Difference between revisions of "Tunis"
Revision as of 18:47, 8 April 2014
Tunis (تونس) is the capital of Tunisia.
Located on the Mediterranean coast but lacking much in the way of beaches, Tunis has been spared the onslaught of package tourism in the resorts to the north and south. With a population of less than 700,000 (the greater metropolitan area holds some 2,412,500 inhabitants), the entire city feels small and compact. There isn't much in the way of must-see attractions, but Carthage is easily accessed from here and the souq is one of the most authentic and hassle-free in North Africa.
Tunis is divided into the old city, known as the medina, and the new city, or ville nouvelle in French. Ave Habib Bourguiba is the large avenue running through the new city from the clock tower to the Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul. It then turns into Ave de France, which runs for a few blocks until ending at the Place de la Victoire and the Port de France, a large free-standing gate that used to be the entrance to the medina. This can be a good landmark for taxi drivers, as some of the smaller streets nearby aren't sure to be known by name.
The Port de France also serves as a good entry point for exploring the medina. Rue Jemaa Zaytouna leads past lots of shops to the Zaytouna Mosque, the great mosque of Tunis and the center of the medina. Running obliquely to Rue Jemaa Zaytouna, and also with an outlet near the Port de France, is the Rue de la Kasbah. This runs all the way through the medina to the Place du Gouvernment and the Place de la Kasbah, a huge square fringed by razorwire. It is fairly easy to move between the two streets by cutting across the labrynthine medina, and it is easy to keep your bearings and find an exit. Rue Jemaa Zaytouna seemed to be a better entry point from the Port de France at night, remaining relatively well traveled. Rue de la Kasbah, on the other hand, is active after dark on the Place de la Kasbah side, but is extremely dark near the Port de France. It is recommended to get a feel for the medina during the day so that you will feel more confident if you find yourself and alone and need to find a landmark at night.
Tunis-Carthage Airport (TUN), 8 km away from the centre, is small and in reasonable shape with all standard facilities. Free wifi is available at several of the restaurants, including Caffe Lindo, but is not always working. International flights will arrive on the ground floor of the airport. Tunisian law requires all currency to be exchanged within the country. It's illegal to bring Tunisian currency with you outside the country or inside, though it can be done at most travel desks if you sign a waiver. The major western carriers who service Tunis-Carthage are Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa, from Paris, London and Frankfurt. You can exchange money at the airport or at your hotel. There are several ATMs, but some seem to struggle with international cards. On the ground floor beneath the Banque de Tunise sign and next to the cafe L'Escale there is a reliable one. Toilets are clean but have attendants that ask for change after use. If you don't bring your own, be sure to get toilet paper from the attendant.
In their airport are one or two mobile phone concessions - Orange and Tunis Telecom. As of 2014, Orange ask 10 dinar for 1 GB for one month, Tunis Telecom as 17.5 dinar for 2 GB for one month. Less than 1 GB is only offered for one week. SIMs can be given away for free.
As is the case in many countries, you are required to hand over your passport to obtain a SIM, so the State can if it needs to know who you are, should it wish to monitor or track your communications (your passport information will be associated with the SIM ID, and the SIM ID will be provided to the network by your phone).
If you wish to communicate more annoymously (but not privately - it will all be stored by the State), use a SIM from another country and roam. Remember that once you have put a SIM associated with a passport into your phone and connected to the network, the State will then have associated your passport with your phone's (not just the SIM's) ID, and so will also then know who you are when you return to a roaming SIM (as you will connect to the local networks, which requres the phone passing over its ID and the SIM's ID).
While in the airport, you will be approached by friendly random strangers (not kids, either - grown men, 40 or 50 years old) who speak good English, strike up a conversation and try to shake your hand. These are all confidence tricksters; every one of them wants to give you some unwanted "help", advice, you name it, and then ask you for money. They will be extremely persistant and basically will not take no for an answer; you need to ignore them and if you can, shoe them away. Telling them you've been to Tunis before might help.
A taxi into the city centre — insist on the meter — should cost around 3-5 dinars during the day and around 5 dinars at night. Alternatively, buses depart fairly regularly during the day (but not at night) and charge a fraction of the price.
Many taxi drivers lack a GPS map unit and house signage (numbering) is barely existant. The driver will by no means necessarily be familiar with your destination and probably won't speak English. Make sure you have a map, an address (for what it's worth) and a phone number of someone at the destination. GPS in your phone is best, although the lookup on Google Maps between addresses and physical locations, for Tunis, is not really close enough (especially given the lack of signage) to locate an address.
Beware of the taxi drivers. At night some may ask up to 40 TD depending on where you are going. In a struggling economy business has become even more competitive. An unspoken rule is the first taxi driver who grabs your luggage and places it in the trunk of his car makes the contract for your transportation. It's not uncommon to be barraged with over ten taxi drivers at once as you walk outside the terminal. They can reach for your bag aggressively--not to steal it, but to make an attempt at winning your business. Some meters can be tampered with. If you don't trust the taxi's meter, then negotiate a price to where you going before you leave the front of the terminal. It may be advisable to ask for an average taxi rate from your hotel front desk before leaving.
You may also find minor taxi-driver confidence tricks occurring; where as you approach the taxi rank someone will tap you confidently on the shoulder and point you to a taxi, as if he is a dispatcher.
Most people - including taxi drivers - do not speak English. There are various hanger-ons around the taxi rank who do. They will for example once you have picked a taxi without asking move your luggage from your trolly into a taxi and help you converse with the driver - and then ask you for some change. They can be useful, for the translation, but you may well find they then try to ask for ridiculous money for the help - 20 dinar, say, which is four times the price of the taxi ride. Basically, you have to assume *everyone*, no matter what or whom or what for, except the people you yourself speak to and decide to hire, are pushing themselves on you.
Some people have suggested taking the escalator up one floor and waiving down a taxi that's just dropped someone off for a departing flight at the arrivals platform. This is more difficult to accomplish at night time, but the advantages are finding a more professional driver. In the afternoon it was extremely simple to accomplish this.
(As of March 2014, this is no longer possible; the departure exits are one-way only, inwards. They are blocked, so you cannot freely pass through, with a baggage scanning machine for incoming travellers and a guard).
Tunis Central Station is near Place de Barcelone for easy interchange onto the light metro. Trains are generally cheap and comfortable, but if you want to ride first class during peak season, do reserve your seat in advance. Trains are run by SNCFT.
Tunis is a main hub of Tunisia railway system - Tunis Railways Station when it this possible to change from north system trains (this system uses normal rail gauge) to south train network (which uses narrow gauge). The station is unique because different platforms has different track gauges.
It is not highly recommended to drive in Tunisia, due to poor quality of roads, driving habits, and poor signage. It is also more dangerous to drive at night, and outside of the city and major tourist areas.
Tunisia has over 70 bus lines, with Tunis at the hub. There are two bus stations in town, with Gare Bab el Fellah serving southern destinations and Gare Bab Saadoun serving those to the north. Buses are run by SNTRI at both stations.
Ferries connect Tunis to a number of international destinations including Trapani, Palermo, Naples, Civitavecchia, Livorno,Malta Genoa and Marseille. The main ferry terminal is at La Goulette, but check your departure terminal carefully as there are also other ports. Operators include GNV, Cotunav, Grimaldi Lines, Sncm.
There is a tram system in Tunis (it's not really a metro, as it's fully above ground). Tickets are very cheap (.48 DT for one trip) but the system is grossly overloaded during the rush hours, and indeed the rush hours are extended by this, as people simply have to let trains go by until enough people have been moved that there comes to be enough space that it is possible to board.
Be clear about this - during the rush hours, the commute to and from work, the tram *cannot* be used, because it is physically *impossible* to board. The tram is full; absolutely packed. You will either have to walk or take a taxi, or wait for the rush hours to pass. Taxis can often be impossible to flag down, too, since they're all full.
Tickets are bought from a little booth at each stop. There are two, one on each side, but usually only one is occupied. A ticket is for one trip; if you're going to make multiple trips, you cannot buy say four tickets when you board, because they are all timestamped at the moment of purchase. Towards the evening, the booths are no longer manned; instead, a staff member will be on board each tram and you buy your ticket on the tram. These staff members do not speak English (but they will speak French).
There are apparently month long tickets, but you cannot buy them at the stations. Note the stations are not marked in anyway; no name plates. You will only know which station you're at by using GPS and a phone map.
Not every stations has a matching station in the other direction. Most station do, but of a few of those, their matching station sometimes is a bit of a walk up or down the line.
Free maps of Tunis and Tunisia are available at the National Tourism Office, who also speak many languages, to the north-east of the clock tower (directly east of the main Medina gate).
light metro is a convenient six line system run by Société des Transports de Tunis  (French/Arabic only, but including the TGM line). The interchange hub for all lines is in the centre of town at Place de la République/Place de Barcelone.The other station change with TGM is Tunis marine. Single trips cost 0,410 TD. A one month pass is 32 TD.
Taxis are also a good option if you need to go a bit farther than the metro, though cabs picking up in front of nice hotels will charge much higher rates. Prices are displayed as 3.700 for 3.7DT. Flagfall is .400. (.4 DT). Assuming they are honest, the meter is a good way to go. Only try to negotiate a price if you know what you are doing and are sure of the value of the trip.
The TGM light rail line, starting at Tunis Marine station on Lines 1-4, connects to La Goulette (ferries), Sidi Bou Saïd, Carthage and the beaches of Marsa. Tickets cost 680 millimes each way. At Tunis Marine, be aware that there is an extreme dearth of signage. No obvious signs even say TGM, and on the maps on the trains themselves the station is marked as Tunis Nord. If you arrive at the station on the Tunis Metro, the TGM platform will be perpendicular to the metro cars and is easily accessed across the tracks. Tickets are sold at the end farthest from the metro stop.
Signs for station names along the TGM differ slightly from those that appear on the onboard map, but if you can see the signs from the train and they are free of graffiti it is easy to tell where you are. It is not unusual for the trains to stop and wait on the tracks after leaving Tunis Nord or upon return. This usually does not last an extraordinary amount of time, and you will likely be better off not following the example of the optimistic youths that decide to leap from the car and walk along the tracks into the city.
Many stations along along the TGM don't have full-time ticket vendors, so if you are making several trips along the line while visiting Carthage or Sidi Bou Said, you might be forced to risk traveling without a ticket. The guidebooks say that officials will sometimes get on the train and check tickets, so travel without a ticket at your own risk. It might be safest to buy a return to your farthest destination. The price difference should be minimal, and that way you might plausibly just have boarded the train, and your ticket will be valid for wherever you get on. The safest option will be to check with the ticket vendors or buy a ticket if you can find them.
Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Tunisiens (SNCFT) is the domestic train company for long distance travel between Tunis and other cities. Visit http://www.sncft.com.tn for more details on schedules and fares. The Tunis train station is in Place Barcelone.
Societe Nationale de Transport Interurbain (SNTI) is the domestic bus line. Although schedules are more flexible and also reach more locations than by train, prices are usually similar. Visit http://www.sntri.com.tn for more on schedules and fares. There are two bus stations, North and South. The North is in the Bab Saadoun neighborhood; the South is located in Bab Alioua, south of Place Barcelone.
Otherwise, louages (shared taxis) are the most flexible of all options. The minivans with 8 passenger seats take off when they are full and therefore run on no particular schedule. Prices tend to be a little bit higher than buses, but the difference is usually negligible. The North louage station is in the parking lot of the North bus station. The South louage station is across the street from the South bus station.
There is an American school in Tunis, the American Cooperative School of Tunis. It is a private, non-profit day school. If you would like to study Arabic or French while in Tunis, there are a few options, including The Language Academy [], or private tutors.
There are little stores near every hotel in Tunis, where you can buy everything you need, but it's difficult to call their prices loyal. So it's better to go shopping to other parts of the city. Aproximate 90% of presented in Tunis goods are of local origin. There are networks of state supermarkets Monoprix and General in the capital.
Most hotels include breakfast, and some include dinner. There are countless coffee shops with delicious drinks and French pastries to enjoy, as well as sandwich shops. Count yourself lucky if you find a dish that does not include canned tuna!
A couple of French supermarket chains have a presence in Tunis. Carrefour have a few supermarkets, as do Monoprix and Magazine General. These are by Western standards small stores, and more particularly, as is common in fact in Tunis, their range of products is significant less than in the West. You will find any single given product doesn't have just one place on a shelf, but a couple; an entire wall fridge unit might be completely packed, but only with two items, one being peas, the other being say strawberries. Supply is also a bit erratic - items which are present one day, once sold out, might not be seen again, or for a long time. Product quality is somewhat poor, although the international brands are of course the same everywhere.
The fresh bread products are typically good.
Fresh meat products are not always all that fresh; fresh chicken for example is best eaten on the day of purchase, and even then it can smell a little. The range of fresh fruit and vegtables is quite limited. You do better for fruit buying from the better of the many street-side vendors.
Prices are a bit cheaper than in the West, but not by much.
Ladies, try to bring a man out with you, and be careful about what bars you frequent, because many are frequented only by men and prostitutes, and can get a bit rowdy. Local beers are Celtia and the elusive Stella, which was never seen but exists on RateBeer. Both are lagers. Two brewpubs at one point existed in Hammamet and Sousse, although it is unknown if they are still there. Local liqueurs include Boukha ("boo-k"), usually taken straight or with coke, and thibina, which is usually taken straight with a single ice cube.
Most tourists will be interested in accommodation in either the Medina or in Ville Nouvelle. The medina includes the youth hostel and several other budget accomdations, and the high end Dar El Jed. The Ville Nouvelle offers a large number of budget and mid-range accomodation, many grouped within a few blocks of each other north of Place Barcelone. Some places expect couples to present some sort of proof of marriage in order to rent a two person room.
Touts and unofficial "guides" hang around near tourist spots. Shoo them off if they start to launch into a spiel on the architectural wonders of this or that, or they will expect to some baksheesh for their unwanted efforts.
One thing that can get really annoying in Tunis is the number of "friends" a tourist will attract. There is a decent number of men who hang out on avenue Bourguiba, the main drag in Tunis. They work individually. They approach tourists and start talking to them. The tourist may think that this person is just being friendly but don't buy it. Also beware of teens approaching you on or around Av. Habib Bourguiba. They often "prey" on male tourists and try to talk you into joining them to the cinema. Later on your new "friend" will ask you for 10 Dinars or a pack of Marlborros or this or that. It is best to just avoid these people or to shoo them off. They also have different techniques to get your attention. They include: asking for a cigarette, asking for the time, asking for a lighter, bumping into you on the street. The most common one seems to be when they ask you for a cigarette or a lighter. It is wise to get rid of anyone who tries to just bluntly start a conversation with you on the street. Chances are that there are no good intentions involved whatsoever. Tunisian people are nice and curious towards strangers but avoid the ones who seem too friendly - a good phrase to use could be the French "Monsieur, je connais bien Tunis," (Monsieur, I know Tunis well.)
Non-French speakers might have luck with a simple "no, merci," repeated several times and without giving them any additional acknowledgment. Some, however, are persistent in spite of this and will not leave you alone. If you can manage to not bring a backpack or large back, seemed to make you less of a target and attracted fewer hangers-on.
One visitor was approached at night leaving Hotel Africa, a popular tourist hotel, and was accompanied by an unwanted visitor down the Ave Habib Bourguiba, plying him for information. Several blocks after being left alone, another person approached them on the street and "coincidentally" mentioned he used to work at Hotel Africa, and then tried to get the tourist to follow him into the Medina. The odds of this are extremely low, and it was likely a coordinated scam. Be aware of such possibilities and use your common sense.
For Tunis itself, no immunizations are necessary. The water supply is safe, the food is fine. If you want to be vaccinated anyway, the only conceivable immunizations are for tetanus, tyhpoid and hep A and B. The last case of polio was in 1992. A full set of travel immunizations are available locally at a fraction (10% or so) of the price in a Western country and can be obtained from the reputable Institut Pasteur de Tunis, a Tunis branch of the Louis Pasteur Institute, which offers walk-in clinic open during the mornings of the working week. Remember though it takes most vaccinations some weeks to become effective, so if you do take them here, they won't be functional until some time has passed.
The Institut is very busy. Arrive early (9am) for your first visit, as you need to see the doctor. He'll draw up a schedule of appointments. For your appointments, arrive about 11am, when things have quietened down a bit. The form is; you arrive and are given a ticket. When your ticket is called (there's a numeric display) you go to a counter, which gives you a bill. You then queue for another counter, where you pay. You then wait; your name will be called, and then you take your immunizations. You then wait around about twenty minutes, to make sure you have no adverse reactions. The staff are professional, the doctors speak fluent English, some of the technicians speak some English. They are very good at administering the jabs without discomfort; they do fifty to a hundred each day!
Barbershops can be found in the medina, and there are women's hair salons throughout the city. Many of the nicer hotels also have spas.
Carrefour have a number of shops in the city, which provide a modern, Western supermarket. These are concentrated in the east, by the waterfront (probably a richer part of town).
This is the metropolitan train service, Métro Léger de Tunis. Tickets are less than one dinar and service is frequent, but busy during rush hour. The station is located a few hundred metres to the east of the clock tower and the raised Trans-African Highway No. 1 directly east from the main drag (Avenue Habib Bourgouiba; the one with the main Medina gate - just keep walking away from the Medina). The station is impossible to miss - it's a large building parallel to the road on the south side. Note that if you're heading out this way, there is also a national tourism office on the north-east side of the clock tower (that effectively demarcates the edge of Tunis' larger buildings before the highway), and they provide free maps and advice regarding Tunis and Tunisia.
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