Photo of the courtyard at the Dar Ben Gacem Hotel in Tunis, from my own collection. 🙂
A few weeks ago, I visited Tunisia. I love to travel, and Just the idea of setting foot on African soil was thrilling to me, and even more so because I was visiting a Muslim-majority country. Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began in December of 2010, following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid.
The town of Sidi Bou Said was my first stop. Note this is not the aforementioned Sidi Bouzid, which is a different place, 300 km away. While Sidi Bou Said quite lovely, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Situated along the coastline, the town reminds me of the coastal towns of Greece. The town has mostly smooth white buildings decorated with blue accents and deep green vines with sprays of pink flowers. There are a few restaurants and lots of shops where you can buy trinkets. It’s worth visiting, but I was eager to see Tunis, which is about a 20-minute cab ride away.
Tunis is not terribly touristy, and the people are very friendly. Most people speak French as well as Arabic, but far fewer speak English. The French colonized Tunisia from 1881-1956, and they’ve certainly left their mark.
I had difficulty finding a restaurant that served Tunisian food. But it was easy to find restaurants that offer French food, with menus printed in French.
One evening a security guard stopped me at the entrance of what looked like a restaurant. It turned out to be a pub. It was open to the public, but he realized I didn’t really want to go into a pub. This is presumably because I was wearing hijab. Had I not stumbled upon that establishment, I might have thought there were no bars in Tunis. They don’t seem to advertise.
The lovely St George’s Anglican Church graces the downtown, near the famous Bab El Bahr (Door of the Sea), a Tunisian Triumphal arch, that precedes the bazaar. The day I visited the bazaar it was sunny and 90°F (~32°C). Visitors packed the place. It became even more crowded as the evening approached. By 5 PM, the bazaar begins to shut down. By 7 PM, the shops are shuttered and the crowds have gone.
The Bazaar and Cobblestone Streets
Near the bazaar is the only obvious masjid I saw in Tunis. Al-Zaytuna stands out in part because there are so few. Especially compared to places like Istanbul. I don’t remember hearing the adhan at all while visiting Tunis, whereas it rang out over the land in Istanbul. This absence was disappointing since I so love to hear the call to prayer.
I walked the cobblestone streets for what seemed like a very long time, trying to find the hotel, which was already reserved through an online service. I kept asking people along the way where it was, only to be met with blank stares. Finally, a man in a jewelry shop took it upon himself to find the hotel for me. He left his shop and we wound round and round the narrow streets, asking various people along the way, making our way through what seemed like a maze. At last, we came to a small door that had been cut out of a huge, ornate door from an earlier era. The sign for the hotel was hardly bigger than a dinner plate, and I’m quite sure I would have never found this hotel had it not been for the shopkeeper’s help.
Dar Ben Gacem Hotel
I’ve stayed in hotels all over the world, some of them quite beautiful, but none could match the Dar Ben Gacem in Tunis. I could live in this hotel and be happy forever. Converted from an old residence, the place was filled with charm and elegance and graced with such ornate embellishments, it reminded me of a miniature Alhambra. Every corner of the place, in the room and on the grounds, was comfortable and inviting. Breakfast is served whenever guests roll out of bed and make their way out to the courtyard, and it’s quite a spread. Eggs, toast, fruits, pastries, coffee and a sour homemade lemonade I thought was delicious. I highly recommend Dar Ben Gacem for visitors lodging in Tunis.
One of my favorite things about the city was the outdoor cafes and coffeehouses lining the streets, where people congregate in the evenings. I got some lovely French pastry and an aromatic tea with pine nuts floating one top–something authentically Arab at last. I realized later the shop had charged me double, but it was still inexpensive. The prices in Tunis, outside the airport, are quite reasonable, and it seems perfectly safe to walk at night, even on some of the side streets, which are not necessarily well lit.
If you take a taxi in Tunisia, be sure to negotiate with the drivers. If you’re willing to pay whatever they quote, they are likely to charge you as much as $40 (US) to drive you from the airport to Sidi Bou Said. But if you look at all the cabs lined up, waiting for passengers, you know it’s a buyer’s market. If you offer $15, there will be a driver who will take your offer, even if they seem reluctant at first.
You can also save money by taking the trains, which are pretty good, though it can be a little tricky buying a ticket if you don’t speak Arabic or French.
I almost met an untimely death in Tunis, which I suppose is as good a place to die as any. I was looking down at my mobile and stepped out in the street in front of an oncoming train, completely oblivious. Someone yanked me back to the sidewalk, just in the nick of time, alhamdulillah.
My stay in Tunis was brief, so I didn’t really get to experience the full flavor of the city before it was time to leave. Since there are no direct flights to the US, I returned via Paris, where I spent a couple of days, marveling at the relative wealth. The French have plundered Africa and turned Tunis into an impoverished mini-Paris. Even though Turkey was also savaged by laïcité, it still feels like a Muslim country, but for me, Tunisia does not.
Still, it was a lovely place to visit, and I enjoyed it very much.