Saturday, March 31, 2018

Carthage & Sidi Bou Said

Day two in Tunis i took the train North to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. Having mastered the medina (well, the middle bit) I walked from my hostel to the train station and bought a 2nd class ticket for Carthage.

A 2nd class ticket for the ~35 minute ride was less than a dollar. First class was 2 or 3 times more. The only difference between classes was the padding on the seats and how crowded 2nd class gets. It was an easy train ride; the stations were marked and the map made sense. I got off at Carthage Hannibal to see the ruins of Carthage.

A word of advice if you are reading this and trip planning, as the site is not at all well marked. To get to Bursa Hill and the museum and surrounding sights, walk up the hill from the train station (with your back to the water). At about the top of the hill is a road on the left heading further uphill. Take that road. If you start going downhill, you've gone too far. Do not, as I did, keep walking for another 30+ minutes only to have to turn around and go back.

So, Carthage is an important city - in history, literature, and culture. Founded in around 815 BCE, it is ancient and many ruins remain. There was no way I was not going to go, and I'm glad I did...but I think i enjoyed the train ride and the walk more than the sights. If I had never seen Roman or Greek ruins before I might have found it fascinating, but I have and I've seen more impressive ones. I felt like kind of guilty walking around, looking at a few erect columns, the foundations of what were once great structures, and piles of stones, and being underwhelmed. I stood, at times, looking at a partial wall or bit of stone and trying to feel something akin to awe or genuine interest, but I found my mind wandering to the juice stand I had passed earlier or whether I had applied adequate sunscreen. 

It just required a bit too much imagination. Certainly it gives the history some context, which I like, but i just can't get excited about ruins anymore unless they resemble what they were, like the colosseum or Ephesus.  After about two hours I was done.

Back on the train, I went to Sidi Bou Said, an impossibly picturesque town atop a hill overlooking the sea. The whole town is whitewashed with blue shutters, doors, and accents. Purple flowering vines creep over walls and orange trees fill the air with the strong scent of their blossoms. 

It is definitely a tourist draw, but rightly so. It was a delight to walk the streets, at each turn another perfect sight. Around the edges shops sold pottery, dresses, paintings, and souvenirs. Cafés, ice cream stands, and sidewalk sweets vendors lured in the visitors. I had lunch at a curb side eatery: vegetarian couscous.

I trained back to Tunis, with more than enough time to nap, walk without purpose, and smoke a hookah as the sun set. I love how one day in Tunis one can walk down a street in the medina and it is just an empty passage, and the next day the same street is lined with chairs and tables, filled with people (men mostly) drinking coffee and tea and smoking shisha and cigarettes. Like pop up cafés. Very enjoyable. I had the classic combo of apple tobacco and Turkish coffee and watched people wander by.

The fact that I was able to find my way back to my hostel in the medina in the dark without a map, was a minor victory.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Arrival in Tunisia

I didn't have any particular reason for choosing Tunisia, other than that I love Islamic countries and Tunisia is small enough to be manageable in two weeks, but also has a mix of desert, sea, history, and culture. 

My flight from Zurich to Tunis was cancelled and the the new flight was delayed, so instead of arriving in the morning, I was arriving late at night. I don't like getting into a strange city at night. I'm tired, the city seems weird, info booths and money changers are closed, and public transit is not running regularly or at all. So I wasn't happy about that, but at least I had arrived. I went outside to the taxi stand and haggled them down from 40 to 20 dinars (still too much, but reasonable) and was glad to be en route to my hostel in the medina.

The car drove into the medina until the road became too narrow. The driver called the hostel and someone was going to walk down and fetch me as it is a bit of a maze. I handed the driver two 10 dinar notes and 3 dinar coins. The driver paused, did something with his hands and told me I had only given him one 10 dinar note. I was annoyed. I knew I had given him two because I looked at each of them as I took them out of my wallet as I am not familiar with the currency. I got out of the car. He got out of the car. We argue. He insisted i am trying to stiff him. I insisted he is mistaken (but I am certain he is lying). Finally, as the guy from the hostel arrived, I gave in and gave the driver another 10 - still insisting that the 'error' was not mine. I was just tired and wanted to go. I walked off with the guy from the hostel. About 3 minutes later, the driver came running up to us and gave me 10 dinars. He said he found it in the front seat. Faith in taxi drivers restored. Seriously. He didn't have to come back and give me the money. This bodes well for Tunisia.

After that, it was midnight and I basically went to bed.

The next day, I was able to appreciate my accommodations. The Dar-El Hostel. Tucked away in the maze of the medina on a narrow street, behind one of Tunis' ubiquitous blue studded doors, the interior is covered in tiles and is about 200 or 300 years old. My room is enormous and cozy at the same time.

I had planned to spend the first day exploring the medina and the colonial section beyond. As i was leaving the hostel, the fellow from the hotel was walking two young chaps to the train station, so i tagged along for the walk and accompanied my guide back to the medina entrance, chatting along the way about life in Tunisia, about how I should be open to having a relationship, and the Fast and Furious movies. A wide ranging conversation. 

Then I was on my own. I walked the length of Habib Bouguiba street, which is lined with grand, French architecture in a variety of styles and rows of sidewalk cafes. The street meant to look like Champs Elysseys, and it is, except that it is charming. 

I had an espresso at a café. The great thing here is that you can order a coffee, for like $1, and sit there for ages. I saw so many people, locals, sitting for an hour or more after they finished their coffee. It was great for people watching.

I then visited the big cathedral, stopped for an obligatory touristy selfie, and headed into the medina. Medinas are basically really old walled cities and are tangled webs of streets, paths, lanes, and alleys in no discernible order. This medina dates back to the 7th century and it shows. It feels ancient. In places the stones are worn down to smooth, rounded slivers, like well-used bars of soap. The walls are high and imposing, to keep enemies out. Today the walled streets hide homes, courtyards, mosques, and restaurants. Some of the passages are quiet and with nothing to see other than doorways (exquisite though they are here); others are lined with market stalls selling touristy items, spices, hookahs, clothing, soap, cetera. 

It is all fascinating to explore. A map may be of some use, but it is better to just walk and explore without purpose. Eventually you will hit a wall or landmark from which to orientate yourself.

I walked for hours. Eventually i stopped at this super charming cafe (photos do not do it justice) and smoked shisha, watching people walking past. 

There are tourists here, but not a lot, which is nice. My basic French is passable, but many people also speak English, as well as Arabic. All of my clothing (both outfits) are appropriate here. Some women dress very conservatively (long, loose dress or coat and veil), but most just wear a headscarf, and some none at all. There is just no exposed arms and legs that I have seen, which suits me just fine. In fact, as long as i have my tattoos covered and my sunglasses on, I don't even stand out as a tourist, which keeps the market merchants at bay.  

I am happy to report that, after Zurich, Tunis seems like a budget paradise. Last night I had a freshly baked mini pizza for $1.50, coffee for 50c, and bought bread, cheese, an orange, and a yogurt drink from the super market for $3.00. (Those who know me know i love wandering foreign supermarkets due to a weird box of cereal I once saw in Tel Aviv. Here, I note that almost all of the boxed breakfast cereals are chocolate and there was an ENTIRE aisle at the market I visited devoted to halva.)

After a bit of a rest, I went for a late night walk in the medina (careful not to get lost this time) and smoked a cigar on the steps of a mosque, watching cats walk the alleys looking for food. Other than that it was quiet.

I think this cheesy photo says it all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


I awoke on day two in Switzerland to grey skies. I had a coffee and picked up some breakfast from my favorite eatery in Zurich - the local supermarket. (It's preferable to spending a small fortune on coffee and breakfast.) Made a bee-line to the train station and caught a morning train to Lucerne. It was scheduled to leave at 4mins past the hour and at exactly that time, it started to roll. About 45 minutes later we arrived in Lucerne with Swiss precision.  

I think I did the right thing by not going to Lucerne on a weekend, when it is teeming with tourists I am told. Things weren't too busy on a Monday morning and i managed to get ahead of the one bus group I spied. To be fair to the tourists, it wasn't like i was there to do research; we were all walking around photographing the same buildings. I'm just happier doing it away from other people. 

The draw for Lucerne is that it is a charming town, easily walkable, with a number of old, decorative buildings, and a notable covered bridge. It is a perfect day trip from Zurich.

The day started out cold and grey, but finished up cold and sunny. Regardless, I Loved wandering the town. Every turn revealed some beautifully painted building, ornate fountain, or church square. There was one church in particular that had these huge, carved, wooden doors, one of which opened slowly when i approached it...but there was  no one on the other side. "(The holy) ghosts!" I thought, but i watched as a couple walked in about 5 minutes after me and the door opened for them too, so I figured it was an automatic thing, which made more sense. Still though, it's a creepy feature; like a petty miracle to convince non-believers to sign up. God saw you coming and he says, Come in.

There were no hi-jinx or misadventures; it was just lovely. I walked a million steps and then climbed up a bunch of stairs to get a better look at some ramparts (they don't merit close inspection, as it turns out, but the walk was nice). 

I had lunch from the supermarket. (Was going to splurge on daal and rice but couldn't justify the expense). More walking until i felt like i had visited every historical sight in the city, at which point i trained back to Zurich.

I chilled at my abode for a couple hours and had coffee with my host. We discussed, amongst other things how expensive Zurich is (including its health care apparently, which surprised me) and how much we hate the current administration of the U.S. 

In the evening i went to another cigar lounge - Manuel's. it was very busy with business type men. I loved the room and the cigar selection but did't find it as friendly as the lounge from the previous night. Still, sitting in a cigar-smoking room without judgment (and, in this case, also enjoying a coffee martini) is a rare treat. 

The next day i was supposed to fly to Tunis in the morning but my flight was delayed until the evening, so i had a bonus day. I really wanted to go to to this medical museum where they have wax figures showing various diseases (it looks awesome) but it is only open Wednesdays and Fridays, so i walked all the banks of the centre of town (which lies along two rivers and with a lake at the end), enjoying the sun.

I went to the museum, which is small enough to be manageable and has some good exhibits, but is terribly organized. I had to ask for directions multiple times after the second floor completely disappeared.

Finally i had a cigar on the Bahnofstrasse in the sun and people watched until it was time for my train to the airport. (Again, i didn't want to spend $30 on a sandwich and coffee.) I was particularly baffled how the people in Zurich really don't dress any differently from the people in Vancouver, but they look so much better. Better jeans? Nicer sneakers? Or maybe it is because they are all thin - probably because they can't afford to eat much. 

On to Tunis.

Monday, March 26, 2018


Zürich is one of those places that I never had any interest in. Or it's not that I was disinterested; I just didn't give it much thought. I figured Switzerland would be lovely but not life-changing. It seemed like a perfect place to spend a couple of days enroute to Tunsia. A couple days of charming Cobble-stoned streets, pan au chocolat, and ornate churches before the real vacation begins. Plus, it's a chance to go somewhere new. 

As I write this I am in a smokey cigar room in Zürich (Manuel's) smoking an H.Upmann magnum 50 and surrounded by men smoking, drinking, and conversing in German. I know it is an unpopular opinion, but I find German to be a very...appealing sounding language. I am happy. 

I arrived yesterday morning. Early. Having flown from Vancouver I slept only a couple hours on the plane and only a couple the night before. I was somewhat delirious, but delighted. Zürich was -is- lovely. Pretty, decorative buildings, cute storefronts, calm squares, and rows of enticing cafés. The sun was out. I had taken the train from the airport and emerged in the light at the end of the Bahnhofstrasse - the main thoroughfare through the old town. My first sight was a Davidoff cigar store and lounge. I had chosen my destination wisely. 

The hotels and even the hostels were all too expensive, so I opted for an Airbnb, at an apartment shared with its owner in the middle of the old town. I met my host by accident on the street near his building. A nice fellow, he showed me my accommodations, which were more that adequate. Certain friends of mine were certain he would murder me, as his airbnb listing had no reviews and after i booked it he deleted the listing. Nearly 48 hours later and i am still alive. 

After getting settled, i set off to explore the old city. It is exactly what one would expect. Very pretty and great for walking. The wide streets give way to winding pedestrian alleys, lined with antique shops, clothiers, watch shops. Eventually one inevitably finds their way to the river (the Limmet ) which winds through the city, various narrow bridges linking the sides, swans gliding underneath. The sun was shining and , although the city was extremely quiet, there were people out strolling and riding bikes, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes along the banks. 

I walked for hours, stopping for the odd coffee, stopping to visit churches and squares. Finally, i stopped for lunch at Haus Hitl, apparently the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world. (Very good, but too many choices for me.) 

I then walked back across the river to visit the Kunsthaus, an art museum. It was good. I recommend it. The problem was, at that point I was severely exhausted. I refuse to nap when arriving half way around the world. It is important to commit to the local schedule to combat lingering jet lag. But i was suffering. I had, about an hour, earlier nodded off over a coffee at the Café Voltaire. At the Kunsthaus I literally started to fall asleep on my feet several times and then dozed on a bench while gazing at a Kandinsky. It was rough. 

I revived myself at the Hotel Storchen, where they have a perfect cigar lounge. Cozy, well stocked and staffed, with medieval stained glass windows and jazz music. I smoked a Bolivar and chatted with a man formerly of Canada, now a citizen of the world. I walked back to my abode in the dark and collapsed with exhaustion.

A couple of observations. Zurich is small and quiet. A day or two would be sufficient to take in its sights. Stores (ALL stores) close on Sunday by law. No supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores...nothing. Just bars, cafes, restaurants, and churches are open. Prostitution is legal. I haven't seen a single beggar or homeless person (i assume they exist, but i haven't seen any). Much more German is spoken than French. And it is super expensive. A coffee in a not fancy café averages $7, more for a cappuccino. A lentil curry at a shabby Indian restaurant is about $30. My round trip train ticket to Lucerne (45 minutes each way, in the cheap class) was $75. Other than my lunch at Haus Hitl, all my meals have been from supermarkets. An apple, piece of cheese and pretzel was $13. I'm thankful i brought some coffee and cliff bars with me. Cigars, thankfully, are the only reasonably priced item i have found. 

The other saving grace is that the water here is drinkable and the city is filled with these stunning fountains from which you can fill your water bottle. So i'm hydrated, but a bit hungry. Tunisia will be a serious bargain by comparison.