Sidi Bou Said is a picturesque village of white-walled, blue-shuttered buildings, some draped in bougainvillea, on the outskirts of the capital city of Tunis. I might never have discovered it, but for my good fortune to be sent there on a work trip to present at a conference. The organizers thoughtfully decided that the city centre might be too overwhelmingly hot for us, so they chose the fresher coastal air of this delightful outpost instead. It’s a hard life!
I must point out that, at the time of writing, Tunisia is in a state of emergency and has been for some time. A series of terrorist attacks in recent years, including in the capital and in tourist areas, led to a travel ban which was only lifted in July 2017. Following major efforts by the government to improve security, tour operators began to return in 2018, once again offering beach holidays to popular resorts like Hammamet and Monastir.
However, some parts of the country are still declared as unsafe for travellers, particularly those close to the borders with Libya and Algeria. Caution and vigilance are advised in other areas, as political and religious tensions do occasionally result in conflict and random attacks.
If you’re thinking of travelling to Tunisia, I strongly recommend that you check the travel advice issued by your government. This can usually be found on your Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site. Government travel advice is important to check before travelling to any potentially unsafe or politically unstable territory, because apart from your own personal safety, it can affect your travel insurance validity if you don’t follow that advice.
I arrived in Tunis on a hot, sunny October afternoon. The city looked parched and dry with little greenery to be seen anywhere – very desert-like. So when we arrived at the Hotel Sidi Bou Said, with its lovely gardens, it felt like a tropical oasis. We were welcomed with a delicious pink cocktail, just the thing to refresh a hot thirsty traveller.
There seemed to be hardly anyone else around, and the very inviting pool and terrace were deserted. I remember thinking that this could be the perfect autumn holiday destination – beautiful weather, no crowds, great sea views, and so much to explore. The village of Sidi Bou Said itself was a 20 minute walk away, and the ancient ruins of Carthage a 10 minute drive. Tunis was full of historic buildings and museums to visit, and markets to shop in.
Advice for women travellers
As a woman traveller, I found Tunisia to be one of the more moderate Islamic nations (the current Mayor of Tunis is a woman). I was not expected to wear a veil nor hide my hair. I was merely advised to keep my arms covered and not to leave the hotel without a male companion. So I covered up and enlisted a male colleague to walk to Sidi Bou Said with me one day. It was well worth it – the village is beautiful.
We visited the local market, or souk, and watched craftsmen at work. Some were painting pottery in colourful geometric designs, while others hammered out intricate patterns in metal bowls. My companion decided to buy some gifts for his family, and naturally was expected to haggle. He offered the stall owner a price which was met with theatrical disgust. “Me, I am poor artisan, and you are rich capitalist tourist!” My colleague’s initial attempts to resist the tirade of moral and economic shaming soon faltered, and he eventually capitulated. Walking away with his gifts, he ruefully admitted that he had been “done”!
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit Carthage, as duty was calling. On the day of my presentation, we were treated to lunch at the British Ambassador’s residence – a graceful historic house not too far from the hotel. The cold buffet was set out on the terrace overlooking the gardens. As soon as it was uncovered, the wasps descended and attacked the food with relish. Attempts to shoo them off were not particularly successful. I wondered what the protocol was for such circumstances. Everyone pretended not to notice. I must admit, it wasn’t exactly the best preparation for my already-unenviable post-lunch presentation slot!
Some months later, I read Masha Williams’ book* ‘In the Bey’s Palace‘ about her life as a diplomat’s wife in that very same house. I was highly amused to read that she had exactly the same experience. Newly-arrived in Tunis and keen to make a good impression on the diplomatic community, Masha served her first official lunch on that same terrace, against the advice of her staff, only to find the wasps descending. Clearly this is a lesson that is worth repeating! I mention it in case anyone is thinking of taking a picnic outdoors during their holiday. Unless you love wasps and other insects, don’t do it.
One of the reasons I love visiting postcolonial towns and cities is the fascinating cultural mix that their history sometimes leaves behind. Tunisia’s blend of French and Arabic is definitely one of the more interesting that I have experienced, as the two cultures are so different. Sidi Bou Said and the Medina in Tunis (a World Heritage site) offer the best of Moorish architecture and intricate, colourful design, whereas modern Tunis has elegant French colonial buildings and avenues.
The food in Tunisia is wonderful, combining the best of both cuisines. I found service to be excellent and the people were warm, welcoming and courteous. I can only hope that this lovely country enjoys more peaceful and happier times in the near future, so that more of us can discover it.
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