An Intriguing Alternative

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April 18th 2019
Published: May 21st 2019
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Cafe Des DelicesCafe Des DelicesCafe Des Delices

This cliffside cafe in Sidi Bou Said has a stunning view from over the sea and the flash, modern marina below.
When most think of a romantic, exotic, French-influenced, North African getaway, the country that most immediately comes to mind is Morocco. But the more famous the place, the more touristy it is and after my average and somewhat dramatic Moroccan experience, I think that I may have found a credible alternative; a place with the medinas, the French, the Arabic, the desert and the beaches, sans all of the hassle; Tunisia.

Back in Berlin, life seemed to be all falling into place. By this stage, I had now built up a bit more of a financial base, I was settled into my job and I had just moved into my own apartment in one of the most desired areas to live in Berlin - I almost didn’t want to leave. After three years of travelling and unemployment, it has been surprising - or perhaps unsurprising - how much I have missed having a routine; now I was just process of establishing a new one and enjoying my newly bought apartment possessions before I had to leave again.
Yet the timing was also perfect - I had just ordered a new bicycle which I will be using to transport myself around Berlin and it
Bardo MuseumBardo MuseumBardo Museum

Tunis's world class archaeological museum is housed in a magnificent 15th century palace.
would be two weeks before it would arrive; just enough time to take a two-week holiday before I pick it up on my return. After considering that, I was now excited about going to Tunisia.

When I first started listing all the countries that I wanted to visit, Tunisia was actually - believe it or not - on the original list. It was scribbled down because of a weird fascination I had with a place not well known, but put on my map thanks to football. I had first heard of the country when England played Tunisia in the 1998 World Cup (the teams then met again during the World Cup in 2018) and then I encountered their football team in the flesh when I watched Tunisia go down to Ukraine via an Andrei Shevchenko penalty during the 2006 World Cup, inside Berlin's Olympic Stadium, which I have now frequented a few times since, in my new home city. The Tunisian and former Ajax right back Hatem Trabelsi was also a handy pick for me back in the days when I played Fantasy Champions League.

Speaking of the Champions League, I thought I might catch Manchester United's biggest
Antonin BathsAntonin BathsAntonin Baths

Right by the sea, these old Roman baths of the once-great city of Carthage, were wonderfully located.
game of the year so far against Barcelona, while waiting in transit at Cologne/Bonn Airport, maybe over a nice hot meal and a beer, as I remembered the airport being decent.
Yeah right.
The gate was in a ghost terminal where the only thing open was a shitty little cafe where I had the two driest, hardest and worst sandwiches I think I have ever had, which put me back 14€ with a bottle of water. But what are you gonna do? Where are you gonna go? I was starving and wouldn’t be arriving in Tunis until late. And to top things off, United were hammered (again). At least I didn’t miss much.

While it was football that brought Tunisia into my consciousness, some of you may know it as the birthplace of the Arab Spring in 2011, or more tragically, the terrorist attacks at the capital’s Bardo Museum in 2015 - the revamped museum being my first sightseeing stop the next day.
Not that I was too keen to venture outside - I had brought a cold with me from Berlin but with only two days in Tunis, I had to drag myself out.

Asking the hotel
Sidi Bou SaidSidi Bou SaidSidi Bou Said

Like a Greek island village, the clifftop village of Sidi Bou Said and its white washed houses with blue trim and Islamic architecture, is beautiful. The colourful items on sale at this store just adds to the scene.
owner how to get to the Bardo, he tells me to “just take a taxi.”
And indeed they are incredibly cheap here, almost at Iranian prices. There was one taxi driver I had however, who seemed nice but tried to pretend he hadn’t taken my money. I was pretty sure he took me the long way around too. My rule of thumb is to never trust a taxi driver - they're the same all over the world.

There is a memorial plaque near the entrance to the museum, with one flag hanging for each of the nationalities murdered by the Islamist militants; twenty-two people died as a result of the attack, with one local gunned down alongside tourists from France, Italy, Japan, Poland, Colombia, Spain, Belgium, Russia and the UK.
As for the more positively famous aspects of the museum, it is home to perhaps the most dazzling and impressively large collection of mosaics that I think I have ever seen; the size of some of them are incredible and the walls and floors were literally plastered with them. Most of the remaining artefacts on display come from nearby Carthage, the great pre-Roman city state. I learnt a bit
Ceiling At The Bardo MuseumCeiling At The Bardo MuseumCeiling At The Bardo Museum

A gorgeous domed ceiling at the Bardo Museum.
about Tunisia’s history too, a nation once ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, several Muslim dynasties, the Ottomans and finally the French, before independence in 1956. After Arabic, French is the country's second language, requiring me to dust off my limited French vocabulary during my visit to Tunisia. I also learnt that Hannibal, one of the greatest military commanders in history, was in fact Carthaginian.
The museum a bit of a maze but the building itself is pretty impressive - it used the be an old royal palace and the main gallery is simply stunning. Some of the tiling and rooms were very reminiscent of what I had seen a few months ago in Iran. Overall the Bardo was very impressive and worthy of its world class plaudits - about as good a museum as I have seen recently.

If I thought the Bardo was a bit of a maze, I then discovered I may have been exaggerating that description somewhat once I set foot in Tunis's medina, which was filthy in some places, but classy in others.
Perhaps I could have visited the medina in the morning, when all the shops are open, like my taxi driver had
Medina AlleywayMedina AlleywayMedina Alleyway

A charming dead-end alleyway inside Tunis's maze of a medina.
suggested. However, I appreciated not being squeezed by crowds while walking around. The covered souks are very much like the bazaars of Iran and Turkey, while the cleaned up residential parts are really pretty, with a white and blue colour scheme that with a few branches of bougainvillea, made you feel like you were on one of the Greek Islands. There were quite a lot of beautiful yellow doors around too. Medinas are all the same though really, when you think about it. The prettiness of some of the areas apart, there was nothing that special about Tunis’s one.

I did have an interesting encounter inside the medina however, with an English speaking, well dressed, engineering student. He seemed to think I was lost (I was - although deliberately, as I was just happily wandering around the medina) and pointed me in a direction of some sort of palace that was apparently only open today.
"There is a good view!" he tells me, noting my camera around my neck. He simply pointed out where it was located however and let me go on my way. But as I hung around and looked at my phone to decide where to go next, he came
Picture ThisPicture ThisPicture This

An alleyway inside Tunis's medina.
back and offered to take me to the palace.
"I take you for free", he tells me, "no need to give me money".
Why not, I thought. I soon found out why not!
He ends up taking me to a carpet store, of which I had already rejected the advances of its doorman earlier, but I thought I might as well check out the view - who knows, it might be as good as this one.
It wasn't bad, but having taken advantage of their rooftop, the carpet salesmen were now onto me. I decide to go through the motions a bit although I had no desire whatsoever to buy a carpet, just to be polite. I knew it was fun to go along with it in Iran so just went along with it here. It immediately brought back memories of Morocco, the last time I got talked into looking at carpets over a free cup of mint tea. The carpet seller tried every trick in the book; the guilt trip ("you will help the local people of Tunisia"), starting to wrap up a carpet as if I was going to buy it, the free cup of mint tea. All the
Rooftop View Rooftop View Rooftop View

The view over the medina was just about worth the hassle in getting up to the roof of this carpet shop.
tricks in the book weren'’t gonna help him unfortunately. The carpet salesman wasn't that pleased as the guy that brought me here then escorted me out, seemingly understanding that there was no way I was gonna buy anything in that shop and that the carpet seller's persistence was not going to change that.
Once outside the shop however, guess what?
"Do you mind giving me some money for my time?" asks the 'engineering student', despite stating earlier that he wouldn’t. His whole routine seemed very smooth, natural and genuine, I must say. But I felt aggrieved about having to pay my way out of the situation in the end. I gave him five dinars (less than 2€) and then he had the cheek to ask for twenty! I tell him no and remind him that he said he wouldn't ask for money earlier. He was obviously hoping for some commission from a carpet sale. It was shades of Morocco alright, but without the gracious send-off.

Walking back to the hotel, I pass through the Ville Nouvelle, which has it’s own feel, like a run down suburb in the south of France. A little like Tangier, Casablanca or Beirut, with that old school,
Ville NouvelleVille NouvelleVille Nouvelle

The streets of the Tunis's "new town" evoke the south of France.
international glamour. Despite feeling like those cities however, it still felt unique.
As for the locals, they seemed pretty friendly and welcoming and are super-chill, like the Lebanese and Iranians that I had encountered recently. While most were friendly, I don't think anyone will match the friendliness I encountered in Iran or Myanmar however.

That evening, the hotel restaurant was showing the Champions League game between Manchester City and Tottenham, which was perfect. Not so perfect was the wait staff inexplicably changing the channel for twenty minutes during which I missed five goals! I was not having great luck with football on this trip although at least City lost in a thriller! My old friend Hatem Trabelsi was of course, on the local TV channel's post-match analytical panel...

In the eastern part of Tunis by the water, are the ancient ruins of Carthage.
Once a Phoenician outpost established around 1234-1215 BC, it developed into one of the great ancient city states that eventually ruled over a swathe of the Mediterranean and was known as the Punic Empire. They were the main rivals to the Romans until Rome finally conquered Carthage in 146 BC.
What is left today of
Byrsa HillByrsa HillByrsa Hill

This is centre of Ancient Carthage, its ruins looking down from the hill towards the sea.
the old city is scattered over several sites in what is now an upscale neighbourhood of Tunis.
The first site I visit is the Quartier Magog which are just the Roman foundations of some old workshops; the nearby Antonin Baths was much more intact and it was easy to make out the old bathhouses despite the minimal English signage. Just a couple of hundred metres from the sea, the remaining columns are quite the sight, set against the Mediterranean.
The Roman Villas down the road were a waste of time although I did get to see the Roman Amphitheatre for free, although much of it has admittedly been restored to modern standards, given it is actually being used for live performances.
Very little of the original Punic ruins are left apart from at Byrsa Hill, where Carthage was supposedly founded.

Getting from Byrsa Hill to Sidi Bou Said - an alluring, cliff-side village - required a taxi. However, despite the ride being less than ten minutes, the driver wouldn't take me for less than twenty dinars (about 7€), which is a relative rip-off in Tunis. I had no choice but to take the taxi however - I just didn't
Blue And WhiteBlue And WhiteBlue And White

The main street in the pretty cliffside village of Sidi Bou Said.
have the time to get there any other way. So I coughed up the twenty dinars; I have more money than time these days, a complete reversal from my backpacking days, even if most of my backpacking habits are still dying hard.
And I have to say that while no way near as bad as the Egyptians or the Moroccans, Tunisians who are trying to get money out of you are quite pushy and persistent. Service hasn't really been that super either, as I basically had my food ordered for me at one cafe.

The hassle was just about worth it however - Sidi Bou Said is stunning.
A cute, cobblestone village with perched atop cliffs on the Cap Bon, all the buildings are painted white with blue trim - just like they are in Santorini. Providing inspiration for artists such as Paul Klee, August Macke and Louis Moilliet, it was easy to see why - especially from the impeccably positioned Cafe des Delices, a cliff-top cafe looking down onto the marina and the beach.
The village was the best thing I saw in Tunis by quite a way - which explains why there was no shortage of tourists.
The BeachThe BeachThe Beach

The beach in La Marsa looks a lot cleaner than it was.

I still had a bit of daylight left so I decided to try and walk around the coast to the neighbourhood of La Marsa. Walking up an abandoned road back up towards the top of the cliffs from the beach, I then find myself stopped in my tracks by a fence and some nasty looking barbed wire. There was no way I was going to walk all the way down again so I beat through some bushes to find a ditch that runs along the road that the barbed wire doesn't get to - level passed.
However, I then get to the closed gates of an abandoned cliff-side mansion, which again is wrapped in barbed wire. This obstacle was a bit easier to pass however, as I precariously jumped around the cliff edge, hanging on to the roadside guard rail as I did so.
Only to then find myself seemingly trapped inside private property - was there a way out? Would I have to spend another hour going all the way back down the cliff? I then spot a small gap in the stone wall that encloses the mansion - and what do you know, it is a secret
La CornicheLa CornicheLa Corniche

This raised promenade looking out to sea is probably the most popular and elegant part of La Marsa.
door that leads back onto the road! Thank God for that. I always seem to get myself into these sort of scrapes by following non-existent paths on digital maps (see Croatia and Albania)...

There are a lot of nice beachfront villas in La Marsa although the beach itself is OK at best. And the water was damn cold! La Marsa however, is definitely Tunis’s ‘trendy’ neighbourhood, a little more upmarket but not too much so and with a relaxing vibe that usually comes with beachside locales. La Corniche, a raised promenade about 300m back from the beach is the area’s highlight where locals and tourists alike can take a leisurely stroll, ice cream in hand. My Tunisian colleague Safa recommended an ice cream shop on the promenade which I decided to call on and while I did enjoy the ice cream as I sat on a bench and watched the locals and the sea, I think I've been spoilt by New Zealand ice cream growing up and would’ve preferred something a bit richer and creamier. Still, for 1€ you can’t complain!

La Corniche is right next to a train station so I decided to take a train back
Beachside VillasBeachside VillasBeachside Villas

In the upmarket neighbourhood of La Marsa.
into Tunis. It was on the train that I realised that my skin felt particularly warm and sore; I had been in the sun all day but hadn't even thought about packing any sunscreen with me, let alone apply any - and I had paid the price with a red forehead, nose and forearms. I just do not get burnt in Europe normally but exposing my skin to the North African sun after a Berlin winter had well and truly caught me out.

Once I got back into the city, I couldn’t seem to get a taxi so I ended up walking through Tunis’s dishevelled downtown district which takes on a dodgy atmosphere in the evening. It looked like it could’ve been the downtown area of any city.
The plus point of walking through the downtown area however, was picking up a chapati for dinner - not the Indian bread but a grilled Tunisian flatbread sandwich that resembles a Colombian or Venezuelan arepa. I'd probably prefer an arepa to be honest, though the chapati did hit the spot at the time.

Tunis overall is nice in parts, has several faces which lends it some nice variety, but overall
Alluring DoorwayAlluring DoorwayAlluring Doorway

One of many in Tunis's medina.
the city is just nice - nothing more, nothing less. Though worth a visit, I probably wouldn't put it on a list of must-visits.

However my opinion of Tunisia overall so far may change as I now set out to explore the county outside of its capital!

ان شالله نشوفك عن قريب، بالسلامة ('iina shallah nushufuk ean qaribin, bialsalama),

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Streets Of TunisStreets Of Tunis
Streets Of Tunis

The street my hotel was on in the Ville Nouvelle.
Like ParisLike Paris
Like Paris

If I told you that this photo was taken in Paris rather than Tunis, you'd probably believe me.
La MarsaLa Marsa
La Marsa

Very much Tunis's "place to be" if you're a young local wanting to be seen.
Covered SoukCovered Souk
Covered Souk

A typical covered passageway lined with shops inside Tunis's medina.
Inside Tunis's MedinaInside Tunis's Medina
Inside Tunis's Medina

A pretty scene in the renovated part of Tunis's medina.
Beb El BahrBeb El Bahr
Beb El Bahr

Ceremonial gate to Tunis's old town in Place de la Victoire.
Hotel Royal VictoriaHotel Royal Victoria
Hotel Royal Victoria

Rather grand looking hotel in Tunis's Place de la Victoire, the main square at the entrance to the medina.

The Bardo Museum had probably the most impressive collection of large mosaics I have ever seen.

Elegant Islamic-style courtyard inside the Bardo Museum.

Tried one of these babies in Sidi Bou Said - basically a large, delicious, Tunisian donut.

Not an Indian bread but a Tunisian-style sandwich.

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