Introduction to Tunisia

Tunis, Tunisia
Jan 4, 2019

Broad palm-lined boulevards mark the new city, dotted with iconic landmarks. Sidewalk cafes line the streets under bright canopies. Shops, restaurants and patisseries are busy with customers and the air hums with the sound of conversation. Several of the side streets are pedestrianized and thronged with shoppers.

At the end of the Avenue Bourguiba is the Medina. Gone are the neatly laid-out grid of streets and orderly line of shops. Like others I have seen in Morocco or Egypt, this is a rabbit warren of tiny lanes. Some houses merge making the narrow lanes seem like tunnels which turn and twist at random. What a delight to get lost in!

There are more tourists here than I had expected. Groups large and small, dutifully follow their guides and the babble of French, Italian and Spanish ebbs and flows around certain sections of the medina. Jewelry displays glint in the shop windows and carpets hang from walls. Shoes and handbags crowd a shop while beautiful traditional costumes are jewel-bright in another. Pottery and ceramics mingle with bowls, spoons and ladles made of olive wood. Among the tourists are plenty of locals intent on their shopping.

Although fewer than before, there are people who still call this home and wandering aimlessly, I find artisans at their crafts. The tap-tapping of brass being hammered announces the metalsmiths and down another lane is a man deftly using an iron to mold the traditional felt hat. Sheep and goat skins hang on a wall waiting to be made into shoes, saddles, belts or an odd bandolier.

Dotted around the medina are old palaces and mansions, many of which are now shops, cafes and restaurants. The tiled walls, domed ceilings and picture-perfect inner courtyards are a photographer’s paradise.

Many have terraces with wonderful views, the terraces themselves a feast for the eyes. Beautiful tiles line walls and floors, their colors and patterns mesmerizing. The designs and colors remind me of central Asia and Iran.

But best of all has been the smiling welcome. It started with Nouri, a man I met in Malta. In chatting, I found out that he not only lives in Tunis but was on the same flight from Malta to Tunis. He valiantly put up with my many questions and on arrival, he and his wife insisted on driving me to the hotel. Their “welcome to Tunisia” echoed in my ears as I waved goodbye. When I discovered I had the wrong adaptors, the hotel receptionist promptly offered to lend me hers for the night with a “no problem; welcome to Tunisia”. The man at the souq from whom I bought adaptors offered me a part of his breakfast with the same smiling welcome. And so it has been everywhere – on the streets, in the cafes, in the bazars. I am already wishing I had more time and I have barely started!

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