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





The nine worst things about Tunis


Just before I depart from Tunisia, I thought I would compile a list of the nine worst things about living in its capital city.  But don’t fret, Tunis lovers – in my next blog entry, I will provide some balance by listing the nine best things about the place.


Airport taxi drivers


Tunisia’s taxi drivers are like taxi drivers everywhere – there are some honest ones and some slippery ones.  However, the bunch that hover vulture-like in front of the exit doors at Carthage International Airport are, to a man, opportunistic crooks.  On the single occasion that I had to use one of these drivers, the fare was at least six times what it would’ve been travelling the same distance with an ordinary taxi – and I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from other travellers.  If the Tunisian tourist authorities were serious about polishing up their country’s image and making holidaymakers want to return following the upheaval of the revolution, the first measure they could take would be to bust these guys’ asses.


If you’ve just alighted from a plane at Carthage Airport, don’t go straight out of the terminal building from arrivals.  Instead, go upstairs to the departures area and try to catch an ordinary – metered – cab there, one that’s just come from the city and dropped somebody off in front of the entry doors.


Celtia beer


Celtia is Tunisia’s national beer and in some venues it’s the only beer on the menu.  It is, alas, rather grim.  Tasting more of chemicals than of hops, it can leave your head feeling mangy even when you’ve drank only a couple of bottles.  Beer-lovers may find this sacrilegious, but I actually prefer drinking Celestia, which is the non-alcoholic version of Celtia.



Dirty beaches


Another measure that Tunisia’s tourist authorities could take to improve the country’s somewhat tarnished reputation as a holiday destination would be to clean up their beaches.  Even at the likes of Carthage or La Marsa, where on a sunny day the coast looks incredibly appealing from a distance, that appeal lessens when you approach the water’s edge and discover how much detritus lies on the sand.  And even in front of the fancy seaside hotels, where you’d expect the beaches to be pristine, the efforts to keep them tidy are perfunctory at best – the debris seems to be brushed into the corners but not actually picked up.  Walk to the fringes of the beaches, a few yards past the last sunbathers, and you’ll still find cigarette butts, plastic bags, plastic bottles and even broken glass.  (Plus, if some local entrepreneur is offering the tourists camel-rides along the sea-front, there’ll be the added horribleness of camel-dung).




One of the downsides of the revolution is the state of anarchy that, during the past two years, has befallen the TGM, the suburban railway line connecting central Tunis with La Goulette, Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and finally La Marsa.  Board a TGM train nowadays and you will likely have to contend with shrieking obnoxious kids who dangle out of the doors, dangle out of the windows and even clamber up onto the carriage-roofs in imitation of those ‘train-surfers’ in South America.  To be honest, the TGM is one place where I’d like to see a bit of blatant old-style Ben Ali-era police brutality re-introduced.


Supermarket etiquette (lack of)


I accept it’s unrealistic to expect countries like Tunisia to conform to Western styles of customer service.  Nonetheless, the scowly, occasionally growly visages of the checkout staff can make shopping in supermarkets like Monoprix or Carrefour a dispiriting experience.


The customers sometimes aren’t much better, mind you.  There seems to be an unspoken rule that shoppers should only start to pack their groceries after everything has been scanned, after everything has accumulated in a mountainous heap beyond the register, and after everything has been paid for – which leads to monstrous tailbacks and congestion as the groceries of the next customer and then the next start coming through.  Also, I’ve seen old men, when presented with their bill, attempt to haggle with the checkout staff.  And also, I don’t like how folk in the checkout queues start munching on their loaves of bread before they’ve paid for them.  (I don’t know why – I just find it annoying.)




I enjoy a bit of night-life but unfortunately a large section of Tunis’s night-life consists of venues like the Lodge, the Villa and the Plaza, which try to be something more than bars.  They try to be a little more upmarket – like, you know, clubs.  In reality, this means that the menus are overpriced, the service is delivered at a snail’s pace, the music is of Celine Dion / Phil Collins-level quality and is played loud, and the clientele consist mainly of suited, would-be Tunisian playboys in their early middle-age, swelling around their waists and receding on top.  (I suspect that after another few years, when these guys decide that they’ve grown too old to enjoy themselves, they’ll turn ultra-religious and try to stop other people enjoying themselves.)


And talking of ultra-religious types determined to stop other people enjoying themselves…




One thing about the Salafists whom I’ve seen prowling around Tunis is that they always seem to wear crap socks.  Jutting out of their sneakers, below the hems of their smocks, their ankles are almost always clad in a wan, unattractive shade of grey.  I’d have thought their mothers – I assume they all still live with their mothers – would try to enliven the palette of their wardrobe by buying them socks that were adorned with bright, multi-coloured checks or stripes.


Well.  Just saying.


Rubbish on streets


I shouldn’t complain about a city where there’s a rubbish-collection service every 24 hours.  Around 10 o’clock each night, a truck rumbles past my flat and its crew load it with the bags of refuse that householders and shopkeepers have put out on the pavements during the day.  Unfortunately, these trucks miss a lot of stuff.  Even more unfortunately, during the daytime, the bags get knocked over and ripped open, with the consequence that rubbish can be scattered across the length and breadth of the streets.  During wet weather, the debris gets washed into the gutters, blocks them up and causes mini-floods.  During hot weather, it reeks and the flies become rampant.


And… cats


And the chief culprits for eviscerating those bags and spreading their smelly contents are, of course, Tunis’s huge population of feral cats.  Not only do the cats diminish the city’s cleanliness, but, darting out of the rubbish-piles and from under the parked cars, they can also be a considerable hazard to pedestrians.  I’m still psychologically scarred by the morning when I attempted to go jogging and tripped over a feline who suddenly shot from amid some rubbish bags, across the pavement in front of me – I fell onto a broken sheet of glass that’d been left out too for the rubbish collectors.  In fact, I very nearly emulated the fourth set-piece freak accident (also involving a sheet of glass) in the original Omen movie.



Tunis: cool for cats


I sometimes wonder if Tunis is wholly a city of human beings.  Plenty of people live here – Tunis has, according to its Wikipedia entry, some 2,412,500 folk living in its metropolitan area – but, when I’m in a slightly paranoid mood, I suspect that only half of the city belongs to humanity.


The other half of the city belongs to another dominant species: cats.


In Tunis, you see them everywhere – cats of all ages, sizes and colours and cats exhibiting many different degrees of grooming and hygiene.  (The scruffy ones, though, definitely outnumber the upmarket ones).  They roam the streets, lurk on the street-corners, skulk beneath parked cars and do loud, unspeakable things to each other during the night.


When I’m in a really paranoid mood, I imagine that behind the shutters of rundown buildings and amid the shrubbery of overgrown gardens (where, invariably, they retreat when people approach them), they have their own, parallel cat city – cat shops, cat bars, cat restaurants, cat boarding houses, cat gambling dens…


It’s obvious how the huge cat population survives. Tunis’s human citizens put their rubbish out on the streets every day and, although collection trucks come around every night, as do cart-pushing rag-and-bone men, this rubbish is less-than-comprehensively gathered up.  As a result, Tunis’s streets always contain plenty of trash and the city’s scavenging felines have a field-day with it.


Needless to say, things get especially bad – or especially good if you’re a cat – whenever the rubbish collectors go on strike.  Bagfuls of domestic waste quickly pile up, are ripped open and have their contents scattered.  Outside the shops and cafes, black bin-bags are eviscerated with even messier results.  By the time the cats have finished, long tatty trails of garbage run alongside every kerb, through every gutter.


Before I arrived in Tunis, I’d regarded myself as being a cat person rather than a dog person.  Not that I disliked dogs – apart from those tiny, cranky, yapping poodles and Chihuahuas loved by old ladies and Mickey Rourke, I thought dogs were amiable, good-natured things.  But at the end of the day they seemed a little too daft, slobbery and lacking in social skills.  Cats, on the other hand, I’d always thought were extremely smart and cool.


To use one of those strange musical metaphors that I’m fond of, if dogs were musicians, they’d probably play in a gormless, shambolic glam-rock or retro-guitar band like Status Quo, Slade or Oasis.  But if cats were musicians, they’d probably be members of a chic, arty outfit like Roxy Music, Kraftwerk or Suede.  Indeed, it once occurred to me that ‘the Cats of Tunis’ would make a brilliant name for some avant-garde indie-rock band.


However, one morning shortly after my arrival in Tunis, I left my home to go jogging.  I was trotting along a side street whose pavement, at its mid-point, was almost blocked by a large, sprawling heap of garbage.  As I skirted the heap, a cat shot out in front of me, from under a rubbish-bag that it’d been in the process of clawing open.


I tripped over the cat and landed on a pane of glass that’d been left on the pavement on the far side of the garbage.  Having been on the pavement for some time, the pane was broken into several fragments, and my right hand came down on the edge of the biggest fragment.  I ended up with a long and bloody wound along the base of my thumb and I spent the remainder of the morning with my right hand painfully immersed in a bowl of Dettol.


So now, I’m not so enamoured with the feline species – and I’m even less enamoured with the cats of Tunis.  In fact, it wouldn’t bother me if the city authorities decided to take action against the creatures.  I wouldn’t care if Tunis employed a Cat Catcher, styled on the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who patrolled the streets in a black horse-drawn coach with barred windows, dressed in a scary black cloak and top hat.  Unlike the Child Catcher, however, the Cat Catcher could be armed with state-of-the-art equipment, such as tasers, pepper sprays, water cannons and plastic bullets.  Not so much Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as kitty kitty bang bang.



Incidentally, if you’re not a cat lover, you might enjoy reading the following article, written by Rod Liddle for the Spectator magazine in 2009.  It deals with a well-publicised cat-related incident in Bristol, England.  A beloved pet cat called Wilbur strayed one day into a neighbour’s garden in search of prey…  Only to become prey himself.