After our success with the louage to El Djem, we decided to try our luck with taking one all the way to Tunis. We could have taken one direct from Monastir, but had been advised to go to Sousse first as the van would be likely to fill up quicker there. And so it did; a 15 minute wait in Sousse and we were off – well after a stop at a pharmacy and to drop off some post first; a multitasking louage.
The driver took the toll route, the scenery once again dominated by olive trees. But as we progressed north, trees became interspersed with fields of wheat, then we crossed an area of salt lakes.
The unsettled weather was playing up and we had rain showers to contend with, two cars were the casualties having spun in the wet, ending up with one on each side of the dual carriageway, blocking a lane each. The traffic slowed to a crawl and what had been 2 lanes was now 4 vehicles across, as everyone bunched up. It was a little disconcerting to have a moving lorry a few centimetres from my window, albeit moving slowly. But amazingly it worked, after bunching up and passing the stricken car, the vehicles fanned out with no coming together at all.
The scenery became more mountainous with fields of vines lining the slopes. My kind of scenery. Then we were passing through the outskirts of Tunis, arriving at the southern louage station (there are several different ones in Tunis, each serving a different area) as the rain reappeared. Our sandals were not very appropriate for the weather and my feet were cold. Where was the summer?
The Bardo Museum
Summer still hadn’t arrived by the next morning, so an indoor tourist activity was needed; we chose the Bardo museum. Our choice of transport for today was to be the tram and when we bought our ticket, we were amazing at the ridiculously low price, just 400 millimes, about 12p! We were wary of pickpockets, particularly as the tram was busy, thinning out as we got further from the centre.
As we got off, a smartly dressed older man asked if we needed directions and walked along with us as his car was that way too. He presented an alternative view of the political revolution, lamenting price increases, high unemployment and a lack of discipline amongst young people. We got to see some of the latter over the next few days.
The museum has a large collection of mosaics and displays on the history of Tunisia housed in a former palace. It was interesting, however we’d have liked to have seen more of the African history and artifacts as we were reaching peak Roman after the visit to El Djem.
We dodged another rain shower on the return tram, but back in the centre the sky looked clearer. We decided on a stroll around the medina.
Either our scam instincts had been softened by the genuinely helpful man this morning, or perhaps we had huge MUG arrows floating above our heads, but before we’d even gone beyond the Porte de France arch, we’d been suckered. “Hello”, said a man approaching us. “I work at the hotel here helping tourists. And today there is a carpet exhibition in the medina. The last day today! Here are directions”. Great we thought, thinking it was some kind of museum and perhaps we’d be able to look without buying. So we set off walking up one of the narrow medina streets when another man overtook us. “Hello, where are you from? I heard you were going to the carpet exhibition, well I’m going that way, I’ll show you where it is”. And still we were thinking how nice everyone was. Going in the opposite direction, a younger man tried to stop us. “The medina is closed” he warned us. We stopped, puzzled, but our ‘minder’ ushered us on. We think the young man knew our fate but didn’t have enough English to tell us properly.
So on we walked at quite a trot, lost by now with lots of turns through the narrow lanes. Then ahead, here was the exhibition. Now we realised our mistake! It was a shop of course, and we were shown upstairs to see the view across the medina, followed by an ornate bed, before the carpets. “We don’t want to buy!” we said. “Just have a look” they requested and proceeded to roll out some beautiful but huge carpets. “Offer a price'” they suggested, “we can deliver around the world”, “we take credit card” but we just shook our heads. We thanked them and once again said we didn’t want to buy and made our escape, heading quickly back downstairs. Of course our ‘minder’ was still there. We tried to lose him but we were now lost too so had to reluctantly follow to find our way out of the maze. And we just happened to pass his family’s scent shop. Nope, not for us. He realised he wasn’t getting anything from us and at least did describe our way out, which turned out to be correct. There was never any danger, and I enjoyed looking at the carpets, but if you don’t like that kind of sell then beware of men advertising carpet exhibitions!
Carthage & Sidi Bou Said
At last the rain had passed and we could do some outdoor exploring. Our plan was to take the TGM train line out to Carthage to look at the Roman ruins and then on to the pretty town of Sidi Bou Said, famed for itsrblue and white houses. As we plan to winter in Cartagena this winter, we felt we should visit the place that gave it it’s name.
We just missed a train but were told they run every 15 minutes. We splashed out on first class tickets, 2.4TD compared to 1.4TD for second. Apparently there is a better chance of a seat in first, which worked out that way for us. The lack of seats didn’t bother the teenagers who got on later. Hanging on to a door, they’d run along the platform as the train left a station, jumping on before they hit the fence at the end. One boy hung onto our open window, his elbow thrown over, knees tucked up high. The other passengers suggested we didn’t watch them as they were doing it for attention. Perhaps this was an example of the lack of discipline that the man spoke of yesterday? Whatever, it was a sure sign of Darwinism in action.
At Carthage Byrsa we left the train and walked up a hill, the surroundings in huge contrast to the rest of Tunisia. High gates and flowering hedges surrounded large villas, some of them with armed guards outside. We eventually arrived at the Carthage National Museum museum but initially accidentally ended up in the former Catholic church of St. Louis which is next door.
In the correct place we we were told the museum was closed but we could still visit the ruins. The views were lovely out across Tunis Bay, the water a beautiful turquoise blue. The remains of Carthage are scattered over a large area so we plotted a route to visit a few of them.
Carthage was the capital of the Punic empire, founded in the 9th century BC and an enormous city fit for a nation that dominated the Mediterranean for many centuries. However, they attracted the ire of Rome and so began many wars. Eventually, during the third Punic war, Rome was triumphant and destroyed Carthage, supposedly scattering the remains with salt to poison the land. However, they can’t have done that good a job of poisoning, as the Romans soon saw the benefits of a city in that location and built Roman Carthage on top of the Punic ruins. In the 7th century AC, the Romans got their comeuppance when the city was sacked by Arabs.
So what you see today are mostly Roman remains, with some Punic ruins underneath.
One ticket allows entry to all the archaeological sites. The nearest to where we were was the baths of Antonine and easily the most impressive ruins we saw that day. A tourist coach arrived whilst we were there, but we avoided them by visiting the shady ruins at the back of the site that the coach visitors don’t go to.
From here it was a 10 minute walk to the Roman villa remains and next door the heavily restored theatre.
Fully ruined out now, we got back on the train to continue a few more stops to Sidi Bou Said. From the train station we followed the road uphill until it became a pedestrian only route with tourist shops on either side. It certainly is a pretty village, the blue and white houses reminding us of Greece.
Ramadan had started a few days ago, so options for eating out were very limited. We spied a cafe with many people coming and going so went for a look. It looked lovely inside, colourful throws, blue umbrellas an an amazing view. We’d have a drink here. The drinks came, fresh strawberry juice for me, fresh orange for Colin. With them came a cake. Famished we accepted it. Doh! Rooky tourist mistake! This was a proper tourist trap. When compared to European prices, the juices were comparable, in Tunisia, high. But the cake was a rip off, bland too. So my recommendation is go enjoy the view and a cold drink but don’t have the cake.
After some more strolling we found a restaurant that was serving food and we enjoyed a filling, spicy cous cous with the place all to ourselves.
Our last full day in Tunis was my birthday so we moved accommodation to a traditional property in the medina: the Dar Ben Gacem. It was beautiful – the walls covered in colourful tiles with old, ornate furniture and art dotted around. We were shown a selection of rooms from which we could choose (it was a tough choice as they were all fabulous and I’m terrible at making decisions).
I chose the room with a large bed and ornate arch in the ceiling. As an unexpected bonus, there was a large bath so I could get my annual bathe. It was a warmer day today, perfect for chilling out in the rooftop lounge, drapes blowing gently in the breeze. We could have stayed there all afternoon, but there was a souk to explore.
We were armed with a map but decided to just wander and get lost amongst the various markets. Some are covered, some still represent the trades that formerly and in some cases, still are selling there. There was a jewellery zone and even a fez makers zone. Other areas sell household items, shoes and lots and lots of clothes. We definitely were lost at some point but somehow ended up back at the Porte de France. And there was the carpet exhibition man again, he zoned in on us but we made our escape away before he could get into his spiel.
Being Ramadan, we knew alcohol would be difficult to find so had come prepared with a bottle of Prosecco. A warm, bubbly bath and a glass of cold bubbly – ahhhhhh.
For dinner, we had booked a traditional iftar set meal at the M’Rabet restaurant. At our table, there were several plates already laid out for us – stuffed dates, two salads and a pickle tray. However, we couldn’t start on anything yet as it was still only 7pm, at least 20 minutes before the fast could be broken for those observing. A choice of soups was presented – either lamb or seafood. To quench our thirst we had water and a glass of fermented milk.
After the soup came a deep fried object. We set to with knife and fork, only for the man on the table next to us politely advise we picked it up to eat. Ha ha! It was much easier eating that way. The object was a brik – egg and tuna encased in a deep fried, crispy batter. They were tasty.
And still there was the main course to come – another choice between lamb and fish, with a side serving of stuffed peppers. They weren’t the only things getting stuffed right now. I called defeat after a few mouthfuls of the pudding, nice though it was, my tummy was beat. A glass of mint tea finished off the meal.
Whilst we’d been eating, the souk had come alive. Empty streets and passages were now full of chairs and tables, people out socialising; drinking tea or coffee and smoking chicas. Arabic beats followed us as we strolled around.
Our last morning started with a filling breakfast in the courtyard of the hotel. I was quite amazed by how much I managed to eat even after the huge meal last night. We squeezed in a final stroll around the souk and headed off for the train back to Monastir.
The trains had big, comfy seats and air conditioning. We’d arrived around 30 minutes before departure which turned out to be fortuitous, given how full it became, with people standing in the aisles. A very comfortable way to end an enjoyable trip to Tunis – we’d particularly enjoyed the medina, just roaming around without a plan and soaking up the sights, sounds and smells.