Week One in Monastir 1


It took a few days to find our feet in Monastir and adjust to a different way of life when compared to some of our European habits. There were a couple of bumpy moments that temporarily dented our confidence, however, the country and it’s people have grown on me. We’ve had many good experiences and found most Tunisians to be friendly and helpful.

Check In

For us, check in went smoothly; when we entered the harbour we could see the welcome pontoon was occupied by a large trip boat, we heard a call and saw a marinero directing us straight to a berth. Once tied up, we walked around to the police and customs offices to complete the paperwork, then a representative from each walked around with us to complete the boat inspection.

On Emerald, a few lockers were opened, we were asked several times if we had a drone (no) and cigars (yuck) and that was it. No ‘gifts’ were asked for. We had to pay a fee of 5TD for the customs stamp, but they very relaxed about when we paid it as we hadn’t been able to get to the bank yet.

The Marina

The marina is set within a fairly well sheltered basin, surrounded by apartments, cafes and restaurants. There’s even a gym. Berths are located around the edge of the basin and along concrete docks. It’s a little rough and ready in places but reasonably clean on the land. Watch out when motoring around however, as there can be some floating debris.

The staff speak Arabic, French and some of them a little English; the lady who fronts the office has very good English. Things we asked for did get done, but perhaps not as quickly as we were used to. When we needed their help (which was a few times during our first week or so) the marineros were friendly and did their best to help. One of our ‘bumps’ was regards to the berth we were given and the condition of the mooring lines,
which weren’t heavy enough for Emerald’s 17 tons in 25kts of wind. However we got things resolved without any damage being caused.

Emerald in her berth
Looking towards the marina from the tower in the Ribat

Money

After changing some euros at one of the many banks in town, we admit that our sleep deprived brains were a little confused by what we had been given. We had a thick wad of notes and a selection of coins, all from changing just € 100. If wealth was measured in the thickness of your wad of cash we’d have felt very wealthy!

The smallest note says 10TD on it and is worth approx £3. We had a lot of them. 1 Tunisian dinar (TD) is then divided into 1000 units, called millime. This is where we got confused having grown up with decimals. We had a heavy pocketful of millime coins worth the equivalent of a few pence but they did come in very useful in the market and when using public transport.

There is an exchange in the marina and many banks in town with ATMs and currency exchange. We brought euros with us as we knew our UK bank cards had a fee for cash withdrawal outside Europe. When we changed cash, some banks wanted to see a passport, but most didn’t.

A selection of Tunisian Dinar

Monastir Town

Behind the marina sits the imposing defensive structure of the Ribat, glowing golden in the sun. Behind that is the medina, the old part of the town and the most interesting. Like the ribat, the medina too has high, protective walls, however in Monastir’s case, the walls no longer fully surround it. Imposing gateways provide entry to the maze of streets inside. This is also where you will find the daily souk, the shopping district with a mixture of tourist stands, household and clothes shops. There’s a pet shop if you’re looking to buy a tortoise or a puppy. There are occasional tourists wandering around, but as the tourist zone is several miles out of town, on the whole it’s local people you see out and about.

Looking towards the medina from the ribat tower

The tourist stands are going to try and get you ‘to look, no buy’. But of course they want you to buy! It’s not my way of buying things, but generally the sellers aren’t too pushy and we’ve found that if we say “non, merci” with a smile, they soon give up. If you like haggling then you’ll be a happy person when shopping here.

Mixed in amongst the shops are houses, cafes, restaurants and mosques. The main mosque is marked out by a tall minaret, but there are several more hidden away behind decorated doors.

However, as a downside, it is scruffy. This is my main negative from Tunisia. Piles of building materials are dumped on footpaths or the edge of a road and plastic bags blow around like leaves from a tree.

Outside of the walls the town has spread. At certain times of the day the traffic is chaotic but we have quickly become skilled at stepping out in front of moving traffic to cross the roads. Mostly the cars do stop! The louage, bus and train station are all located close behind the medina as well as many types of shops and housing. Taxis roam around and might beep as you walk by to see if you want their service.

There is a larger weekly souk further out of town, but we never got around to going (or at least before I wrote this blog).

One of the gateways to the medina
Medina shopping street
Inside the medina, looking towards the main mosque, cars can drive through

Fish and Produce Market

I love this place! Stalls crammed together and loaded with fresh food – mountains of seasonal produce including strawberries, mulberries and tomatoes at crazy low prices to us Europeans. €1 a kilo! Prices are marked on chalk boards stuck in the mounds and we found vendors to have charged us honestly.

The market is crowded and gaps between stalls are small. Often someone will try to get a scooter or a van down amongst the pedestrians to much scolding from the locals when they cause a blockage. We saw a delivery van piled high with boxes of produce, catch on the fabric shade of a stall; disaster was averted with the use of a broomstick, a bit of forward and back and not too much shouting.

Inside is the fish market, surrounded by butchers shops (sheep’s head anyone?) and more veggie stalls as well as dried goods; the smell from the spices is divine. Back outside are household goods, toys and crockery.

The fish market
A mountain of strawberries

The Ribat

The main tourist attraction in Monastir is the solid looking ribat, an Islamic defensive structure built in 796, the oldest in the Magreb area of Africa. It’s incredibly well preserved and inside you can wander with abandon through rooms and corridors on several levels, linked by time-worn steps. It’s probably a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare that tourists can wander so freely over such uneven surfaces, but great for us to be able to roam where we liked with a bit of care as to where you step. Up the narrow, winding stair of the tower there are great views across the marina and town. The tower was used to exchange messages with neighbouring ribats. There’s a small museum containing relics from the Islamic faith.

The imposing walls of the Ribat
Inside the Ribat
Tunnels, rooms and passages to explore
Scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed here – imagine the far wall covered in Latin graffiti

Mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba

At the end of a wide drive through the town’s cemetery is the burial site of Habib Bourguiba, a politician who became the first president of Tunisia, and was involved in the negotiations for independence from France which was granted in 1956. He subsequently declared Tunisia a republic one year later.

It’s a grand place with two sky piercing minarets flanking the mausoleum which is topped with a golden dome. Around the edge is a tile decorated, covered walkway and courtyard. It’s free to visit and inside is a room displaying the president’s belongings as well as family members’ graves. In the centre is Bourguiba’s tomb which can be looked down on from a gallery, a grand chandelier hanging overhead.

The wide approach to the mausoleum
Bourguiba’s tomb
A grand chandelier hangs above

Eating Out

Eating out is cheap when compared to Europe. We arrived a few days before Ramadan began and if we’d realised, we’d have eaten out far more during those few days to make the most of the new foods to try being so readily available. Being fans of spicy food we’ve really enjoyed having food with a bit of heat to them. In restaurants, harissa paste is served with bread and olives as a starter. The paste is made from hot chillies and can vary from mild to blow your head off so best to be frugal with the first taste.

The El Koojina restaurant had been recommended to us and it proved worthy. 6TD for a huge bowl of spicy cous-cous topped with that day’s choice of meat and roasted veg. However, during Ramadan it was only open to collect orders that you select from the menu on it’s Facebook page.

A large number of restaurants closed during the month of Ramadan, however there were a few that would open in the evening. In the marina the Losdiana restaurant near the capitanerie remained open and even served alcohol (the local beer, Celtia, is good), I guess as many of it’s customers are visitors with boats. The cafes within the marina complex also remained open for coffee and soft drinks. The Alhambra restaurant in town was open for a few hours in the evening and we enjoyed steak and lamb chops there.

A bowl of filling cous cous for Colin, a spicy pasta type dish for me at El Koojina

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