a large archway marking one entrance.

Now this Medina, as with other medinas I had visited, had two distinct sections: residential and commercial. We took a walk through the residential section first which was comprised of long winding alleyways (complete with speeding motorcycles and bicyclists). The big difference between this Medina and medinas in Morocco was the complete lack of donkeys hauling materials and products up and down the alleys, and this Medina was very flat with no measurable incline in the alleyways anywhere.

The residential area appeared to be quite poor. However, the doors in front of each of the residences were very elaborate with Moorish designs and colours ranging from blue to red and yellow. However, what really set this area apart from other medinas I have seen was the plethora of mosques. There were so many mosques I began to think that each family had their own personal mosque. And the minarets of the mosques were exquisite. Clearly, however, the sultan of the minarets in the Medina was the superb minaret on the Al-Zaytouna (Great) Mosque. Zaytouna means “olive tree” and it was on the spot of the present mosque under the olive trees where its founder, Hassan ibn Nooman, gave Islamic lessons.

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Top of the minaret of the Al-Zaytouna Mosque

The original mosque was built in the 8th century and has undergone various iterations. The minaret dates to the 19th century. As with mosques in Morocco, non-Muslims were not permitted entry. Nevertheless, I could at least admire the minaret from afar.

We soon left the residential area and entered the commercial district or the souks. These souks had a very distinct pattern with cheap imported clothing in one area (not part of the traditional souks), Tunisian hat makers (the little red box hats are known as shishias), an essential oils area (I bought some), a silver market, a gold market and a traditional clothing market. The souks were surprisingly small for a city so large as Tunis, and I expected that many of the shops in the souks were being closed because of competition from western style malls. Yuck!

Anyway, we left the souks and headed to our next stop: the world famous Bardo Museum. As we drove in the direction of the museum we passed still more buildings protected by barbed wire and at one point I actually saw a number of people in front of tents marked with a lot of signs. There were armed guards everywhere. My guide didn’t have much to say about this whole scene when I asked except to tell me that the building we had just passed that looked like an armed encampment was the parliament building. I don’t know if he was embarrassed or just didn’t want to talk about it. Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier it was clear that in this country, where the Arab spring began, there were still people who were not happy with the government.

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Barbed wire protecting a government building

A couple minutes after the angry people scene we reached our destination. The Bardo Museum is home to some of the greatest Roman mosaics discovered in Tunis as well as home to a variety of other Roman statutes, carving and other finds. The museum is located in a gorgeous palace built by the Hafsid sultan Al-Mustansir in 13th century and was rebuilt in the 17th century. Part of the charm of the museum turned out to be the stunning ceilings, columns and doors throughout the building. However, in recent years, the museum has been extended and it was very weird to enter into a thoroughly modern glass atrium only to enter a hallway and suddenly find myself in a less than modern (but far more charming) palace.

After putting on the requisite booties and having a rather extended lecture about what I was going to see in the museum from my guide Hassan, we set off. The mosaics really were incredible with many virtually in tact and still brightly coloured. Each mosaic featured a different theme, with hunting scenes, fishing scenes, scenes of noble women being waited on, Roman gods such a Neptune, Apollo, and on and on.

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Roman mosaic in the Bardo Museum

In addition, to mosaics there was a grand reception room that that was two stories high with a balcony around the top. The first floor of the reception room featured enormous 3rd century mosaics on the floor (much the way you would find them in Roman villas) along with enormous statutes of Roman citizens.

There was also a beautifully decorated music room where concerts were held when the building was used as a palace. The room was also two stories high and had gorgeous balconies on either side with a huge chandelier in the middle of the room. Mosaics adorned the walls.

In two rooms we saw very large and completely in tact marble baptismal tubs that had been found amongst the Tunisian Roman ruins. And this is where I made my early mark on Tunisia. As walked around one of the rooms, I began to move forward to take a picture, had my eyes on the screen of my camera and the next thing I knew I was tripping over the ledge of the baptismal tub and immediately found my life in slow motion. I began to fall towards the first stair in the tub, but somehow managed to get both feet under me and in one motion lept forward into the tub. Yea you read that right … I jumped into a 2,000 year old antiquity to avoid falling in.

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Baptismal font I fell into at the Bardo Museum

As I tripped I heard the Tunisian fellow guarding the room let out something that sounded like Holy Crap. Once I landed, I couldn’t jump out fast enough and hustle out of the room, through the double doors (which I had been trying to take a picture of) and up a staircase with my guide. As we climbed the staircase, I kept trying to suppress my laughter without much success. Good grief. I just desecrated an ancient baptismal tub. (Uh does that mean that I am now baptized?) And yes, I stealthly snuck back and took a picture of the object I offended. (I bet there is video footage of the whole incident somewhere and the guys monitoring the museum are having a great laugh … I just hope they don’t post it to YouTube.)

Anyway, after my religious experience, we wandered around and up another set of stairs past still more beautiful mosaics and finally finishing the tour about 2 ½ hours later. The museum was simply beautiful and the additional statutes and art objects from the Roman period really enhanced the museum.

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Music room at the Bardo Museum

We left the Bardo Museum and headed 20 km out of Tunisia towards the coast for an afternoon at Carthage. But first lunch. We pulled into a rather bland looking building and was told that this was our lunch destination. There were tour buses everywhere. Uh I don’t think so. I quickly told my guide that this restaurant was a tourist restaurant and when I travel I don’t do tourist restaurants. (I had been very specific with the folks in Seattle.) If I wanted tourist food I would have just stayed home. I want local. Hassan immediately made a call and two minutes later we were off to what Hassan said was the perfect restaurant. (Yay for him. This was much different than my guide in Cairo, Ashraf, who refused to take me to a restaurant somewhere else and instead stuck me with a crappy buffet in a tourist hotel. I was pissed at him for the rest of the day.)

Anyway fifteen minutes later I found myself in the little town of La Goulette at tiny local seafood restaurant. The owner came out to greet us, sat us at a table and five minutes later the food began to arrive. A fresh loaf of cut up bread and harissa (a spicy decidedly Tunisian red sauce with a slightly smokey flavour- YUMMY) in olive oil. Next up, grilled octopus in olive oil (you have no idea how good it was). Then they brought out a tray of fish, I selected my lunch (red snapper) and shortly after that I had a whole grilled fish in front of me with tomatoes, olives and rice. It was superb. And if that wasn’t enough, they brought out lemon sorbet with grapes and pomegranate seeds dotting the top of the sorbet. A first rate lunch!

Now it was time to visit Carthage. Carthage was built on Bursa Hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians (who were from Lebanon, which I did NOT get to visit) in 814 BC. The Romans ultimately defeated the Carthagenians in the second century BC. The Romans raized Carthage after its defeat, but rebuilt it in 44 BC. At its height under the Romans, Carthage had 300,000 residents, 3 forums, a 70,000 seat Circus, enormous Roman baths on the Mediterranean, and hundreds of beautifully villas. After Rome fell, the Byzantines took over the city for a while, but when the Arabs conquered the city, the Arabs moved the capital to Tunis and Carthage fell into ruins. Today, many of the original Carthage sites are all but gone. However, there are still remnants of what was a great and very historical city.

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Panorama of the Roman Baths at Carthage

First up on the tour was the Sanctuary of Tophet. The name Tophet is Hebrew for place of burning. This area is believed to have been an area of sacrifice under the Phoenicians who frequently sacrificed a child to their gods. The father would select the child to be sacrificed and on the designated day would dress the child, remove him or her from the home, take the child to this sacrificial site where the child was put to death by the father. The remains of the child were burned and the ashes were placed in an urn. Today, all that remains at the site are stelae marking the location of a burial and numerous empty urns. French archaeologists apparently found more than 20,000 urns. The place was shrouded in trees and the presence of all those urns made it a a tad spooky to say the least.

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Site of the former Phoenecian ports

After a walk around the area, we got back in the car and drove to a spot the end of the road where we could see two locations that were the site of the Punic ports (the Phoenician ports) that served Carthage. One was a naval station and the other was a merchant port. When the Romans conquered Carthage, the ports were filled in, but the Romans later rebuilt the site as a merchant seaport. There is nothing that remains of the historic port and the site is now marked buy upscale homes with pretty spectacular views.

The next stop was the highlight of Carthage tour: the Antonine Baths. The baths were a Roman tradition. Romans would go to the bath and spend the day eating, drinking, working out, bathing and socializing. These Roman baths were built on the Mediterranean by Hadrian and finished in the 2nd century AD. The remains were pretty darn spectacular from what I could see.

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Roman Baths at Carthage (notice the green pillar)

Now while the remains actually only consisted of the foundation of the baths, you could still wander through the remains to get a sense of the layout of the baths (hot room and saunas, warm room, cold room and a gymnasium for naked wrestling (seriously and thank God gyms don’t have that anymore – I can’t imagine it was a pretty site).

Most of the columns that made up the baths were just remnants, but there was a solitary pillar that remained allowing you to really appreciate the size and dimensions of the baths. As we wandered through the remnants of the pillars, I came across a pillar that was in the most magnificent shade of green. Now I have seen a lot of Roman ruins, but never before have I seen a green pillar. It was really quite something to see. ( I know, I know. I’m a geek about this stuff, but jeez it was 2,000 years old and gorgeous.)

Anyway, we wandered out of the site and past a merchant stand where I somehow got sucked inside. The guy was very persistent, and when I found an old onyx Berber bracelet and vase I liked the fellow insisted I buy them. “How much buddy?” “1,350 dirhams.” (Tunisia has dirhams like Morocco, but the exchange rate is far less. 1 DH equals about 60 cents US.) I looked at the guy as if he had lost his mind. No way fella. That equals about $810 US dollars. I walked out of the store with him screaming after me. “OK. OK. Sorry. Sorry. Too high. How much you pay?” I turned around and told him he had insulted me, was trying to take advantage of me and I would not bargain with him. “Sorry. Sorry. Lady pleeeze.” I turned around and told him to give me a reasonable number or I was getting in the car (my hand was on the door handle). “OK. OK. I sell you the bracelet for 60 DH.” (He had started at 350 and the vase at 1,000). Done. I walked back in the store, handed over the 60 DH and started to walk out when he offered to sell me the vase for 100 DH. Done. (Just goes to show you how high this guy was over the actual price he was willing to sell the merchandise for.)

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Roman road at the Roman Villas in Carthage

So with merchandise in hand we headed to the next stop: the Roman villas sitting up on a hillside. The two villas lower on the hillside were not particularly exciting ruins although I was able to see the size of the villas (and they really were rather huge). However, the third villa, Villa of the Aviary, was at the top of a long switchback road made of typical Roman stones. Once we got to the top, it was very impressive. Huge mosaics with birds and animals remained on the floors with colours clearly visible. And the view in the bright sunshine was stupendous taking in a wide expanse of the Mediterranean.

We walked back down the hill, down the long Roman road and back to the car for a trip to the top of Bursa Hill to the Musee de Carthage (the Carthage museum) next to the former St. Louis Cathedral. The cathedral is no longer used as a church, but is reserved for state functions and conventions. However, the exterior of the building was pretty spectacular.

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The Roman villas at Carthage

The Musee de Carthage is located in the area that was a seminary school and was on two floors. The first floor contained some stunning mosaics and statutes found in the ruins of Carthage, while the second floor contained, pottery, coins, and jewelery also found in the ruins. By this time I was pretty exhausted having spent a lot of time wandering around in the heat (32C and humidity) so with that we called it a day. Tomorrow was going to be spectacular. We were driving to Dougga and Bulla Regia to see the remains of two famous Roman cities. Yayyy.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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