Lady in Tunis

The weather in London has been surprisingly mild this month. There’s been some rain and there’s been some wind, but on the whole it hasn’t been too cold. Until last week, that is. Last week it got cold. So it was a good thing that my boyfriend and I had planned a post-Thanksgiving getaway to Tunisia, where the weather forecast called for sunny skies and 75 degree bliss.

Clock tower in Tunis

We dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am on Friday and were enjoying breakfast in the BA lounge at Gatwick by 7:30. No lounge breakfast is complete without a healthy dose of the FT, which that day had a big cover story about Dubai’s financial meltdown. My interest in the report was semi-intense after having worked for a hedge fund that invested heavily in the emirate, but as I started reading, my interest concentrated more intensely on one line in the first column: the Dubai financial markets were closed on Friday for a Muslim holiday. Whoops. Had I booked a trip to Tunisia over a public holiday? Yes. Yes, I had.

Triumphal arch in Tunis

It was Eid, and I was on my way to the Maghreb. This would be interesting.

Carved door in Tunis old town

After two hours and forty minutes in the air, we arrived at Tunis Carthage International Airport and had what would be our first of many encounters with the infamous taxi drivers of Tunis. Having been warned of their penchant for cheating tourists, we ended up heading to the arrivals area upstairs to find a non-airport taxi that would agree to use the meter. We did. It cost just 3 dinars to get to the Sheraton Tunis, our home for the next three days.

Carved blue door in Tunis old town

We got settled into our hotel room and then headed down to the lobby to get another taxi to the famous Roman-mosaic-filled Bardo Museum. The concierge laughed. “It is a holiday. The Bardo Museum is closed,” he said. Sigh. And the medina? No. The city center? Nope. Anything at all? Hah. All closed.

Blue shops in the Tunis medina

Not wanting to squander our holiday weekend lounging around the surprisingly popular lobby bar of the Sheraton, we took our chances on the city center. If nothing else, we would get some exercise and some much needed sunshine.

Church in Tunis on Avenue Habib Bourguiba

When we arrived at Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main drag in the French colonial area of the city, we discovered very quickly that the concierge wasn’t lying. Every store was closed, every cafe shuttered, and every single person in Tunis seemed to be far, far away from the city center’s main artery. We didn’t even see any cars.

Street lamps on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis

At first we were a bit disappointed by the lack of activity in the city center, but we quickly realized that we had a pretty unique opportunity to see the city in its quietest, most vulnerable state. Without the distractions of crowds and cars, street noise and vendors, we had a chance to see Tunis in a light that most other visitors never see. It was exciting.

Blue door in Tunis medina

We walked along the avenue and headed into the medina. The contrast between the wide Haussmannesque boulevard in the French part of town and the narrow cobbled streets of the medina was stark. Tall, imposing buildings and tree-lined streets suddenly gave way to a labyrinthine maze of blue storefronts and narrow passageways.

Blue shops in Tunis

We wandered through the medina soaking in the quiet isolation and stopping every few feet to admire the beautiful doors that lined the streets. It was so silent that when the call to prayer sounded over the city, the melody bounced off the corrugated metal walls of the medina as if in an echo chamber. It was hard to imagine that on almost every other day of the year this tangle of streets was home to a bustling center of commerce.

Colorful wooden door in Tunis

After reaching saturation point with the number of doors we could be in awe of and the number of photos our cameras would hold, we headed back to the medina’s entrance. On our way we stopped down a side street where our mouths watered with the savory aroma of roasted lamb. It must have been some pretty fresh lamb, too, as a few steps further we found our path obstructed by a river of fresh lamb blood. A fellow lamb was bleating nearby, and my inner vegetarian hustled me out of the medina faster than you can say tofurkey.

Yellow post office box in Tunis medina

Once out of the medina we stopped at one of the three open cafes on Avenue Habib Bourguiba for some tea and cakes. As we sipped our drinks and ate our tiny treats, we noticed that the world was starting to stir once again. There was a smattering of people on the streets, a few cars on the roads, and slowly signs of life were starting to appear.

Sweets at a cafe in Tunis

Just as Tunis was waking up, we decided to go to sleep. Our late night of Thanksgiving festivities had caught up with us, and we were ready for a nap. We headed back to the hotel, crashed for two hours, and then took it easy in the evening.

Our first day in Tunis had whetted our appetite to see what else Tunisia had to offer. Before going to bed that night we decided to wake up early the next morning for a trip out to historic Carthage and the charming hill town of Sidi Bou Said. If they proved to be half as enchanting as the ghostly medina, we would have quite a trip.

To be continued…

Leave a Reply