Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Weekend in Sousse, Tunisia - 2002

Within a short period of less than 2 hours, we had already traveled a
sizeable way south to our destination of Sousse. Located along the
Mediterranean, Sousse is a popular tourist destination who enjoy the beaches
and shopping. The third largest city in Tunisia, Sousse is an important
producer of olive oil, various industries, fishing, and a commercial harbor.
We stayed at a 5-star hotel called the Orient Palace for 30 TD a night
including breakfast and supper (ordinarily a package worth about 4 times as
much), compliments of the owners who have a child at our school. Nice side
benefit, heh?

Once in Sousse, it was immediately apparent that we were in a place
catering to tourists. Numerous large hotels with pools and other amenities
lined the roads and beaches. Signs were often posted in multiple languages
including German, French, Arabic and English. Discos, restaurants with
Western menus, a casino, and souvenir stalls were not difficult to spot.

Armed with a camera, money and a comfortable backpack, I began my
journey inside the medina. Shortly after walking through the arched gateway,
I noticed that part of the large wall (supposedly built around 859 AD)
surrounding the old city was gone, destroyed in WWII. As in the medina of
Tunis, vendors sat outside their tiny shops, hoping to lure potential
buyers. Quickly deciding what country you must be from, vendors welcomed you
in that language. Souvenirs and goods were plentiful: plush or stiff stuffed
camels, tacky camel T-shirts, plenty of patterned ceramic dishes, silver
jewelry, shishas (water pipes for smoking tobacco), leather goods and rugs
were some items readily available. If you paused or glanced at the goods in
front, the owner would extend an invitation to come and look in the shop -
just to look. Of course, good prices were promised. You had to be savvy and
patient, bargaining until a fair price was reached.

Through the labyrinth of stone-paved streets, locals were seen doing
their shopping as well. Meat stalls displayed fresh cuts - sometimes
dangling the whole head of the animal in the store window. The rich scents
of spices in large sacs filled nearby areas. The bright colors of cheap
plastic containers and the tempting array of cold drinks or local desserts
were difficult to miss. Young children carried fresh produce or baguettes in
large woven baskets, walking in sync with the basket in between them. Young
men strategically maneuvered clumsy carts through the crowds. An occasional
motorbike zoomed by.

After a time we stopped at a narrow shop selling rugs. Piled high around
the perimeter of the narrow room, the empty middle space was only wide
enough for one person. More inexpensive hand-woven knotted and woven rugs in
a variety of colors and patterns were available. It wasn't until the piece
was fully unfolded that the beauty was revealed. Having spent a little time
already, the owner offered us sweet mint tea and water. Bargaining finished
and purchases in hand, we proceeded to the nearby silver shop. Some teachers
were especially interested in the older Berber jewelry pieces.

After enjoying a freshly-made pizza, the rest of the group decided to go
back to the hotel and I went back into the medina. I had much more to
explore! With my new carte de sejour in hand stating that I am a teacher in
Tunisia, I could now get into museums and sites for free. The fortress-like
ribat was my first destination. Built in the 8th century, the Islamic
monastery definitely felt like a fortress or castle. There were the watch
towers, slits in the walls to shoot arrows through, and the openings in the
floor above the entrance from which hot oil or other items could be poured
over those who managed to get through the large door. Like many other older
buildings, the ribat also reused Roman columns in its structure. After
walking up the narrow spiral staircase to the watchtower lookout, I was able
to enjoy the magnificent view over the medina, harbor and the sea. I got an
aerial view of the nearby Grand mosque courtyard, as well as another view of
the impressive arcaded porticos of the ribat courtyard.

After a little shopping and sightseeing, I meandered in the direction of
the National Museum, hoping to fit a visit in before evening. Rather than
taking the more touristy or commercial route, I wanted to take a tour
through a more residential area. Unfortunately, the twisting street took me
in a diverted direction. I saw a woman standing in the doorway wearing only
her bra on top. Thinking that odd but not quite making the connection, I
continued on that way. After seeing a few more scantily dressed women and
one with nothing on top, I knew I had wandered into the medina's red-light
district. Unfortunately the route was a dead end - so I had to walk back
through the whole thing! Almost dusk, people were walking home, carrying
fresh baguettes. When I arrived at the museum, I discovered I was too late.
I would have to come again.

The next day I quickly walked through the narrow streets to reach the
museum in time to view its renowned collection before we had to return to
Tunis. Occupying the former Kasbah at the top of the medina, the Sousse
museum's superb mosaic collection awaited me. Walking through the inner
garden, I noticed a young man diligently working on a mosaic. The mosaic
figure, approximately 2 feet in dimensions, composed of small pieces of
natural colored stones, had taken the man 2 months so far. Just imagine how
long the huge murals covering entire floors must have taken the Roman
artisans! In addition to the extensive mural collection, the museum also had
Roman statues, funeral furnishings discovered in Carthaginian and Roman
burial grounds, and miscellaneous artifacts from the Romans, Punic and
Byzantine Christians. Knowing that some of these artifacts such as Roman oil
lamps could be found in the fields around my house in Tunis, I was eager to
do a little exploring when I got back to Tunis.

Upon returning to the hotel after the medina trip, I took a quick walk
to the beach. Whereas the hotel courtyard and nearby beach was virtually
empty in the early morning, the place was now filled with tourists, sunning
themselves and enjoying the beach and water.

Heading back to Tunis, the large modern hotels gradually were replaced
by large fields of olive groves and the occasional vineyard. Small homes and
fields with tractors dotted the land. Hills green with trees provided a
colorful release from the hues seen in the resort town. After passing
through a few toll booths on the modern road, we were once again back in
Tunis. Until another weekend.....

No comments: