The colours and smells of Tunis, Medina and Sidi Bou Said
My memories of Tunisia I visited as a teenager with my little brother and parents back in 1999 were not clear about the capital Tunis. I do remember that I was obsessed with the ruins already at that age so together with my father we spent a day visiting Tunis and the Cartage ruins.
But from the capital city itself I don’t remember much. Now, going back there after exactly half of my life, 14 years, was a good surprise. We had a few hours to explore the Arabic culture when our MSC Preziosa ship left us in La Goulette port.
La Goulette name is derived from the Arabic gullet meaning channel where it is located but when it was a French colony back in time, it received its more French spelling. It was the first thing we learned from Ali, our very knowledgeable guide.
A little van drove us through the home of 2 million inhabitants, the city with no tall buildings and very little rain (rainy season is from December to March here). A couple of salt lakes were on both sides of the road while Ali stated that Tunis became the capital city already in the 13th century.
For my biggest surprise Ali swore we could find snow in Tunisia on the highest mountain of 1,400 m a.s.l. as its peak really gets snow capped already since the 800 m of altitude.
Only a few minutes divided us from Medina, the Old town. The name comes from Arabic and means city. Medina was built in the 8th century but some of its parts also date back to the 10th, 14th and 18th century.
The first thing that got my eyes on the way to Medina were the massive doors – most of them blue or yellow with many black ornaments, such as fish, and the windows/balconies of the same colour.
10 entrances to Medina say it all – not easy not to get lost in this maze! Thankfully, Ali knew exactly the way to show us the best smells and colours of the market with the views of mosques. Then through the narrow streets packed with shops with souvenirs (many are wooden made of 60 million olive trees Tunisia is proud of), leather, pottery, shoes, traditional hats and jewelry we got back to the Kasbah with the Monument to Independence where the protests took place in 2011.
My absolutely favorite part about Medina visit was when we entered a souvenir shop where they also make carpets and they invited us to see the King’s old bed where the King used to sleep with his 4 wives (or was it 5?) and yes, 4 friends and I did fit on the bed easily! The same shop had a roof top with the views of the whole town and I was in awe when up there. Ridiculously beautiful architecture with different tiles, arches and carpets for sell overlooking the whitish old houses with flat roofs.
Not many sellers hassled us in Medina which was a huge plus. Maybe it was because a local guide, Ali accompanied us, or maybe they are just used to tourists there and don’t care that much.
But then, after another 15 minutes in the car crossing the city to the other side to Sidi Bou Said, it got worse. A lot more local sellers reached to us trying to sell us as many goods as possible.
This incredibly beautiful white and blue town of 20,000 inhabitants used to be just a seat of a Saint who built his house and mosque here in the 13th century. Nowadays, Sidi Bou Said is a very touristy spot with souvenirs, little cafes with fresh orange juice and traditional local sweets, and beautiful views of the Mediterranean sea.
Bustling streets of Sidi Bou Said with the passers-by trying to hide in the shade of the white and blue buildings or under the many orange trees still had a somewhat calming effect on me. It was definitely not due to the fairly annoying local guys trying to put an eagle (or whatever similar bird it was) on your arm or head so you had to tip them for a photo then.
But it might be the hundreds of mirrors, images of Arab ladies showing off only their eyes full of secrets, or even the many colours that gave the place the relaxing feeling I took away from our short visit.
PS: the funny fact was that even I was dressed up in white and blue that day 🙂 Cool coincidence, right?
Taking a trip to Tunis, Medina and Sidi Bou Said was part of the press trip organized by the MSC cruises. All the opinions in this post are strictly my own.