The Tunisian Palace hotel is on the main downtown street. To the right is the medina; to the left a wide, central tree-lined boulevard with shaded coffee shops.
The hotel’s building is a grand four-story with a marbled floor lobby and a huge central, dining room that goes up for the full four floors to a stained glass dome. The stained glass and Doric columns with gold flourishes recall a time when this must have been one of the smartest hotels in town.
The grandeur might have faded but it has been replaced by an offbeat charm. You won’t like the tired table cloths and temperamental air cons, but the busy white-shirted staff will try anything within reason to make you feel like you are in a fine hotel even if this means they feel they should have a decent share of your duty free whisky.
Summer is coming to Tunis and we have had a string of days in the mid thirties. Tomorrow is forecast to hit forty degrees Celsius. Getting around Tunis to shoot the next scene takes time and for some unknown reason, the hotter it gets, the slower it gets. The roads around the center grind to a halt and when this happens people start to hoot at random. Once one car starts many more follow like a crazed urban orchestra.
Our driver is a short, strong, well-fed man from the North East. He looks like he could handle himself in any situation and like a lot of other Tunis drivers he is prone to sudden violent verbal outbursts and the occasional attempt to run the offending party off the road or entice him to stop his car and sort the matter out man to man. But these moments pass as quickly as they happen and he is back to talking and joking and advising us what and when we should eat and drink each specific item. No coffee after lunch, only mint tea for digestion and with almost every meal he is sure to pick out at least one ingredient guaranteed to augment masculine vitality. He loves raw onions – if we all ate more, he says, the world would be a far better place.