‘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 (December).
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 another one.
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 founded Carthage. 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 occupied Tunisia 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 sentence!
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 and Algeria, 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.