Tunisia: A Gem on the Edge of the Sahara
Tuesday, November 01 2011 @ 12:00 AM EDT
Contributed by: Steve Slater
Tunisia is a country of two halves: the north with its capital Tunis, the verdant land of Cape Bon and Hammamet; and the south from Sousse and Monastir (where the majority of the "Life of Brian" was filmed) down to the more industrial area with Sfax as its capital and beyond toward the border with Libya. Unfortunately, Tunisia missed out on the oil fields. Its primary source of income is tourism with some textiles work thrown in. Even now Tunisia is a safe place to visit. The country needs tourism to survive. That is why there is a large police presence in all souks and towns (that and to counter illegal immigrants). French is the second language, but as throughout the world English is widely spoken.
Tunisia was a French colony until 1956 and doesn’t it show. The main thoroughfare in the capital city of Tunis is Avenue Habib Bourguiba. It bears a striking similarity to the Champs Elysees in Paris. French colonial buildings line the avenue interspersed with the usual bars, banks, restaurants and hotels. Get out of Tunis and you see the real Tunisia, meet the real Tunisians, and realize why this country was one of the cornerstones of the ‘Arab Spring’. Ask anyone to name a famous Tunisian and look at them struggle, but there is one we all know. The man with the elephants that he took over the Alps. Yes, Hannibal was a Tunisian. Truthfully, he was a Carthaginian whose capital of Carthage is part of the suburbs of modern Tunis. This man and his troops almost brought the mighty Roman Empire to its knees a thousand years before it's ultimate fall.
As with any autocracy, there is a marked contrast between those with power and those without. There are some sumptuous dwellings within the suburbs of the capital city of Tunis. There is a mausoleum for Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. Its opulence will take your breath away. This splendour contrasts significantly with the more humble dwelling of the ordinary Tunisian, but Tunisia has come to terms with this. The popular uprising of early 2011 has brought about a change of government; a change for the good I sincerely hope for the ordinary, warm, friendly, open and honest Tunisian people. The image of the souk trader is just that, an image to satisfy the tourist view of how things should be. When treated right and with respect, they will reciprocate leaving you to wander and view their wares without any bother. Public transport is regular and cheap. Some of the trains you will find in any UK heritage centre and some of them are more modern and advanced than any we have running in the UK. It is possible to get around without hiring a car, though I have found it better to hire a car and driver. Haggling is the norm in Tunisian markets, but remember the spring uprising. Poverty was one of the underpinning causes so go easy on the haggling. The average Tunisian earns about £50.00 GBP per month, so your trying to save a few dinars may make you feel good but does nothing to alleviate the problem. At the time of writing, 1 dinar is about £0.50 (actually £0.44). I hired a car and driver for a full day from Tunis station for 50 dinar (just over £20.00) to take me around Carthage and to a good restaurant. I was happy. The restaurant owner was happy. And my driver was happy as he got a free meal from the restaurant owner for taking me there. What more can be said? On another occasion, I hired a car and driver for three days for 160 dinars to take me places I otherwise would have found difficult to access. It kept me clear of any hassle and gave me a history lesson as well.
Tunisia is a travellers dream. It has all the history you could want. When combined with the Tunisian culture, it provides all the diversions one could want. Tunis also has a number of Mosques. The largest is Jemaa Ez-Zitouna (which was inspired by the slightly larger Grand Mosque of Kairouan) which uses many of the stones and columns from Carthage. Visit the medina. Be respectful and you will be left alone. You can spend all day wandering the alleyways, visiting the many cafes and soaking up the atmosphere. Or visit the Museum of Traditional and Popular Arts. Outside of the medina, Tunis is like any other capital with its hotels restaurants and bars. Hannibal’s Carthage is still visible and doesn’t require much hunting to find it. Head out of Tunis along the continuation of Avenue Habib Bourguiba called Route La Goulette towards La Marsa and Sid Bou Said. You will pass through the Lake of Tunis (noting the fort standing in the middle of it, used as a jail until quite recently) and over a bridge built by the Japanese. You can catch the Metro from Tunis Marine out to Carthage, but it is quite a walk around if you do. It is far better to hire a car and driver. On your left you will see a hill, Byrsa Hill, the centre of Carthage. Atop this hill sits the Cathedrale de St Louis, now a culture centre for Arab Music and known as the Acropolium. Around this hill is what remains of Carthage and it is well worth spending some time visiting (along with the associated museum).
Further afield are the restored Theatre D’Hadrian used for concerts and such like, and the Cimetiere commemorating the 6500 US soldiers who died in North Africa during World War II. Down towards the coast is what is left of the circular harbour. Up to 200 ships, yes 200, could dock at any one time. At its height, Carthage controlled the Mediterranean much to the chagrin of Rome. Having had your fill of history, travel the short distance to Sidi Bou Said. Tourists come here in the thousands to see the myriad of doors, buy the usual touristy tat, and best of all visit the many restaurants and cafes. Some have spectacular sea views back towards Tunis. La Marsa is an upmarket place full of Ambassador Residences. You also can pass by the Presidential Palace, at one time a place you didn’t stop to look, but now I don’t know.
Leaving the confines of Tunis, I would suggest a trip to Kairouan, the fourth holiest city in Islam. The Great Mosque is the largest in Tunisia. Although entrance to the courtyard is for everyone, entrance to the prayer hall is closed to non-Muslims. You can look inside when worshippers are not at prayer. Be cautious with the myriad ‘touts’ outside around the walls and bus park. Some are not Tunisian and are not nice people. Thankfully there is a Police presence on view. Don’t advertise the fact that you’re carrying equipment worth more than a year’s salary for an ordinary Tunisian just to make pictures. Be wise. This is where having a driver helps. They will guide and advise you as to the do's and don’ts. It is also good because you can leave your main bag securely locked in the car and carry your camera in a smaller shoulder bag. Unfortunately, the tripod does tend to give the game away. A 24-70 is ideal, and get there early before the main crowds and the touts arrive. An ND graduated filter helps maintain the balance between the highlights and shadows, 0.6 (two stops) being the most useful I find, and be respectful of what you photograph. Aside from the Grand Mosque, there is the usual medina but to be honest, apart from the merchant’s house near the entrance to the medina, a medina is a medina is a medina etc.
After Kairouan, I would suggest a trip to El Djem for nothing other than the Colosseum and the excavation of the Roman City wherein was found some beautiful mosaics, now restored and displayed in the museum. Just outside of the Colosseum main entrance in the square, there are a number of restaurants. It is entertaining to order a meal and drinks and watch the pantomime unfold. It turns out that each restaurant has its own speciality: french fries, salad, meat, fish, bread, soups, even my favourite Tunisian mint tea. When an order is placed, each restaurant supplies its own individual contribution to the meal. Waiters are running every which way. It is funny and gripping to watch, sitting waiting for one to trip up but hey, it all works. The food arrives hot, cooked and well presented, even if the waiters are a little breathless. What more could be asked of them? In the words of Manny, the Mammoth in the film "Ice Age", ‘a dinner and a show’.
Monastir is the resting place of Habib Bourguiba who is seen as the Father of modern Tunisia. His opulent mausoleum is a must-see. I was surprised to learn that marble supplied from Cheshire in the UK had been used in its construction. And what a construction. How much did it cost? What could have been built for the ordinary Tunisian if the mausoleum wasn’t so splendid? It boggles the mind (well mine certainly). The other claim to fame for Monastir is the Ribat. It was used for filming "Jesus of Nazareth", and by coincidence or not, also to film Monty Python’s "Life of Brian" parodying the life of Christ. Town planners of the 60’s and early 70’s thought that removing most of the towns old medina and replacing it with bland "modern" buildings would enhance its attraction to the emerging tourist industry. Fortunately it didn’t which resulted in the planners being stopped before they did more damage. It also prevented similar jobs in other towns.
The area between Monastir and Sousse, which includes the airport and Skanes, was the first to be developed to cater to the tourist industry upon which Tunisia depends. There isn’t much in the way of what I call the "real" Tunisia. This area is much like any other tourist spot in the Mediterranean and there is nothing wrong with that if that is what you want. The many hotels do provide for cheap and clean accommodation and ease of access to Sousse and its railway station. All hotels provide a free bus service into Sousse. If not, the taxis are cheap and plentiful. If using a taxi, agree a price before you get in. Hotels will advise you of the current rates. Remember what I said above about "haggling". One of the best taxi rides I’ve ever had anywhere in the world happened here. The driver of this well-worn and battered yellow Mercedes was an eldery woman of indeterminable age who revelled in the excitement of racing trains to and across the level crossings, whooping and shouting with delight! This was better than any Disney World ride, believe me.
Sousse, both the old walled town and its modern development, exist cheek by jowl. Thankfully the town planners were prohibited from any form of modern development within the walled city. The old town is as it was except for the destruction of its main gate by Allied forces during World War II while chasing the remains of the Afrika Corps, and for the usual roof-top trappings of satellite dishes and air-conditioning units. This includes the medina and Mosque, the Mosque being a quiet and peaceful centre in what is an otherwise very busy and bustling tourist resort. So busy, in fact, that a road train runs along the promenade up to Port El Kantaoui, a purposely built tourist resort opened in 1979 that has nothing to offer those looking for the real Tunisia (but the kids may enjoy the ride). If you walk around the walled town you cannot get away from the medina. Again, remember to go easy on the haggling and be courteous. Take care if you walk out towards the top of the town. There is an "open area" brothel which can be disconcerting, and locals will stop and tell you not to go further if you are with your family. More interesting are the catacombs. Unfortunately only a small area is open to the public at the time of writing, but there are plans to increase public access.
The Sidi Bouraoui Baths is one place where you can experience a proper Turkish Bath and wash away the tourist aches and pains with sessions for both men and women. After being refreshed, take a trip to the Kasbah Museum. The roof provides for some sweeping panoramic views of the town and surrounding countryside. The Museum of Kalaout El Koubba is unmistakable as it sits under a zig-zag decorated, glazed dome. This museum focuses on the life of the medina with costumes, kitchenware and the like. Finally, there is the Ribat. Get there early at peak holiday times if you want to avoid the queues waiting to climb to the top of the tower. This gives you another panoramic view of the town and surrounding area. The railway station in Sousse is a gateway to Tunisia. Here you can travel north to Tunis, or south via Sfax to the island of Djerba (once a holiday haven until terrorists attacked a hotel) and on into Libya. As I write this the news has reported the death of Muammar Gadaffi and the end to hostilities, so in the future Libya may become another tourist destination.
I travelled to Sfax by train (£6.00 GBP return) from Sousse (passing through El Djem) and the journey provided for a glimpse into the world of Tunisia. Travelling relatively slow it allowed for observation and reflection, but it also showed how the modern world was encroaching on day to day lives. Old ladies travelled on a donkey cart while carrying on a conversation by mobile (cell) phone. The landscape was dotted with nothing more than mud and corrugated sheeting huts with the ubiquitous portable Honda electricity generator and a huge satellite dish mounted on a tall mast. Quite a remarkable scene indeed. The toilet in the carriage I was travelling in was nothing more than a hole in the floor. The water in the sink drained out the same way. And yet I caught a train from Bir Bou Regba to Tunis that put the modern trains of the UK to shame. Go figure! The joy of Sfax is that it as yet has not been spoiled by tourists. Quite rightly, you say, tourists don’t spoil a place. It is what is put in place to cater to them that does.
The medina is a pleasure to walk around. No bustling crowds or over-eager traders. You can sit drinking sweet mint tea in one of the many small cafes, watching and enjoying the Tunisian people as they go about their business. The impressive Town Hall contains the Archaeological museum on its ground floor with the Dar Jallouli Museum being housed in a town house of what was a rather well-to-do 19th century Sfax family. The Grand Mosque at the centre of the medina is not open to non-muslims at the time of prayers, and the several-tiered minaret is best viewed from Place Souk el Djemma.
Equipment and Other Necessities
Equipment wise, my kit consists of Canon gear: full-frame 5D, 50 f1.4, 28 f1.8 and 85 f1.8 lenses, with the 28 f1.8 getting most use. I use this kit as it is light weight, hand-holdable in low light, and more importantly does not shout out "professional" as large glass seems to do (although the quality of the images are on-par with lenses costing three times as much). I rarely use flash and it is anti-productive to use a tripod in a crowded souk! although this and my flash gun accompany me on every trip, usually staying secure in the hotel. Wearing an unobtrusive waist coat to carry it all also helps. I have used a 35 f1.4 and 85 f1.2 in the past but the weight! Plenty of bottled water is a must. It is cheap enough to buy on the go if you are in town, but if venturing out it is a different story. It is cheap enough to buy as long as you find a store in a village or town to buy it. I will be travelling away from the coast towards the border with Algeria and up to the northern coast during my next trip to Tunisia.
Tunisia is undergoing vast changes, both economically and culturally. It has just held its first elections in decades. Most forty year olds have never voted or been allowed to vote before. Tourism is its lifeblood. That is why the place is as safe as anywhere else in the world. Indeed, there are areas of my home town in the UK where I feel uneasy. I have yet to feel uneasy in Tunisia. A smile and eye contact is reciprocated. Try that in my home town and see what happens! Check out our photo tours at www.5studiosphotography.com and join us.
To see even more images from Tunisia, peruse Stephen's "Tunisia" photo album with more than 50 images.