All European cruises always include a non-EU destination so that it can be duty-free, and on this MSC Splendida itinerary last December, that honour was to be bestowed on Tunis. Looking out to land as the ship came closer to shore, we saw a friendly welcome party of four musicians and three camels outside a fast food outlet. I sensed we were in for a cross between the Arabian Nights and an Out of Town retail park.
We decided to do the tour that explored the souks, and on the whole it was a pretty wise choice. As the coach took us into the centre of town, we realised there was a heavy military presence. Our guide explained that the country was still in a State of Emergency following the Arab Spring earlier in the year. Barbed wire lined the pavements, camouflage trucks graced the boulevard outside the Catholic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul and the statue of Ibn Khaldun gazed sorrowfully at a socking great military tank.
We got out of the bus at the Siège de la Municipalité, where bright red Tunisian flags were flapping in the breeze and the military police were watching every step we made. It was a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but being unfazeable travellers we fixed the police with our “so what” stares and followed our guide down the steps, alongside some Moorish buildings till we came to the little alleyways that would lead down to the souk.
We studiously noted the designs on the great yellow wooden doors that were dotted along the alleys, where Jewish Stars of David made out of studs were closely intermingled with Islamic crescent moons – a symbol that the area had always been one of freedom to follow your own faith, with both communities living happily side by side. Rather superb. There’s also a very interesting clock tower on one of the government buildings in the area – with a normal 1 – 12 clock face on top (the type we all recognise) and an Islamic clock beneath.
Anyway, bypassing the last remnants of the barbed wire, we trudged through the small alleyways and entered the souk at one of its many gates. As soon as you enter, you realise what a hive of activity the place is. Every single nook and cranny seems to be populated with intent, hardworking people, quietly going about their business; cooking, mending, cleaning, stacking, making, cutting, chatting, buying and selling. We saw guys arranging stacks of beret-like caps; a man carefully sewing and stitching an exquisite over garment; and of course, plenty of little cafeterias and drink stalls. It’s a veritable warren of interweaving alleys, full of Arabian mystery. You end up exiting the souks by one path, going outside for short way – maybe seeing a small mosque or some charming typical blue balconies – only then to get plunged back into the warren for some more crisscrossing pathways. At one point you’re standing outside what is apparently still a maternity hospital; at another you’re at a craft market; still another, you’re all trying different scented oils in what appears to be a converted harem. Virtually all trades are represented there – with plenty of precious stones, good quality clothes and mystic antiques to take your fancy.
From the souk it’s just a very short walk to an open air terrace that offers tremendous views (that’s my estate agent voice talking again) of the city. The terrace is rather unpromisingly at on the top floor of a souvenir shop but all guides seem to find it, so do as you’re told and you’re bound to get there. At that terrace level, minarets, roofs, but above all, satellite dishes abound. Back downstairs and you have to go through the excruciation of the shop proprietors unfurling endless carpets to entice your hard earned cash out of you, and what you desperately hope is that someone else in your party shows interest and flashes some cash so that you can slink off without causing offence.
Back into the souk again, and time for some souvenir shopping. There’s plenty to choose from. Lanterns, exotic slippers, Italia Football T-shirts, leather goods, even a fez, they’re all here. Mrs Chrisparkle decided not to get a belly-dancing outfit; I thought she was being a bit of a spoilsport. Talking of which, that was the last part of our tour – a trip upstairs in another shop to see two ladies giving it the traditional belly-dance routine, to the plaintive sounds of an old bloke puffing on a horn instrument, whilst British tourists sat around looking slightly bemused. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of the souk, and although you felt a lot of it was “put on for tourists”, there’s no doubt that this traditional way of life is still thriving. Very enjoyable, and a bit of exotic escapism!