A time for reflection
So, I’m sitting at my table in Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit having polished off a very decent dish of couscous with harissa-spiced lamb when 50 Cent jump-starts the club. Suddenly, the venue explodes into life, the bass line bounces round the walls and the dance floor becomes rammed with the flaying arms of a hundred crop topped-women. We’re in da club, we’re in Tunis and I really wasn’t expecting this. My new Tunisian friends smile in that annoyingly conspiratorial way locals do in the presence of a naïve tourist and join the filling dance floor. As the track faded the heavy violins of an Arabic soundtrack began to seductively lift the crowd. In minutes the tables are full of dancers and the hand waving extravaganza is spring-cleaning the ceiling. Clearly, I thought at the time, this has the words late session written all over it.
Believe me it was. Still, in a way, the club summed up Tunisia. It’s too easily labelled part of the Arab world because of its location between Algeria and Libya and it’s too simply to say it’s European because of Tunis’s French style boulevards, croissants and white-gloved policemen. “Oh you know it just doesn’t matter,” explained one silver-shirted Boeuf Sur Le Toit clubber, “we’re North African. That’s it. We’ve got all cultures here.” Ah, that old ‘melting-pot-of-cultures’ thing. Well, it may be a cliché, but like most clichés it’s absolutely true in Tunisia.
In the space of the eight hours it had taken to get to La Boeuf, it felt like I’d not just crossed cultural divides but also generation gaps. Prior to the club we’d had a quick beverage in Dar El Jeld hidden down the cobbled souk streets of central Tunis – admired the James Bond-style cocktails, steaming tanjines and eye-achingly bright white linen – and driven past a hotel opening with its ice-carving displays and patiently purring queues of Mercedes with tuxedos. Prior to that we had been wandering around the wilderness of the beautifully bleak Ichkeul National Park where thousands of birds migrate from Africa and the head-scarf-wearing women tramp across the countryside in damaged flip flops and slippers. Whew.
Tunisia’s mix of cultures can seriously spin you around. And that’s its appeal. Of course there’s loads of history, the country’s immersed in it. And, that’s why, to be honest, it’s not a bad place to start. Take Carthage for example. Queen Dido founded it, Hannibal was based here when he organised his elephant trekking extravaganza and the Romans beat the living daylights out of it before Julius Caesar made it the third biggest city in his empire.
Whatever. Today Carthage is a neat little suburban town with white villas and pine trees. There’s a national museum packed with mosaics, ruined columns and rescued fragments of the past and that’s about it to be honest. There’s something quite sad about what little remains of this once astonishing city. Still, there are some things that take your breath away. The view across the bay to the mountains is digi-camcorder perfect and the Antonine baths are well-preserved enough to give you an idea of the opulent levels of indulgence the Romans once enjoyed.
After warming up with a bit of background, it’s got to be time to explore some living history and that means the famous Tunis souk. Here away from the city’s European boulevards and art nouveau lamps illuminating squares domino-players in French colonial squares is the heart of the city. This UNESCO-protected 1,300 year-old market celebrates everything that is narrow, cobbled, cluttered and full of cupolas.
As you’d expect from a souk there are clothes you’d never buy; fake Armani aftershave you’d never use; olive and humous samples you can’t resist and more rug stalls than you can shake a Persian weaver at. The key attractions here are the polite gentlemen who create the red wool caps known as chechia, which you must remember to never, never call a fez. In this centre of retail mishmash is the ninth century Zitouna Mosque that houses the remains of Husseinite royalty and the ancient dwelling of Dar el-Haddad. Both these places have photogenic long shadows and are great places to escape enthusiastic stall sellers.
North of Tunis you’re in suburban land of La Marsa and Gammarth, but bear with it. Just beyond the manicured lawns is my favourite place in Tunisia, Sidi Bou Said. Now then if you’re in need of a sharp mint tea or a gritty cup of coffee this is your essential stop-off point. Perched on the hillside, overlooking the marina, the village is a tribute to the European artistic sensibilities of the early 20th century. Painters, including Paul Klee, made the area their home and entertainingly the village elders decreed that all houses should be painted white with their doors and windows the same shade of sky blue – not because of Klee – but because they just thought it would look impressive. And it does.
This contrived colour conformity has a fantastically calming ambience. Add to the mix, imposing heavy, studded doors that open into secret gardens, elegant ceramics, explosions of purple or red blooms and jasmine-scented air and you have a classic fairytale village. All you need to do to complete your day is take a stop at Café Sidi Chebaane that overlooks the bay. Inevitably, this is where that gritty coffee and sharp tea come into their own along with hookah pipes and heated conversation.
The next day we headed for the peninsula. For me, the European visitor, it seemed well off the beaten track for tourists. But it’s not the case for most Tunis dwellers. When summer comes, picnics dot the scenery, cars cram the tree-lined boulevards, hobbit-like farmers drive their heavily-laden carts down tracks and shepherds tend obedient sheep.
On the coast are the villages of Korbous, El Haouaria and Kelibia. There are plenty of places to occupy an idle moment. All along this stretch of road are ancient fortifications, natural spas, mountain streams, tiny mosques and striking rocky outcrops. Inevitably there will be a small café, inevitably it will be full of women and always there will be a fish restaurant somewhere serving fresh grilled red snapper. It’s all good.
Throughout my visit there had been a sense of that other cliché, the cultural crossroads. Tunisia has in the past been trampled on by the Romans, Phoenicians, Vandals, Arabs, Spanish and Turks before the French came along to tidy things up with their boulevards and elegant buildings. And this is all very well, but the place that seemed to have avoided all this cultural grid-lock is the north coast.
This area has thousands of square kilometres of space without a single ruin, amphitheatre or dance club in sight. The hills are wrapped up in rich greenery and embroidered with pines and neat matching hedgerows. Apparently the soil is some of the most fertile in the region which would explain the hundreds of carefully cultivated fields and thousands of robust women labouring in the red earth.
There were not many cars on the road only donkeys and the sound of silence, as they say, was deafening. There are beautiful villages, old fishing ports, markets with stalls laden down with gravity-defying piles of vegetables and naturally plenty of red snapper at the local terrace restaurant.
Unfortunately back in Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, the DJ had switched to a heady R&B set. And vegetable markets were the last thing on my mind. There were good vibrations shaking the cheap souq ashtrays across the table and the welcome return of the glitter ball was spreading retro light beams across the dancefloor. Clearly it was time for a last one.