Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Historic North
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 1 - Tunis

Tour cultural and historic sites around Tunis and sample the Tunisian cuisine.
Program options:  Cathedral, monuments, markets, medina, medersa, mosques and mausoleums.

After arriving in the afternoon and settling in to the hotel, we set off to look around the city center: Sidewalk seating at cafe, TunisWandering the streets of Tunis you feel you could be anywhere in the world as far as traffic, buildings, and other inorganic are concerned.  In most of the ways that I can think of Tunis is incongruous with the headlines about Africa of the Arab world, and it is different from Europe as well. Yet, simultaneously there are element that are clearly has associations with all three regions. There is both a business-likeness and relax-here element to Habib Bourguiba Blvd, the main street.  Central promenade on Av Habib Bouguiba, with clock tower, TunisOne end is anchored by an obelisk clock town and the other by the Tunisian born historian Ibn Khaldoun statue, TunisIbn Khaldoun (1332-1406).  Khaldoun is considered the greatest of  Arab historians.  He wrote Kitab al-Ibar (Universal History), where he was the first to treated history as a Theatre, Tunisscience and outlined a philosophy of history.  In the center of the strip is the Italianate National Theater.  Any litter is gone.  The street trees are pruned and the gardens are manicured, and wide sidewalks are lined with outdoor seating from numerous coffee shops.  Display windows are smartly set-out and there is a purposeful flow of conservative, stylishly dressed people filling the sidewalk -- though stylishness is Sidewalk seating at cafe, Tunischanging and conservativeness is being challenged.  Though most women are still most covered from neck, to neck, to ankle, for the young women the coverage is increasing being achieved with tight (underscore) jeans and tight sweats -- which don't pass unnoticed by the men, young and old, passing the time at the sidewalk coffee shops.  Gone almost completely, in the central city, are the safsari, large plain cloths, the women used to cover themselves with from head to ankle when they go out in public, to give them a very formless shape.  For young men the defining element of fashion seems to be well coiffed hair and a leather jacket.  You are more likely to see two men or two women walking arm in arm than you are to see a man and a woman because of the conservative culture, influenced as it is by Islam. Mixed sex couples garner glances, if not stares, as they pass.

Shoe souk, Tunis mediaAs many people seem to be moving by foot as all the other modes combined (cars, taxi, buses and tram).  This might explain the large number of shoe stores.  Another Street car / tram, Tunispopular mode of travel is the tram. From morning rush hour until evening they ran full through the center of town.  Bicyclist are very rare -- as are bicycle shops. (If you need a bicycle or bicycle part, Madrid street is the place to look, but the selection is limited.)

French Colonial buildings, TunisStreet in French colonial section of TunisThere are only a couple of sky-scrapers in the city, so even from the newer "French Quarter"  you see mostly the irregular roofline of 2, 3 and 4 story buildings, with lots of sky. This changes in the old quarter where the streets are narrow and cozy and most of the buildings are only two-story. narrow street in Tunis mediaThe passages are so narrow you are in a big human maze, if the walls weren't concrete you could image yourself waking through canyons ofPedestrian promanade, Ave Habib Bourguiba, Tunis trees. In the French-designed section of town the main street has a half-block wide tree shaded promenade down the center. Its is festooned with park benches and kiosks selling flowers, newspapers, postcards, books andSt. Vincent Depaul Cathedral, Tunis other small items. Along the sides of the boulevard, there are a variety of shops that might be on a main commercial street anywhere; pastries, clothing boutiques, shoes, books, general merchandise, coffee shops and restaurants. And then there is the Catholic Cathedral St Vincent DePaul, banks, hotels and official buildings.

On a walk up Avenue Habib Bourguiba it never seems to take long to be pick-up by a friendly tout tell you about a special exhibition in the medina where carpets playing a prominent role. He'll ask your nationality, where in country you are from, where we were staying, etc. then gave us some vague directions and waved good-bye.  With a sigh of relief of how easy it was to get out of the conversation you'll relax.  A very short time later a second tout will hail you as though he knew you. What a coincidence, he works at the same hotel you are staying at, had seen you there (or at least when you walked out the front doors ten minutes earlier), he is off duty now.  As you are searching you brain for images of every desk clerk, bell boy and room attendant at the hotel so as not to be offensive, he is going on that by the way, he knows of a great exhibition, it is the last day, can show he where it is.  Because of you good manners and the doubt that he has created, usually number two is very hard to shake and despite you better judgment and gut reaction you acquiesce and find yourself led to his uncles carpet shop.  These shops seem to have one-way doors -- they are very easier to walk into, but no easier to walk out of empty handed than it was to turn down number two.

(Gate) Bab el Bahr, Tunis MediaTourist souk, Tunis mediaThough tourism is one of the main industries in the country, it is not until you get on to the rabbit warren, narrow streets of the "World Heritage Site" medina (old walled city) that you find a mass of curio shops – with a lot to sell, but very few T-shirts. Throughout the medina there is a wide variety of textiles, brass work, leather jackets, bag and pillows, hand woven and tied carpets, pottery, jewelry, glass works, wood carvings and multimedia things -- they are selling anything you could possibly want and lots you wouldn’t want. Though there are dozen of shops selling the same kinds of items and competition for customers must be tough, as long as you don’t linger too long or look too long the sales atmosphere is relatively low pressure. There are so many colors, shapes, textures and materials it is hard to take it all in. It is a "visual jazz". Very stimulating window shopping.  As large as the tourist souq (market) is, the markets catering to Tunisians are even larger.  In these markets you can get clothes, shoes, cloth, perfume, hats, food, spices, jewelry, toys, Arabic books, plumbing supplies, etc.  To some extent merchants with the same kinds of products are clustered together so there are jewelry sections, rug sections, furniture section, vegetable sections, etc.

Mosque - Jamaa Ez Zitouna, TunisEncapsulated in the medina is a lot of history as well:  Among the many mosques we passed was the Jamaa Ez Zitouna (Mosque of the Olive Tree) or Great Mosque with hundreds pillars that had been removed from the ruins of Roman Carthage in the ninth century. The Place du Government where the Prime Minister and other notables worked was also a favorite area with its beautiful courtyard replete with large fountains and shade trees. We past the "Turkish" Youssef Dey Mosque, Tunis medina"Turkish" Youssef Dey Mosque,  through many of the traditional markets and here items were grouped together creating their own specialty souq: wool souq, cotton Souq or Souk, Tunis medinasouq, jewelry souq, perfume souq, book souq, and slave souq. Another type of historic places are the medersas or Islamic schools: Medersas Mouradia, Medersas Slimania, Medersas Bachia and Medersas of the Palm Tree Tourbet el Bey, mausoleum, TunisAnd then there are the tourbet (burial chambers) theme.  The largest of these is the Tourbet el Bey, mausoleum of more than a century and a half (1705-1881) of Husseinid sovereigns, princes, princesses and high government officials.  All along our route were good examples of the ornate doors of Tunis.  A fixture of the less traveled by-ways were cats. Obviously enjoying the lack of traffic in the early morning as they were everywhere underfoot.

Facade of Dar Othman, Tunis mediaEntry way detail, Dar Othman, Tunis mediaThe Dar Othman Palace, now the home of the association designated to conserve the medina, was probably our favorite stop. It is one of the nicest palace in Tunis with a variety of architectural styles from the tenth century. Courtyard, Dar Othman, Tunis mediaIt is a beautiful building both for its interior detail and outdoor open space. After the close confines of the streets, the large courtyard with full sized trees and a large swath of blue sky were refreshing. Itdetail, Dar Othman, Tunis media emphasized, as no amount of reading can do, Courtyard, Dar Othman, Tunis mediathe reality of the Arabic lifestyle: Western style is to have lots of windows to look out on beautiful landscapes while the Arabs focus inwardly with drab exteriors, few to no windows, but wonderful courtyards and interior open spaces. This building was a great example of this latter style.

Not far off the main street is Tunis' Jewish synagogue.  Jews have been in Tunisia for more than 2000 years.  Up until the 1970's the country had a significant Jewish population, with active synagogues in all of the major cities.  Except for on Djerba, the population is dwindling and aging, with most of the young people immigrating to France and other European destinations.

Throughout the city most of the merchandising is done by small ground floor shops so most street make for an interesting stroll.

 Click here for an sidetrip excursion to Carthage Next dispatch

Ojja, Tunisian egg and tomato dishFor dinner we walked around the corner from the hotel where is a row straight-up Tunisian "diner" where, collectively, we sampled the menu: mechioua ( a grilled salad with grilled peppers and onions with lettuce, tomatoes, and canned tuna), briq (egg and things, often tuna, fried in phyla dough), ojja (poached eggs, sautéed bell pepper and menu in English, Tunisiaonion in tomato sauce), Sfaxian rice (spiced rice with seafood) and couscous, served with an unending supply of French bread. One of the remnants of the French culture in their former colonies is the bread -- for those who like it, it is comfort food around the world.  Most Tunisian couscous is very fine, with only only had well baked vegetables and a piece of lamb, chicken or fish on top, and not served with a lot of sauce.  Done right it is very moist and flavorful.  People used to seeing it covered with a heavy sauce might worried that it will be dry. They are then pleasantly surprised that it's light, moist and, tasty, with a nice consistency.


Doors of Tunis:

One symbol of Tunis is its doors.  There are hundreds of beautiful doors.  Here is a very small sample:Traditional door, Tunis Media

Traditional door, Tunis Media

Traditional door, Tunis Media

Traditional door, Tunis Media

Traditional door, Tunis Media

Traditional door, Tunis Media

Traditional door, Tunis Media


Next dispatch Click here for Dispatch 2



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