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‘I was talking with a group of
young girls here yesterday’, Leila told us, in the airy courtyard of the
Dar Ben Gacem hotel. ‘It’s part of the “I
Can Be” initiative, to show them what female entrepreneurs can achieve.’
I was impressed already by this quietly confident lady, suffused with
energy and a steely determination. And I admit to being a little surprised, as
we were in the heart of the Medina in Tunis, the densely populated capital of Tunisia.
Leila explained how she had bought the historic traditional house from a
famous family of perfume-makers, who had owned it for several hundred years.
‘I converted it into a boutique
hotel, but it is really a social enterprise’, she continued. ‘We have cooking classes here, book-binding
and calligraphy. I want the community to enjoy shared experiences, and to
regenerate pride in urban Tunisia.’
In a country of less than 12 million people, almost 3 million live in
and around the capital. But Tunisia
is markedly different from its immediate neighbours – Algeria to the west, and Libya to the south-east – and other countries in
North Africa and the Arabian Gulf. And it was Tunisia
that kick-started the Arab Spring in early 2011, ousting long-term leader Zine
El Abidine Ben Ali.
A visit to the Den Den Handicraft Village in Tunis is equally enlightening. ‘There are 350,000 people working with
handicrafts in Tunisia,’ Karim Louhichi (International Director for the
Handicrafts Office) told us. ‘And 83% of
them are women’, he added proudly.
‘It is very important for our country’s social model. We want our women to be
empowered, independent and to have ambition.’
This was my first visit to Tunisia, as a guest of the Tunisian
National Tourist Office, on a visit to experience some of the country’s music
and cultural heritage.
There are 45 different shops in the Den Den Village, all passionately
preserving ancient Tunisian traditions. It was quite humbling to see people
poring over designs, and chipping off tiny pieces of stone to create
eye-catching mosaics, following in the footsteps – or handprints – of their
forebears from centuries ago.
At the city’s Bardo
Museum, the scene of
a terrorist attack in 2015 in which 22 people were killed, you’ll find
breathtaking mosaics – and other artefacts - from the Carthaginian and Roman
empires. The Museum’s collection represents a unique source of research on
everyday life in Roman Africa.
Later, we visited the fortress town of El Kef, in the north-west of the country and
just a few kilometres from the Algerian border. The Sicca Jazz
Festival, now in its 5th year, lasts for 5 days
in March and has an eclectic line-up of top-class musicians from around the
world. Californian Eric Sardinas wowed us with a set of pulsating blues rock
that was as far removed from trad jazz
as couscous is from mashed potato.
Other music festivals include ‘Les
Dunes Electroniques’ (underground and electronic music in February on the
site in the Sahara desert where Star Wars was filmed), the Carthage Jazz Festival (April), the Symphonic Festival of El Djem (July/August), ‘Musical October’, held in the impressive
Acropolium of Carthage, a huge structure built on top of Roman ruins in the
late 1800s, and the International Sahara Festival in Douz
Tunisian food is an exotic journey through time and cultures.
Our lunch with Leila at Dar Ben Gacem included ‘Fingers
of Fatima’ (crispy filo pastry rolls filled with egg, cheese, chicken and
herbs, and named after Muhammad’s daughter); a classic Tunisian tuna salad; ‘tagine’ (anything cooked in a tagine,
rather than our own western interpretation – this version was similar to an
Italian frittata); and a glorious pasta dish, unctuously mixed with spicy
passata and baby shark.
At the Dar Chennoufi, a charming old farmhouse converted into a
boutique B&B a few miles from El Kef, owner Raoudha Chennoufi conjured up
for us ‘lablabi’ (a warming
cumin-flavoured chickpea soup); ‘mechouia’
salad (grilled vegetables, tomatoes, onions, peppers and garlic); and an
interesting main course combining veal and tuna.
But the most common Tunisian dish seemed to be ‘brik’, a little like an Indian samosa, with a triangle of crisp
pastry encasing tuna, cheese, meat or vegetables. Yum!
And from Tunis, make the short trip north to Sidi Bou Said, an
enchanting seaside town filled with cobbled streets, vines, palm trees and
flowers, overlooking the Bay of Tunis and where every house is white and blue,
looking for all the world like Santorini has been relocated to North Africa.
The air is filled with the sweet smell of ‘bambalouni’,
a flour dough fried in oil, sprinkled with sugar and soaked in honey. Eat this
Tunisian doughnut strolling around the town’s souk….before heading back for
Whatever you go to Tunisia
for, you’ll be immersed in history.
In ancient times, the country was largely inhabited by Berbers, before
Phoenician immigrants started arriving in the 12th century BC and
Some evidence of this civilisation remains, but the modern city of Tunis has largely been built on top of old Carthage.
The Roman Empire conquered this part of north Africa in 146 BC, and
for the next 800 years. Visit some of their remarkable heritage, notably at
Dougga and El Djem. Muslims took over at the end of the 7th century,
followed by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th
century. This has all resulted in a fascinating mix of religious venues,
mosques and churches often intermingled.
French colonisation lasted from 1881 to 1957, one of their main legacies
being language. Arabic and French are almost interchangeable, even in the same
Tunisia and its tourist industry suffered
badly in 2015, with the Bardo Museum terrorist attack and the well-documented
attack on Sousse
beach, in which 38 people – of whom 30 were British – were killed.
Since then, the Tunisian authorities have worked closely with the
Foreign Office to ensure higher standards of security. Risks remain,
particularly close to the borders with Libya
but I felt completely safe at all times during my visit. In fact, the police
presence and assistance was much more visible than in the UK, even extending to helping when
we found ourselves locked out of our accommodation after the Jazz Festival.
For curious Silver Travellers, Tunisia is a fascinating country to
visit, bursting with an exotic blend of cultures, religions, language, music
and food. And with people like Leila Ben Gacem working so hard to ensure it is
a place where heritage is protected, and where equal opportunities abound, why
not go and see for yourself how Tunisia
is fighting back.
For tours to Tunisia, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne.
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