All aboard for Sidi Bou Said!
I am riding on the Tunis-Goulette-Marsa or TGM, a light rail service which runs up and down the coast between Tunis and La Marsa. The train is often characterised by that spirit of innocent adventure which is otherwise typical of steam railways in the UK. Teenagers prise open the doors between stations and they hang themselves out on the hurtling breeze. At one station a gang of tumbling boys hoist themselves up on to the roof where they jump about, cheering, once the train is moving. None of the adults in my carriage react to this, producing the eerie impression that the children are invisible or spirits that only I can hear. Sometimes, however, the driver appears to be on the side of the children, tootling his whistle gleefully as he pulls out of certain stations.
The TGM can be a catastrophe, especially when it is outbound from Tunis in the midday heat. There are not enough carriages – there is no oxygen! But it is usually relaxed and fun. The fare is also a shaving of the price of a taxi.
Whilst I generally resemble one of Duane Hanson’s fibreglass tourists when I am in Tunisia, Sidi Bou Said makes me feel alienated from the very concept of tourism and even repulsed by it. Sidi Bou Said is a fishing village of bohemian artists, with the toy-town cleanliness of the French Riviera and an Arab quaintness crawling all over its buildings. It might as well have put the word “picturesque” under copyright. The village is apparently populated entirely by tourists and people selling things.
Every wall is the powder white of laundry in Persil adverts; every door and window is the deepest blue of the pure summer sky and the mighty ocean. Naturally the whole village is a single sunbeam; naturally its core is pedestrianised, with slippery, squeaky cobbled roads. Naturally there are street venders bombastically selling fridge magnets and riotous levels of hyperinflation all around. Naturally there are venerable cafés with panoramic views of the aquamarine bay. Naturally the village is a tiny knuckle of twisting streets.
They had all flocked to this village to lap it up, André Gide and Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault. What were they thinking? Sidi Bou Said has probably retarded the artistic and intellectual life of France by fifty years. When walking around these streets, I am struck by a vivid memory of being taken as a child to visit Poundbury, the Dorset model village which was designed by Prince Charles. Sidi Bou Said has the same rather frightening niceness to it, the same sense of being a model which you are not meant to touch rather than a functioning venue in which people can live out their messy lives. Nobody could ever suffer from postnatal depression or bowel cancer in Sidi Bou Said. It is just too pretty.
I am forgetting myself. One of the reasons why I came to Tunisia was to assess the country’s safety and find out whether it is an attractive option for the independent traveller. The trouble with Sidi Bou Said is that it goes above and beyond what is necessary, with its Dorset creaminess and its ruthless predisposition to enchant busloads of UK pensioners. There are also lots of self-conscious lovers dotting the hillsides of Sidi Bou Said, which is apt since the village resembles the idea of romantic love which people always hold when they are not in love. It is a shining dream which makes the heart flutter.
Let’s stop for a moment – things are suddenly sliding out of control! I am being attacked by two cutthroats, a pirate with dreadlocks and a piratess with a flashing smile. They have placed some kind of bird in my hair – it looks like a tranquilised peregrine falcon. It blinks at me dopily, with just enough energy to verify that it is not stuffed. Next they are demanding that I be photographed with the bird and they presumably want money for this. I don’t have a camera – I would rather forget about Sidi Bou Said than preserve it forever in my records – but the pirates are undeterred. The bird is on my arm and then its claws are back around my skull, as if I am being probed all over with an exploratory pair of tongs.
I am worried that a quiet word from one of these pirates will jolt the bird out of its stupefied reverie, so that it pecks off my nose. I hastily rip out my wallet and fling it open. After the pirates have helped themselves to every coin that I have, they prance merrily off on their way. Thankfully they take their bird as well.
I am now somewhat bemused by Sidi Bou Said. I submit to a tour of a beautiful 300-year-old suburban palace called Dar el-Annabi. It is arranged around a garden courtyard and it meanders up round and round to a terraced rooftop. It is as interesting as poking around anybody’s house but it is still, of course, interesting.
I finally select one of those restaurants which looks down upon the bay. None of the blues in Sidi Bou Said, on the doors and windows, are as mesmerising as the rich blue-greens of the sea. The miracle of the sea’s colour is that it does not appear to come from exactly anywhere: it does not reflect the flat blue of the sky or point to anything discernible in its own depths. If only the workmen who had painted all of those doors could have dipped their brushes into this remarkable colour.
I turn to the menu and decide to have the pasta with fresh shrimps. The shrimps, when they arrive, are monsters, the plumpest, juiciest fruits of the sea.