22 October 2008
Preparing Aisling for her long winter in Monastir was a bigger job than we had anticipated, but after a week of drudgery we could see the end in sight and decided to escape to Tunis. Fifteen minutes before our taxi was due to arrive, we were still rushing around doing last minute things. We didn't want to miss our cab- it was unlikely we would find another driver willing to make a long drive so close to sunset during Ramadan - so I suggested to Rick that I leave the bags with him and dash round to the Capitainerie to meet the taxi. My plan was to bring the driver back to the boat to pick up Rick and the bags. I swear I explained this to Rick, but somehow we got our wires crossed and when I arrived back at the boat everything was locked up tight and Rick was nowhere in sight. After another sprint around the dock I finally spied him, struggling toward the Capitainerie, dragging our four huge duffle bags on a completely inadequate little cart. By the time we returned to the cab and got the bags stowed we were both dripping with sweat and more than a little grumpy. The driver didn't seem to understand any English but he probably recognized the tone as we went back and forth with "I can't believe you did that!" "I can't believe you did that!" "But I told you I was bringing the cab round the dock" ... followed by "I hope I closed the hatch over the settee!" and then "I'd better call Mr. Mrad and ask him to check the hatch over the settee". Now all we had to worry about was whether one of the multitude of feral cats that lurk around the garbage bins at the Monastir marina would decide to move onboard Aisling in our absence. Hopefully our canine neighbour Buddy will chase away any unwanted tenants.
As we drove through the outskirts of Monastir and past Sousse, the quantity of garbage and litter along the roads was distressing. Even the olive groves were strewn with garbage and there seemed to be a large number of unfinished building projects every few miles. Once we saw beyond these things, the countryside had its own special beauty with olive groves and vineyards sprinkled among barren, desert-like rolling hills and plains.
We reached Tunis in the early evening, drove past the clock tower at the end of Avenue Habib Bourguiba and checked into the Hotel Carleton. This hotel is in the "Ville Nouvelle", the newer section of the town built by the French in the 19th century. Most people would not describe the Carleton as a luxury hotel but for us the air conditioning, unlimited showers and a toilet that flushed without use of a hand pump definitely qualified as luxury. We lounged around enjoying the blessed coolness of our room until sundown, then ventured out to a local restaurant. Our waiter was a friendly young Tunisian man with a beautiful, almost feminine face. I apparently caused him a bit of anxiety by asking if they had non-alcoholic beer and he carefully explained that they could not serve beer. He was so relieved when he finally understood that I was looking for the non-alcoholic type that he offered to run out to a local store to buy some for me. I assured him that lime soda would be just fine. We feasted on chorba (Tunisian soup) lamb cous cous, steak and frites, all for less than 15 dinars ($13 Cdn).
As we walked back to the hotel, we stopped to admire the beautiful art nouveau National Theatre, where the steps were lined with men relaxing and socializing. Along the tree lined sidewalks, the caf�s were buzzing with activity. The social scene in Tunis is quite different to that of European cities. The most striking difference was not the absence of alcohol on the tables, but the scarcity of women in the caf�s. We saw a few tables where women and men were sitting together but for the most part the caf�s seem to be male territory.
The next morning we had breakfast in our hotel, choking down coffee that was so strong and thick that it curdled the milk in our cups. During breakfast, we debated our choices for the day's touring- would it be Carthage (a suburb of Tunis where some sparse Carthaginian remains can be viewed) Sidi Bou Said (a pretty blue and white cliffside village) the medina (a world heritage site) or the Bardo Museum (a 13th century palace that boasts the world's finest collection of ancient Roman mosaics). Since the Bardo museum was closed on Mondays (we'd timed things perfectly as usual) and the medina was only a short walk from our hotel, we decided to make the medina our first stop. Enroute to the medina, we had a firsthand opportunity to observe the degree to which the "scam the tourist" routine has been perfected. It appears to be a three-stage process:
1. On the boulevard, we are approached by a Tunisian man who speaks perfect English. He asks our nationality, tells us that he has family in Canada, advises us that we must be sure to visit the medina, and mentions that a government-sponsored display of Tunisian crafts is being held throughout Ramadan. To our surprise, he leaves us without offering to guide us to the display.
2. As we walk toward the medina, a second man approaches, strikes up a conversation, mentions the craft display and offers to take us there. We thank him politely but tell him that we plan spend the morning touring the medina. He asks where we are staying, Rick hesitates and tells him we are staying at the Hotel Africa (a large hotel near the Carleton). The man becomes more insistent and calls out warnings about pickpockets in the medina as we walk away.
3. Within less than a minute a third man appears and tells us that he is the Director of Security at the Hotel Africa and that he recognizes us as guests of the hotel. He becomes angry and agitated when we decline his offer to take us to the craft market and insists that it is very unwise for us to enter the medina without his protection. As we walk away he is still shouting warnings.
Needless to say this episode was more than a bit disconcerting. When the medina defeated even Rick's map reading and navigation skills, we were initially skeptical of the various people who offered to direct us, but there were no further problems so we eventually relaxed (and guarded our wallets very carefully).
The word "medina" simply means "town" in Arabic, but the North-African medinas are old walled towns with narrow lanes. At first glance, the Tunis medina appears to be a typical Arabic souk, with a mixture of crafts, artwork, carpets and cheap souvenirs but hidden within the labyrinth of alleyways are many beautiful old mansions with intricate Moorish architecture and tranquil courtyards. Many of the mansions have been converted to art galleries, museums, restaurants and stores. One special place was the Ed-Dar, a delightful, meandering old house with a collection of antiques, artwork, carpets and jewelry. Many of the items on display were from the personal collection of the owner and were not for sale. We were guided upward through the house to a rooftop garden overlooking the Great Mosque, then back to an air-conditioned room with a multitude of carpets on display. The beauty of the carpets made this a tempting proposition, but the complications of shipping a carpet back to Canada were too daunting. Rick was far more interested in a beautiful painting by a Dutch artist and the owner was called over to quote a price- 18,000 dinhars. As usual, Rick has an eye for quality. He's been talking about that painting ever since, but I don't think it will ever hang in our dining room!
Leaving the medina, we stopped to buy two slices of olive flatbread and surreptitiously wolfed them down in a quiet courtyard, hoping to avoid offending any fasting Muslims. As we made our way through the winding streets of the Jewish quarter and back to our hotel, the mid-day temperature was in the high thirties. On one corner, a woman had collapsed and was surrounded by a crowd trying to revive her. Obviously devout, she pushed away the jar of water they were urging her to drink.
That evening, we ate at the Andalous restaurant on rue de Marseille, where we tried salade mechouia (a blend of roasted peppers, garlic and harissa) and briq (a deep fried envelope stuffed with a filling of soft egg and other tidbits). We also had our first taste of delicious Tunisian wine. Certain restaurants designated as "tourist" restaurants are permitted to serve wine- and they are not frequented only by tourists!
The next morning, we hailed a taxi and headed straight for the Bardo Palace and Museum. The 15-minute cab ride was a "hang on to your hat" experience, with the driver leaning into the back seat regaling us with his cheerful theories on the benefits of fasting for a month (good for the body as well as for the soul). When we arrived at the Bardo, hundreds of tourists were pouring from the doors of a fleet of tour buses. This is one of the premiere tourist destinations in Tunisia and dodging the numerous tour groups is essential for anyone hoping for an unobstructed view of the exhibits. The palace itself was built by the Hafsid Sultans as a place of rest and relaxation, but the similarities to the Alhambra are a reminder of the historic links between northern Africa and Spain. The Bardo collection is huge, wonderful and completely overwhelming. Tunisian artifacts dating as far back as the 3rd century BC have been assembled here, but the museum is best known for the collection of well-preserved mosaics. After three hours I had lost Rick and was wandering through the last rooms somewhat aimlessly when I spied some familiar faces- Bill and Karen Foss, CCA friends we had last seen in Bayonna! Although Rick was still nowhere in sight, I thought it was safe to break our usual rule of not making social commitments without the other's agreement, and arranged to meet them for a drink at 6 p.m. Eventually I found Rick and we had another interesting cab ride back to our hotel. The cab driver did not start the meter and we had been warned that this tactic is sometimes used to boost the fare. Rick asked what the fare would be and the driver quoted over double what the fare had been to go to the Bardo. When Rick told him to stop the car and let us out, he dropped his price to the fare we had paid previously. The driver cheerfully accepted this as "business as usual" and proceeded to helpfully point out the noteworthy sites along our route. Accuracy seemed to be an issue though- he described the cathedral as the church of "les juifs" (Jews) and when I observed that Jewish synagogues generally don't have crosses over the door, he said "Yes, yes. It's definitely the Jews' church, I see them all going in there every Sunday morning!"
That evening, we enjoyed drinks with Bill, Karen and their friends in the lobby of their hotel, then returned to our room to finish packing and catch a few hours of sleep before heading to the airport to catch our 3 a.m. flight. Our routing home was the worst milk-run ever- Tunis to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Rome, Rome to Toronto and Toronto to Halifax. This is the price we paid for travelling on frequent flyer points and for changing our return plans at the last minute. Fortunately, it all went remarkably smoothly and we arrived in Halifax, with all bags on board, exactly on schedule. We've been home for a month and sometimes Tunisia and Sicily just seem like a lovely dream- but when we need a little escape, we pull out an Imray guide and start planning next year's cruising!