Scented soaks in Tunis and salted ruins in Carthage on the CS Clancy Centenary ride
Haggling may have ruined Clancy’s stay in Tunis so we weren’t having any of it
As darkness fell, we entered Tunis, described by Guy de Maupassant as the most striking and attractive town in Africa, and when Clancy emerged next morning to find its 100,000 Arabs, 50,000 Israelis, 44,000 Italians, 17,000 French and 5,000 Maltese inhabitants jostling for space in the streets, he had to agree.
Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of the Arab Quarter past the barred windows of harems and with the warm air redolent with sandalwood and myrrh, he declared that here was the Orient in all its purity, the Arabian Nights come true.
All around, richly costumed, dark bearded Orientals were sitting cross-legged in dozens of tiny stalls, sewing industriously on fine silks or working intricate engravings into ivory, brass or steel.
Naturally, as we stepped out of a taxi at the entrance to the souk, we were immediately befriended by a chap called Abdullah, whose friendship inevitably led to his brother’s perfume shop and his other brother’s carpet shop, allegedly in the king’s former palace, and with a vast bejewelled bed upstairs in which the king allegedly slept with his four wives.
“Only four?” we said, and Abdullah and his brother laughed, although their laughter wore a little thin when it became obvious that we were not going to buy any carpets, special discount and shipping or not, that day or any other.
The souks of the most honourable professions, such as gold, cloth and perfume, are closest to the Grand Mosque, with the noisy and less exalted ones such as dyeing and metalwork relegated to the outskirts, and somewhere in between is the ancient Souk of the Genuine Fake Watches, where we found another chap called Mohammed, in his forties and wearing a pullover which had seen better days.
“Forgive me, monsieur, but the only bigger fool than a man who buys a fake designer watch is the fool who buys the real thing,” I said.
“Of course, monsieur, but luckily for me, there is one born every minute,” he said, glancing at my wedding ring. “Now, can I interest you in some jewellery or silks for your wife? My brother has a little shop just around the corner...”
Clancy’s plans to motor the 12 miles to the ruins of Carthage were scuppered when he spent the entire afternoon growing increasingly hot under the collar at the “despicable Italian officials of the steamboat line to Naples”.
Knowing they had a monopoly, they tried to charge him $12 for a second class ticket and $20 for the Henderson as a luxury item. By the time he’d bargained them down to $10, he was in no mood for Carthage.
Still, he didn’t miss much, since there is little there to miss of the city founded by Dido, Queen of the Phoenicians, in 814 BC. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, she came home from hard days on the building site, threw off her hard hat and jumped into bed with Aeneas, sole survivor of the Greek destruction of Troy.
This is usually taken as myth nowadays, since Troy fell five centuries before Carthage rose, but it grew to become the glory of Africa, until the Romans arrived in 146 BC and, determined to teach those uppity Phoenicians a lesson, laid waste to it so utterly that they even ploughed salt into the ruins so that nothing would ever grow there again.
As a result, virtually all that remains of it is a little collection of self-effacing statues in a comer room of the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
As for Clancy, he took the night boat to Italy, his hatred of the shipping line honed even more keenly when the captain told him that his fare didn’t include dinner.
Follow Geoff Hill’s blogs on the CS Clancy Centenary Ride at www.adelaideadventures.com