I don’t know if I was scared, nervous, confused, or excited. I mean, I wanted to do some super-legit stuff in Tunis to make up for that first trip, but wow, this was surreal.
This was actually my second trip to Tunisia, as I could not, in good conscience, count my first time here (albeit a complete overnight stay) as a “real visit.”
First, let me explain what I consider my qualifications as a “country visit,” as every serious “country collector” has their own different rules. Many require an overnight for a visit to “count.” Some serious travelers scoff at even this and won’t count a visit if it’s anything under a week. On the other end of the spectrum, a few folks will count mere airport transits as “seeing” the country – I certainly do not! So just what are my standards?
For me, a country counts as “visited” as long as I have at least left the airport, gone into town and “done something.” That “something” could mean lunch at a local café, a walk through the city, or best case scenario: a meaningful interaction with a local. Taking into account the 165 countries I’ve seen at the time of this publication, I’d say my average stay in a country is probably somewhere around 1.8 nights, and that’s a very unscientific guess.
Lately, I’ve been staying in different countries between one and three nights, although I have been known to check off a country during a long layover. I’ve seen a half-dozen countries during cruise stops too, which usually never include overnight stays.
I first visited Tunisia back in 2016. It was actually during my very first trip into Africa – an itinerary so ambitious (and downright crazy), looking back, I can’t believe it all worked out. (You can see that itinerary HERE.) Well, I guess it almost all worked out. Due to a missed connection to Libya, my whole schedule was interrupted, causing me to miss time in Tunisia. Although I did leave the airport and enter Tunisia—twice actually—and stay the night, I didn’t see any of Tunisia and that was a problem for me.
I’d booked The Sheraton Tunis, which was a really nice hotel, but completely outside of the city and behind gates. It was a beautiful property, but so far away from anything; and because of the Libyan flight scramble, I had no time to venture into the city. Sure, I spent the night; sure, I ate a meal at the hotel…I even wore my Islamic dress and cap to “feel” Tunisian. But at the end of the day, I knew I’d have to return to really count Tunisia. So, here I am!
>>> RELATED: If you really want to, you can read about my first stop in Tunisia HERE; although it wasn’t very exciting!
The routing was just beautiful. I had to get from Cyprus to Malta, and the direct flight that once existed was no more since Corona. Luckily, there were two options that included a stop via Athens, or, I could go Cyprus–Istanbul–Tunis-Malta. I couldn’t resist making things right – I chose the Tunis option and added some time there.
I’d have two nights and one full day there and I was determined to do Tunisia as legitimately and authentically as I could in that short amount of time. I wanted to make up for the last time; to dive in headfirst. And so I did. This time I did not monkey around with any resorts outside of the city or even hotels around the city. Instead, I aimed for the bullseye–the very center–booking an old property inside of the Medina, the ancient heart of old Tunis. If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do this.
Fun Fact: Most big, old Middle Eastern and Northern African (Arab) cities have a “Medina.” The Medina is the ancient center of town—hundreds of years old—walled, and mostly closed to vehicles. We’ll talk more about the Medina in a minute.
But yeah, I was determined to squeeze the most out of the cultural sponge that was Tunisia, and would leave very satisfied, exhausted and maybe even a little stressed. I went in, and I went hard.
You can find a hotel in The Medina HERE.
The flight from Northern Cyprus to Tunis went off without a hitch. I got to enjoy a few hours at the new Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul before arriving in Tunis just before 4PM on that Friday. Just getting in was another stroke of the plethora of good travel-luck I’d had since the pandemic. I arrived on June 11th, and it was just five days ago that restrictions were finally lifted and foreigners were allowed in without quarantining. I’d read horror stories about a seven-day mandatory quarantine and not even being able to leave the country before your isolation requirement was up, and that wouldn’t work! I gave it a go anyway; relieved once I was stamped through immigration and out of the airport doors. Whew! This trip was continuing to go quite smooth, and I was grateful.
I grabbed a taxi to the Medina and was let out at the front gate, walking just few hundred feet and around a few stone corners before hitting my accommodations for the next few nights: Palais Bayram. And a “palais” it certainly was!
This was a real-life “Hotel California” with an Arabic feel. The ceilings were high, the stone floors reminded me of a medieval castle, and the tile work all around was just unbelievable. The concierge gave me a tour and I couldn’t believe how big the property was. There were twists and turns and stairways and doors and passages in every direction. I was happy to meet the owner who didn’t hesitate to share a piece of his newly delivered and freshly baked bread with me. He tore off a big hunk and insisted. The palais was nice enough to give me an upgrade and I was super impressed with my room! Suite number nine—in case you want to request—was very spacious, with tall ceilings, a giant chandelier and beautiful paintings on the ceiling. There was marble everywhere and the antique wooden furniture made it feel like 1910. After a few minutes of rest, it was out to enjoy the last couple hours of sunshine. I would not waste one minute of my time in Tunisia.
You can book the Palais Bayram HERE!
I wandered through the souk (market) and eventually (and by coincidence) ended up at Bab el Bhar (the main gate). The giant stone arch opened up to a big, wide street with cafés on each side and a big, tree-lined pedestrian walk in the middle. The golden sun was setting and the scene was just spectacular. I merrily strolled down the boulevard a half mile until I reached the Statue de Bourguiba and Clock Tower. People were out in droves and I enjoyed the vibe. But by now it was starting to get dark and I was ready for a meal. I made an about-face and meandered back in the direction of the Medina, ready to choose a nice café on the boulevard before heading in for night. That’s when things would suddenly turn.
Bursting my Bubble
I was given some of the best travel advice many years ago: “Don’t let anyone inside your bubble.” In other words, create a virtual “bubble.” Keep to yourself and don’t give anyone the opportunity to get “inside” your world. Once you open up and let someone inside your bubble, that’s when trouble can happen. If you keep your guard up and don’t give anyone the chance to penetrative that invisible “bubble,” you’re likely to automatically fend off 99% of street scams before they can start. I should’ve listened to this advice.
A middle aged man in the crowd suddenly asked me a question in Arabic, as if he had mistaken me for a local. Flattered and surprised, I was quick to reply with, “Sorry, I speak English.”
“Where are you from?” asked the man.
“California, USA,” I replied.
The guy seemed nice enough: chubby, nicely dressed, the dad type. Soon we were chatting it up and I was explaining I was on the way to dinner. He asked me where, and when I pointed to the fancy corner café I’d decided on, he insisted I follow him to this “amazing, local” spot, just around the corner. I immediately regretted letting him inside my “bubble,” but part of me remained optimistic. I truly wanted the “local experience,” and boy was Mohammed about to give it to me.
Restaurant La Diament Vert was a narrow, dark room, located just a few streets behind the main boulevard. Mohammed swore this place had the best food, and that I’d be so happy here, as he pulled out a chair and had the waiter bring me a menu. At this point, I was actually a little giddy that I was actually inside a true, local joint – something I’d never find on my own. How could I not invite Mohammed to sit and have meal with me? Not only was he now inside my bubble, but I’d made him a resident!
Soon we were having beers and sampling plate after plate of traditional Tunisian food. While I wasn’t a fan of the sardines, I did enjoy everything else: plates of fūl (fava beans), cheese, tuna, and olives. Then came a big bowl of filet stew. My favorite was the brik: a pastry stuffed with (in this case) seafood. It was awesome. Soon the live entertainment started (singers) as the locals poured in to eat, drink, and socialize. The beers kept coming. Mohamed mentioned that the woman at the table in front of us was giving me the eye. We ate, drank, talked and laughed. Everything was going swimmingly – a first night in Tunisia that was more local than my wildest dreams. I should’ve called it a night after the meal.
It’s About to Get Weird
I don’t know why I went along with Mohammed’s plan to continue the party, but against my better judgment I did. Soon, we were down the street and I was following my strange, new friend into a dimly lit (in red) nightclub. There were probably only four or five other patrons there, including a woman from Agadir (Morocco) that Mohammed and I sat with. I actually think she was “working.” Soon I was ordering vodka for the woman. The Arabic music was blasting while she and I conversed, somewhat awkwardly. She smoked in between sips and sentences. What happened over the next 30 minutes or so, I’ll save for my book – this is a family website. I don’t know if I was scared, nervous, confused, or excited that I was in such an über-local locale. I mean, I wanted to do some super-legit stuff in Tunis to make up for that first trip, but wow, this was surreal.
What definitely made me feel uncomfortable, were the multiple trips with Mohammed to the ATM. Someone had to pay for all that Vodka and if you’ve ever bought drinks for a woman “working” at the club, you know the price is horrifically inflated. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m still confused on whether I was terrified or having the time of my life – I’m not sure. All of a sudden the lights turned on and we were being kicked out. Covid curfew. It was a blessing in disguise. I turned Mohammed down on his offer to get a hotel and “have a party” with the woman.
It was one more trip to the ATM to fetch Mohammed his fee for being my “guide” tonight – which of course he didn’t mention till the end. I could’ve called bullshit, but it was late, dark and desolate outside, and I just wanted to lose this guy. I gave him some cash and then got the hell outta there.
The Maze Runner
I wasn’t quite out of the woods just yet. Back inside the Medina, my phone was on 1% and there was no way I’d be able to find my hotel hidden in that enormous and endless labyrinth without GPS. To make it worse, my phone’s map barely registered with all the high stone walls surrounding me and blocking the signal. I tried my best to find my way back but kept taking wrong turns and ending up facing dead ends. I swear, it was like I was in a video game! It was dark as death in there and everything was shuttered – a complete different place than what I saw in the daytime. There were not many people stirring about at this time – at least not anyone you’d want to run into a dark alley at night…wait a minute, this was a dark alley at night! I let out the biggest sigh of relief when I finally found the front door of the Palais Bayram. I just wanted to be alone in my room after all of tonight’s excitement. The whole “wanting to really have a local experience?” The term, “Be careful what you wish for” really applied here. I suppose I received just what I was asking for!
I was so happy to be staying inside The Medina, but the only thing I didn’t love about it was the fact that the entire place literally shuts down completely after dark, turning into one, long, scary dark alley. Did anyone there bother me? No. But it’s just common sense not to want to walk down a dark alley in a strange town – you’re taught not to do that your whole life. Add that it’s so easy to get lost in the Medina even in the sunlight, and it was no wonder I was a little stressed trying to get home at night.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Want to enjoy the Medina without worrying about wandering the alleys at night? Stay right outside the Medina. There are a couple hotels just inches from the main gate. I highly recommend Hotel Royal Victoria. It’s a great looking high-rise literally next to the Medina’s entrance. I actually stopped in to ask where I could take a Corona Virus test and the manager (or owner?) was super kind and helpful, going out of his way to arrange the whole thing for me. I wasn’t even a guest there – now that’s service! I will absolutely stay at Royal Victoria next time I’m in Tunis, for sure! You can book a room at Royal Victoria HERE.
The Big Day
The next day would be my first and only full day in Tunisia–sunup to sundown–and I was ready to make the most of it. After last night’s rocky (albeit truly local) start, I was ready to put this trip on cruise control and just enjoy myself. After breakfast at the palais, I’d spend the first half of the day just getting lost in the Medina. What a different scene in the daytime!
Funky Cold Medina
If I told you there were a thousand alleyways, nooks, crannies, corners and passages inside the Tunis Medina, it would be an understatement. Even as I write this, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around just how intricate this Medina was. It’s a real-life “biggest maze ever,” with no rhyme or reason – just an enormous web of walled, stone pathways going in every direction for miles, with a billion twists and turns. It’s beautiful, yet a little intimidating, and I noticed every few hundred feet seemed very different from the last. For example, you have the souks (markets), where you can buy just about everything – the products grouped together in different areas. There’s a line of souvenir and gift shops, a place for spices, herbs, nuts and candies; for meat, and then there’s the fish market. There’s a large section for gold and jewelry, one for clothes, and one little alley that must have had a full mile of tennis shoes – fake Nikes as far as the eye could see! There were a couple really cool restaurants, endless tiny cafés and food carts and coffee stands. Just so, so much. I could’ve spent an entire week inside the confines of this Medina and not covered it all.
The Other Side
There was a whole other side to the Medina that I enjoyed exploring too – and that was the part where the people lived. Just like the commercial areas, here were endless walkways with what seemed like infinite choices of directions to go – a real-life “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Under an arch, around a corner, down an alleyway – the Medina just kept sprawling in every direction. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of sometimes being the only one in sight, as opposed to the souks, where I was often elbow-to-elbow with the crowds. Now I could walk a little slower and take my time, as I admired the old buildings on every side of me, ogling at all those colorful doors trimmed with tile, the rickety shutters, the cracks in the plaster. Every building was connected to the next and I’m sure they all had their own story to tell. I’d try and sneak a glimpse of the insides whenever I’d walk past a door opening or closing, but usually saw little more than darkness or a few blurry shadows if I was lucky.
Three Doors Down
Perhaps my favorite treasures of the Medina weren’t anything for sale behind the stalls or inside the little stores – I think I loved the doors the most. They were tall, colorful, and ornate. Some had fancy knockers and were framed with tile – each one as unique as a fingerprint. Every time I thought I found my favorite, I’d walk 20 feet and see another door that excited me even more. I must’ve taken 100-plus photos of doors alone. Below are six of my favorite.
Get Out of Town
After exploring the Medina and making a run down the street for a Corona Virus test (in order to fly the next day), I decided to continue my efforts to “be local” by trying out the public transport. I bought a ticket and began my journey on a tram that took me just a mile up the road to the Tunis Marine Station. There, I jumped on the TGM (Tunis-Goulette-Marsa) to head to the seaside area of La Goulette.
I enjoyed the short ride over – there wasn’t another tourist in sight aboard that old clunker of a train which blew one of those old-timey choo-choo whistles. I truly felt like I was living local!
Sally Sells Seashells…
By all accounts, my afternoon at La Goulette was the definition of uneventful, but I was happy to add another destination (albeit nearby) to this Tunis stop. I felt like I had to do everything possible to make up for that first trip, so if that meant jumping on a train to explore a nearby, unexciting suburb, I was going to do it. I followed the crowd down a residential street to the water, to enjoy a stroll along Avenue De La République. With restaurants, cafés and bars on one side, and sand on the other, the strip was a busy Saturday afternoon destination for Tunisians looking to escape the city bustle. I wandered out to the sand for some people watching and afterwards into Sam’s for a fresh pomegranate juice. It was fantastic. I hit up a street vendor for a cup of fresh pineapple juice on the way back to the station. I hoped I wasn’t too bold with the street juice.
Back to the Hotel
I enjoyed the train ride back even more, watching the fishermen on the rocks cast their reels out to the sea as the sun set on the waters of Tunis. There was something about that old train – its beat up cars, and its line specifically, which sails over the Lake of Tunis – simple stuff, but I enjoyed it. It was authentic. I was only disappointed that I missed the opportunity to visit Sidi Bou Said. It wasn’t until the ride back that I discovered Tunisia’s famous blue and white town was only a few stops down the line. What a bummer – totally could’ve gone.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Use the TGM train line – it’s awesome! With stops at La Goulette and Sidi Bou Said (and many more), the line gives you access to some really cool places with great views along the way – all for pennies! Do not miss Sidi Bou Said, and get there via the TGM!
I headed back to the Medina as the sun set on Tunis, feeling accomplished and my heart full from a hearty full day in Tunis. I was super satisfied that I was able to do so much in such a short amount of time – not a second was wasted. I’d almost made it back into the Medina when suddenly:
Ugh. It was Mohammed. I was a little worried I’d bump into him again, but figured chances were slim in a city of 700,000! He had to have been waiting for me. I’d blown off his calls and texts all day and just minutes ago had sent him a pic of me far away at La Goulette, in hopes he’d leave me alone. Busted!
This time I was a lot more assertive and was finally able to shake him off after his three or four requests to have dinner with me again, as I told him I had “an important meeting to get to now,” assuring him we’d link up tomorrow. But I’d already be long gone by noon the next day. I grabbed a slice of pizza before heading back, eating quickly, in case an insistent Mohammed popped up again. Soon I was back in my room and drawing a hot bath to rest my bones in. My feet felt like they were about to explode – I’d walked miles today.
The next morning I tip-toed out of the Medina before 7AM, making sure to choose a different exit gate – I feared Mohammed might be waiting for me at our regular Bab el Bhar gate meeting spot. I didn’t put a full-blown stakeout past that man. I wouldn’t be relieved until I was in that cab heading towards the airport. Wow, what a time in Tunis!This entry was posted in Africa