We enjoyed our tromp around the narrow streets of the Medina, especially once we were past the initial lanes used by the tour groups. The stalls on either side are chock-a-block with souvenirs and, as it is early in the season, the vendors are understandably anxious for sales to pick up. I have to keep telling myself there are ways to contribute to the economy other than buying furry, stuffed camels and cheap jewellery and slap-dash traditional clothing.
We were happy to find that our edition of the Lonely Planet Tunisia had an extensive walking tour through the Medina. We have enjoyed these types of walking tours in the past, and this one was every bit as good as the others we’ve followed before. We did get ‘snafu-ed’ buy a ‘guide cum carpet salesman’, but we knew what we were in for. We followed him to the rooftop of a building near the Grande Mosque so that we could get a panoramic view of the old city. We made it very clear that we weren’t buying a carpet, and he didn’t persist. He seemed satisfied with the small tip we gave him before we set out on our own once again.
I have always loved taking photos of windows and doors and you may well know this already if you have been following my journals for the past four years. The Medina in Tunis is a paradise for people with this fetish, and I snapped away at almost every turn of the narrow lanes. There was a lovely variety of colours and styles of doors, but I particularly liked the green and red striped doors that signal a hamman (public bath). It would have been wonderful to indulge in a traditional bath, but alas, the baths are segregated and men and women bathe at different times of day.
All that walking made us hungry and we were delighted to find a tiny restaurant in the middle of the covered portion of the Medina, one that had recently been renovated and had installed modern toilets and sinks for its patrons. We had a delicious meal of grilled lamb, salad, and fresh Tunisian bread. Revived by a good meal and a chance to sit for a while, we set off to seek out the ‘Grand Souq Des Chéchias’. This is one of the largest souqs. It is here that visitors can see piles of blood-red hats, the traditional skullcap that was worn by men as a base for their turbans.
In the 17th century, this was one of Tunisia’s biggest industries. Over 15,000 skilled craftsmen worked to produce a million hats annually; these were exported worldwide. Today, it seems only the elderly Tunisian men wear the thick, felted wools caps, and they are now available in different shades of red as well as black and grey. I was dumbstruck to see how they are made. The first step is for someone to knit a large, loose, floppy hat from sheep’s wool. The hat is then boiled in hot water, which causes the wool to shrink dramatically.
The small hat is pounded, shaped and combed with a wire brush in order to ‘felt’ the wool’ into a tight mat that fits snugly on the head. The hat is most often dyed a deep red colour. Various sizes are made, for all shapes and sizes of heads. It was all I could do to persuade Anil to try on a hat so that I could take his picture. The young man who was showing us the hats put one on as well, and I thought Anil looked so much like a Tunisian that he could have been the young man’s father.
Editor’s Note: The hat never left the shop, so the ‘Tunisian look’ is out and the ‘Canadian look’ back in place.
As we wound up our day in the Medina, the rain clouds were gathering and the sky was looking ominous. We hurried back to our hotel and arrived just as the rain began. Luckily we had enough light food in our room, so we had a ‘picnic’ in our room that evening and didn’t venture out after dark for dinner. We had eaten a heavy lunch and didn’t need a big meal. The restaurant had a huge buffet in store for the guests but it wasn’t in the least bit appealing.