Tunisia: Tunis

November 1999


This year I decided I would continue exploring North Africa, after spending two and a half weeks in Egypt last year, I was interested to see how the cultures changed across the north of this continent. I had six weeks off work and flights booked to Tunis, in Tunisia and then on to Casablanca in Morocco. I had done some research before leaving home, so I had a fairly good idea of what there was to see and do in both of these countries. That was about as far as the planning went for this trip. I had in the back of my mind a route around both countries and a rough timescale as to how long it would take. Nothing was carved in stone and everything was liable to change at a moments notice. My plans were flexible.

The flight to Tunis was rather uneventful, which is the way I think flights should be. It still took the best part of the day to get there from London, flying with Air France via Paris. It was early October, the weather in London was now very autumnal, and so it was a shock to the system when I stepped out of the airport in Tunis and into the hot, humid evening. Immediately sweat began to pour from my skin and I could feel my t-shirt turn clammy on my back, trapped between my hot body and rather heavy backpack. As on previous trips overseas, I had no accommodation booked in the city, so it was a race against time to get into the city centre and to find a room in a hotel within my budget.

While doing my pre-departure research at home, I had read through my Lonely Planet guidebook to Tunisia and in particular paid attention to Tunis, memorizing the city centre map and making a short list of suitable hotels. I had settled on the Bristol Hotel as my guidebook said it was a popular choice among travellers and single rooms were only five dinars.

The clock was ticking in the back of my head. It was just after nine in the evening and I found myself running the gauntlet of the taxi drivers outside the arrivals hall. The guidebook listed the taxi fare from the airport to the city centre as not more than five dinars. When the first taxi driver I asked quoted a price of 30D I just laughed and carried on down the line. After asking a couple of other drivers and only managing to get the price down to 20D, I began to get frustrated. I was determined that I would not be ripped off in my first hour in the country. Another taxi driver approached me touting for business. After negotiating in broken English and French, we settled on a fare of 5D, which seemed to me at the time a bargain.

As we walked over to another taxi rank I asked the driver why his taxi was 5D and all these other taxis were trying to charge me up to 30D. He explained that this was a shared taxi, those others were private cars. Of course the private cars were a lot smarter than the rather battered Fiat I was now loading my backpack into. There was already one other passenger waiting in the back of the taxi, a local man on his way home. I climbed into the front of the car and we left, headed down the highway for the fairly short ride into the city. You can get a good first impression of a country travelling from the airport by taxi. Tunisia appeared a fairly well organised and ordered society, much more than I thought before arriving. There were quite a few new cars on the roads; people weren't driving like lunatics, as they do in Cairo if any of you have taken that taxi ride. It was dark and cars had headlights that were working and also being used. Most of the cars seemed in good repair with only a few dents and scratches. It was a sedate taxi ride into the city centre unlike the white-knuckle rides I have often experienced at the hands of airport taxi drivers.

The driver asked me which hotel I wanted to go to. I told him the Bristol Hotel. There was a blank look on his face. He began talking to the other passenger in Arabic and from what I could gather, was asking him if he knew where the Bristol Hotel was.

We drove west down Avenue Habib Bourguiba and it was becoming apparent that neither the other passenger nor my driver had ever heard of the Bristol Hotel. We crossed over some tram tracks and looking at my map I could pin point where I was; there are only two tramlines running north, south in the city. When we reached the Place de l'Independance, at the end of the avenue, I asked the driver to drop me off, as it was becoming apparent that he had no idea where the hotel was. He pulled over on Rue de Hollande just south of Place de l'Independance. I figured that it would be far quicker to walk to the hotel than wait for the driver to find it, especially as I now knew where I was. It was only a short walk across two blocks to the hotel, which was down an alley off Avenue de Carthage. After checking into my rather cell-like room on the third floor, with views of three decaying concrete walls surrounding me, I went out to the Restaurant Carcassonne for a late dinner. I returned a short time later, as I was exhausted from spending the day travelling and spent an uncomfortable night asleep, sweating in the humid night air.

I awoke the next morning with the satisfaction of knowing that I was in a new and foreign city, despite the incommodious room I found myself sitting in. I had no real daily plans or timetable to stick to except for my flights that I had already booked. This first morning I went out to explore Tunis, to familiarise myself with my new surroundings in North Africa.

There are two distinct halves to Tunis, the old Medina and the Ville Nouvelle. My hotel was situated in the heart of the Ville Nouvelle. The French constructed this part of the city during the colonial period from 1881 to 1956. Before the French arrived the Ville Nouvelle was part of Lake Tunis. They drained it and laid out the new city in a grid pattern, with wide tree lined boulevards, giving the city a very European feel. The main street is Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which runs east, west from Lake Tunis to Place de l'Independance. This street is where many of the large banks, international hotels and cinemas, as well as sidewalk cafes, the most famous and popular one being the Café de Paris, are situated. Following this avenue west past the Place de l'Independance leads you into Avenue de France which continues for a couple of hundred metres to Bab Bhar, the main gate into the medina

The Arabs built the first medina around the end of the 7th century AD. Until the French arrived this was the focus of the cities activity with a population of around 100,000 people, compared to the population of the medina today of about 15,000. As you walk through the Bab Bhar you step into another world, away from the 1920's spacious colonial architecture and into the medieval past. The buildings engulf you as you make your way along the narrow alleyways and through the souqs. There are two main roads from Bab Bhar west through the medina, Rue Jemaa Zitouna and Rue de la Kasbah. Rue Jemaa Zitouna is the tourist supermarket, selling everything you can imagine from t-shirts and stuffed camels, to brassware and pottery, while Rue de la Kasbah is very much the local market selling mostly clothes, fabrics, shoes and household items. The medina south of Rue de la Kasbah is very well preserved, while some areas to the north had been demolished during the period before the Second World War, to make way for cars and to remove slum dwellings. Today conservation is the buzzword, and the medina has been listed as a UN World Heritage Site since 1981.

I went for a walking tour along Rue Jemaa Zitouna, dodging the over zealous shop keepers, trying to sell me tacky souvenirs I didn't need. I emerged at the Zitouna Mosque in the centre of the medina. This mosque was built in the 9th century, replacing the original mosque built on this site when the city was founded in 698 AD. Being a non-Muslim I couldn't go inside the building, but my guidebook told me that the central pray hall is supported by two hundred Roman columns salvaged from the ruins of Carthage. I am sure it must be an impressive sight. I emerged at the other side of the medina at the Place du Governement and from there walked in a loop through the south of the medina, along covered souqs, and through a maze of dusty alleyways back to Bab Bhar and the Ville Nouvelle.

I sat down on a bench under a tree on Avenue Habib Bourguiba to decide what to do. The Bardo museum was closed on Mondays and the thought of spending another hot and uncomfortable night at the Bristol Hotel was not the most inspiring. I would be coming back to Tunis twice more on this trip and I didn't want to waste too many days here at the start of my journey. Also, I had not met any other travellers so far, either at my hotel or on my walk around the city. There were plenty of package tourists and cruise ship passengers though, wandering around the medina, buying up souvenirs and getting lost. I was eager to get out of the city and begin my journey around the country. I returned to the Bristol Hotel to collect my backpack and to check out. I walked down to the train station at Place Barcelona stopping on the way to buy a kilo of bananas at a market stall. I bought a first class ticket to Jendouba, about a three-hour train ride west of Tunis, a distance of around 150km.

Continue reading this journey: The Medjerda Valley