15 June 2010

Impromptu Escape to Tunisia

Call me crazy, call me frivolous, call me what you like.

I'm an adventurer. . .

And I could not resist a criminally cheap flight to Tunisia for a long weekend.  So I set off for Paris... and two hours later, I landed in North Africa!  It was one of the loveliest flights of my life, crossing the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, flying south over the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, crossing over Algeria, and touching down in the capital city of Tunis.

My first (of hopefully many) trips to French-speaking Africa has indeed cast a spell over me. The Tunisians are a very warm people, who speak French with a lovely, sing-song accent. The official language is Arabic, but most citizens speak French as well, due to the former french occupation.  

I spent hours wandering the maze-like streets of the Medina, exploring mosques, souks, palaces, roman ruins and the Muslim University.  The architecture is a glorious marriage of Arab, Ottoman, Byzantine, and Andalusian styles.  Unlike the slender, feminine minarets of Turkey or Egypt, the mosques in Tunisia are much more similar to those of Morocco; usually one lone minaret, geometric and masculine in appearance.  My senses were flooded by the aroma of jasmine sold in tight bunches by children in the streets, the chaotic exchanges of street vendors negotiating prices, the spectrum of colorful spices, jewelry, textiles and fruits in the souks, and the visions of arches, rainbow tiled walls and floors, mosaics, and narrow alleys. 

My favorite feature of Tunisia would be the charming doors found all over Tunis and beyond. The doors are usually blue (the Tunisian color of prosperity and happiness), although I also saw them in vibrant shades of  orange, yellow, green, brown and red. Against the bleached white stone architecture, the heavy wooden doors are dazzling. Each door is studded with large nails in traditional patterns, and always have three handles, which correspond to bells which inform the people inside of the nature of their visitor. Traditionally, the left handle is for guests, the right for the man of the house, and the smaller knob on the lower right for the wife and children of the household. Nowadays, the handles have lost their significance, but the beauty of these doors remains the trademark of Tunisia. It was impossible to resist the urge to photograph them.  They just beckoned to be opened, to reveal their secrets.

The village of Sidi Bou Saïd, about 20 km northeast of Tunis, was also an enchanting excursion.  The entire village is cerulean blue and white, crowning the cliffs that overlook the Bay of Tunis. There, I lost myself in the labyrinths of narrow streets which curve up the hills; visiting artisans of pottery, jewelry, furniture, tiles, and mirrors.  A visit to the legendary Café des Délices was also in order, in honor of the famous song of the same name by Patrick Bruel. There, I sipped mango juice and Thé à la menthe, humming the melody lightly under my breath, gazing across the bay, and the distant glittering lights of Tunis.  I watched teenage boys, each holding a tiny bundle of jasmine, sip tea and discuss with one another, occasionally lifting the fragrant blossoms to their noses. Across the terrace, a table of girls, knowing fully well that they were the topic of interest, giggled and whispered to one another behind their white
 headscarves... I sat there in between, smiling and imagining how magical first love must feel in a place like this... Sidi Bou Saïd at night is one of the most enchanting places on earth; the hushed sounds of the sea lapping at the shores below, the scent of jasmine and shisha pipes permeating the air, the moonlight reflecting off the gleaming white architecture, casting strange shadows across the cobblestone streets.

The ancient ruins of the Phoenician city of Carthage just outside of Tunis were also spectacular. At night, the columns of temples and amphitheater are lit in such a way that their details are visible even from the highway. I would have loved to spend more time exploring there.

My final day was well spent on the beaches of Hammamet, dubbed the "Saint Tropez of Tunisia" for its world class beaches and spectacular modern hotels.  The only refuge from the brutal African sun was to bathe in the cool waters of the Mediterranean, emerging occasionally to eat and wander the Medina.  On the beach, vendors sold figs, melon, and Brik, a Tunisian specialty pastry filled with egg, ground meat, or seafood. As much as I adored the beaches of Hammamet, I found the area less authentic than the city of Tunis and Sidi Bou Saïd.  As beautiful as the high rise hotels and tourist attractions were, give me the authenticity of a medieval medina any day.

As I gazed out the window on my flight back to Paris, the African coastline disappearing in the clouds, I struggled to find the one word to best describe this beautiful country... 'Welcoming' is the best description, because it encompasses everything about Tunisia... from the smiling, helpful citizens, to the inviting waves of the Mediterranean on the spotless beaches, to the tantalizing cuisine, to the exotic treasures sold in the souks, down to those irresistible bright Tunisian doors, I've already promised myself I will return one day. When that day comes, I intend to open one door... just one... and listen to the secret she holds inside for me.

Girl with a henna tattoo, Sidi Bou Saïd

View from Café des Délices, Sidi Bou Saïd

View of the Bay of Tunis from Café des Délices, Sidi Bou Saïd

Sidi Bou Saïd

Boy selling jasmine flowers, Sidi Bou Saïd


A mosque minaret in Tunis





Porte de France, at the entrance of the Medina, Tunis


The Medina, Tunis

Beaches of Hammamet


  1. Very picturesque. The photo of Cafe des Delices is very romantic-looking. The doors give the impression that they they are much more than utilitarian and decorative--they speak volumes of tradition and history. Mom

  2. Love it, babe! Cafe des Delices is a great song by the way. Muah!


  3. Jamie,

    I just wanted you to know that some time back I had the unexpected pleasure of stumbling upon your blog where I read your post on your trip to Istanbul.

    Naturally, I neglected to jot down your blog name and address in a separate location and I lost track of it, even though I had deliberately included it in an exhaustive blog roll at "quasi French" (quasifrench.blogspot.com).

    Fortunately for me, I stumbled back upon your blog and this time I have made a not to myself and will include it in my blog roll at ...Spit and Baling Wire...

    I think that your blog is fantastic with respect to your record of your travels and you have genuinely inspired me to visit some of the places that you have gone.

    Just a note of thanks and I hope to read more of your adventures.


  4. Good post....thanks for sharing.. very useful for me i will bookmark this for my future needs. Thanks.!
    Katni Yellow Sandstone


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