Historic medinas hold an enduring fascination for travellers. In this era of regulation and conformity and Google Maps, it’s a thrill to lose yourself in a setting so unfamiliar and chaotic.
Whilst the popularity of Marrakech has exploded over the past few years, tourism in Tunis has suffered since the terror attacks in 2015. Happily, as of today, the UK Government has declared Tunisia safe for tourists once again following the work of authorities to improve the security situation. Long may it continue.
I visited Tunis Medina whilst sailing around Africa with the Phoenician Ship Expedition in 2010. We were anchored at Sidi Bou Said, and as such my main purpose was to locate internet cafes (this was the pre-smartphone era) and hit up the spice market for boat supplies. Little baggies of mysterious spice mixes acquired from formidable men are still to be found in my kitchen cupboards.
As it was a brief visit, I’m aware I missed out on some real treats when I was there. I didn’t make it to the Bardo Museum. Nor did I make it to the Zitoun mosque (the prayer room is not open to non-Muslims but from the viewing gallery you can see the courtyards, minaret and Byzantine turrets, which date back to 860).
But the real fun of a medina is just exploring the streets and souks.
You can pick up a map of the medina from the Tourist Office. Google Maps will not help you here, although Tunis Medina is fairly compact and easy to navigate compared to some.
Tourist tat, and tourist hassle, is focused around the main entrance from Ville Nouvelle is Bab El Bhar (Porte de France, ‘the gate to the sea’), and the main thoroughfares Rue Jemaa Zaytouna and Rue de la Kasbah.
Just take one turn off the main streets and you’ll find a real working market though. The colours of nearby village Sidi Bou Said are echoed in old Tunis. Slip around a corner and you’ll find yourself in a tiny white street with blue shutters, scraggy cats, and kids playing football. Or amongst prickly pear sellers and people preparing for prayer.
The medina is divided into different souks (markets) grouped around goods and trades. Most interesting are the craft souks clustered around Zitoun mosque.
Fun fact: The Fez hat (chechia) didn’t actually originate from Fez, but Uzbekistan via Tunis. Souk Ech-Chaouachine has specialised in fez production since 17th century and churned out 30, 000 at its peak.
Tunis Medina feels altogether more laid back and less frenetic than its red counterpart in Marrakech. It was the place I finally learnt to enjoy rather than endure haggling. I escaped without a rug purchase, but I did acquire the obligatory pair of babouche slippers which sit at the back of my wardrobe awaiting a magic carpet.
Would you travel to Tunisia now that the travel advice has changed? And do you have a favourite medina?