How did we end up in Tunis? Well, it's kind of a long story....in the beginning, during the planning stages things just happened as they always do. The Missus starts planning for our next trip just about as soon as we return from our last vacation. But this time we had a short interlude as we travelled back to Hawaii. This put our plans, at that time it was Rome/Morroco into kind of a holding pattern. By the time things started up again it was late February. I felt our time in Istanbul was basically unfinished business and the price of a round trip from San Diego was rather reasonable...so I booked it. Then one day the Missus asked me about Tunisia....she had never heard of the country, you believe that? I guess it's one of the benefits of an education in a Communist country. Thinking it over, I thought it was a great idea, there was so much history in Tunisia, after all historic Carthage was there...."home of Hannibal" I told the Missus. To which She replied, "you mean the cannibal?" Sigh.....there was much talk and planning after that, but the result was us flying from Istanbul to Carthage-Tunis airport. I'd read a good bit about the taxi cons at the airport....which turned out to be pretty true. We were met just outside the arrival hall by a nice young man who asked us if we needed a taxi. I asked him if he was the driver, he said yes and led us to a taxi, immediately grabbing the Missus' bag. We got to the taxi stand, one guy opened the trunk, he opened the door, and a third guy came out...the real driver. You can pretty much figure out what was going on here, right? Everybody had their hand out, one for leading us to the taxi, the dude for opening the trunk, and the driver wanted to charge us 40 dinars, about $25 bucks for the drive into Tunis, which would cost about 5-10 dinars. Anyway, we got him down to 10 dinars and got our ride to the center of Tunis, right smack in the middle of Avenue Habib Bourgiba, the main drag. We quickly noticed that there wasn't much English going on and the folks at the front desk of the hotel really wanted nothing to do with us. The room was cheap, the location great, the supposedly in room wi-fi was only really good from the balcony of the hotel restaurant, which only served breakfast......we snuck in whenever we wanted to check our email and stuff.
After a quick shower we headed out to crowded Habib Bourgibat o find some lunch. One thing we quickly noticed was how friendly people were.......from the touts that wanted us to have coffee at one of the many shops to groups of young men on the street, trying to guess where we were from..."konnichiwa", "ni hao"....whenever we'd answer with hello, they'd look at us funny. i'm sure many of these had some racket going on, but it was all in fun. It was warm, but there was a slight breeze, a warm breeze. Using what we'd soon find out was a pretty outdated map, I searched for the restaurant.....we were pretty bushed. All in vain....nice folks tried to help us, but I really knew only three words in French, the second language in Tunisia...well, I actually knew a bunch of stuff when it came to food, but other than that it was mostly, "bonjour", "merci" and "pardon"......I milked it for all I could. After walking all almost all the way down Habib Bourgiba past the Clock Tower....it seemed like the restaurant and the address I was looking for didn't exist?
It seemed like we were throwing our lives to the wind crossing the street....which was somewhat intimidating until we got used to things. It seems like there are no driving laws in Tunisia.....only suggestions. If you thought crossing the street in Vietnam was tough....try it with a zillion yellow cabs flying around you.
We ended up turning around and walking all the way back down in the opposite direction. We were surprised to find a large cathedral right on Habib Bourgiba....the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul....very photogenic. Here's a photo from the next morning.
In maps the street sure seemed long....but it was not too long of a walk. The masses of people made things seem congested and it was getting much hotter. The Missus thought the Central Market was close by and She stopped and asked a bunch of guys standing around....there were many groups of men standing about and drinking coffee at like 1 in the afternoon! None of them spoke English, but they really tried hard and we finally got pointed in the right direction when I said, "Rue de Charles de Gaulle". And after passing mobs of folks and merchants with open boxes of stuff on the street, we made it into the market......
I was rather surprised at the huge amount of seafood being sold........
There was a booth where three guys were hacking away at a huge tuna....wasn't bluefin, though. I was later told that all the premium fishes go straight to Japan.
It was much less crowded inside the market than the streets outside. It gave us some time to figure out where we wanted to eat next.
After deciding our next attempt at finding something a place for lunch. We walked back into the now fairly hot street and the crowds. We found Habib Bourgiba again and headed back in the direction we came....we'd traveled enough and knew how disorienting things can be your first day in a large city in a foreign country..but when I almost ran smack into barbed wire and the guy holding a machine gun in front of the Interior Ministry, the Missus had starting getting a bit frazzled. Remember, Tunisia had just gone through a revolution a bit over a year ago.....folks I'd spoken to thought us a bit crazy to be coming here....unjustifiably so. So anyway, we crossed the street and crossed back, found the sign for Rue de Turque and started looking for the street parallel to Habib Bourgiba called Rue de Yougoslavie and wasn't able to find it. We kept walking unitl it just seemed too far. Spoke to a couple of folks who had no idea where Rue de Yougoslavie was. As we headed back to Habib Bourgiba I saw it. Apparently, Rue de Yougoslavie no longer exists.....the street sign on the side of the building with the name was blacked out with paint and it was now called something else! The street was actually just a block away from the main street! It was then a short walk to our destination, Restaurant Abid, which had been described to me as a place where the locals ate Sfaxian influenced dishes...seafood. Sfaxian cuisine was also supposed to be quite spicy as well.
It looked kind of as advertised, very clean, all local customers, and very inexpensive. The guy running the place.....who I think is Abid, a large jovial man, who reminded me of John Rhys Davies character in Indiana Jones spoke good English and greeted us with a booming "WELCOME, WELCOME! Thanks Gods you come here....."
We were starved and were excited to try some Tunisian dishes for the first time. We were given a small plate of the standard condiment, harissa, basically a chili paste/sauce. The version from Sfax is supposed to be really spicy and we were warned when it reached the table.
I'm guessing you're not supposed to be able to tolerate the stuff plain and the dude almost had a dyspeptic fit when the Missus and I each took a small taste......it was slightly spicy, heat, but nothing else.....other than being a bit spicy it was pretty plain. The bread we had cut it even more....
The fish soup was very fishy and the Missus couldn't handle it.
I was really excited to try mechouia, the classic "salad" of roasted peppers.
I expected smokiness, maybe some garlic and herbs....fruitiness from the olive oil, but this was pretty bland and seriously lacking in salt.
At least I really enjoyed my merguez. The sausage had been deep fried, which really crisped up the natural casing. The sausage was slightly gamey with some mild spice.
I never had frites that I enjoyed in Tunisia until the day we left. These were limp, soggy, and kinda dry.....but that's the way they were just about everywhere.
The Missus ordered the crevettes grille - grilled shrimp.
One thing you quickly notice. The shrimp aren't all the same size, which for us is a good sign....it means it's not obviously farmed raised. Unfortunately, the shrimp were cooked to death and like most everything else lacking in seasoning....it was just strangely bland.
Not quite the first meal we had planned, but hey, the place was super clean, and the meal cost us about the equivalent of $13 US!
We had regrouped during our meal and settled down. Our bearing were much better as we headed back to our room. The Missus wanted to have something sweet for dessert......since Habib Bourgiba is considered the Champs-Élysées of Tunisia, why not stop at the cafe of the same name. We managed to place our order in the crowded cafe and actually found an open table, no mean feat at that time.
It was here that I got my first taste of the coffee in Tunisia, which wasn't overly strong, but just smooth enough for my taste. This would be the first of many cups of "cafe express" (espresso) for me.
We really took notice of the crowds drinking coffee in these cafes, overwhelmingly male, aged from 18 to maybe late twenties. We'd see these guys drinking coffee all day. I really came to appreciate the Cafe Culture, but on the other hand, shouldn't all these young men be working? It really doesn't bode well for Tunis to have all of these seemingly well educated, well dressed young men who should be on their way to starting careers to be wasting their post college days in cafes all day long. Hopefully things will improve in the future.......