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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 4 of 30: Tunis Medina, a World Heritage Site - Impressions

photo by MAW

Rue de la Kasbah, Tunis

The Medina is the walled old town and is a rabbit warren of narrow streets, alleyways and souks. Parts of the medina are solely residential. Other streets have small shops or workshops on the ground floor of the house. Some houses are well maintained but there are very run down areas especially in the south of the Medina. Money is being spent to begin to restore these areas.

There is little left of the Kasbah, apart from the Mosque, which was built at the highest point just outside the Medina. We were told if we got lost to keep going uphill as that would bring us back to somewhere we would recognize. Just inside the walls is the Place du Government, which has the residence of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Finance building. In March 2012 this area was still surrounded by razor wire and there were armed guards and patrol cars.

Streets in the Medina are narrow and there are few cars. You do need to watch out for motor cyclists particularly in the residential streets who have little regard for road safety or life and limb. We tried to find out if there were restrictions on taking a car into the Medina but didn’t get a clear answer. We were dropped off in the Place de la Kasbah and met by the hotel porter who wheeled our luggage to Dar El Medina, our hotel which was about five minutes walk. 

The souks are covered areas of shops. They are narrow, covered streets with shops opening directly onto the street and many spill out into the street. These are busy and noisy areas with shop keepers encouraging you to stop and look. All was good humored and usually all that was required was a shake of the head and ‘Non’.

The souks are centered round the Great Mosque in the centre of the Medina. Traditionally each specialized in selling one kind of good. They were venues for trading and financial transactions. The merchants did not live here. There is a strict hierarchy with the ‘clean professions’ nearest the Great Mosque, selling religious books, perfumes, carpets, jewelry, linens. Messier and noisier professions like dyeing and metal working were further away. This distinction is now being lost as many different stalls are appearing. The souks are narrow and the stalls spill out into the alleyways making them even narrower. Rue Jemaa Zitounia is lined with tourist stalls particularly near Place de la Victoire and stall holders can be quite persistent in encouraging you to look and buy. Prices tend to be high so there is a need to haggle hard. The northern area of the Medina is largely free of tourists, well maintained and shops are geared to the needs of local residents. This is the best area to wander.

We had built time into out itinerary to allow us to wander in the Medina by ourselves. We also had half a day with a guide round the Medina and visited some of the souks with him. This was useful as it gave us chance to ask questions and lean about some of the things we saw.

We visited the Grand Souk des Chechia to see the traditional hats being made. These start as a huge floppy hand knitted hat which is boiled for half a day to shrink and felt it. It is dyed, usually red, and then put over a wooden mould and ironed into shape.

Souk el Attarine specializes in perfumes and was heady with the scents of the different perfumes. You can have a perfume made up to your own specification and this includes Chanel No 5. Many stalls sell the beautifully made Alegua baskets which are given by the groom to his fiancé. They are made of carved wood covered with silver. They are padded and contain everything the bride needs to beautify herself including gloves and a pillow used when painting hands with henna.

The herb market sells all sorts of medicinal herbs and magic potions. Even though there is a good health service in Tunisia many people, especially the poor, still prefer the traditional medicines. There were long queues of people waiting to be seen.

In the residential areas, streets are narrow and cobbled. In places the streets have an archway over the street which helps support the buildings. These may have wooden rafters or else brick vaulted ceilings. Some have living quarters over the archway. Smaller streets lead off the main streets.

Houses open directly onto the street. They have a doorway in the centre of the wall. Windows are restricted to the first floor and often have a decorative grille over them. The doors are made of wood and the size and decoration of the doorway reflects the status of dwelling. In the more important houses the doorway has double doors with a smaller door known as a Khoukha. Doors are often decorated with large black nails with symbolic or geometric designs and carved stone surrounds. Some doors have several door knockers, reflecting the number of people living in the house. Men, women and children had different knockers with different sounds.

A vestibule (skifa) leads from the doorway. In larger houses this had an entrance porch (driba) with a seat for receiving guests or customers. There may be a second hallway used by the household for housework or craft activities. Beyond is the courtyard paved with stone or marble with a central fountain. This provides lighting and ventilation. The proportions and degree of decoration reflect the wealth of the owner. The earliest buildings had painted walls. Later this was replaced with colorful glazed tiles. With a frieze of carved stucco above.

Some of the larger houses like Dar Lasram and Dar Hussein how house offices and the courtyards are open to the public during office hours. Dar Lasram is well worth visiting as it is possible to wander round some of the rooms. Dar ben Abdallah now houses a museum but unfortunately was shut for renovation when we visited.

The Tunisian males love to sit and talk and there are many cafes scattered through the Medina where they meet and share a hookah pipe. We sometimes wonder whether they did any work. Women are not encouraged to socialize outside the house.

We stopped at Dar El Medina, which is an excellent place to explore the Medina. It is a small hotel with 12 rooms. We had a room on the first floor overlooking the street. It was a large room with comfortable bed with bathroom and sitting area. Steps lead down into the room from the doorway, which could be dangerous if you weren’t careful. Reception staff were charming, very friendly and spoke some English. They were very keen to help and very flexible in arranging meal times to suit us. Although there are several eateries around, we ate in the restaurant each night. The restaurant staff had limited English and we learnt to arrange the evening meal with reception. Food was freshly cooked and good although the jury was out on the molokhia, a Tunis specialty. Breakfasts were simple but filling and always started with freshly squeezed orange juice followed by an egg and bread or croissants.

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