Tunis – the joys of the City and more
On arrival in Tunisia, our small group of travel writers, Andy, Marsha and I, were met and shown around the sites of Tunis by the charming guide, Moncef. We were also lucky enough to be accompanied by the gorgeous Sanna, the current Miss Tunisia, nothing like a bit a glamour to put the show on the road! And of course, we wouldn’t have got far without our steadfast driver Kemel. It was this ‘insider’ view which added so much to our brief visit.
Tunisia’s capital Tunis, is a very modern city, with a vibrant, liberal feel to it, that is no longer the static, lost in a time warp or polished for picture postcards.
Habib Bourguiba, known to his people as the ‘Supreme Warrior’, brought about a huge change in Tunisia. He led Tunisia’s fight for independence from its colonial master, France in 1856. He then went on to become the 1st president of Tunisia, he was much loved by his people and respected worldwide. During his long presidency he encouraged women to become more educated, and now a remarkable 60% of students are women. He abolished bigamy and whereas once the average family had 12 children now they have 2.5. This is an Arab country that embraces change.
The breadth of this beautiful city really struck me during my stay, the streets are lively and animated and the atmosphere is palpable, as the young and old gather and socialise in cafes and restaurants.
I was fortunate enough to visit some wonderful places that enabled me to witness some of the most stunning views. A sea of white stone buildings sitting on the hillsides below, surrounded by turquoise blue sea and with mountains on the horizon really is a breathtaking sight!
Sidi Bou Said
We made two trips to Sidi Bou Said, one at sunset and the other for a glorious lunch. Sidi Bou Said is the home of artists and destination of the wealthy and probably one of the most expensive places in Tunisia. Many artists have taken up residence here. The town has a real feel of artistry and is also said to have inspired famous artist Paul Klee, and famous writer Andre Gide. It’s set on a hillside, overlooking the Mediterranean, real picture postcard material, cobbled streets, and white and blue buildings with fabulous wooden painted studded doors (Medina doors) each one with its own individual charm.
There are plenty of cafes, excellent restaurants and shops, and the view over the bay and marina is phenomenal. A wonderful place to visit at any time of day, but on our first evening, the white washed walls glowed with a soft orange hue as the sun set over the village, a perfect romantic destination!
A little peckish, we stopped for a traditional Bambalouni – a scrumptious, freshly made, thin, light, fluffy deep fried dough dipped in sugar, rather similar to a doughnut.
Lunch at Dar Zarrbouk
Lunch on Sunday was at Dar Zarrbouk, which served traditional Tunisian food with a modern twist. It is reputed to be one of the best (and possibly the most expensive) restaurants in Tunis. It boasted a breathtaking view, with a spacious, luxurious modern interior, mixed in with the traditional Tunisian arches and white wash walls.
We drank a perfectly chilled Rose- Soltane, Syrah Merlot Vin de Tunis. Dry, light, lively and refreshing, my favourite tipple for lunching in a warm and sunny climate.
We started off with some inviting, delicate canapés including some tasty tuna toasts, and a harissa pate, which had a real bite to it! During my trip, I discovered the joys of Harissa, which is a hot chilli pepper paste, a North African speciality, which is commonly served as a dip in Tunisia. The main ingredients are roasted red peppers, with spices and herbs with some olive oil for preservation.
We were served the most wonderful mezze – an enormous selection of prawns, spicy lamb sausages, moulé, an aubergine and tuna salads, carrot paste, calamari rings and some small Brik rolls. I got a bit of a taste for brik during my stay, which consists of thin pastry around a filling, often egg or cheese, usually deep-fried. Everything tasted appetisingly fresh and crisp and I struggled not to eat my fill before the main course arrived.
My roulade chicken breast was stuffed with ricotta with a lemon sauce. I’m not sure it was particularly Tunisian but was it was flavourful and tender. Sanna had a more traditional fish with macaroni in a tomato sauce, Andy opted for a grilled fillet steak and Marsha had a vegetarian couscous dish. We all finished off with a selection of fine cheeses.
On future visits I would love to stay in Sidi Bou Said, it is not only a stunning location but an excellent base for a trip to Tunisia. It is located very close to Tunis, and there are plenty wonderful places to eat and things to do in and around the town. As I recommended in my last post the gorgeous boutique hotel Dar Saïd would be a first class place to stay.
Carthage and The Acropolium
Carthage provides a thoroughly worthwhile fix of culture. The remains of Carthage are located on the outskirts of Tunis, which can be easily accessed by train. Up on the hilltop, you get an extraordinary view over the city, overlooked by the presidential palace, it has a remarkable sense of tranquillity. You can take in the sights and mosey around The Museum Parc Archeological and see all the historical finds, and I recommend sitting out in the sunshine with a coffee and taking in the enormity of it all.
Once the mighty seat of the Roman Empire, and home to over half a million inhabitants, ruin-strewn Carthage will delight those with any interest in the past. With a history stretching back nearly three millennia, Carthage was once the heart of a powerful Mediterranean empire before being levelled by the Romans in the Third Punic War in 146 BC. It sprang from the ashes to become an important early Christian centre before again being destroyed by Islamic invaders in the late 7th century.
Situated on the peak of Byrsa Hill on the same site, as Carthage is The Acropolium, also known as Saint Louis Cathedral, built by the French in 1884. This majestic cathedral was built atop the ruins of an old temple dedicated to Eshmun, the Punic god of healing. The edifice can still be accessed from the basement.
Its vast interior, full of beautiful sweeping archways, painted in an array of pretty pastel colours, with touches of gold are a magnificent sight. It is no longer used for worship but now hosts public events or music concerts, I’d imagine that it is a fantastic venue.
The Old Medina
We took a trip to the narrow, winding streets of the ancient medina, dating back to medieval times. The streets are buzzing with wedding season shoppers, who come to bargain with the jewellers, perfumers and carpet salesmen. It was especially busy when we visited as it was a Friday, and the mosques were flowing out into the streets.
The medina is very much the market of the local people, but it is a definite must see; the bustle, the colours and the smells give you a real taste of Tunisia. There are plenty of stalls selling brightly coloured leather shoes, carpets, bags, perfumes and souvenirs to take home as a memento from your trip. If you enjoy a bit of bartering, as I do, what better place to give it a go.
We managed to negotiate with one of the carpet sellers to take us up on to the roof above the shop as we were in search of a rather beautiful location that Marsha had seen on Instagram, On finding it, up high above the city, there were women hard at work making and repairing carpets and we could hear to call for prayers echoing across the rooftops. A fabulous place to photograph the beautiful tiled archways and amazing views of the city.
Lunch at Dar Bel Hadi, Zouhair
We were taken for lunch to one of Tunis’s best traditional restaurants, the Dar Bel Hadi, deep in the heart of the medina.
It is housed in what once was a home to a wealthy Tunisian family. The main part of the restaurant is overlooked by balconies, which would have in the past taken you to the bedroom quarters, whereas the ground floor once serviced the kitchen and living area but now provides an elegant, but intimate dining space. Decorated in colours of rich reds and greens, with fabulous carpets and ornately tiled walls and beautifully set tables. We were welcomed by the owner and served to perfection by friendly and attentive staff.
The restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol, instead, we were brought a delicious Citronad – limoada – bitter sweet and refreshing. Regardless of the no alcohol policy, it remains a very popular restaurant, and in the evenings they have a sitar player.
We ate an excellent and enormously satisfying mezze selection, with the traditional brik and Harissa paste, plus salads of every conceivable combination. My only tip would be is to go easy on the mezze, as they are so delicious and extremely filling, that there is a danger (definitely in my case) of not leaving any room for main courses.
However, my grilled sea bass was delightfully fresh, light and perfectly cooked. It was served with small flour parcels, which I was informed are named ‘Old Ladies Knees’!
For pudding we were brought Zrigui – a traditional dessert made with corn flour, milk, eggs and rose water sprinkled with nuts, which had a mild, creamy custard consistently. Plus a plate piled high with fresh fruit, the dates are to die for; they are one of Tunisia’s biggest industries.
I washed it all down with a mint tea with pine kernels – a great digestive with an interesting twist.
I would highly recommend taking a wander through the streets of the medina and having a meal in this wonderful authentic restaurant as it really gives you a great insight into the Tunisian cuisine and culture.
Meanwhile, check out my video – there was so much to see on the trip!
Please watch out for Part 3, where I will be writing about the last part of my Tunisian adventure.
I was a guest of the Tunisian National Tourist Office
Complimentary flights from London were provided by TunisAir