Our first port of call on our Mediterranean cruise was exotic Tunis, Tunisia, northern Africa.
As the ship docked, we were heralded by drums and greeted with a procession of camels, which added to our excitement, and our hopes were high for a great day in a foreign land.
With no Arabic language skills (Tunisian Arabic being the main language, although apparently French is widely spoken too… who knew?) and nothing more than a few shops to explore close to the port, we booked an escorted tour: “TUN02 Shopping Tour” (its worth noting that the captain will only wait for ship-booked tours if you’re delayed!)
So after being sorted into our tour groups in a very roll-your-eyes disorganised fashion, we finally disembarked to find some passengers were already enjoying camel rides. Beware, however, of men bearing flowers: they will foist a sad-looking specimen upon you before demanding money. Ah, tourism!
Now the tour we chose (it said) would take us to “the old medina quarter” and “the typical and traditional spice market with hundreds of stalls selling a huge variety of local produce. After the medina, you will continue on to the little fishing village of SidiBou Said” where “you will have time to soak up the special charm of the village on your own before beginning your return trip to the port.” Sounded perfect.
We specifically did not choose the “TUN11: Exploring the Colourful Souks of Tunis” because, while otherwise tempting, it said “We will stop at a traditional carpet shop to learn about the history and traditions of the Berber people, who are famed for their production of quality Tunisian carpets and rugs.” Not for us, we decided.
So it was ironic that, as the day unfolded, the spice markets never eventuated, we spent an inordinate amount of time at a carpet shop and we only had 25 minutes in the fishing village – not even enough time for us to walk the length of the main street and back! (Well, not in our stop-and-take-photos style anyway.)
Ok, so the carpet makers actually turned out to be very interesting: seeing a demonstration of how the rugs are made, strand by strand.
And some were truly works of art.
It was a nice touch to be served mint tea and a delicious traditional date and honey roll called Makroudh (reminiscent of Baklava).
But time was a-ticking, especially since we had taken a detour via some of the ancient Roman ruins of Carthage…
and visited a house where they extract essential oils from plants – the basis all expensive perfumes. (There are even public gardens in Tunis specifically growing plants suitable for families to come and harvest to make their living from extracting the oils.)
We were herded down the rabbit warren of the medina…
to 2 different souks (mixed market stalls selling a selection of all the local products) where we were pounced upon and pressured to buy, buy, buy.
We had to laugh when the only spices to be found were a few packages on one tiny shelf.
Anyway, despite all that, (and after much haggling) we bought a gorgeous large mirror made of silver and camel bone (so they say), which happily travelled with us, tucked in the corner of our cabin for the rest of the cruise, and was easily transported home by car – now sitting proudly above our mantlepiece in France.
So not the day we expected, but all good experience. Mind you, if anyone asks me how best to explore Tunis when on a cruise, I will advise them to simply catch a taxi to SidiBou Said…
where there were heaps of stalls and shops…
and wander around at leisure, enjoying this picturesque blue-and-white painted village.