Tunisia Report

Feb 8th, 2001, 06:30 AM
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Tunisia Report

Several people have asked about a report from Tunisia, so here is a first installment. Yes, technically this belongs in Africa, where I'll probably also post it...but really, it's such an easy hop from Europe that I think more people should consider adding side journeys to Tunisia when they visit Europe. Flights from Rome and Paris are especially frequent.

I have to admit that my first couple of days were somewhat inauspicious. I stayed two nights in Tunis, in a hotel south of Avenue Habib Bourguiba (the main street), in the Ville Nouvelle. The area is recommended by Lonely Planet, and the hotels in the area are indeed a good combination of decent and *bargain*, but women alone will *not* be comfortable in this area at night. I stayed at Hotel Salammbo in Rue de Grece; only 19 TD or $15 US per night, with shower but with WC down the hall, for quite a nice high-ceilinged room with fireplace mantel, cherry wardrobe and pretty antique iron double bed, plus tiny balcony. Other nice hotels in the area--I particularly liked Maison Doree. The couples and groups of people I met were happy in the area, but agreed that no *way* would they suggest women alone stay there. You get way too much intense attention after dark, and it does sometimes feel threatening. (Remember, I live in the city and am far from timid.)

One of the best things about Tunis itself is walking around the main avenue and the streets just north of Habib Bourguiba, sampling pastries and goodies for rock-bottom prices. As a former French protectorate, Tunisia is practically bilingual Arabic-French, and yummy pastry shops are *everywhere.* Pain au chocolate and other types of flaky, sweet and savory pastries usually run about .500 dinars, or about 35 cents each. I had the most amazing pecan/raisin croissant roll...slurp. I reached the point where I'd just graze rather than eat in a sit-down restaurant.

Feb 8th, 2001, 06:36 AM
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A little more on the pastry shops (okay, so I'm food-obsessed)--you can get the fancier pastries--fruit tarts, slices of elaborate cakes, napoleon-style, and so on--for about .700-1 dinar, or between 55 cents and less than a dollar.

The Tunis medina is a fascinating place, but go in with a good map or guide (the LP guy steered me wrong on the hotel, but has an excellent walking tour of the medina in his book) and be prepared for *everyone* to try to sell you something. It quiets down a bit once you get past the array of shops on the first street as you enter from Ave. Habib Bourguiba, but *everyone* tries to get you to look and to buy. Wear dark glasses so they can't tell if you glance their way. But it is fun to bargain; I got some wide silver bracelets I really like in Berber and Carthaginian mosaic patterns for a total of about $40 for 3.

Don't miss the Great Mosque; you *can't* miss the Great Mosque; everyone will point you to it and say "big mosque." They want you to go into some carpet shop and see it from above. Don't bother unless you're *really* good at resisting sales pitches...the mosque is open to visitors on a variable schedule, but only the entry courtyard. Non-Moslems can't enter the prayer hall.

It's fun to just wander the streets of the medina and look at the elaborate doors and archways that are characteristic of Tunisian architecture, representing the division between public and private life.
Feb 8th, 2001, 06:43 AM
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On my second day in Tunisia, I discovered Sidi Bou Said--a gorgeous little gem of a village about half an hour from Tunis by TGM light rail. You half think you're in Greece in this town, with its cobblestoned streets and all the buildings painted blue and white. It seems blessed with gorgeous weather--beautiful blue skies and bougainvillea everywhere. Set on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, it's a lovely place to have a coffee at the famous Cafe des Nattes, which overlooks the main square and used to be an entrance into the village mosque. You can also walk down to a little beach and an elaborate marina, but there are a ton of steps!

A fascinating spot in Sidi Bou is the palace of Baron Rodolphe D'Erlanger, a European nobleman who lived in Sidi Bou Said in the early 1900s. He was an artist, musician and patron of the arts, and wrote a six-volume treatise on Arabic music. His palace--which is absolutely stunning, with a perfumed fountain, gorgeous indoor-outdoor conservatory with amazing acoustics, exquisite furnishings, elaborately carved painted ceilings, etc.--is now the Centre des Musiques Arabes et Mediterraneennes. You can tour the palace, view his collection of Arab, Western, and African musical instruments, see his paintings (some quite good), and wander his gardens. The "palace" is built on some of the most beautiful land in Sidi Bou Said, and every room has a view of the sea. It feels like heaven. Admission's only 3 dinars, or about $2 US.
Feb 8th, 2001, 06:59 AM
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The Baron, by the way, was apparently the guy who convinced the Bey who governed Sidi Bou Said at the time that they should require all buildings to be painted blue and white. Not as any sort of political statement--just as a unifying theme to give the village a sense of continuity and identity. It worked! The Baron had a good mind for PR.

I stayed in Sidi Bou toward the end of my trip and daytripped out; the hotel Sidi Bou Fares, a quick left and up the hill from the main square, has a beautiful courtyard and pleasant if small rooms. A single is only 17 dinars, but no bath and the baths are through the courtyard. Fine in summer, but not in winter when it gets cooold at night, so I paid 35 dinars per night for a double with bath. Technically this new room, with gorgeous tile, is 45 TD per night, but I bargained them down since it was Jan. and no one was there. In summer it's apparently packed.

If you go to Sidi Bou, do *not* miss a little pastry shop just past the main square on your left as you continue toward the steps down to the harbor. I don't think it has a name. Look for a small window with crowds of locals and kids elbowing their way toward it. They're making Tunisian beignets, hot, fresh, big, and doughnut-shaped, dipped in regular sugar instead of powdered sugar. Two for 500 millimes (about 35 cents) and they're grabbed as fast as they can make them. Delicious!

More installments shortly--including a trip to the desert south and a visit to the holy city of Kairouan.
Feb 8th, 2001, 07:03 AM
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Gina, thank you so much for sharing your experiences in Tunisia. It's high on my list of places to visit. Tell us more!!
Feb 8th, 2001, 12:08 PM
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Checked in here this afternoon and all I see are posters up in arms. Don't worry about ole' Deja, Gina. Tell us more about your trip!
Feb 8th, 2001, 12:24 PM
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Thanks for the encouragement, Ess! Let's see...oh yes, camel jockey time.

Because I only had about a week in Tunisia, I booked a three-day 4WD tour through the desert south, an area I really wanted to see but which I feared would be difficult to investigate with just a few days available for that chunk of the trip. So for three days we bumped and rattled through the southern half of country.

Highlights included the colosseum at El-Jem, which seated 30,000 people and is the third largest colosseum in the world, the largest outside Italy. Having just come from Rome, it seemed dwarfed by Rome's monster, but on the other hand the El-Jem colosseum is in better shape in many ways (less deterioration, probably because it's not in a big city with the attendant pollution) and visitors are permitted much more extensive access to the site. (You can go down under the Colosseum in the tunnels where the gladiators and animals waited, for instance.)

The town of Matmata is famous as the place where George Lucas filmed the Tatooine scenes in Star Wars. The area is home to Berber natives who've lived there for centuries and still reside in traditional pit dwellings, designed to minimize both heat and cold and keep the temperatures inside regulated. Basically, they hollow out a pit in the earth and dig a tunnel to access it; rooms are dug into the walls of the pit, and the main part of the pit is like a courtyard. We visited one of these Berber homes, and the two women of the house, Emna and Maharzia, had time to sit and drink hot sweet tea with us and show us how they do their weaving. Luckily, the 4WD I was in (there were three in our group) included three Tunisian young people, seeing their own country, and so they spoke with Emna and Maharzia in Arabic and got us a particularly warm welcome. My extensive practice of the Arabic for "thank you very much" and "please" came in handy here!

The pit dwelling we visited was outside of Matmata--the village itself is rather touristy, with even a sign on the hills above town that's a little imitation of the Hollywood sign--"Bienvenue/Welcome Matmata."

Camels coming soon!
Feb 8th, 2001, 12:33 PM
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even though Tunisia is not on any "Go To" list for us, I enjoyed reading your Rome report so much, that I wanted to read this too.
Sounds beautiful (and yummy!)
Feb 8th, 2001, 01:50 PM
Beth Anderson
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yes, let's get a post to the top which is NICE. so much grumbling going on today! and here it's a nice day, and everything...

looking forward to the camels!
Feb 9th, 2001, 06:43 AM
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The pit dwellings sound fascinating! I love troglodyte dwellings (I learned a new word recently while researching the Loire). There's something really primal and elemental about living IN the earth. I can't wait to hear about the camels.
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