Traveling Tunisia: Exotic Souks, Ancient Ruins and Fabulous Food
By Paul Shoul
Leaning back on the carpet-covered benches on the patio of the Café Des Deliices in Sidi Bou Said Tunisia, my three friends and I exhaled slowly. It had been a long trip from New York to get here.
The waiter brings a tray of sweet pepper mint tea and strong Turkish coffee: the kind with the grounds on the bottom of small cups that you sip slowly. In between us stands a tall hookah.
Our Tunisian guide Wadya laughs at us as we timidly take small puffs off the apple flavored Tobacco that is heated rather than burned by a small piece of charcoal on top.
"No," she says, "like this," drawing heavily on the pipe and repeatedly filling the air around us with huge amounts of fragrant smoke.
Wadya wears a black leather jacket. She is brilliant, speaks three languages perfectly, has a hearty laugh and is alive with a studied knowledge of the history of this country and the world. She is a practicing Muslim praying five times a day, but no veil will cover her face.
300 miles to the west is Algeria, 300 to the east are Libya and somewhere about 200 miles away on the other side of the sea that we are looking out upon is Italy. But the 7000 miles that separated us from New York City does not feel as far as it seemed when I prepared for my trip here.
I remembered a conversation with my auto insurance company agent before I left. "Do they have cars there?" she asked, "Is it civilized?" I relate this to Wadya who laughs, shakes her head and makes a motion with her hand as if she was holding a knife and cutting her throat.
"Don’t worry," I say, "Forgive them for they know not what they do." I’ll spread the word.
Fitting Right In
I have had the good fortune to travel to many parts of the world but this was my first trip to Africa and to a Muslim country. I am Jewish and with a little sun I darken up pretty fast. I have always been able to blend into a crowd anywhere in South or Central America, but that was nothing compared to how I fit into Tunisia.
It makes sense. The Jewish and Muslim people of the world have many religious and physical similarities that spread further back in our shared history and genes that outweighs the current conflicts of some nations.
A simple statement from Wadya quickly dispersed any fear that I had. "We don’t blame all Jews for what Israel does, nor do we think all Americans are George Bush. That would be crazy"
This is not the place to dissect global or Tunisian politics, but it was on the forefront of everyone's mind that I talked with at home before I left. I am a proud American and now the world is proud of us for getting rid of Bush, and I am a proud Jew yet I am highly disturbed by Israel's recent assault on Gaza.
I feel that as travelers we need to be educated about where we are going. Travel done right can open new worlds and break down barriers and misconceptions
The Fact Book
This is what the CIA fact book has to say: "Rivalry between French and Italian interests in Tunisia culminated in a French invasion in 1881 and the creation of a protectorate. Agitation for independence in the decades following World War I was finally successful in getting the French to recognize Tunisia as an independent state in 1956.
"The country's first president, Habib Bourguiba established a strict one-party state. He dominated the country for 31 years, repressing Islamic fundamentalism and establishing rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation.
"In November 1987, Bourguiba was removed from office and replaced by Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in a bloodless coup. Ben Ali is currently serving his fourth consecutive five-year term as president; the next elections are scheduled for October 2009.
"Tunisia has long taken a moderate, non-aligned stance in its foreign relations. Domestically, it has sought to defuse rising pressure for a more open political society."
I was told by my friend Ezziedine that just past the Algerian Border the National Guard often find cars that have just entered the country pulled over the to side of the road with people sleeping inside. When asked why, they say, "It’s the first time we have felt safe."
I loved Tunisia. Yes, they have cars, really nice Italian ones, but they also ride camels and so can you. There are beautiful beaches and plush five-star hotel resorts, but there are also ancient walled cities incredible souks (markets) and a wealth of ancient Roman and Phoenician ruins.
Tunisia is the world's fourth largest producer of olives. The seemingly endless groves of olive trees and vineyards are abundant, green and rich, but the Sahara desert, roamed by nomads, also covers one fourth of this little country.
Here are few ideas about where to go and what to do.
Sights to See Near Tunis
Tunis is the capital with about two million people, almost 20% of the total population of the country and the location of the main international airport where I arrived from Paris. It is a cosmopolitan city and the place from which to explore the North of the country.
Sidi Bou Said
Just 18 miles from the center of Tunis is this is this picturesque village known for its 15th century architecture of Arabic and Andalusian influence and narrow winding cobblestone streets.
The whole village is blue and white. It is charming and I wish I had more time there to photograph. Check out Maison du Baron d'Erlanger that was originally a millionaire's retreat and now houses a wonderful little museum.
The Bardo Museum
Close to Tunis in the suburbs to the west this is a must see. The Bardo is housed in a 13th century Palace and has the finest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. It is spectacular.
Originally a Phoenician city of over a half a million people, it was conquered and destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Romans who rebuilt it a hundred years later. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Antonin Baths are ruins of the largest Roman baths out side of Rome.
About 50 miles from Tunis, a little out of the way but well worth the trip, the ruins of Kerkouane are extremely important to archaeologists. A Phoenician city probably abandoned in 250 B.C., it was never rebuilt by the Romans who followed and is a pure window into their lives.
The Road from Tunis to Douz and the Sahara Festival
About 80 miles from Tunis, Kairouan is considerd the holiest city in Tunisia and the home of the great mosque. Dating back to 670 A.D., it is one of the most important mosques in Tunisia and the site of the first minaret, (watchtower and call to prayer).
A sundial stands in the center of the courtyard and there are rainwater fitters leading to a cistern underneath to hold water. This is a beautiful peaceful, and important historical place to visit.
The mosque of the Barber
Also a UNESCO world heritage site with beautiful tiled courtyards.
We traveled through the Chot El Jerid, a dry salt lake covering 5000 sq km (1930 sq mi) in the middle of the Tunisian desert. It is a barren land devoid of any plant life, punctuated by only a few brightly colored rest stops, salt mounds and odd sculptures that rise out of the nothingness.
This place is cool if only for feeling of minimalist "Zen" as you gaze out into the nowhere. The salt is exported to other counties for use on winter roads to melt the snow that will never fall here. The road will lead you to Touzer, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
I spent some of my favorite time during this journey walking through the medina, (the old walled city). The light along the skinny streets is beautiful colored by the hue of the deep brown bricks of the tall walls. Parts of the movie 'The English Patient' were filmed here.
Every city in Tunisia has a souk or market area. The souk in Touzer was exotic and full of shops with every imaginable product. Some of the leather and tiles for sale were the best I have seen anywhere. They also had an extensive section devoted to dates where I loaded up on four boxes to bring home.
If you have never had a fresh date, it is a far cry from the sugar-only flavor of the hard little blocks you will find in the States. These dates are complex in flavor with hints of honey, raisins, a little nutty and savory at the same time.
Dar Cherait Museum
This was one of the most delightful museums I have been to. It not only has the usual displays of historic artifacts such as weaponry, glasswork, art and jewelry that were all worth pondering, it has room after room of depictions of Tunisian history through the use of life-sized models, traditionally clothed, frozen in time. Very cool and so realistic, it’s a little eerie… in a good way.
I was exhausted after touring this place and my head hurt from trying to take in what I had just seen. Inside a fortress-like structure, with walls high enough to contain the life sized plastic dinosaurs, this is a lengthy trip through time.
Just imagine trying to depict the entire evolutionary, religious and artistic history of the world at about a one-fourth size. At first I was shocked and then as I tried to see this all through the eyes of a child I came away delighted.
Some of the Star Wars film were also filmed in Tunisia and I, like many people, made the pilgrimage to visit this papier-mache village set in the middle of the desert. George Lucas filmed here in 1997. It took 150 people three months to build it and they are in the process of restoring it. If you loved the movie you have to go here.
Douz: The Gateway to the Sahara
The Festival of the Sahara draws people from all over North Africa to celebrate desert life. In all my travels this was one of the top events I have ever attended.
Douz is a desert oasis at the edge of the endless sand dunes of the Sahara. Thousands of people pack the stands to watch the events: camel racing and camel fighting (a short battle limited to one bite so as not to hurt the animal, more of a victory through domination).
Horse racing is also a huge part of the festival, as well as displays of amazing stunt riding. Their horsemanship is unmatched in the world. It is jaw-dropping to watch them fly by shooting rifles while standing in the saddle at a full gallop or riding upside down.
On the more bizarre side there is snake charming and a competition amongst dogs to hunt down a rabbit. During one of these, the rabbit avoided the dog at every turn to the cheers of the crowd until all the other dogs on the side lines could not contain themselves and a pack of them ran into the crowd after it.
Different tribes had set up tents circling the area, and some were cooking traditional food over open fires. Music and dance and parades ended one of the coolest days I have spent anywhere.
On our way back to Tunis we stopped at El Jem to see the Roman amphitheater. Built in the year 200, it is almost as big as the one in Rome and could hold over 30,000 spectators.
This is a place to explore slowly. I climbed high into the stands and later sought out the smallest stone holding cells I could find, wondering what it would have been like to wait there before battling for your life.
Where to stay and eat:
The Roman amphitheater in El Jem
During my ten days in Tunisia I only stayed in two different hotels and made day trips around the country from them.
Hotel Sidi Bou Said Sidi Dhrif
2026 Sidi Bou Said
Tel: (71) 740 411
Fax: (71) 745 129
Telex: 13 911
This a four-star 32-room hotel centrally located 15 minutes from the airport in Tunis. It has a pool, there is wi fi available for your room, and it has one of the best restaurants I tried in all of Tunisia. Many locals ate there, which is always a good sign.
Most importantly, the people that ran this place were really nice. I want to thank them for all their hospitality. This is what it's all about when you are traveling. I highly recommend it.
In the heart of an oasis in between Tunis and Tozeur this is more than a five-star hotel; it is a destination in and of itself. It is built into a cliff, with beautiful rooms overlooking the mountains and the ruins of ancient Berber city.
It also boasts a world-class spa and a top-notch restaurant. It was one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in anywhere in the world. I spent five days there and felt completely relaxed. I would have signed on for another week if I had the time. Want to take a walk in the Desert Mountains? Just step outside.
The Three Flavors of Tunisia
I was told that Tunisian food could be broken down into three colors and flavors. On coast the color was blue and the meals were light, mostly seafood. In the west near the mountains the color was green, and the flavors were stronger, lots of vegetables. They were "the kind of people that drink olive oil in the morning like water."
Finally, in the south, in the desert regions, the color was yellow. These were people who lived from their animals and ate lots of dates, milk, grilled meats and preserved foods that were kept for years in olive oil and made into stews.
I found this all to be true. Common to all the regions, every meal started with some variation of the same starter. Bread and harisssa, a wonderful red pepper paste, olive oil (bright green peppery and fresh) accompanied by Mediterranean red tuna fish; small green olives and sometimes celery and onions.
I found this combination so flavorful that it was always a challenge to leave enough room for the meal. Also common to all regions was a liberal use of couscous, and meals ended with fruit and dates, usually a large bowl of each.
The wine in Tunisia is outstanding. They have been perfecting it for thousands of years. I liked Magon the best.
Like all hot countries (that allow you to drink), they make a light crisp lager. There is only one Tunisian beer called Celtia. I don’t care what any self-appointed expert micro beer snobs or English pub fanatic Guinness drinkers say, this is a great beer and perfect to drink with grilled lamb or salty calamari.
Dar El Jed
This is considered one of the best restaurants in the world. That’s quite a mouthful, but I can attest that it is true. It was filled with local and international dignitaries enough so that I had to be careful where I pointed my camera.
It is housed in an authentic and traditional Tunisian home. A very classy place -- the food was perfect, everything that I hoped I would eat in North Africa -- and the service was precise and comfortable.
Here is a sample of what I tried: stewed radish with feta cheese, sweet marinated squid and shrimp, stuffed artichoke with egg and anchovy and liver and kidney stew. There are many who come to Tunisia for religious pilgrimages, but this was foodies' Mecca and well worth the whole trip.
Restaurant Au Grand Bleu
Avenue Taïeb Méhiri, BP 15
Gammarth, Phone: +216 71 913 900
This place is huge (350 seats), and very elegant, in the hills close to Tunis. The specialty is seafood, and it did not disappoint. The waiter brings a tray laden with fresh fish and lobsters from which you can make your own choice and decide how it is to be to be cooked. Along with our main dish we had a selection of appetizers that included something I had never eaten before, squid eggs. These were amazing, simply sautéed in butter and full of flavor.
La Kasbah Hotel
Avenue Ibn El Jazzar Kairouan 3100
This is a great restaurant in a spectacular hotel in the heart of the old city. For lunch I had grilled lamb and chicken and ogga, a stew of tomato, green pepper and egg.
The harrissa was stronger and very salty compared to others I had tried but what amazed me the most was the color and flavor of the olive oil on the table. It was bright green and tasted like you were drinking an olive. I had never experienced this before.
Olive oil is a big deal in Tunisia; they are one of the major producers on the planet, but they are very understated about its presentation. Just a simple little bottle with no fanfare, but what’s inside will blow your mind.
Hotel Dar Chraeit
Tozeur, Tunisia, zone touristique
+ (216) 76-454888
Right next to the museum of the same name, this is an impressive hotel tiled beautifully from floor to ceiling. Even the pool outside where we had lunch was a work of art. The setting was perfect and where I had the best "brik" of my trip. A brik is a triangular turnover made from a cross between phyllo dough and a spring roll stuffed with tuna, egg parsley, and potatoes. It is deep fried in olive oil and the egg must be runny. Wow, they are good and this place was great.
Lunch by the pools -- there are a few -- at this impressive luxury hotel was an experience in restraint.
Aside from the buffet that included every delicacy from Tunisia, perfectly prepared, there was an outside barbecue station that not only included baby lamb and chicken and beef, they brought out an entire tuna fish on ice to carve off steaks to sear quickly on the grill.
This place offers a taste of luxury that only the lucky ever get to experience. Its huge. How big? Well, let’s just say that it has the Guinness Book of Record's largest hotel suite in the world.
The restaurant where we ate was equally impressive, but the level of service is what blew me away. The waiter made a move I had never seen before: while holding a heavy tray, with the other hand he leaned the bottle on the glass and tilted it while pouring a beer so the head would not get too big. A small thing but a very classy move.
Les Oliviers Palace,
Avenue Hedi Chaker 25, 8050, Sfax, Tunisia
Located right on the Harbor in the port city of Sfax, this was one of my favorite meals of the trip. Like all of Tunisia, they cook lamb perfectly, but for me it was all about the fresh seafood. We had plate after plate of fish, shrimp and calamari grilled or sautéed with olive oil and salt. When you have the freshest ingredient that’s all that is needed and it was perfect.
For more info on Tunisia go to tunisia.com
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.