The nine best things about Tunis


After my previous blog-entry detailing the low-points of Tunis, here is a list of all the good things about the city – in my humble opinion.


Ancient history


The Vandals did their best to erase it in the 5th century, but thankfully the Tunis suburb of Carthage retains enough traces of its Roman / Carthaginian / Phoenician past to make it worthy of investigation for a day or two.  Visitors with an interest in history will find much to savour in the Punic Port, Sanctuary of Tophet, Paleo-Christian Museum, Musee de Carthage, Roman Villas and Antonine Baths.  Those last two sites are my favourite parts of Carthage, by the way.



The Medina


Tunis’s labyrinthine Medina was founded 14 centuries ago and is now, deservedly, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Its two main arteries that are used by tourists, the Rue de la Kasbah and the Rue Jemmaa Zaytouna are heavily congested and packed along their sides with souvenir shops.  (At least, these streets were congested before the revolution – they’re markedly quieter now and derelict, shuttered premises are, sadly, not an unfamiliar sight.)  However, you only have swerve off those tourist drags and follow a side-alley to discover a different side to the Medina – its many neighbourhoods where ordinary people live and work.  Suddenly there are workshops, and markets, and stores selling domestic goods.  You’ll want to loiter for a minute at the occasional Medina spice-shop for the pleasure of inhaling the scented air.  Meanwhile, the Souq de la Laine and Souq el-Berka, occupied by silversmiths and goldsmiths respectively, have a decorously fairy-tale atmosphere.  One of my favourite restaurants, the El Adeb, which sells deliciously hale-and-hearty grilled fish and grilled meat, is in the Medina too but you’ll have to explore far and search hard to find it.


The French bit


Spread out around the Medina are French-style apartment buildings from the colonial era, one of which I’ve spent the past three years living in.  These buildings are usually pimpled with satellite dishes and the external fan-boxes of air-conditioning systems; are notched with metal-railinged balconies that are crowded with potted plants and festooned with drying laundry and freshly-cleaned rugs; and these days sport a fair amount of graffiti along their street-level walls.  They’re rather the worse for fair but have a lot of dilapidated charm.  The drains, electrical wiring and plumbing – the whole infrastructure, in fact – are knackered in my building but the place is solidly enough built.  It occurred to me that in a Western country these apartment buildings would’ve been bought up en masse, renovated and sold off to Yuppies.  In Tunis this would be good aesthetically but undesirable in another way, because the process of gentrification would force out the ordinary working-class people who live in them at the moment.



What seems to be happening here, alas, is that these old buildings are gradually disappearing.  Just a couple of months ago, a block in my neighbourhood vanished practically overnight.  In its place they’ve established an unappealing gravel-surfaced car-park, enclosed by a square corrugated-iron fence.





There isn’t a city in the world whose appearance and atmosphere hasn’t been improved by having a tram system.  (All right, Edinburgh is a possible exception to this rule.)  And central Tunis definitely feels a little classier for the presence of its stately green trams – although this stateliness is lessened slightly by the couple of truanting schoolboys whom you inevitably see riding for free by sitting on the coupling pin at the end of the back coach.





I wouldn’t say Tunisian food is my favourite cuisine in the world, but it offers a variety of tasty dishes like kamounia, klaya, Djerba rice and brik, plus some good seafood options.  My greatest Tunisian weakness, though, is for ojja, a stew composed of eggs, tomatoes, peppers and harissa and often mixed with prawns or merguez (spicy sausages).  In fact, thinking about it now is enough to make me close my eyes, moan and salivate messily down my chin, just as Homer Simpson does when he thinks about hamburgers and Duff Beer.



Blokes’ pubs


There exists a sub-species of Tunis bar in which you won’t find women, children, food or music, or for that matter much in the way of décor or comfort.  You will find, however, smoke, grime, babble and lots and lots of blokes.  Service is usually provided from the counter by grey-haired and grey-moustached gentlemen wearing French garçon-style white shirts, waistcoats and bowties, which are inevitably soiled and crumpled but nonetheless give off a certain faded dignity.  There are also often guys positioned across the drinking areas, selling beer-bottles directly from plastic crates.  By any conventional aesthetic reckoning, these places are the pits.  But when I’m in the right frame of mind, they’re wonderful.


Examples include Café le Rendez-vous des Sportifs (my local), La Source, Chef’s Bar, L’Ambassadeur, Café de Rossini Palace, Le Parisien, the big one on Avenue Habib Bourguiba next to the Café de Paris and the one at the back of Schilling Restaurant of Avenue Mohamed V.  There’s also the strange courtyard-like pub in the middle of the ground-floor shopping centre on Avenue Habib Bourguiba between the junctions with the Avenue de France and Rue de Marseille.  This is sealed off from the surrounding shops on three sides by concrete pillars and thick, red, velvety curtains, while on its fourth side it has an alcove containing a bar counter: it also has a retractable roof whose halves slide apart in the late afternoon, once the sun has reached a position in the sky from which it can no longer shine in.  Above the counter-alcove is a large sign with lettering in both the Arabic and Roman alphabets.  The latter lettering spells out ‘Salon de Thé’ and what looks like, weirdly, ‘Le Kilt’.  Is this place really called Le Kilt?  And if so, was it founded many years ago by a Scotsman?


Sidi Bou Said


I’ve rhapsodised before about the loveliness of Sidi Bou Said, between Carthage and La Marsa in the Tunis suburbs, but I’ll do so again.  The village offers a panorama of white walls embellished with panels and stripes of blue – blue doors, blue doorframes, blue window-shutters, blue window-frames, blue railings, blue grills, blue pillars, blue roof-beams – with big leafy and flowery masses of green, purple, red, yellow and pink erupting out of the alleyway walls.  On a summer’s day, when the place is sandwiched between the flawless blueness of the sky and that of the Mediterranean, and illuminated by a bright, crystalline light, it’s easy to see why the artist Paul Klee was unable to get away from it.



At the very heart of Sidi Bou Said, up a flight of steps, is the picturesque Café des Nattes, which has on its wall pictures of famous old patrons such as Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Andre Gide.  (The aura of lofty intellectualism is dispelled somewhat by a picture of someone else who visited, a certain Richard Nixon, who stuck his grisly face into the café in 1971.)



The spirit of 2011


The lustre of the Tunisian Revolution, and the Arab Spring generally, has faded considerably in the two years since it happened.  This is thanks to an unravelling security situation, economic stagnation and decay, strikes, assassinations, much bickering between politicians, and some censorious and unsavoury individuals who’ve crawled out of the woodwork to attempt to impose their medieval notions of morality on everybody else.  That said, Tunisians can be proud that their country hasn’t plumbed the depths of political and social unrest that have been plumbed by post-revolutionary Egypt.


Still, I’ll always be grateful to Tunisia for two things on Friday, January 14th, 2011, when I found myself among the crowds that’d amassed in front of the Ministry of the Interior building on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of President / dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his regime’s huge and nasty police / security apparatus.  This gave me (1) the unique experience of being present at and witnessing history being made; and (2) an unforgettable demonstration of what can be achieved by people power.


And… cats


I know, Tunis’s population of stray cats can be a massive pain in the arse.  They tear open rubbish-bags and make an unholy mess on the streets, they scoot out in front of you and trip you up, and when you’re trying to get to sleep, they produce an evil-sounding cacophony as they indulge in nocturnal feline love-making.  But, occasionally, they can be very… cute





Favourite places in Tunis 3: Neptune Restaurant



Half the time, it isn’t open when it ought to be open.  When it is open, and you go in, you’re received by several male waiters whose shambling gait and silent, grizzled visages suggest a platoon of shell-shocked survivors from a major military engagement during World War I – I’m a regular customer there and I’m usually only acknowledged with a weary nod, although I suppose that’s an achievement.  And then, when you’ve read the menu, you can spend a lot of time requesting various tasty-sounding seafood dishes, only to have each request dismissed with an unapologetic shake of the head or shrug of the shoulders.  Normally I end up ordering the same four or five items – fisherman’s salad, grilled shrimps, fried aubergine, chips – because that’s all they seem to have.



And yet…  And yet…  When you’re sitting on its terrace, when the sea below is a sheet of rippling turquoise, when the sun is bright and the sky is flawlessly blue, and when a waiter has just brought an ice bucket with a bottle of Chardonnay poking out of it, the Neptune Restaurant on the Carthage coast feels like the most invigorating place in the world.  Just make sure you keep your eyes fixed on the gorgeous middle distance, where the boats lazily roam to and fro.  You may spoil the illusion if you lower your head to inspect the more immediate surroundings, because the sea-facing wall of the restaurant looks rather dilapidated (and graffiti-ed these days) and the strip of beach along the wall’s base could definitely do with a tidy.



Your safest bet for finding the Neptune in operation is Sunday lunchtime, when it draws a crowd of French expatriates and well-heeled Tunisians wanting to enjoy a dejeuner that extends leisurely into the middle of the afternoon.  On the road outside, a little old man with a stick keeps vigilant guard over the clientele’s parked vehicles, although to be honest the most threatening things I’ve seen around the Neptune have been a few packs of gang-banging cats.  Here’s the little-old-man-with-a-stick seeing off a trio of marauding French tourists.



In fact, among the eateries along or off the Route la Goulette and Rue de Maroc, the road that connects Le Kram and Sidi Bou Said and snakes alongside the TGM line with its miniature Carthage railway stations (Salammbo, Byrsa, Dermech, Hannibal, Presidence and Amilcar), the Nepture is one of the very few where you can buy an alcoholic drink.  The district has plenty of popular and trendy venues but nearly all of them are ‘dry’.  To get from the Route la Goulette to the Neptune, you have to head seawards through some picturesque Carthage backstreets.  Here’s one of my favourites, the Rue Taieb Mehiri, so tree-lined that at times it resembles a luxuriant green tunnel.



The Antonine Baths at Carthage

Carthage is a remarkable neighbourhood a few miles up the coast from Tunis.  It’s dotted with ruins, excavated sites and museums pertaining to the Phoenician, Punic and Roman civilisations, which were the main players in this region’s early history.

In the year-and-a-half that I’ve lived in Tunis, I’ve managed to visit most of the historical and archaeological attractions of Carthage – the Musee de Carthage on top of Byrsa Hill, the amphitheatre, the Roman villas, the Basilica of Dermech and the Sanctuary of Tophet.  It wasn’t until five days ago, however, that I made it to the Antonine Baths in the district’s north-eastern corner.

In their day, the Antonine Baths were a leisure complex of saunas, pools and gymnasiums, which ranked as one of the largest such establishments in the Roman Empire.  Their ruins stand on a site that slopes down from the TGM railway line and Avenue Habib Bourguiba to the Mediterranean coast.  A garden covers the site’s upper half while what remains of the baths themselves occupies its bottom part.  The site’s southern side is bordered by a street called Avenue des Thermes d’Antonin, while overlooking its northern side are the grounds and buildings of the Presidential Palace.

(Until last January, presumably, this palace was where ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and his numerous Trabelsi-family in-laws spent their evenings, unwinding after their hectic and stressful day jobs, which consisted of plundering the country’s resources and pocketing its wealth.)

The upper-level gardens are pleasant enough.  Criss-crossed with paths and shaded by palms, eucalyptus trees and tangled cacti, they contain underground vaults, a kiln and the ruins of a necropolis and an early Christian chapel.  Here are a few pictures of carvings and sculptures that I discovered in the subterranean chambers.


But the baths themselves, ranged along the shore, are the main attraction.  Even though the most intact parts of them now are their foundations – an impressively labyrinthine network of vaults, archways and corridors extends below ground-level – there are enough ruins standing above to give you a sense of the complex’s original dimensions.  Indeed, one column has been re-erected to its original height of 15 metres, which suggests how its roof must have loomed over the sea.


Construction of the baths started during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the man responsible for the great wall that ran across the far north of England and protected Roman-held territory from unruly Scots and Picts.  Did any legionary, during his military career, have the experience of being posted to both these testimonies to Hadrian’s ambition?  Imagine the contrast.  One year you’re guarding the Antonine Baths, beside the sparkling Mediterranean, in the sultry heat of Carthage.  The next, you’re stuck on the top of Hadrian’s Wall in windswept, rain-lashed Northumbria, fearfully on the lookout for marauding hordes of woad-covered, mud-splattered Scots.  I know which posting I’d have preferred.

The complex was razed by the Vandals in 439 AD (with the Arabs using much of the stone later in the building of Tunis).  Unfortunately, you don’t have to wander far before you notice traces of modern graffiti on the ruins and artefacts here – evidence that not all the Vandals died out in the fifth century.

The item in this last picture might look like a pre-revolutionary relic that was taken from the Presidential Palace – a Michael Jackson-style suspended animation capsule, in which the Trabelsi family kept the moribund and barely-sentient Ben Ali like a cling-film-wrapped pork chop in a freezer.  It’s not, however.  It’s actually a plastic dome that houses a model of the baths when they were in their post-Hadrian, pre-Vandals, intact and glorious prime.