Tunisia: Africa’s Less Known Paradise
I am a big fan of Mediterranean cuisine, culture and history but I honestly have never heard of anyone going to Tunisia to spend their holiday in recent years. Not that Tunisia is not as beautiful as those frequented by tourists, but I readily assume that the country has just not gotten enough exposure to the international travel market—indeed, it deserves more. Tunisia is one of those places that would surprise and bewilder you, having expected less but ending up with more. For whatever reason Tunisia has slipped under the average tourist’ radar, I assure you that did not stop me but instead, intrigued me further to visit Tunis.
Tunis is the capital city of Tunisia, a French and Arabic-speaking country sitting at the northernmost position in Africa. Surrounded by the Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, one would wonder why Tunisia has remained elusive to tourism compared to its more popular African neighbors. Its sister Morocco has already overshadowed Tunisia by great lengths, thanks to Hollywood films that were shot in cities like Marrakech and Chefchaouen. But that must exactly be what drew me more to Tunisia. Its history traces back to 4000 BC and this land is believed to have been where some Berber tribes’ ancestry descended from. Tunisia has undergone multiple conquests under the Phoenicians to the Roman and Ottoman Empires, to the Arabs and French, before they fully gained independence as the Tunisian Republic in 1957. Since then, Tunisia has risen to political and economic stability, despite persistent and massive struggles with internal corruption. The country’s economic diversity has continued to be an asset to their extensive exportation of various goods especially to the European Union. Gladly, prices have remained cheap and this is why Tunisia has been a favorite among Western Europeans, for their beaches and sunny weather that do not have to be any farther than the same time zone.
I have heard a lot about the golden beaches in Tunisia and their luxury (but reasonably priced!) resorts but I visited during the end of winter and resolved to visit elsewhere more interesting. As usual, I didn’t have an itinerary or a fixed list of places to visit in Tunis; and then I remember the name of the airport hub I entered from: Tunis-Carthage International Airport! I remember Carthage well from my history class and was thrilled to see it firsthand! Carthage is now a vast archaeological site where you will find the Carthage National Museum. The museum houses a great collection of excavated artifacts from the Punic, Roman and Byzantine eras. A huge part of the area still kept the ruins protected, reminiscent of Greco-Roman architecture. It blew my mind to imagine myself back in those ancient times, witnessing all the wars and rituals of great men like Hannibal and Julius Caesar. Carthaginian civilization, famed to have the ancient world’s largest and most powerful navy, was definitely one of the most progressive during those times. Carthage was the only state that paralleled the Roman Empire’s military strength, political power, wealth and population—until the Punic Wars, the biggest of that era, where Carthage succumbed to the might of the more disciplined Roman armies. Immediately outside is the Acropolium, or Saint Louis Cathedral which was built on the ruins of an old Punic temple. It was named after the King Louis IX (later beatified as Saint Louis) of France who died in Carthage during the Eighth Crusade, hoping to propagate Christianity among the Muslim Hafsid dynasty. I excitedly went inside to pray but was surprised to see nothing close to a church. Inside was held a trade exhibit full of people looking around to shop. Apparently, it is no longer used for religious practices but is now a venue for events like concerts and exhibitions. It was definitely a fascinating experience to enter the Acropolium which has surely kept its beauty throughout the centuries. Whether or not you are a history buff, the area of the museum itself, sitting atop Byrsa Hill, is a picturesque landscape you wouldn’t want to miss.
My next stop was a town called Sidi Bou Said. Unbeknownst to many, before Sidi Bou Said became a coastal tourist attraction, it was first a necropolis (ancient cemetery) from the 13th century, then a residence for the cosmopolitan elite. A stroll through the town starts with an uphill, leisurely walk through a labyrinth of streets teeming with welcoming locals. Almost every house is colored white adorned with blue doors and blue latticed windows, you can almost think of it as a stairway to heaven. It does make sense when the streets lead to a hilltop village that overhangs to the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Tunis, a breathtaking backdrop with a seamless view of the horizon looking up, and a beautiful marina looking down.
Sidi Bou Said largely owes its charm to its blue-and-white motif and its iconic blue doors. The doors range from humbly small to grand and elaborate, old to new, and lead to private mansions, souvenir shops, art galleries or restaurants. What used to be a Tunisian little secret paradise is now a top sightseeing attraction; the cobbled streets swarm of foreigners and Tunisian visitors (especially during weekends) alike. Much of the livelihood in Sidi Bou Said depends on tourism, thus the wide array of businesses that cater to tourists. I find them hospitable, kind and accommodating. One shop owner promised me not to push me to buy anything; he said all he wanted was for me to see his ancestral mosaic gallery—which was by the way, a collection so huge it could pass as a museum. So I did, and he was true to his promise. He even gave me a free post card to send to my mother, and we became instant friends! Language barrier may be challenging at times, but I was nonetheless impressed by their warmth and generosity.
Soon enough, I found the best way to end my day. I was sipping a cup of mint tea with pine nuts while watching the sunset, on a café that cascades over a cliff, with a view that’s a feast to the eyes, with soft winds kissing my lips that carried me into that moment of stillness and delight. It was not hard at all to fall in love with this place, and sure I did. It felt heavy to walk down and leave, seeing the beauty of amber lights embracing the darkness, and the residents returning to the real life, regaining full control of their town. On my way down, I felt hungry so I picked a mandarin from a tree, then I tried their local delicacy called bambalouni, which is a deep-fried doughnut coated in sugar. At nearly quarter a dollar, I got a sugar high that lasted me until dinnertime.
I immersed myself further in Tunisian cultural heritage by spending dinner with a Tunisian family in a Tunisian restaurant. Having tried their street food earlier during the day, it was time to treat myself to something more special. We headed to the medina and looked for Dar El Jeld, Tunis’ best fine dining restaurant. It is tucked hidden beneath the main street and only accepted guests with reservations. Dar El Jeld used to be an 18th century mansion courtyard that now features dining rooms fit for royalty. It was such an experience, even though their menu only came in French, I undoubtedly enjoyed my couscous avec du boeuf (beef with semolina), listening to my Tunisian friends’ stories about life in this part of the world.
I am sure Tunisia has a lot more to offer, and just like the legendary Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger who sailed to Tunisia in 1888 and returned to stay for good decades later, I will come back to explore more of its wonders, both forgotten and undiscovered.
Tunisia can be your main destination or a side trip. Your options around the Mediterranean are limitless: from Sicily, Marseille, Valencia, Barcelona to the up-and-coming Malta!
Some authentic restaurants that locals frequent may not have an English menu so have your translator app in handy. Tunisian cuisine identifies well with the rest of the Mediterranean region, with a touch of African influence. Couscous is a staple partner for any kind of meat, tajines are also popular (but contrary to the Moroccan tajine, the Tunisian version is made of egg similar to the Western quiche), as well as brik (similar to the Turkish pastry borek which is fried dough with savoury stuffing) and desserts like assida (pudding) and baklawa (like the Turkish pastry bathed in honey with nuts). Best way to finish any meal is with a cup of mint tea with pine nuts—you can’t go wrong with this!