Thursday, 7 May 2009

City break: Tunis

Sensual, sub-tropical Tunis is a great place for a city break. Tunisia's capital combines French influence with its Berber heritage and North African setting.
Although radiating French flavour in its Parisian-style boulevards where flower stalls and newspaper kiosks rub shoulders with pavement cafes, patisseries and an assorted mix of colonial and modern buildings (a legacy of years of French rule), you will never doubt for a minute that you are in North Africa. The spice-scented souks, calls of the muezzin and dry desert heat are sure to stir your soul.

Souks and spices

For more than a whiff of ancient intrigue, don't miss a visit to the well-preserved medieval Medina (old town). A froth of white domes, minarets and terraces, it's a walled city-within-a-city where frenzied commerce has taken place for 12 centuries. This labyrinth of cool, sun-blanched narrow streets, an invasive tumult of impressions, seethes with vitality, the air smelling of a hundred pungent spices and freshly-baked bread. This teeming maze of furtive passageways is bursting with hammams (public bathhouses), mosques and tiny workshops where sun-leathered gnarled old men wearing red felt hats called ‘chechias' busily operate sewing machines.

This Aladdin's cave of stalls, each fronted by a smooth talking stall holder with a line in patter that would put many a used car salesman to shame, is festooned with thousands of twinkling fairylights. A mind-boggling array of goods, in a tapestry of hues as rich as a Scotsman's brogue, spill onto the cobblestones. Everything you could possibly want is here, along with plenty that you wouldn't.

An abundance of powerfully potent perfumes with dubious names like ‘Romance in the Souk' and ‘Come Hither at Midnight' probably fall into the latter category. Gaudy Berber jewellery and brightly coloured carpets are displayed alongside brass pots, leather bags, antique lanterns, incense burners, musical camels and sparkling, pointy-toed slippers. Although the hassle factor is relatively low key, haggling is the name of the game. Start by offering a third of the asking price and off you go - it isn't too arduous, and if you are determined and play it well, you can come away with a bargain.

Besides being a massive marketplace, the Medina is also a fully functioning community with residential areas, mausoleums, cafes, schools, libraries and mosques. The serene, enclosed Zeytouna mosque, also called the Great Mosque, is the city's largest and the only one open to non-muslims who may enter the courtyard though not the prayer hall. Built in 732AD, it flourished from the 13th century onwards as an important Islamic university.

Bursting with culture and history, it is not surprising that UNESCO designated this medieval Arab city a World Heritage site. When darkness falls, the Medina's silence is astonishing - the whole place is spookily deserted with only skinny stray cats wandering its alleyways.
Cafe culture
Exit the Medina from the eastern side, cross through the Porte de France and you are back in the 21st century, in elegant, tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the city's most important thoroughfare, named after the country's former long-serving president. This is a bustling place lined with banks, shops, restaurants and the ‘see and be seen' CafĂ© de Paris, a great place to sit and watch the world go by.

Tunis has a vibrant cafe culture with modern European-style cafes sitting alongside traditional cafes, both offering tastebud-tingling choices. Mingle with the locals as you sip fine Turkish coffee, or try gunpowder tea steeped in strong mint, topped with pine nuts and served in small glasses - Tunisians often add dried salted chickpeas to theirs. Since there is no such thing as a smoking ban here, you can puff fragrant tobacco through a chicha (water pipe) to your heart's content if you wish.
Culinary delights
The city's Dar restaurants are where to go for a taste of authentic cuisine in lavish surroundings. They are former palaces or grand houses that are traditionally decorated and usually slightly hidden away from public view. In the centre of the Medina, there are two Dars both tiled to the hilt and worthy of featuring in The Thousand and One Nights. Dar el Jeldand Dar el Kheiratat both offer three-fork dining (the highest gastronomic rating) in cool surroundings with atmospheric live music.

Bursting with flavour, Tunisian cuisine blends sophisticated French styles and Arab spice with an interesting smattering of AndalucĂ­an, Italian and Turkish influences. The emphasis is firmly on fresh ingredients and typical dishes are sturdy though fiery. Couscous, Tunisia's national dish, a main course stew of chicken, fish or vegetables, is on menus everywhere, while you can't leave Tunis without savouring a bumper bowl of seriously fabulous chorba, a spicy barley soup with chick peas and vegetables in a rich tomato stock. Desserts tend to be very sweet with one of the most popular being ‘kab el ghazal', a horn-shaped pastry stuffed with almonds.

In all but the cheapest restaurants, customers are welcomed with complimentary fresh bread, olives and harissa (a concentrate of garlic and red chilli pepper). Mechouia is a ubiquitous Tunisian dish of roasted vegetables mashed with tuna and eggs, while something you might approach more cautiously is a brik, lightly cooked egg wrapped in a hot envelope of filo pastry with the addition perhaps of tuna or prawns. Although tasty, it is hard to eat without dribbling egg down your front because tradition decrees briks must be eaten by hand.
Excursions from the city
Now a prosperous suburb of Tunis, Carthage was once capital of the Punic Empire. It was unfortunate that first the Romans then the Vandals did a pretty thorough job of destroying it, with the result that little remains of the once-great city from where Hannibal set off with his elephants to conquer Rome. Interesting archeological sites among the wildflower-strewn ruins include the remains of the Antonin Baths, one of the largest bath houses built during the Roman Empire, with no-expense-spared gigantic cool room, Olympic-sized swimming pool, separate rooms for cold and hot baths, sauna and exercise area.

The Carthage Museum at Mount Byrsa is also worth a visit. It has some fascinating exhibits, including an ancient set of dice, clay masks designed to ward off evil spirits and a baby's drinking bottle from 200BC.And while you are in history mode pop into the Bardo Museum, a magnificent villa once home to the country's movers and shakers that now houses one of the world's largest and finest collections of beautifully restored Punic and Roman mosaics. Here you can gawp over scenes of battling sea gods, cavorting nymphs and a Mediterranean Sea full of glistening fish and scary sea monsters. Look out, too, for imposing statues rescued from Carthage and masses of busts of - it has to be said - rather unattractive Roman emperors.
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