Tunisia's spirited capital has a spring in its step

By Cathy Packe

A year on from the Arab Spring, Cathy Packe finds Tunis eager to welcome back tourists.

Tunis' Al-Zaytuna Mosque is the city's oldest monument. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Kassus
Tunis' Al-Zaytuna Mosque is the city's oldest monument. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Kassus

The nameplates announcing the principal square in the Tunisian capital look almost new. That's because, until early last year, Place 14 Janvier was known as Place 7 Novembre.

President Ben Ali seized power in this beautiful North African nation on 7 November 1987; he was deposed, in the first wave of Arab uprisings, on 14 January 2011.

Protesters gathered here, their violent demonstrations overflowing into Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the city's main street. Even today, the presence of soldiers and barbed wire makes a stroll along the thoroughfare challenging and shows that tensions still remain.

But the visitor need have no fears: the avenue is the ideal starting point for a walk through the city.

The avenue heads west from Place 14 Janvier towards the old medina.

One local stopped me as I strolled along, welcoming me to "the Champs-Elysees of Tunisia".

Even allowing for national pride, this is an exaggeration, but the street does have a certain Gallic charm, with its arcades, manicured trees and thriving cafe culture.

The latest fashions are displayed in the windows of Benetton and Zara. There is also a European feel in the architecture. The theatre, an elegant mid-19th- century building which now houses the French embassy, and, opposite, the cathedral with its elaborate mix of styles, would both look at home in a provincial French town.

From this point, Avenue Habib Bourguiba narrows into the Avenue de France, and suddenly everything changes.

Instead of carefully pruned trees there are palms; arcades are replaced by brightly coloured tiles; tradesmen are out on the street, their wares displayed on cloths on the ground.

The buildings are painted white, contrasting with the bright blue shutters that are typical of much of Tunisia.

This is the Place de la Victoire, which surrounds the Bab el Bahr, or Sea Gate, the eastern entrance to the old city of Tunis, the medina.

Plunging into this warren of narrow, car-free streets and mysterious alleyways can be both exhilarating and terrifying.

To get a flavour of the place, head up the Rue Jemaa Zitouna, the street on the left of the attractive, rather dilapidated building behind the main gate, marked out by a blue restaurant sign hanging at first-floor level.

Stick to this main drag and you will eventually reach the city's oldest monument, the Great Mosque (Al-Zaytuna); wander down a side alley to venture deeper into the medina, although you will never be far from a helpful local eager to point you back in the direction of the "grande mosque".

Rue Jemaa Zitouna is a lively mix of sound and colour, mingled with the smell of spices, perfume and meat grilling on charcoal. Tiny stalls to either side of the narrow street sell leather goods, jewellery, lamps, glittering oriental slippers, brightly painted tagines and other pottery dishes.

There are cries of "bonjour", "entrez", "come in" as stallholders try to entice visitors - in short supply in Tunis these days - to part with their money. Carts rumble along making deliveries, and stray cats scavenge for food.

On the right, just after Rue Sidi Saber, is El Ali, a relaxing place for a short break and some light refreshment.

On the opposite side of the street, at the next main junction, look out for a collection of stalls selling Tunisian pastries; the prices on display represent the cost for a kilo.

On the corner, a young man drops long strips of dough into a cauldron of steaming oil, while his colleague offers passers-by a taste of the finished delicacies. Further along is Cafe Ezzitouna, where groups of men sit drinking coffee or smoking shisha.

The street emerges into an open space in front of the mosque. Only Muslims are allowed into the prayer room, but if you visit in the morning before 11am you can go up the steps to see the central courtyard, a large space surrounded by colonnades, with an intricately decorated minaret in the far corner.

As you head away from the mosque to the right, the atmosphere is quieter and calmer. On your left, the red, green and black door is the entrance to the Hammam Kachachine, a popular, men-only bath house.

Opposite are the city's medersas - elegant 18th-century buildings that are still used for religious study. But if no classes are taking place, take a look inside.

Most elaborate is the Slimania, with decorative tiles in the entrance, striking black and white arches symbolising night and day, and a green dome, whose colour represents paradise.

From here, if you are in the mood for more sightseeing, turn left at the next junction and follow the Rue Tourbet el Bey all the way to the mausoleum of the same name, a complex of courtyards and chambers where, from the 18th century onwards, 19 pashas and their many wives were buried.

Or turn right at the same junction and allow yourself to wander through the souks that surround the mosque, stopping perhaps to bargain for a memento of your walk.

Eventually you will find your way round to the front of the mosque again, to retrace your route back to the Place de la Victoire - and a drink at one of the cafes in the square.

* The NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently advising travellers in Tunisia to exercise caution in public places and to maintain a high level of personal security awareness. To see the latest MFAT advisories for Tunisia, see safetravel.govt.nz.

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