Banter, Bartering and Blisters!

I am standing on the balcony of the Majestic Hotel, Tunis. Opposite, tall, green palm trees sprout yellow seeds. Below, on the street, people pass, some smartly dressed walk with purpose, others slowly amble. All about the hotel are five storey apartments or office blocks, white, balconied, ornate cornices, shuttered, a little decayed. Voices, shouts, car horns blare, trams sound warning bells. Tunis life pushes forward. Across the street, blue shutters are loose, broken. The dark unknown within peers out. Outside, the air is thick. It sticks my dress to my skin. I step back inside to the room, my bare feet on cool speckled pink marble, adorned with a Persian carpet. Ornate presses, mirrors, tables scatter beneath the glass chandelier. I sit on a tasselled couch under black and white photographs of old Tunis, the Avenue de Habib Bourguiba who was the first President of independent Tunisia. He knew my parents in Paris in the fifties and sent dates to my mother every Christmas until he died in the year 2000.

We go to explore the Medina. Today Ali turns out to be our Tunis sprite – always popping up when we are lost in the Medina. ‘Irelandas!’ he shouts with a smile, takes us by the hand, leads us through the crowds, the throngs, the push, the shove of Souk to our desired destination, telling 40,000 tales of Medina dangers, robbers that lurk and prey on Western strangers. He took us to the Government sanctioned exhibitions of ceramics, beads, delicious perfumes (date, jasmine). He showed us rooftops with fabulous views of Tunis mosques and spires and, of course, the Berber carpets. Rugs woven, embroidered and knotted, not by the bloodied hands of children; no, they were made by one poor Berber woman, living alone, somewhere in the plains of Tunisia who would appreciate the money we paid if we purchased a carpet so she could feed her children. This was the third time I had been through this rigmarole (in Marrakesh and in Istanbul), so I decided to purchase one.

Having bought our rug, we took our leave in search of sustenance and El Ali, a café that Google had recommended. But the souk lanes are narrow, and the wifi connections are poor, and our feet became dispirited and sore but suddenly, up pops our sprite, and guides us to our destination where we enjoyed mint tea and cake and lots of sugar. Ali was everywhere.  Later too, after showering and getting dressed to go out for our first meal that evening, up popped Ali.

‘Irelandas’ he calls, ‘I know one that is very good.’

We assured him we were fine and suggested he go home for he looked extremely tired. Mind you, Ali was the antithesis of the Tunis police earlier that afternoon who threatened us when we tried to take pictures of the marbled square outside city hall where tourists and ordinary people are not allowed, only the rich and powerful. We ended the day in a rather plain restaurant. I ate a Berber stew cooked in a jug, and we discussed Boris and Brexit midst streams of lovely Tunisian wine. A pretty perfect first day.

By the third morning, the usual family rhythms were taking shape. Roisin is an early riser, as am I. She established her position on the sun laden balcony. I stretch out with pen and paper on the tasselled couch in the cool hum of the air conditioning. Both of us drink green tea. I muse over the previous day and listen to the hum and blether of the current one outside: the trams, sirens, the morning tunes of Tunis in the sunshine. She soaks up rays and reads.

The previous day we had travelled on the local train to Carthage. It was a commuter train, travelling along a tract of wasteland alongside the vast lake that lies between the city and sea. The odd fisherman could be seen with his rod on the desolate crumble of rocks. Low rise, graffiti scrawled white buildings sprawled like an untidy lego-land. The stations were small and looked abandoned, but people got on and off. We alit at Carthage Hannibal and, conversely,  found ourselves on a wide avenue of large white walled, balconied mansions, a road lined with red bougainvillea, purple jacaranda and green palm trees. It reminded me of an African Killiney. With Joe tracking Googlemaps, we eventually found our way to the Carthage Roman remains where we stood, hot, sore footed and bemuse. All around us was what looked like half built sand coloured walls laid out in small squares filled with the roots of old olive trees. Fortunately, Hassan arrived to rescue us. He wove wonderful stories about the Punic wars, the Phoenician and Byzantine eras. He regaled us with tales of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s summer villa, showed us the ‘caged’ room where beautiful bird mosaics lined the floor. He showed us tablets of mosaics from each of the periods, splashing a bottle of water against them to bring out their glorious colour and detail. They were kept in a shady corridor for protection from the wind, sea and sun. Hassan was an old man, with seven sons. He was cultured and educated, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He talked of human rights, equality, and was proud that a Tunis women held office in the government. He was hurt and disappointed by the world’s tilt towards nationalism, and narrow minded thinking. He talked of Baudelaire, of times when Tunis was peopled by hard working men and women. He showed us plants, explained methods of cooking and gardening. Hassan was gracious and we felt honoured to have spent the morning with him. We said our adieus and walked to the roman amphitheatre – my third this year. After a sit down, we headed to Sidi Bou Said for lunch. The taxi dropped us off at the Souk which was a beautiful sedate affair, more of tourism outlet than a mad market, and found a restaurant over looking the sparkling blue sea and the pretty white and blue town. Then it was time to find a beach. We chose La Marsa and the taxi man taking us talked of the corruption in Tunis, how the poor were getting poorer. The rich did not share. There was no progress. The second ever election was being held in two weeks, but taxi drivers to whom we spoke did not seem hopeful of change.

                Roisin and I romped in the sea which was piping hot with big, splashy waves to ride and dive. Then we sunbathed and watched families at play. Men and women in full hijab swam and frolicked with their children, and like everywhere the whole world over, tiny children chased the waves and dug holes to catch the sea. That night, we ate Sushi in a restaurant balcony overlooking a pink sea and sky with one green palm tree silhouetted in the evening. In the car park at the front BMWs, Jags and even a mustang, gleamed.

                The next day, amid torrential downpours, we caught the train again to Carthage to continue our exploration of the ancient ruins. This time we found ourselves at St Louis, a plainly built church which housed beautiful painted wood and intricate mosaics. There was a simplicity about the place which was more divine than the usual glory, gold and pomp of cathedrals. There were two panelled paintings and stained glass stories depicting the story of King Louis the IX (after his demise in Carthage, and his crusades to the holy land, his body was plunged into boiling wine, his flesh decanted and transported separately to his bones back to France). Inside, we could hear the thundering pelt of the rain on the tiles of the church. Looking out, the rain bounced high off the hot concrete. We had a coffee in the café and waited for the rain to stop to find a taxi to the beach.  The driver wanted to take us to further ruins, but we persuaded him we wanted to go to a beach at Gammarth. Roisin and Joe were trying to gauge where the best beaches were from google, and it was agreed that we be taken to the lively resort outside the town. As we drove around flooded roundabouts and walled resorts, lively was the last word that came to mind. The roads were full of water, mud, road signs and plastic bottles were floating everywhere. It was like a war scene. The taxi driver dropped us off at a gate which said Chez Franki. The heavens opened and a monsoon descended. We rang along the slippery boardwalk to the beach bar which was protected by plastic sheeting.  We sat at a table and stared out at the rain and the grey rolling waves attacking the beach. There was nothing else to do but order cocktails and eat lunch after which we played cards. A perfect afternoon at a beach bar. After a couple of hours, the rain stopped. We paid and left. We meandered up the beach but each strip belonged to posh hotels and uniformed private security guys pointed us back. We managed to negotiate a series of flooded, derelict building sites which looked as if they had been bombed and were full of silt, rubbish and starving cats. Pushing forth, Roisin tried to persuade us to go down a lane from which, two minutes later, she made a hasty retreat, leaping over trenches and concrete piping. We dubbed it Baghdad Alley. We were wading through six inches of mud, trying to get out when we were rescued by another taxi, the driver of which clearly thought we were mad.

                That night, back in the city, we found a delightful, tiny restaurant and had the most delectable dinner of Harissa, sea bass, monk fish and chocolate mousse and laughed about the adventures of the day.

                On the Thursday we decided to go further afield and arranged for a taxi to take us to Monastir, a three hour drive away, to the South, visiting Sousse and Hammemet on our return. Walid, our chatty taxi driver, came from Monastir and after three hours of chat about the election, his divorce, his family, his job we arrived in a pretty resort where the old Medina had been restored and turned into a tourist attraction known as the Ribat. Walid wanted us to see the mausoleum build for Habib Bourguiba first. I had told him that Habib Bourguiba had known my parents and he wanted to see if there were pictures of my dad there as there were two rooms dedicated to old photographs. Sadly, there was no sign of dad in the splendid head of state displays of Habib with Sadam Hussein, Colonel Gadafy, Nasser, President Mubarak et al. The Mausoleum was a gaudy, ornate affair built out of marble and gold. We then walked across the square to the restored Ribat. It was an amazing, tiny city made up of lanes, rooms, towers, with lovely views across the sea and the town. Walid had said he would meet us back at the taxi, but after five minutes, up he popped, offering to take photos, carry my bag, and clearly wanting to talk to Roisin. Then he took us to his favourite restaurant for lunch, and then to his favourite bathing spot by the sea where he watched Roisin and myself splash about in the water. Then it was time to go back. There was no time to stop at Sousse which was where the shooting was five years ago, but it looked horribly touristy: big hotels and endless shops and casinos. Apparently, it was created for tourists. We did saunter the prom at Hammemet which was another tourist spot with a posh marina, many eating and ice cream places and tour boats.

The most interesting aspect of the day was the African scrub and plains where shepherds grazed thin , scrawny flocks of about twenty sheep; boys sold chameleons on strings at the side of the road and the fact that Waileed planned not to vote in the election, despite believing in the original revolution, because it had nothing to do with him.

The day made me pleased that we had decided to stay in the living, breathing city of Tunis, crammed with people, cafes, offices, fruit sellers, the homeless, rather than the sterile tourist spots we had seen on our tour to Monastir.

We dedicated our last day to Tunis. Roisin and I went for early morning coffee and a walk in the city park of Belvedere before meeting the lads at the Bardo Museum. We walked through the streets and tasted the fruit of the prickly pear. The park looked nice at the start, green grass, a lake, lovely trees, but as we climbed the road through the park, the landscape turned to scrub, broken glass, dwarfed fir trees. Barriers separated the road from the path. Then skinny wild dogs began to come forth and bark at us. Still, we ventured on, wanting to the get to the summer house with a wonderful view. When we arrived, the wild dogs had taken over, along with five or six of the city’s homeless all talking to themselves. The place was deserted. We decided to get a taxi to the museum but no taxis would stop. We walked quickly across to a main road we could see. As we approached a yellow car (usually taxis but this one had no sign up)  stopped and told us to get in. We asked if he was a taxi and how much it would be to the museum. He said he was, and quoted us 20 Dinar which was way too much. We asked if he had a license and he showed his taxi paraphanalia in the boot. I asked about his meter, and he repeated that it was 20 Dinar. Cars were whizzing past. We got in and he proceeded to tell us how dangerous it was in this area for two beautiful rich, Western women to be cavorting alone. He wanted to take us to all the beautiful sites of the country. We insisted on the Bardo, Roisin watching our every move on google maps. All the way there, he told us the terrible perils that befall Western women, scaring the wits out of us.

But the Bardo was worth it. The mosaics were beautifully curated and hung in an amazing light and airy space with high ceilings. One dome was hand crafted in gold and silver. Different exhibition spaces revealed the different stories of Neptune, God of the Sea, and the fish in the ocean and Diana, the Huntress, hunting deer, tigers, lions. Others showed the lives of the people living at that time. It took my breath away. The intricacies and clarity, the passion and belief on display was exciting. I had that kernel of pleasure in the pit of my stomach, thrilled by the beautiful creations made by people so many thousands of years ago and exhibited with such love and pride.

On our way back to the Souk, our taxi driver drove through the Medina itself (he lived there and so knew its maze of tiny passages, tunnels, lanes). It was fab to see its twists and turns. He pointed to a hotel that was created out of two traditional Medina houses and suggested we take a tour to get a feel of the inside of the old street houses that existed. It was free and worth it, he said. So, we did. It was a little like being in Alice in Wonderland. You step out of the hustle and bustle of the African medina street into a cool airy oasis of quiet. We passed through a massive, ornate wooden door into a square room of decorative mosaics, and then through into a beautiful courtyard with fountains and greenery. We were taken on a tour of ornate but simply furnished rooms full of light and colour. Our guide showed us the entrance to Hammam. Roisin asked if we could book a hammam/massage for later. The guide checked but it was fully booked – it usually had to be booked the day before she said. But then they phoned back and said they could take us ‘tout suite’ if we wanted. The men weren’t interested so we arranged to meet them later and headed off into the Hammam.

Roisin and I had a Hammam in Marrakesh three years ago, but this was my first experience of a full body massage. After a week of walking in Medinas, art galleries and ancient ruins, it was an exquisite, almost out of body experience. I felt as if my body was being reassembled into an integrated physical form again. It was as if my bones were being pieced together and fused with my being. Instead of being a blur of blub on feet, I became a complete and whole being of body and spirit. It was amazing. Sadly, it didn’t last long, dissipated by the exhausting trek through the souk, shopping and bartering in true Tunisian style and the gorgeous lamb and apricot lunch at El Ali’s later! Roisin is very good at bartering. She does it with great humour, making everyone laugh, and when Joe and I chipped in…well, I almost felt sorry for the Souk sellers!

We returned to Ireland tired, but laden with carpets, bags, ceramics and happy memories of a fabulous family holiday with no bickering but just happy banter, bartering and blistered feet!

sitting room in Majestic Hotel, Tunis
at the beginning of the medina, Tunis
the key gateway on the roof, Tunis
the caged room of birds in the Emperor Hadrian’s Summer House, Carthage
Roisin in Sidi Bou Said
Marching to the Mausoleum, Monastir
The Ribat, Monastir
Baghdad Alley, Gammarth
the new rug in Swellan!
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