Razor Wire and The Bardo, Tunis

Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis.

Dave the motorhome is shivering in the rain, in a safe harbour for another night at the blue flag marina, Sidi Bou Said (N36.86801 E10.35211). With the exception of a few cliff top wild dogs howling at the moon, the place here is calm, as I guess it would be within a stone’s throw of the Presidential Palace, a collection of white-washed buildings set amidst palms and other tropical-looking greenery.

Sidi Bou Said Marina. Folks are comfortable enough with the political situation here to leave their oodles-expensive yachts.
Sidi Bou Said Marina. Folks are comfortable enough with the political situation here to leave their oodles-expensive yachts. There’s a tiny Dave in this photo, hiding in among the trees.

There have been a few times in the past months I’ve felt out of my depth. Thinking about it, there have been a load of them. Anyway, on a scale of 1 (Camping Club Hertfordshire) to 10 (Being Boiled Up by Cannibals), I’d rate our tram-based entry into Tunis, passing a forest of razor wire piled up around the French Embassy as a seven. I felt ill.

Life on the streets of central Tunis. An uneasy truce seems to exist, with police and army folks sat inside their armoured vehicles as the rain poured down.
Life on the streets of central Tunis. An uneasy truce seems to exist, with police and army folks sat inside their armoured vehicles as the rain poured down.
Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis.
Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis.

We wanted to have a look-see at the Bardo museum, sat in a Tunis suburb, so took the train in from Sidi Bou Said this morning. Charlie decided to stay put in Dave, in a huff, not understanding this trip’s effect of making us want to go see all this ‘cultural stuff’. At one of the stations heading into the city a group of lads jumped in, well most of them did. One guy decided to hang onto the thin door handles from the outside of the train as it sped between stations. In fits of laughter they then tied up a length of rubber and staged a mock hanging on one of the group. The rest of the packed train either ignored them, or half looked. Like transit systems everywhere, no-one cared much.

At the terminus we got off, followed everyone out of the station and got lost. A friendly ticket chap pointed the right way, which didn’t help much as we searched around, eventually Ju’s spider senses found the ‘subway’ station, which is actually a tram stop in anyone else’s parlance.

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More entertainment on the tram, lads hanging onto the back of the hurtling machine. No idea if they needed to get somewhere, or were just doing it for the hell of it.

The city looked a frightening place to me, the sight of the odd army truck and tank-like water cannon on the streets freaked me out. I wondered what the hell we were doing there, and toyed with the idea of begging Ju to just head back out of town and to relative safety. I focussed a bit more on the people I could see inside the tram and out on the streets. Normal folks. Women and children. An army fella in fatigues, is arm around another man, as they do here in a gesture of friendship. A lass in full burka, not even the eyes visible stood out in among people who but for their skin were Italians, dressed in knock-off (I guess) designer jeans and jackets. Millions of people live here. When the unrest kicks off, they have nowhere to go, but we guess the TV cameras blow the scale of the demonstrations and violence out of all proportion. I tried to rationalise all this stuff in my head and failed.

Reaching the Bardo tram stop we got off and looked around for the famous whitewashed museum. A building right next to the tram stop confused us, locked, overgrown and sided by an almighty pile of stinking garbage being picked over by a couple of blokes. Is this is? Has Tunis folded in on itself to the point its cultural heritage has had to be mothballed? It seemed a reasonable assumption, especially when we saw this load of posters on the wall nearby.

We can only guess these are people who suffered under Ben Ali's police state. I will never complain about British politics again.
We can only guess these are people who suffered under Ben Ali’s police state. The sense of luck about my place of birth continue to grow as we travel.

That wasn’t the Bardo though. Another ticket office hero pointed us in the right direction a few hundred meters walk. Crossing the road was, as always:

Frogger time!
Frogger time!

Finding the museum entrance we had to ask a guard if the place was open, as we were a bit taken aback at more razor wire and this fella at the entrance:

On our way past a soldier waved from the door. Bored daft, the poor chap.
On our way past a soldier waved from the door. Bored daft, the poor chap.

Heading inside, we were immediately impressed. A huge entrance in minimalist style was added to the main part of the museum, opening in May 2012. The rest of the place is a palace, literally, dating from the 13th century. Our overall impression was that the hybrid building itself was almost as beautiful as much of the exhibits, brought here from across Tunisia. Without being shifted, they’d crumble, there’s no money to look after stuff spread out about the country. A few photos from inside:

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We feel an attachment to Bulla Regia where this fella came from, as we slept uneasily in the car park at the entrance!
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The new part of the museum, funded by the World Bank. Took a couple of years longer than planned, but looks stunning. The loos even have (working) hand dryers in ’em.
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30s history lesson. Hannibal fought for Carthage, which is next to Tunis, in the Punic wars, against Rome. He nipped over to Spain with a load of elephants and invaded Italy via the Alps, occupying a chunk of it for 15 years before the Romans counter-attacked, hitting his North Africa homeland directly. Eventually the Romans kicked Carthage butt, completely destroying the city and killing its heritage by burning its library.
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There’s a lotta mosaic in the Bardo. Some of them are the height of a house.
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A palatial ceiling in the Bardo.
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Some chaps explained this is how it was done before Photoshop came along.
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A bit of blue for the dads!
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There is a story to this image, but it is quite insane.
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A ceiling in the Bardo, a jaw-droppingly beautiful incredible ceiling at that.
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The entrance to the Bardo. Entrance cost: £3.60 each.
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When we get back to Blighty, assuming someone gives us jobs, I’m going to make a hot tub much like this!

Exiting the museum, a bit frozen in the cool air inside, we’d worked out how to get to the medina. Tunis is, like most North African cities, an old town with a new, French-built bit bolted on the side. The Tunis medina is huge. Last night various scare stories advised: do not go in after dark. They didn’t say anything about going in when it’s pouring with rain though so we jumped off at Barcelone Square (nah, no idea why it’s named that) and headed in, failing to get a brolly seller lower than €2, we pulled our collars higher against the lashing wetness from above.

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The medina was pretty easy going. The usual cat calls to tempt us passing punters to look into one of any identical shops, but no grabbing of arms, hissing, whistling at us, shouting that we were rude, all that bad stuff was missing and we liked it. Ju spotted a chap nearly go his length in the fishmonger’s shed, warning me to look out for the fish heads and the like waiting to do a Tunisian banana-skin trick on me. After a bit to eat:

With a menu in Arabic, we spotted a guy having an egg and chip cob (with a few other weird bits and bobs) and asked for a couple the same. 1.4TD each, about 65p, and they were delicious.
With a menu in Arabic, we spotted a guy having an egg and chip cob (with a few other weird bits and bobs) and asked for a couple the same. 1.4TD each, about 65p, and they were delicious.

 

We had a quick go at haggling for some pots:

Feather Duster versus Coke Man! FD opened at 30TD for a couple of pretty low quality small bowls. CM guffaws and hugs the cheeky FD who's eye's smile back. A bit of ping pong  later, FD wants at 10TD for the bowls, but they're worth maybe 6, we walked away.
Feather Duster versus Coke Man! FD opened at 30TD for a couple of pretty low quality small bowls. CM guffaws and hugs the cheeky FD who’s eye’s smile back. A bit of ping pong later, FD wants at 10TD for the bowls, but they’re worth maybe 6, we walked away.

Before heading off out of the medina, the rain hammering down and caused folks to dance about in the narrow pathway to avoid the inch-deep torrent over the stones. Out into the open, I practically skipped along Avenue Bourguiba (where all the rioting seems to happen on the telly) and onto the train out of there. Really, Tunis isn’t as bad as all that, I’m a wuss.

Unlikely-looking Jesus-Go figure leaping forth from a, ah, church on Ave Bourguiba. What the Blazes?
Unlikely-looking Jesus-God figure leaping forth from a, ah, church on Ave Bourguiba. What the Blazes?

Back in Dave, Charlie was happy to have sat out the lashing rain, a hot shower’s been had, the heating is on (being powered by one of the sockets at the marina) and we’re working out a sort-of plan for our last day in Africa tomorrow. We’ve Skyped my folks who tell us (a) the council have finally come and filled in some of the holes in their street and (b) Mount Etna has exploded. Point a is a relief, as maybe Mum will stop going on about it (sorry Mum) and Point b is exciting, we have to pass Etna on our way back to the Italian peninsula (aka the sole of the boot), BRING ON THE LAVA!

Cheers, Jay

 

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5 Comments

  1. I think your “Out of your depth scale” is slightly wrong. Surely any Caravan club site would warrant a 5 because they all promote a philosophy of being surrounded by imaginary razor wire.
    I suspect the potholes in your mom’s road were as deep as Mount Etna.
    I am enjoying the Tunisian leg of the journey.It seems to have that edgy feel. I think that now you have Morroco and Tunisia under your belts you have graduated to become Overlander/Adventurers rather than Motorhomers.
    I’m trying think of a suitable song for the Ukulele, but I’m stumped. Oh dear, never mind, I hear you say :)

    • Hi Vaughan

      Please don’t encourage Jay, he’s been looking up Unimogs on the internet for desert travel! I’m happy sticking to Dave level of adventure, which for many is low but for others it’s high – it’s all about perception.

      Good point about the caravan club sites – we’ve only ever stopped in a couple and they had a list of rules longer than your arm.

      It’s amazing how different Palermo now feels, before we left we were on edge here fearing petty crime and Dave theft, now it feels so warm and welcoming, my shoulders are finally starting to unknot after six weeks on edge – hope our blog posts still keep you interested when we’re not scared!

      Julie

      PS – Uke is getting dusty :(

      • Julie
        Your right,Being an overlander/adventurer is about the spirit of your journey not the vehicle. Heck! people are having adventures travelling around the world on Honda C90s,but I must admit a Unimog will always turn my head.
        I realised that a suitable song would have been “Take a walk on the wild side”, but I don’t have the chords.
        I’m finding the food fascinating

  2. Really enjoy the daily updates of your trip. I am very envious of you. We have only recently purchased our first motorhome and hope to do some continental travel in June, till then it will be just long weekends away in Scotland and the lake district to get used to the motorhome before attempting to stay in it for longer periods. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Roger

      We had our first motorhome for five years and did weekends away, a fortnight in Scotland (it rained a lot) and a couple of trips to France in it. Watch out or you’ll get bitten by the travel bug too – it’s amazing where you can go and where you can stay in a motorhome – especially in France, loads of dedicated motorhome car parks with service points.

      Julie

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