THERE’S a beautiful light that seems to settle on northern Africa in the late afternoon.
It’s soft and vaguely opaque, with a delicate pearl tone, like sand from the desert dunes is swirling in the air and catching the late afternoon sunbeams as they struggle to reach the ground.
With this magical light comes a feeling of peacefulness in a part of the world that is often far from serene.
Drivers forget about their horns, trucks make less noise as they rattle down a crowded street, and the only sound you hear as you walk the shaded lanes of the Medina is the delighted squeals of children playing in a doorway.
I saw it when I was in Egypt last year, and I saw it again when we were in Tunisia today.
The Costa Concordia was only visiting Tunisia for a few hours but we made the most of every minute by organising a tour that would visit the ancient ruins at Carthage, the picture-perfect settlement of Sidi Bou Said, and the busy streets of the Medina.
This stop at Tunis’ Medina meant we would get to browse the narrow lanes of the souk, the old city’s famous market which sells everything from colourful ceramic bowls and hand-made carpets to leather sandals and aromatic oils.
This wasn’t a day for rushing, there was always time to take in a view over the Mediterranean Sea or watch a local artist sketching an old house, but we didn’t dawdle either.
Our first stop was the Antonin Baths at Cartage and our local guide explained this was part of an ancient city that was settled by the Phoenicians.
Walking the grounds of a bathhouse we saw stone walls, arched doorways, octagonal rooms, cobbled roads and marble columns that were constructed back before Christ was even born.
According to those who have studied the settlement, Carthage was such a thriving settlement that it was the centre of power in the Mediterranean until it was destroyed in the Third Punic Wars in 146BC.
The Romans did a bit of renovation work a couple of centuries later, and they spent some time there until the city was destroyed again during the Muslim conquest at the end of the 7th century.
Up the road is Sidi Bou Said, a posh Tunis’ suburb that draws tourists who want to walk the maze-like streets, look at houses painted white and Mediterranean blue and smell the perfume from the flourishing bougainvillea shrubs.
The houses seem to be squeezed on to the narrow streets in the most disorganised fashion but they’re so private that all you can see are magnificent front doors, flower boxes perched around windows and high white walls.
In the afternoon we headed to the centre of the capital and wound our way through the bustling streets of the old Tunisian Medina.
We saw mothers collecting children from school, giving them an afternoon snack wrapped in a brown paper bag before walking them home, and old men sitting on low plastic chairs and smoking outside coffee houses.
Our bus stopped at the Kasbah – yep, it’s a real place, not just a song by The Clash – and we walked into the streets of the souk deep inside the Medina.
By this time that serene afternoon light had descended on the city and everyone had slowed down.
We made a couple of little purchases, but mostly we just weaved through the alleys and took photos of the ornate minarets and timeless buildings that towered above our heads.
There are no square windows or plain walls in the Medina.
A blank surface is covered with colourful handmade tiles and a window will have a unique shape – round, oval, pentagon, half-circle – or an intricate grill to distinguish it from those around it.
As the sun touched the horizon, and we were returning to our bus which was waiting for us at the Kasbah, we heard the beat of a drum and saw soldiers lowering the flag in the square outside the hotel de ville.
But these soldiers weren’t dressed in tailored khaki fatigues.
They were wearing high black boots, dashing red caps were draped across their shoulders, long curved swords were hanging from their belts, and white Arabic scarves were wrapped around their heads.
You could just imagine these soldiers charging across the desert on horseback with their bright robes flowing behind them.
My travelling companion told me they were straight out of Beau Geste, but having never seen the 1939 classic I would just have to take his word for it.