There is so much beauty to experience and a profound shift in your perceptions happens when you dare to travel far and wide, dare to do things and go to those places, that other people are cautious about visiting, and discover it with your own eyes. I was astonished and pleasantly surprised by the beauty and depth of Tunisia.
Tunisia is located in North Africa, south of the Mediterranean Sea. There have been many stories told about it, but it’s an entirely different story, when you actually experience it for yourself.
The Tunisian people have always stood for something far bigger than themselves. They fought for freedom and independence from the Phoenicians, followed by the Roman Empire, then the Ottoman Empire, before French protectors claimed the country. However, there was hope, as the father figure, the first President of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, ended the monarchy and in 1957, declared the Republic of Tunisia.
Bourguiba was determined to put an end to many practices as well as end poverty, and this is why today Tunisia is very liberal; 70% of the people are home owners and women have the right to vote. Women achieved suffrage in Tunisia even before those in England and France. Tunisian people are also well-educated; they speak at least three languages fluently – Arabic, Italian and French. Bourguiba was passionate about women’s rights, therefore he was the first president to make bigamy illegal, an act which made it the first Arab-speaking country to do that, even today.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, we drove down to the Medina, which is the oldest in Africa and is one of the UNESCO Heritage World Heritage sites. Its bustling small stalls are filled with locals selling leather goods, rugs, jewellery, spices, bowls as well as super-tacky yet traditional engagement hampers, which look like a Gypsy dress gone wrong, all trying to grab my attention by calling me Suzanna, as apparently I look like one!
I was determined to find a roof location, which I had seen on Instagram, to take some pictures of a patterned arch. After being taken to a random carpet shop by a local who claimed that the arch could be found on the roof of his shop, we were bitterly disappointed to find out that he was only trying to sell us his carpets, but in the end he did take us to another carpet shop, where I got the view that I wanted.
Before we knew it, we got duped into taking pictures with a local ‘superstar’ called Am Salah, who sells his homemade cheese from a small wooden carriage in the medina. Am Salah is full of life and character, everyone calls him ‘uncle’, as he is so friendly. Before I knew what was happening, he took off his cheesy-scented, red hat, and put it on my head so we could have our picture taken together. I think I found my husband, but how ironic that he sells cheese?!
DAR BELHADJ – IN THE MEDINA
Lunch was in one of Tunis’s most exquisite restaurants, and known for the authentic experience of the city, in the most lavish setting in the middle of the Medina, Dar Belhadj. Zouhair, the owner of the restaurant, greeted us at the door and showed us to our reserved round table, which was immaculately laid out. The décor is a healthy overdose of Tunisian patterns, luxurious deep red fabrics and beautifully painted art depicting important men in Tunisia’s history. While my friends ordered their feasts of meat and fish, I went for a traditional vegan couscous with vegetables, and a big salad for starters. Dessert was always a pleasure and mine was a lavish bowl of fruits and the sweetest fresh Tunisian dates, accompanied by traditional black tea with pine kernels.
My couscous was delicious and rich in flavour; I was surprised to see how tiny the grains were and the taste reminded me of African Jollof Rice, which is also made with a rich tomato sauce. On top of my dish, I had some potatoes, peppers and carrots, which were also cooked in the same sauce, which added substance to the dish, and a few extra calories.
Throughout my trip, I noticed that, unless it was a salad which was made with tuna or eggs, or one of their other traditional potato salads, it seemed to be impossible for them to make a delicious salad just out of veggies. I would always get just roughly cut lettuce, sliced tomatoes and cucumber, all carefully placed one on top of the other with no seasoning, even when I requested it. So I stopped ordering it after a few attempts and opted for something else, which I knew would be less bland, like a veggie pizza without the cheese.
I was full to the brim, infact I had to undo my jeans! The service was outstanding and they even scrubbed my bottom with special white cloth liquid in an attempt to remove the black mark on my white jeans, as I must have sat on something! They didn’t succeed, but five stars for trying! The food was delicious and tasted homemade. We were told that the chef is a local woman who really enjoys cooking. You can’t go wrong with a carefully prepared meal in a stunning setting, where locals eat too – but only those who can afford such prices.
If you don’t find what you are looking for in the Medina, you can always get your foreign Zara fix in Berges Du Lac, which is based in a more modern district of Tunis, where a lot of new housing developments are taking place and there are many headquarters of international brand companies.
I think it is worth mentioning that I found it really reassuring that everywhere we went, everyone had to go through security and were thoroughly checked, even going in and out of our hotel. Unfortunately nowhere is safe these days, even in London so we have to not let fear stop us from living our lives, and exploring the world. There were officials everywhere making us feel protected, although nobody can really protect us from unforeseen events. They are also not as intimidating as those ‘Terminator’- style ones in London, who walk around holding those massive guns!
THE NATIONAL BARDO MUSEUM
The National Bardo Museum is grand and breathtakingly gorgeous. It is full of history, ancient mosaics and is home to the largest international mosaic; the 10-metre piece. It is displayed in the first room and you see it as soon as you enter. It has been cut from the floor and put together again on the wall by a team of skilled artists from Tunisia. In 2009, it was expanded, adding a more modern side to the museum, too. In its new configuration, it represents all periods of the Tunisian heritage, and highlights the prime role that the new Tunisia brings to the value of its precious past for the community. My favourite part was the older side of the museum, which is a former residence of the Beys of Tunis. You can see the grand hallway, which now has Roman statues. Each room is packed with art and intricate, detailed ceilings, with each colour having a meaning: Green stands for paradise, blue is the sky and white is for peace.
I left the National Bardo Museum feeling moved and overwhelmed by the beauty and poetry of this place. I think it is a must-visit when you come to Tunis, it’s just too beautiful to miss.
We had the honour and privilege of meeting Madam Sadika Keskes, who is an international Tunisian glass artist, who has dedicated her life to glass-blowing and painting. She is passionate about making a contribution and supporting worthy causes, such as the children who have died during famines, that happen throughout the world.
We were welcomed into her beautiful, artistic, spacious home and design studio in Gammarth with thick, cardamom-scented coffee and dates, served by some young people who appeared to be her students. Her home had a peaceful, welcoming energy inside. I could sense that she is very much a mother figure in the community, and she keeps an open door to all local and international artists, who want to express their creativity and learn from her. One of these was Lella, a woman, who creates stunning, Tunis-inspired, eco-friendly bags from a rain fed crop called jonc, which is a strong and sustainable natural fiber. They are designed for younger, planet-conscious women like me. What better present to buy myself than a gorgeous, handmade bag with pompoms while supporting the local women, and getting something which is vegan – and eco-friendly?
We stayed nearby in the most historically-rich area of Tunis. Carthage is even older than Rome. We were based there as it was very close to the annual International Jazz Festival, which they organise every year shortly after their Independence Day on March 20th.
JAZZ AT CARTHAGE
The Jazz Festival is held in a grand hotel called Carthage Thalassa, where class acts from all over the world come and serenade the locals, as well as visitors. It has been going for the last 12 years and lasts for around nine days. By the look of things, the festival has evolved since then and now it attracts a lot of bands and artists who are more contemporary and those who Tunisians follow and like.
The festival has a relaxed atmosphere, where some people – read:me – see it an opportunity to dress up and make a night of it, while others come in more casual wear and just enjoy the music.
The set-up is a little bit like at the theatre. The main stage was geared up for musicians with stage lights, dry ice machines and huge speakers. As we sat on the red velour chairs waiting for the show to begin, I felt excited to see the performances as anybody who knows me well, knows I love jazz.
The line-up was a mixture of soulful jazz singers, jazz bands and more pop and rock acts. Liam Bailey opened up the show. He is a picky afro-haired, unshaven, charismatic shebeb (‘young man’ in Arabic, as I learned). I could tell he is a bit bonkers and comes from the hood, as #realrecognisesreal. We flew in with him so we got to see him away from the stage, and this gave us more insight into his character, which really flourished on stage.
Sweating after the first song, he admittedly shared; “As you can tell, I don’t go to the gym” but kudos to him; he gave everything he had into each song. I felt immersed in his performances, he was singing as if he meant every word, crotch-grabbing when things got really intense – that kind of passion! His three-man band looked like a creative bunch of dudes, who lived and breathed their instruments and their art. This was clear in their performances and their mastery of their instruments and the way they gave it to us in their solos.
Some other acts throughout the days of the festival included AaRON, who are a famous French band who, judging by the standing audience, are loved by the Tunisians! Walking in to a smoked-out room full of dry ice, which smelled like deodorant, was rather strange, but that’s how they roll! They were a very energetic band, who got the whole venue standing up and singing their songs with their smartphones up in the air filming them. However, I was more fascinated with the guy who was doing their light show, as it was very impressive. The ‘lights guy’ seemed like an orchestral conductor with his head pounding at each beat, as if he were playing a piano. The energy felt as if I were at Hillsongs at my Sunday night service!
All of them were class acts but Tom Odell was one who we were all the most excited to see perform, as he was the most famous performer of the ones we knew. After a lengthy set-up, he came out with his six-man band and went straight into it, no fannying around on the mic, doing an introduction or ‘bigging up’ Tunisia. I guess he knew that doing mic checks in the middle of a show wasn’t what we came for. Nevertheless, Tom delivered. He was exceptionally captivating, and how he pounded those keys on the piano with his eyes closed, singing into the mic, was simply extraordinary and borderline passive aggressive.
Carthage has many ruins dating back as far as Roman times. There is a gorgeous historical site overlooking the coast, near a peaceful garden with lots of blossoming bright yellow mimosa trees. This used to be the main city and you can also see the huge Presidential residence from the ruins up to the hill, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Our charismatic guide, Moncef, told us that the current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is very much loved by the people and is young and very active at the ripe old age of 90. May Beji Essebsi live a long, healthy life!
Carthage is also home to the famous Ex Saint Louis Cathedral, L’Acropolium, which now used as a venue to host gala balls, musical shows and private parties.
It was built by a French man in 1884, painted in gorgeous pastel colours with intricate gold details, where crusader knights had their names carved in marble and hung on the walls. Beneath the last arcade on the right hand side of the nave is a momentum in onyx containing the relics of St Louis, who was the French President.
Recommendation: go to the little side alley before the exit to take some pictures of the city’s skyline. Also there is a pretty garden outside the Cathedral on the left where you can see more ruins.
Tunis has filled my heart with so much warmth and made me see that even I can sometimes have a closed mind due to the perceptions and propaganda in today’s society. It was a gentle reminder for me to remember always that there is more to the story, and that I should allow the people of the country to tell it to me.
What a profoundly beautiful story that was.
Thank you Tunis, for all that you are and for welcoming me the way that you did.
Special thanks to the Tunisian Tourism Board for inviting me and Moncef, Sanna and Kamil for showing me your beautiful country!
Interesting facts about Tunisia:
‘Aishik’ is a lovely word to say as ‘thank you’, which means you wish them a long life.
The country is very liberal; you don’t need to wear anything special unless you are going to a religious place.
Most salads and soups come with eggs and tuna, so be sure to opt out if you don’t want those.
When flying back to the UK, you must put your laptop and tablet into the checked in hold luggage.
Tunisia is famous for its dates, so be sure to get some in a local market and don’t wait to get to Duty Free, as they are very expensive there.
There is no time difference between the UK and Tunisia! Yay to no jetlag!
Best time to go is in the shoulder season so April/May – September/October.
Luxury Sustainable Travel & Vegan Lifestyle Blogger. I encourage people to make better choices in life by staying at eco-friendly hotels, eating a more plant-based diet and using cruelty-free make-up and conscious fashion.