09 August 2015

Sousse, Tunisia 2012 (1)

A small city whose claim to fame has been its UNESCO World Heritage Site the centuries-old, walled medina became notorious for the recent (26 June 2015) abhorrent slaughter of tourists in its resort area of Port el-Kantaoui. It's incomprehensible and infuriating that terrorists will target unsuspecting innocents anywhere. The same horror intruded a few months earlier this year in the city of Tunis. Three years ago I spent four days in Sousse, and prefer to remember its MAGIC.

Our hotel was located in the same resort area, set back a street or so from the beach itself. But we were not there for sunbathing. The wonderful medina was our destination, more than enough to fill days of exploration. It's a renowned example of a medieval Arab sea fort with well-preserved walls facing the Mediterranean, including the ribat fortress and watch tower, the Great Mosque, and kasbah, most of them built in the ninth and tenth centuries A.D.

We set out early each morning before it was too crowded. The only camel I encountered at Sousse was this marble creature resting by the main medina gate. We could peek into the women's entrance of the mosque, but non-Muslims are not allowed beyond the courtyard. The medina is a community unto itself: shops, crafts, food markets, bakeries, cafes, restaurants, and homes, all set into a confusion of narrow, twisting streets.

No map available, we simply joined one stream of shoppers into the open-air food market area, seeking a way to reach the top of the wall for a view. Photography is my travel buddy's speciality. We were obvious tourists, packing cameras and water bottles.

With the help of an enthusiastic volunteer guide we climbed a torturous series of stairways into, around, and through what appeared to be someone's house, though no-one paid us any mind. We emerged by a small tower on the top of the wall. Volunteer guide then, as expected, requested a large tip for his service but grinned cheerfully when we forked over ten percent of what he suggested.

Our agenda included seeing the archaeological museum and a home museum called a dar they are family enterprises here and there to draw a few tourist dollars, and why not, because all the homes are centuries old, filled with history. Receiving a number of potentially helpful directions (French is known much more than English but the prevalent Arabic reduces us to wild sign language) took us by sacks of spices, fragrant bakeries, butchers, jewellery stalls, leather products, ceramics and pottery factories, carpets, even modern clothing shops, until it occurred we were passing the same places twice.

Striking off into the covered byways, we were waylaid in protracted negotiations for Tuareg-design earrings. Then we lucked into a MUSÉE sign for Dar Baba, not the house we sought but a small-ish, seemingly middle-class home, not in any guidebooks. But we could smell coffee in the lovely courtyard.

The caretaker showed us the interesting bedrooms (ornate bed clothing) colour and patterns galore, everything nicely exhibited but looking a bit dusty. A small kitchen was on this level. He made a point of showing us the tap for well water, "potable" he said.

Then down we went into what he called the catacombs, very old underground rooms where the family barricaded in times of invasion or war. The equivalent of a bomb shelter. Such low ceilings, but everything necessary for survival!

Coffee and orange slices were brought to us in the lovely courtyard. The coffee was unexpectedly Turkish, not to everyone's taste, so I bravely consumed part of my friend's too, not wanting to offend our kindly host.

 Our next plan was to follow the wall because logically it would sooner or later take us to the archaeological museum in the kasbah section of the wall. Alas, the interior side of the medina wall does not know logic. Inadvertently passing the same ceramics souk several times destined us to buy some from the bemused vendor. Finally, more directions and steadily uphill to the highest point of the medina, we located the kasbah, an imposing residence built originally for the local administrator / military commander.

Housed there now is the Sousse Archaeological Museum, at the furthest corner of the medina from where we entered. Oh boy, was that museum worth it! To say we were mesmerized is a huge understatement. I described it in an earlier post.

Knowing more or less where we were within the medina, heading back was not a problem. Friendly locals showed us the top of the main street – when I say street, you understand narrow. Luckily for our weary bones it was all downhill. A long way downhill. Parts of the street were quite dark although it was still afternoon; other parts were covered. Some shopkeepers were beginning to close up. At one shop a young woman, Layla, indicated the cameras, eager to pose for several shots. It was surprising to me how many residents asked to be photographed even though they only ever see the picture momentarily on the camera screen. Traditionally dressed women, though, are off limits.

When we neared the Great Mosque and recognized some landmarks, aaaahh, a cafe across from the mosque entrance for our favourite café au lait. We speculate why a rack of robes stands outside the mosque, monitored by a large burly man. Probably for men to don for prayers if their street clothing is inappropriate. It's dark by the time we reach our hotel. Did we remember to eat that day?

Well, that was only the first day.
The full stay in Sousse would be far too long for a blog post (and so many photos!).
Part Two to follow, compressing the rest.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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