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 its people grew on me. We subsequently had many good experiences and we found the majority of Tunisians to be friendly and helpful.
.Check-in to the country went smoothly for us. As we entered the harbour, we saw that a large trip boat had filled up the welcome pontoon. As we looked around for an alternative, 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.
Whilst the officials were on Emerald, they opened a few lockers. They asked us several times if we had a drone (no) and cigars and that was it. They did not ask for any ‘gifts’. The customs stamp cost 5TD, but they very relaxed about when we paid it as we hadn’t gone to the bank yet.
The marina lies 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 spoke Arabic, French, and some of them a little English. The lady who fronts the office had very good English. When we needed their help, the marineros were friendly and did their best to help. Unfortunately, we needed assistance a few times during our first week or so. One of the issues was regards to our berth and the condition of the mooring lines. The lines were not heavy enough for Emerald’s 17 tons in 25kts of wind and she was close to hitting the concrete quay. However, the staff worked hard to resolve the problem and no damage occurred.
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.
After changing some euros, 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 been 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 further divided into 1000 units, called millime. We grew up with decimals, so this confused us. 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.
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.
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. A tall minaret denotes the main mosque, but there are several smaller ones hidden behind decorated doors.
However, as a downside, it is scruffy. This is my main negative from Tunisia. Building materials are dumped on footpaths or along 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).
The Fish and Produce Market
I loved 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! Chalkboards stuck in the mounds of produce display the prices. We found vendors to have charged us honestly.
The market can get crowded and the gaps between stalls are small. Often someone will try to drive a scooter or a van through 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. A disaster was averted with the help of a broomstick, a bit of forward and back shuffling, and not too much shouting.
The stalls surround a covered structure, inside which is the fish market. Counters displayed a large choice of freshly caught seafood, including tuna. Surrounding this are stalls of butcher shops (sheep’s head anyone?), more veggie stalls as well as dried goods vendors. The smell from the spices is divine. Back outside are household goods, toys, and crockery.
The main tourist attraction in Monastir is the solid-looking ribat, an Islamic defensive structure built in 796, the oldest in the Maghreb area of Africa. Its thick, well-preserved walls surround an open courtyard. Inside we wandered with abandon through rooms and corridors on several levels, linked by time-worn steps. I imagine a health and safety officer would have nightmares given that tourists can wander so freely over such uneven surfaces. However, it was great for us to be able to roam where we liked with a bit of care as to where we stepped. Up the narrow, winding stair of the tower, there are great views across the marina and town. The tower allowed soldiers to exchange messages with neighbouring ribats. Within the walls, there is a small museum containing relics from the Islamic faith.
More recently, several scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed here. We had fun spotting the locations.
Mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba
At the end of a wide drive through the town’s cemetery is the burial site of Habib Bourguiba. He was a politician who subsequently became the first president of Tunisia. One of his legacies was to negotiate 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. Topping it is a golden dome. A tile decorated, covered walkway and courtyard curve around the outside. It’s free to visit and inside is a room displaying the president’s belongings as well as family members’ graves. Bourguiba’s tomb is in the centre, with a glittering chandelier hanging overhead. A gallery provides a an ideal viewing platform.
When compared to Europe, eating out in Tunisia is inexpensive. 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. We’re fans of spicy food and really enjoyed eating meals with some fire to them. Restaurants serve harissa paste with bread and olives as a starter. The paste is made from hot chilies, and varies from mild to blow your head off. So it’s best to be frugal with your first taste.
Friends recommended the El Koojina restaurant 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.
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Thank you from Nichola & Colin