France vs. Africa
Trip Start May 13, 2008
128Trip End Ongoing
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First port of call was the Place de l'Independance, home to the neogothic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul on one side, and the French Embassy on the other. Looking at the tree and boutique-lined streets of the Avenue de France on either side of the square, this place seemed as French as French could be, yet we were in Africa? It was all pretty and nice and everything, but felt rather strange. At least on the French boulevards of Morocco it still felt like Africa, but here it was altogether more confusing. This wasn't helped by the giant Big Ben esque clock standing in the centre of a roundabout further up the avenue.
Surprisingly then, the Avenue de France lead onto the foundations of the old city, and the medina, the boundary being marked by the Bab El-Bahr - an archway that previously represented a sea gate within the old city walls. Thinking of it as a sea gate was pretty hard to imagine, given that the sea was now several km away and it was plonked smack back in the middle of two busy but completely contrasting shopping districts.
Inside the old city was the North Africa we had become so familiar with in Morocco - dozens and dozens of souks lined up beside one another, all pretty much selling the same thing, and looking they pretty much struggle to sell anything judging by the amount of stock they all have left. Not that Marrakech was hostile in terms of the sellers, but Tunis was even less so, meaning it was easier to walk through without every single vendor trying to drag you into their shop. Nevertheless, if you make the error of stopping, even for a second, to admire something, then they're on to you! Mum wanted to buy some spices so she stopped to browse and barter at one of the stalls. Meanwhile a couple of guys from the shop next door took the opportunity to spray me with several perfumes to get my attention. I made apathetic comments about their favourites and asked to try one entitled "Poison", which was disappointingly unremarkable.
So I wasn't going to buy perfume then. How about some authentic Tunisian eyeliner? Now this comes in liquid form and a sharp wooden stick is dipped in it, held up to the inner corner of the eye, and sliced across the lower lashes to the outer corner. At first I was struggling to hack this, and kept closing my eyes as he tried to apply the liner, which meant I ended up with one black eye plus no make up remover... yes! The other eye ended up okay, but I'm sure it still looked completely ridiculous all day. Oh well, the botch job meant I had a good excuse not to buy it! As a parting gift one of the blokes insisted on entering his number into my phone and begged me to call him. I haven't quite got round to it yet but I'll be sure to keep you posted...
The main focal point of the medina and indeed Tunis is the Zitouna Mosque, which suddenly emerged from out of nowhere in the middle of the souks. It offered a calming and welcome respite from the shops, although as non-Muslims we were only permitted to enter the courtyard area of the Mosque. From there you could see the minaret and into a couple of the prayer rooms, but it was quite hard to really appreciate it all without being able to walk around.
Then out of the souks again for another stroke of modern life... a set of squares housing Government buildings, the first, known as Kasbah Square, had finance buildings and the Prime Minister's residence, and the second, a larger and more impressive square featuring the City Hall and an attractive momument. Unlike in England where you'd probably wind up in jail for lingering outside Government buildings, they were really nice places to sit and grab a bite to eat, or just chill out, and it was quite high up so you could start to see out over Tunis.
One of our favourite things about Tunisia was the wonderfully decorative doors. Two streets linking the Mosque and the Dar Ben Abdallah Museum, the Rue de Riche and the Rue de Andalous showed off these doors in all their glory.
The Dar Ben Abdallah (Museum of Arts and Traditions) was a bit of a nightmare to find, barely signposted and seemingly in the middle of a men's clothes market. So obviously when we found it it was completely deserted - slightly positive, slightly negative for us. Probably out of sheer boredom more than anything, a local (did he work there? I don't even know) called Omar attached himself to us and showed us round, telling us about all the different rooms of Tunisian houses, wedding/circumsision customs, clothing, and architecture. The style of the building was very similar to that of the palaces we saw in Tunisia, with rooms built off open air square courtyards, all with brilliant intricacies.
Next he took us on to another equally deserted destination, Tourbet El Bey, an Ottoman mausoleum of the Husseinite dynasty that used to rule Tunisia. Each room was filled with tombs, one of the wives, one of the mistresses (there were lots and lots of these), and others of the men, with a slightly grander tomb for the king which had marble turbans at either end.
It was in this "romantic" setting that Omar decided to ask me if I "wanted to make relation with him" (Note to self, ask Mum if I can borrow her wedding ring...). He wasn't giving up easily and so we took him for a glass of mint tea in a nice theatre/cafe. Then he gave me his number and insisted that I call him and talk about making relation... blehblehbleh... argh, why do you want to "make relation", you don't even know me!
Muttering excuses that our train was about to leave we quickly scarpered and went to kill the hour or so before our train actually did leave. We sat by the sea gate and wrote postcards, and in this time a chap came to sit next to me and started chatting. Alot about the puzzle book I was doing, asking more about English etc. Which was all fine, apart from the previous Omar experience which made me rather wary, and also the fact that he bought some sort of fake flower from a street seller and kept trying to give it to me. I was a bit scared that if I took it it would mean agreeing to accept his hand in marriage or something!
So, Tunis. 2 phone numbers. 1 guy begging for my email address. 1 proposal (maybe) under the guise of a flower. Plenty of cultural confusion and diversity. A tinsy bit of getting lost in the souks, but overall we thoroughly enjoyed our day and got to see a whole lot of different things... very much worth the visit.
Where I stayed