Sidi Bou Said, a blue and white village perched atop the cliff of Jebel Manar, overlooks the Gulf of Tunis and acts as a seductive siren to entrap the visitor. A short distance up the coast north of Tunis, past the ruins of Carthage, it's one of the most striking and beautiful villages that edge the Mediterranean. Clean, sparkling white houses trimmed with azure, outlined against the clear blue sky, for hundreds of years has drawn painters, poets and writers from around the world. Sidi Bou Said owes its existence to the Andalusian-Muslim refugees, expelled from Spain in the 17th century, who established it as a replica of the villages in their former homeland.
Seemingly perpetually white-washed, the homes and their luxuriant gardens offer peace and inspiration for the creative soul. Cervantes was the first famous writer to call it home. Many followed, most notably André Gide, Paul Kee, Walter Macke and Gustav Flaubert. The town was discovered by the European wealthy, chiefly French ex-pats who went to great lengths in order to preserve its true character, safeguarding it from ruin in the haste of
modernization. Today, there is very little which is not Tunisian, but with a taste of Andalusia. Its unique eye-catching architecture has become a showplace of Tunisia at its best.
Every visitor who travels to this jewel soon finds that it is built for strolling. One can explore the village for hours, roaming lanes and stairways. The waterfall of sugar-cube white houses, castles and minarets that appear to plunge into the sea tantalize every visitor. It is a joy to walk the main street and the connecting cobbled lanes, edged by bazaars, shady restaurants and clean neat white houses enhanced by doors, ironwork and windows painted, in the main, deep blue. Most homes are smothered in bougainvilleas intermixed with bright violet morning glories - their scent subdued somewhat by the aroma of jasmine, overflowing from the flower-filled patios.
The domes, finely made grills, mousharabiahs (Arab type window screens) and enormous doornails seem to give the homes perfect decorative and geometric patterns. A traveller once wrote, 'Sidi Bou Said is not a village but a lesson in geometry of spaces, engulfed in the air of a construction game suspended between earth and sky.'
Tourists usually make their way up the cobbled main street, lined with shops selling handmade goods, to the shrine of Sidi Bou Said after whom the village is named. Through the years, the town grew around his tomb. Still venerated by the townspeople, every year during the month of August, a festival is held in his honour.
The filigreed birdcages for which Sidi Bou Said is famous are displayed in every shop. More ornamental than
practical, they are employed as lighting fixtures, flower holders and casings for lanterns. Paintings by international and Tunisian artists are on sale everywhere.
When one tires of shopping and strolling, the Qahwat al-Alia (the High Cafe), better known as Café des Nattes, located at the top of the main street, is the place to rest. Nestled in the shade of a minaret, it has been an institution in Sidi Bou Said for more than 300 years. Here, generations of Tunisian society along with tourists, stop for refreshments. And day after day, a good number of the town's inhabitants spend their evenings here enjoying card games or conversing while sipping cups of tea, topped with pine nuts - one of the country's specialties. In the background, the haunting music of the traditional Tunisian malouf - brought to the country by the Andalusian Muslims - provides another dimension to the interlude. It is a restful and memorable stop, especially before a sumptuous dinner.
Facts About Sidi Bou Said and Tunisia:
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
- To enter Tunisia, no visas are necessary for travellers from Western Europe, Japan, U.S.A. and Canada.
- The currency used in Tunisia is the dinar - one US dollar is worth about 1.31 dinars. Tunisia is one of the few countries in the world where hotels give a better exchange rate than the banks.
- Try Tunisian food. It's very tasty. Three of the best dishes are couscous, prepared in seemingly hundreds of different ways, from sweet too very hot; briq - a thin pastry that comes with a variety of fillings, but always includes an egg; chakchouka - a ratatouille which is offered in many types; and spaghetti cooked Tunisian style - for me the epitome of pasta dishes.
- If not on a group tour or not staying in Tunis, Hotel Sidi Boufars, in the heart of town, is fine abode in which to stay. Daily cost for room with breakfast about 75 dinars.
- If driving to Sidi Bou Said, stop in the nearby La Marsa at the Saf Saf Café. It is well worth a stopover for its decor, aura and tea with pine nuts.
- There is less crime in Tunisia than in Western Europe or North America, but beware of pick pockets, especially in crowded trains, buses and souks.
- When taking tours, make sure the guide speaks English. If you do not ask, French will be the language spoken.
- Tunisia is the most sophisticated, relaxed and tolerant state in North Africa. Women travellers are very safe when travelling alone.
- With the exception of its capital, Tunis, Tunisia is geared up for tourism. The most up-to-date tourist facilities are found in all its resorts.
If you go
Tunisia National Tourist Office: 1253 Ave. McGill College, Suite 655, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3B 2Y5.
Tel: 514/397-1182/0403. Fax: 514/397-1647.
Tunisian Tourism Office: 1515 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Washington, DC 20005.
Tel: +(1) 202 862 1850. Fax: +(1) 202 862 1858.
or see website: http://www.tourismtunisia.com/
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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