‘Do you want a Christmas tree this year’ I ask our youngest, the last champion of tradition in our household. ‘Nah, I don’t care what we do’ Lily says cheerfully. ‘Oh good’ I thought. One less thing before we go. The winter trip is tough because it comes after my most difficult part of the work year, the shorter and first semester for the kids and all the Holiday fun and obligations.
What was my greatest trip planning moment? Scuba diving the Komodo islands? Hiking abandoned stretches of the Great Wall? No, it was an 11th hour cancelling of an exciting but challenging Christmas trip to Djibouti and Ethiopia in favor of a week in Hawaii at the end of 2015.
Christmas is simple but generous. On the 23rd we play the Twisted Sister Christmas album and opened more gifts than we needed, ate some steel cut oatmeal and pack for Tunisia.
We have not been to the North Africa region since 2009. So much has changed in the region (and yet so little) since then. We certainly have changed a lot.
Award travel over Christmas is difficult. If you can even get 4 seats, the routes are terrible. We really wanted somwhere in the mediterranean because it’s a reasonably short flight and it’s best in the winter because there are no crowds. I tried Lisbon, Sicily, and various other islands. I was lucky to find Tunisia but the route is a 23 hour trip via London and Cairo.
We are told by a nice waiter at the Tunis airport to go upstairs for a 5 dinar taxi fare into the city. My best haggling gets to 10, and shortly into the trip the driver claims he didn’t realize how far the hotel was and it’s 20. ‘Ok’ I grumble. When he demands 30 for the short walk to the hotel (we are in the Medina and cars can’t make it through the narrow streets) I decline.
I splurged on our Tunis Hotel, the Palais Bayram. It’s a restored 18th century palace originally for the local Mufti, who were part of the Islamic government in the oldest part of the Medina. It’s exquisite.
Tile work on every wall, long twisting hallways, multiple levels, archways and tiny open courtyards surround a handful of unique rooms. Amanda’s and mine is adorned in old mirror and has a roman bath. The girls have a cubby hole bed they think is adorable.
Amanda and I take a short nap before wandering the medina, which has all but closed up for the day. Cats and kittens are everywhere. A handful of small shops remain open: sweet sticky desserts, a cafe serving Hookah and coffee, a few clothing shops.
The center of the medina is the Zaytuna Mosque, which we catch a glimpse of from the edge so as not to be disrespectful. This is the oldest mosque in Tunis (800 AD) and home to one of Islam’s greatest universities. The columns are from Carthage, the pre-roman center of West Mediterranean civilization.
We are still tired from the trip and short on good food. The hotel has a restaurant but it’s a little fancier than we want and doesn’t look very kid friendly. ‘Can we get a taxi to restaurant ‘Insomnia?'”, I ask naively.
It’s still rush hour and I’m informed that the ride could be really long and expensive. It seems walkable if we were feeling energetic, but it’s not the day for that. She suggests waiting a few hours which we do.
After some book reading and unpacking we are helpfully escorted through the medina to the main road by the attentive staff (we appear to be the only ones here.) Taxi after taxi drives by but there isn’t a free one to be found.
Interestingly, a green dashboard light indicates they are taken. We are looking for one with a red light. After 30 minutes of waiting in the 40 degree night, we shrug and head back to the hotel for food. In all our travel it’s rare to not find a taxi in a tourist area.
The hotel food is as expensive as feared (about $45) but better than expected. We are served an appetizer of soup, a small egg omelette and a thing that looks like a spring roll but has potato and spinach.
The cucumber and tomato salad is uninteresting but the vegetable cous cous served in a tagine is light and fluffy and fresh. Lily gets hers with a sea bass on top, which the waiter debones for her tableside.
In the parents room, we watch Netflix and stay up late and experience a bit of jet-lagged insomnia. Season two of the Sci-fi thriller ‘The Expanse’ is available here. It’s still pay per view in the states. By contrast, the girls room is all snoring. They sleep straight through for 12 hours.
I get up at 9 but make the mistake of falling back asleep I and wake at 1pm! Oh crap. my plans for the day are in jeopardy. I wanted to go to the Bardo museum but it is 45 minutes away and closes at 4:30pm.
We need breakfast first too and the hotel serves everything very slowly. I’ll have to juggle something in our schedule but it’s not a catastrophe.
They put the grubby american’s in a side room to eat, away from the fancily dressed Tunisians that are having some kind of special event at the hotel. The bread is good. The coffee isn’t. We fill up and head out for what was intended to be a few hours of walking about the Medina.
Daytime, it’s a completely different place. Stores bustle, streets are wet, hawkers hawk. Our rough destination is Place de la Victoire which Emma, never the amazing French student, translates as ‘Victor’s place’. Amanda and I each speak rudimentary French and between us we manage basic tourist conversations. There is a smattering of English speaking waiters and shop-keepers, but not a lot.
We have a coffee on the Avenue de France as rush hour starts. Some Tunisians fill the cafe seats, smoking, drinking coffee and others hustle home on the packed sidewalk and streetcars and buses.
It’s very cosmopolitan compared to the North Africa we know (Cairo and Marrakech mostly). We get into a long conversation about language and linguistics. Emma, for being a poor student of language, is surprisingly interested in the evolution of language. Amanda majoried in Linguistics at Georgetown.
As night falls and it gets a little colder, we c ontinue the conversation while walking to ‘Insomnia’ the restaurant we failed to visit last night.
Today we choose to walk because it’s still early to us (we got up at 1pm) and we have lots of energy. The cold makes walking pleasant and the streets are vibrant with evening activity. We do not see a lot of tourists.
Google maps says the restaurant is about 45 minutes away. The bustle fades and we enter more residential areas, darker and quieter.
Those give way to more empty areas, a soccer stadium and some military complexes. It seems increasingly unlikely that a lively restaurant is nearby but we trust google and keep moving.
The final street is a pitch black alley about 2.5 miles from our hotel. There is no Restaurant Insomnia here – google is clearly wrong. A nice woman stops and tells us we are lost and suggests we get a taxi.
We chuckle. Yeah right. We have not seen a single open taxi in all the walking we’ve done. Green light after green light.
With little choice but to walk back to city center, we trudge on. Fortunately our energy is still good – no sore knees or headaches.
I have to stop a few times to let waves of intestinal cramps pass, but hopefully it isn’t the start of anything serious. At the edge of the old city there is a supermarket, which we hit up for some yogurt, chocolate and cookies for later.
I don’t know why so many shops are closed. Maybe it’s just off season? We pass no fewer than six closed pizzarias. I know Tunis isn’t a huge tourist destination, most Europeans head for the coast.
There are several tunisian spots serving chicken and rice but as vegetarians, we doubt we’d find anything easily. A few places serve chapati with harissa and salad and probably some kind of meat.
A small area of food stalls in a neighborhood called Bab Souika has a pizza place that is brightly lit and has a few customers. The pizza is gross – the cheese isn’t cheese, it’s like an artificial white sauce – but we eat most of it anyway. The pizza dough is well cooked and fresh. ALong with a couple of yogurts we feel full.
It’s so late now that the Medina is closed and our easiest route to the hotel is blocked. We walk a circuitous path around the outside to get to our rooms. After the 5 mile, 5 hour walk we have little trouble sleeping. I dream of taxis.
I have enjoyed reading the story. With a sense of amusement, I felt a thought “How does he managed to write so well”? Looking for the next episode to come. Have a great time.
Thanks for the compliment. I write these for my daughters so they can remember these trips when they are older. We will visit Russia one of these years! Not 2018 because of the World Cup, but hopefully 2019.