13 and 23 to 24 March 2019
“Is it safe?” asked my mum as we prepared to leave Sicily for Tunisia. I knew what she meant. She was thinking about the terrorist attacks in 2015 when gunmen shot and killed 22 people at the Bardo museum in Tunis and 38 at a beach resort near Sousse.
It’s funny, when we go back to London no one asks us “you’re not going on the tube are you?” or “you’re not going to London Bridge?” We lived in London through IRA bombings and the suicide bombings of 2007. I was only a couple of hundred metres away from the nail bomb that exploded in Brixton in 1999. We didn’t let terrorists change the way we lived there and we don’t let them change the way we travel. Whatever their ideology, it’s what they do, attack us in our mosques, our churches, our synagogues, our schools, our football stadiums, our markets, on our transport, on our streets, in our everyday, ordinary lives. We’re not reckless with our safety but equally we won’t let them win.
So, with Sousse only half an hour away from Monastir and tickets costing only the equivalent of 50p (return, for both of us!), we jumped on the train for a day trip.
We joined the locals in a morning walk along the long stretch of beach which drew the tourists here. It was our first beach walk of the season and was good to feel the sand between our toes again.
But for three years after the terrorist attacks the UK Foreign Office advised against travel to Tunisia and along the seafront the damage this has done to the country’s vital tourist industry is written large. By 2018 75,000 UK package tourists had returned to Tunisia but this is only one sixth of the number before the attacks. Many hotels along the beach now lie derelict. Albeit still early in the season, we were the only customers at our coffee stop.
It was, however, encouraging to see a handful of foreign tourists further up the beach and the boat trip hawkers certainly seemed in optimistic mood.
We spent most of our time getting lost in the bustling souk and tiny streets of the medina
and discovered the most beautiful Musee Dar Essid. The 19th century house was home to an official, his two wives and and their children. Tiled throughout with Andalusian painted tiles it dripped with exquisite furnishings.
Bedrooms, living spaces and corridors were extravagantly designed.
Even the most functional of rooms didn’t escape the tiler’s hand.
The house’s rooftop terrace and Ramadan tower gave perfect views down on the medina and across the port.
The medina‘s Great Mosque dates from 851AD and is unusual in not having its own minaret. Instead it relies on the minaret of the nearby Ribat to call the faithful to prayer.
Having successfully negotiated the short train ride to Sousse we felt confident to venture further afield by train and planned a weekend in Tunis. Rising early for the 6.30am train we treated ourselves to first class tickets for the two and a half hour ride. It set us back £3.25 each for a spacious seat in a less crowded carriage.
Arriving in the capital at 9am we made our way through the confusing streets of the medina to our hotel, Dar El Medina, a beautiful 19th century old mansion built around several shady courtyards. Hoping only to leave our bags whilst we explored for the morning, our room was ready and we checked in. It was tempting to stay and nap but we only had two days in the city.
Having successfully negotiated Tunisia’s rail network we strode confidently towards the nearest metro station and there our beginners luck ran out. Not once but twice we got on the wrong line and by the time we got on the right one it was more a case of tresja vu at Bab Saadoun station. We definitely got our money’s worth out of our 15p tickets.
Like Sousse, the Bardo Museum, Tunisia’s national collection, was the scene of horror in 2015 when two gunmen killed 22 visitors and took hundreds of hostages during a three hour siege. Those who died are remembered in the entrance of the museum and visiting so close to the anniversary of the attack made it all the more poignant as we stood just 4 years later thinking about them arriving like us to see its treasures but never going home.
The museum is described as being laid out chronologically and thematic, which means it is effectively neither and apart from finding many of its artefacts familiar to those of other Mediterranean museums it left us a little confused.
There were objects reflecting Tunisia’s Jewish and early Christian heritage as well as the advent of Islam
but what everyone comes to the Bardo to see are the mosaics transplanted from Tunisia’s Roman villas. They are incredible in their size and number – the world’s largest collection –
and everywhere on the walls and floors of the museum.
Amongst them are represented scenes of Ulysses resisting the Sirens, Virgil writing the Aeneid and the triumph of Neptune.
The museum is housed in what is an equally exquisite exhibit, the former residence of the Husseinite rulers of Tunisia dating from the 13th century but rebuilt in the 17th dripping with Islamic design
and covered throughout in more beautiful tiles.
In the afternoon we simply set about getting lost in the cool, almost subterranean streets of the medina where all roads seem to lead to the Great Mosque
and it’s possible to buy just about everything in its tunnels of shops. We ended our day in another stunning Tunis mansion turned restaurant where unfortunately the food didn’t quite live up to its opulence.
The next day we emerged blinking from the slightly claustrophobic medina into the streets of the Ville Nouvelle. There, grand balconied buildings and towering churches reflect the city’s French colonial past and if it wasn’t for the palm trees you might mistake it for Paris.
A grand tree lined avenue complete with pavement cafes for great people watching leads to the Place d’Independence and its clock tower celebrating father of the nation, Habib Bourguiba.
But more about him later. We were hopping on another train to see some more rocks…