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The Medina in Sousse (Tunisia)

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The Medina - a large walled city within the city of Sousse, Tunisia.

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      13.01.2010 23:10
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      Not to be missed.

      I was lucky enough to spend a week in Sousse, the third largest city in Tunisia. One of the places there that I loved to visit was the Medina.
      Medina means 'walled city or town' and that is just what the Medina in Sousse is. The fortifications around the old town have stood for around 1,000 years, some parts are even older. In 1988 in recognition of it's preservation and unspoiltness it was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

      It is situated by the harbour at Sousse, a very central and easily accessible place. It is large and labrynthine and totally fascinating!

      It is possible to take a guided walking tour around the Medina. It's a very interesting and lasts over an hour. You can book one with your hotel or at the tourist information by the main gate.

      The main entrances are by the harbour square but there are about ten other gates.
      One of the first sights that greets you as you walk in the main gate is the massive castle. This is built of honey coloured stone and dominates one corner of the Medina. It has 6foot thick walls and contains the living quarters of the warrior monks who defended the castle and the town. It is possible to walk arounfd the courtyards and visit the monk's cells, still unchanged after centuries. A walk up the winding steps of the tower will bring you out onto the ramparts and for those of you who are fit and slim, further narrow stone stairs will take you to the top of the old tower.

      This is not a place for children, there are no guardrails, or for folk who don't like heights. The views over the town and sea are magnificient and the photos from here are stunning. The only problem is that you have to use one hand to hold on with and one to take pictures with! Health and Safety legislation hasn't got to this bit of Sousse yet!

      Climbing down onto the relative 'terra firma' of the very wide ramparts I noticed that there were long slits cut into the floor. A helpful guide explained them to me. "Hot hot hot! We pour oiling on heads to burn and pft! No more soldiers to fight! Dead!" He explained with a little more relish than was entirely decent but I got the picture.

      It cost me about £3.00 to visit the castle and it was worth it. It is well preserved and fairly peaceful. Nobody in there was making much of an effort to sell me something anyway, unlike the rest of the Medina!

      I walked out of the castle blinking in the bright sunlight. The stalls there are a riot of colour, Berber jackets and robes, fruit, flowers, spices, souvenir tat, you name it, it was all on sale there! A lot of visitors get unnerved by the persistance of the stallholders but I found them polite enough if a trifle selective of hearing.

      At one stage I stopped to admire a basket full of tortoises. They ranged in size from about the size of a 10p coin to the size of a large saucer. I knew it was a mistake stopping to look. "Very happy tortoises Lady! Very happy! They like you!" I didn't even ask how he knew that, he was going to tell me anyway! "Tortoises they like to be in cool place with lots of rainy rain! You buy and take home to Innland!" I didn't ask what they were doing being born in Tunisia where there wasn't any "rainy rain"! I just explained that I would get arrested if I tried to take one home. I should have saved my breath. He explained in great (and confusing) detail how to smuggle tortoises. His friends joined in enthusiastically. Down my bra seemed to be the way that appealed most to them. (I wonder why?) It didn't appeal to me so I wandered off. Tortoiseless!
      I have to say that the idea of smuggling a tortoise into the UK in my bra has been amusing me ever since. One for each cup would only have set me back about £3.50.

      The Medina drew me in, ancient doorways painted blue or white were sometimes open enough to glimpse the family courtyards within. Narrow winding streets barely wide enough in some places for two people to pass. The old market place with it's vaulted ceilings was almost impossible to navigate it was so busy and housed so many little alleyways.

      I was fascinated to see that the streets in the old market seemed to specialise. Some for dates and fruit, some for clothes and shoes, one for gold, one for artisans. There was so much to see that I quickly needed to sit down for a breather.

      I sat down outside a cafe, next to a fossil shop. (I think that's what it was). The cafe owner came out. Motioned me to stand up. I stood up. He washed my seat with a wet cloth and promptly sat me down again. Brilliant, now I was thirsty but at least my bum was cool! He brought me coffee and sent his son out to practise his English on me. (Actually I might have been babysitting or the six year old might have been watching that I didn't run off without paying!) The coffee was good. The fresh dates and cake was too. So was the sandwich! I was getting a bit nervous by now because I'd only asked for coffee. The whole bill came to 60p and a garbled English lesson. (I got the wet backside for free!)

      The women of the Medina were often dressed in their traditional robe. It looked like a cream coloured sheet which wrapped around their backs and shoulders. Most of the old ladies seemed to keep it in place by holding it in their teeth. It looked most impractical to me but what did I know? One old girl had a spirited exchange with a stallholder opposite. I couldn't help thinking that whatever her argument was about it, the seriousness of it wasn't helped by the pair of Donald Duck slippers peeping out from under her old black skirt! The stall was displaying hundreds of beautiful hand painted plates but she wasn't impressed. She shoved the ends of her sheet in her teeth and stomped off. The stallholder rolled his eyes at me. I couldn't help smiling.

      Unlike in many Moslem countries, the women of Sousse don't appear to be sequestered and are free to mix and dress fairly liberally. It was lovely to see the young girls dressed in their jeans and tops and eager to talk and explain things about the Medina. One young girl took me round and explained what the significance of the differently positioned door knockers were. She showed me the women's mosque and sneaked me in the back way to show me how beautiful it was. She took great pride in explaining how the Hammams (bath-houses) worked and who they were for. She and her friend took me to buy cheap cigarettes too. They were so friendly and very charming. They gave me a history and politics lesson over yet another coffee. They shared a coke!

      The Medina is a stunning place if you look past the stalls of tat and pushy salesmen. The architecture is an amazing mix, the artwork on the old buildings has survived for generations. The old museum at the top of the hill has some astonishing exhibits alongside some extremely baffling ones. (A red shoe?) The people are friendly, the food is cheap. The fresh dates have to be tasted to be believed. Sousse contains one of the largest olive groves in the world and the olives and olive oil on sale in the Medina reflect this, they are delicious.

      The Medina never failed to enchant me. It's as though part of history had stopped at the gates. Families have been living in the same houses and carrying on the same trades for generations. When the tourists leave in the evening, life just rolls on as before. The faithful are called to prayer, the animals are fed and bedded down for the night, the camels and horses unshackled from their carts and led through the cobbled streets to their stables. The women sit on their steps and gossip, the rich smells of cooking waft around corners.

      If you go to the Medina, and you should: Don't just look at what's for sale here. Let yourself be aware of the history that surrounds you on every corner. Don't be overwhelmed by the people trying to sell you things, that's their job, they won't get offended any more than you should be. Just let the sights and the sounds and the smells of the spices sink into you. It's a magical place.

      Just a few tips.
      Take plenty of drink stops. It's a hot place and you'll dehydrate quickly.
      Be as aware of pickpockets and opportunist thieves as you would in any large city.
      If you don't want something say "No Thanks!" and walk away, don't explain, just keep walking.
      You do not have to buy something if you are given a drink or brought inside a shop.
      Enjoy the differences!
      Have fun!

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      The Medina - a large walled city within the city of Sousse, Tunisia.