LA GOULETTE, Tunisia - North Africa, frankly, is not a destination that ever beckoned to me. But then friends invited me to join them on a Holland America cruise of the Mediterranean, and the itinerary included a stop in this port adjacent the city of Tunis.
It was an opportunity that had to be seized. And it turned out to be the biggest adventure of our two-week trip.
"Take me to the Casbah!" kept echoing in my head as we approached the city, more than a half-hour bus ride from the ship, over the causeway that traverses Lake Tunis.
Once there, I spotted the street sign, Rue de la Kasba, and had to photograph it -- later learning that kasba or casbah is a generic term for the native quarter of an Arab city, although
Rue de la Kasba takes you into the medina, the old city, a confusing warren of covered passageways containing the renowned souk, or bazaar. The lanes are so narrow and congested that they're limited to pedestrians, though an occasional motor scooter will attempt to get through.
We could not have navigated the narrow passageways nor the street vendors alone. Our tour guide, Toumi Nabil of Thomas Smith Tours, shepherded a busload of mostly Americans from our ship through the medina. He may have taken us to the shops of his choice, but he never insisted that we patronize them -- and he never strayed far from us. He would call out "Bus Number 7" until we'd all assembled behind him to move on
The souk was jam-packed at midday this Tuesday but was neither dirty (no more than any other large city) nor smelly (some cigarette smoke and occasional cooking odors), as I had feared. Unlike our stop in Barcelona, Spain, no one reported being pickpocketed here, though that is a hazard to watch out for.
All the advance warnings about pushy street vendors and persistent carpet salesmen were true, however. Saying "no" only made them try harder!
As I paused outside a shop for friends to catch up, one vendor started slipping silver bracelets onto my arm, telling me they were priced at two for $10. I said I had no dollars (we'd been incorrectly informed that only euros and Tunisian dinars would be accepted), so he switched to two for 10 euros -- not as good a deal, as the euro was worth about $1.47 that day.
I kept insisting no, taking off the bracelets. But as fast as I could remove them, he slipped different ones onto my arm and then offered to throw in a rather ugly silver necklace. I said no even more firmly.
When he went to three bracelets for 10 euros, they suddenly looked much prettier to this bargain-hunter. Maybe I could have done better, but it still wasn't a bad deal.
My friend Linda thinks she did OK on her purchase of a small wool rug, handmade in Tunisia, according to the label. And we did watch a woman weaving and knotting bits of brightly colored wool into a rug on a loom in the shop below the carpet salesroom.
We patiently sat through the optional but expected carpet sales pitch Nabil took us to -- partly out of curiosity and partly because the carpet room was the one spot with air conditioning and bottled water and not-quite-cold Coca-Cola offered as "hospitality."
The rugs were made in beautiful designs and colors, many ultra-soft to the touch. Linda saw one she wanted but had to walk away from it at $800. A few minutes later, in the shop below, she was chased down by the carpet salesman offering a lower price. A bit of haggling got it for her at $400, a price she could live with.
Linda's sister, Pat, was more sales-resistant -- until she fell for a pair of shoes. Beaded, backless and made of wine-colored silk, they were only 15 euros, cheap enough and comfortable enough for occasional evening wear.
Among the other things to shop for in Tunis are gold and amber jewelry, trinket boxes, caftans, leather goods, mosaics, incense, perfume, belly dance costumes, and flower-shaped formations of hardened sand, called the rose of the desert. Shop hours in the souk tend to be from about 8 a.m. to noon and 4 to 7 p.m.
There was more to the medina than shopping and the carpet demonstration/sales pitch. Nabil showed us some older homes and their traditional white-washed walls and blue shutters.
He explained the doors that Tunis is famous for: tall and colorful, carved of thick wood and often featuring a small door inset on one side.
That portion, no more than 4 or 5 feet high, was for people to enter. It was intentionally low so a visitor would need to bend down, showing respect for his host, Nabil said. The complete double door would be opened to admit carriages or camels.
I had hoped to see a camel -- so much a symbol of the nearby Sahara Desert -- but didn't really expect to, knowing that Tunis is more cosmopolitan city than quaint village.
So I was delighted to find a trio of them dockside, including a baby. All docilely posed for photos -- with their handlers collecting a euro each for the privilege.
I paid up, handed my camera to Pat -- and then nearly got knocked over when the kneeling beast shifted his weight and bumped me. I'd swear it was intentional, despite his innocent face.
Cautioned to dress conservatively in this Muslim land, my friends and I wore short-sleeve T-shirts and capri pants when ashore. It was mid-July and the temperature had been predicted to be 94. While it was hot in the direct sun, we felt fine in the shade, especially under the large trees that are prevalent in this capital city.
Tunisia is widely considered the most progressive of the Arab nations of North Africa. Women are equal here, our tour guide said, and that appeared to be true. Less than half the women I saw on a morning tour wore head scarves, and only one, an older woman, had her face covered with a white linen handkerchief. Not a burka in sight.
Mosques can be seen from nearly any spot in the city. Many are architectural gems begging to be photographed for their beauty. Unlike the attractive churches of Europe, they are not open to the casual visitor.
The port lecturer for our ship, Tom Vercillo, described Tunis as a fascinating city. "There's so much to see, so much history and culture here, plus an element of mystery," he said.
The languages are French and the Tunisian dialect of Arabic, and many street and shop signs are in both languages. Shopkeepers catering to tourists also speak English, in varying degrees.
Pat and Linda's mom, Marjorie, had declined to join us in the city, but we coaxed her off the ship later just to visit the duty-free shop in the port terminal, which offered a wide selection of local handicrafts. While the ship was in port, the shop also had an artist painting henna tattoos and a metal worker using a hammer and punch to personalize brass plates for customers, plus a hookah bar and a tea room.
A larger terminal is planned for about 2010. It is to include an entire Tunisian "village" of craftsmen and entertainment. It won't be as authentic as the souk we experienced, but it will be another option for the more faint of heart.
Tunisia wants Western tourists and does not require a visa to visit. It does, however, require a foreign visitor card filled out with personal information such as name, birthplace and occupation, presented on entry with your passport. You give half of it to a border official on entry; carry the other half with you as identification and surrender it as you leave.
The tour bus to the souk, arranged through Holland America, wasn't the only option for sightseeing. Other shore excursions included the Bardo Museum, a former palace that is home to Roman and Byzantine mosaics; Sidi Bou Said, a small seaside town with Moorish architecture; hiking in Ichkeul Natural Park, a freshwater bird sanctuary; and the Phoenician ruins of the ancient city of Carthage.
Taxi drivers waiting at the dock called out to us, but we had been warned about them.
"These drivers play hardball. Only try it if you are really into bargaining," cautioned Vercillo. He cited tourists who'd come back to the ship in tears from taxi drivers' verbal abuse and near-extortion tactics.
Comparing notes on the bus back to the ship, we agreed that Tunis had been a worthwhile experience, fun even. It had been a unique adventure we're glad we hadn't passed up.
IF YOU GO:
CRUISES: Holland America calls at Tunis on its Mediterranean Enchantment Tour, a 10-day round-trip from Rome. There is limited availability for the remaining sailings this fall. In 2008, the cruise will be offered from May 9 through Sept. 14, with fares priced from $1,699per person, double occupancy.
GOING ASHORE: The "Transfer to Tunis" shore trip with Holland America, which costs $28for adults, $20for children, is a four-hour escorted tour of the Medina and the souk. Several other shore excursions are offered, some also including the souk. A passport and a foreign visitor card are required for entry, but no visa is needed.