SIDI BOU SAID
I have never seen a sea so mystical it looked like it was encased in a frosted glass display chest. Under the 40'C heat I wondered whether this was the image ancient tradesmen saw when they see a mirage in the middle of the Tunisian dessert. I squinted a little, wondering whether I was encountering the same optic vision, but what I had in fact witnessed was the heat creating a blanket of steam over the sea so as to give it this blurred, mystical veil. This is Sidi Bou Said, the picture-perfect Tunisian city perched on a hilltop of blue and white. Here all walls are white and all (or 99%) doors take the most beautiful shades of blue - lapis lazuli blue, tiffany blue, persian blue, sky blue..... having never seen so many different kinds of blue I decided to take pictures of all the doors I come across and make a collage out of them.
As the sun started to set we slowly hiked back for dinner at our hotel restaurant Dar Zarrouk, built across the street from Dar Said at the edge of a ravine that faces the Mediterranean. Upon entering the restaurant we were immediately impressed -chic lounge tables dressed in warm, earthy tones centered around an old bougainvillea tree - and as we progressed further into the main dining area we almost lost our breath. The blue expanse reaches out, both from the sky and the sea, for miles without end. The food was, well, Tunisian, and as such we did not expect much, but the view was enough to make us happy.
Taking a stroll post dinner it was surprising to see how the city transformed from its day to night persona - during the day this cobble-stoned town was busy with tourists, but at night it was really busy with both tourists and locals alike. Children as young as one or two were out sitting alongside their parents, the adults chatting away and the children playing in the open space outside their houses. We followed the crowd a little, wondering where everyone was going, but it seemed that the only reason why everyone was out was to enjoy the cool summer breeze, the crisp night air, and the pleasures of each other's company without the heat.
Coming back to the Hotel Dar Said we were pleased to be greeted with an attentive staff and its wide-open Mediterranean views. The rooms are arranged within an enclosed courtyard decked out with a table and a little garden, a typical Moorish design. At the back of the hotel there is a tiled open courtyard with a pool and bar, and a small, perfectly manicured garden where breakfast is served amid fragrant jasmine trees.
Following breakfast the next morning we were whizzed off to the city of Tunis by our driver Aziz. Aziz was a short, gaunt, but good humoured man in his thirties who also happened to speak the best English we have seen in Tunis. Aziz told me that in Arabic my name Nana meant “mint”, and with that I learnt the only Arabic phrase I required on the trip – the oh-so-good “te Nana” or mint tea.
The souks of Tunis are an amazing sight. The sights, the sounds, the smells; the children playing soccer in the back alleys and the orange-haired woman sitting aimlessly on the ledge of a blue door…all this mystifies me and adds an aura of intrigue to the already perplexing culture of Tunisia. If not for the French language that is so prevalent amongst shopkeepers haggling tourists you could be forgiven to have forgotten that this place was once, in the past, a French colony. Nothing here is suggestive of its colonial past, almost everything we encountered were Tunisian to the core.
A friend of Aziz’s took us down winding paths in the labyrinth of souks to a carpet shop which supposedly boasted the best view of the city. The view was indeed impeccable, but what came afterwards was more intriguing still. We were in fact kidnapped, for a matter of two hours or so and with the guise of an invitation to some Nana tea, to a “secret room” where only the best carpets were kept. There we were showcased antique rugs which were once used as bridal gowns and the most beautiful silk carpets I have ever seen – the sheer intricacies of its handicraft and the fact that in every direction you turn the carpet presents itself to you in a different light – from dark green to olive green to near cream – absolutely bedazzled me. We sat on the carpet, stroking its soft fuzz and imagining ourselves as Princess Jasmine flying on a magic carpet…
Dinner was served at Dar El Jeld, probably one of the most romantic restaurants on earth. An unassuming front door so modest we had to do a double-take and double check, leads you into space so surreal you feel like you are one of the characters in the Arabian nights. At the door a slender girl poured saffron water gently into our palms, a gesture of welcome to Tunisia’s most honourable guests. In the dining room, the ceiling is high and voices low as customers dine as if under a clear, perfectly blue night sky. Pillars are connected by an intricately carved out arch and walls adorned with mosaic. In a corner, an old musician is playing an Arabic instrument which name was too complicated for me to remember.
I recall thinking at the time –how could anyone ever consider Paris romantic when romance could be like this in Tunis?
The Romans, when they arrived in this Phoenician city in 146 B.C., did a pretty good job of demolishing the main sites — what is left today really are ruins, surrounded by the well-kept homes of this now-affluent suburb.
But the spirit of Dido, who founded Carthage, and Hannibal, the military commander who used it as a base to invade Italy, still survives, in the rolling seaside hills that lead down to the remains of the Punic port. A morning stroll through the different sites and gardens — the Roman baths, and the Sanctuary of Tophet - are haunting and memorable ones.
Atop a hill overlooking the ancient port city is Villa Didon, an über-modern hotel designed by the French architect Philippe Boisselier. Guides list it as the place to be seen in Tunis, but we were not so pleased. It is true that Villa Didon is trying to be chic, but everything, from the empty lobby drenched in glass and white to the unevenly shaped doors, to the awkward service at the spa, suggested that we were, after all, in Tunisia. It was therefore hard for us to imagine that the great French master Alain Ducasse once run the restaurant (now called Le Rest’ô) here in 2004.
Sidi Bou Said
Dar Saïd (Rue Toumi; 216-71-72-96-66; www.darsaid.com.tn) is beautiful and luxurious. Its 24 rooms go for 275 to 480 dinars.
Dar el Médina (64, rue Sidi Ben Arous; 216-71-56-30-22; www.darelmedina.com) is a former private home that has been turned into a gorgeous and comfortable 12-room inn, still run by the same family that built the house 183 years ago. A double room is $180.
At Villa Didon, the smallest of the 10 rooms start at 370 dinars a night.
Contact Aziz if your French is not up to par: 216 99 345 266