Aleya’s lovely shop in Sidi Bou Said
“Culture is like salt.”
It is with these words that Aleya says goodbye to us, from the door of his souvenir shop at number 2, Imp. Thameur of Sidi Bou Said, in Tunisia.
What was meant to be a relaxing yet trivial afternoon of shopping with my friend – if ever there can be anything trivial in this gorgeous bit of Tunisia – quickly turns into an interesting and unexpected chat accompanied by literature quotes, during the course of which an elderly Tunisian shop owner gives us a fantastic lecture of Italian literature, the kind I would have liked to have when I attended high school in Italy. Who would have ever thought so?
The white and blue buildings of Sidi Bou Said
It is our last day in Tunisia. We have arrived earlier on from Djerba. It must be 40 degrees Celsius outside but we decide, regardless of the heat, to go to Sidi Bou Said, one of the best known tourist posts of Tunisia and that faces the bay of Tunis. Those I know who have visited before tell me of a gorgeous little city, with white buildings and blue windows and doors, perched on a hill and with breathtaking views of the sea.
Read more about Djerba on my post “Ten Reasons to visit Djerba.”
Cobbled alleys in Sidi Bou Said
The taxi leaves us at the bottom of the hill. I look around and I understand that I am already, helplessly in love with Sidi Bou Said. We start walking along the cobbled streets. The white and blue of the houses are interrupted by the bright colors of bouganville flowers which from the gardens pour onto the streets.
A typical view in Sidi Bou Said
We arrive at Café Sidi Chebaane, also known as Café des Délices, and sit on one of the terraces to sip a typical tea with mint and pine nuts. We admire the view, as the temperatures finally start dropping, thanks to the mistral that has started blowing, relentless.
The view of the Bay of Tunis from Sidi Bou Said
We continue our walk and that is when we notice, in a tiny alley, a souvenir shop. Curious, we walk in and say hello in our best French to the elderly owner. He welcomes us with a shy smile, and follows us with the corner of his eye as we browse through the shop, looking for the ultimate souvenir to take home to our family and friends.
Aleya’s shop is in a tiny alley
We chat about this and that, nothing really important and without following any line of thought.
“This would look good in my sister’s home,” I say.
“Look at these gorgeous ceramic bowls,” my friend answers.
And so on, until the moment we talk to the owner in our tentative French and he answers in perfect Italian. He surely understood what we have been talking about so far. I wonder what he thinks of our empty tourist chats.
We ask where he learned to speak Italian so fluently.
“Here and there,” he says vaguely. “I like reading,” he continues.
We figure he must read newspapers, magazines and listen to what little Italian tv and radio reaches Tunisia. But he starts impressing us quoting some of the most well known Italian authors: Moravia, Pavese, Cassola and even Umberto Eco – his favorites. The same one I started enjoying years ago when, living in England, I felt the urge to feel closer to Italy and read anything I could get my hands on in the university library.
One more view of Sidi Bou Said
“Do you also know more contemporary authors?,” I ask. And I quote Ammaniti, remembering how in a somewhat comic way he describes the brutalization and coarsening of Italian society (and that of the rest of the world, really), a world made of appearances, desire of fame and material wealth.
He doesn’t, so I promise him to let him have a book, as soon as possible – perhaps more interested that he doesn’t forget me, because surely I’ll never be able to forget this surreal literary talk in a tiny shop of Sidi Bou Said.
We keep talking, of this and that. My friend, who had already been to Sidi Bou Said, comments that she finds it incredibly quiet and empty compared to the past. The terrorist attacks at the Bardo Museum in March 2015 and that on the beach of Susa in June of the same year caused a significant decrease in the presence of tourists in Tunisia. But this proud country is slowly getting back on its feet, strong in its multiculturalism, acknowledging its beauty now more than ever.
A country this gorgeous deserves a visit
It’s getting late, and we are meant to meet another friend. We need to go. Aleya – that’s the name of our new friend – walks us outside of his shop and he waves goodbye muttering a few, simple words: “Culture is like salt.”
Aleya is wise, and right. Culture gives that extra touch that flavors an otherwise plain life. With these words in mind, we walk to our meeting point, the beautiful Café des Nattes, where we sip a delicious strawberry juice and observe the buzzing life of young Tunisians that drink mint tea, and talk, carefree. And we start recollecting our surreal afternoon to the friend we have just met.
Tea with a view in Sidi Bou Said
I say goodbye to Sidi Bou Said and Tunisia with the desire to get back as soon as possible, to stay longer and get to know its people – Aleya in the first place – and reveal more of its hidden treasures.
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the National Authority for Tourism of Tunisia as part of the #discovertunisia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
A lovely introduction to beautiful Djerba
When my friend Diana asked me if I wanted to join her on a trip to Djerba, Tunisia, I immediately said yes. Not so much because I had been wanting to visit Tunisia (you know me, I would like to go pretty much anywhere), but because it was a good opportunity to see her again after the last time I met her – way too long ago – in Nicaragua.
Find out more about Nicaragua on my post “Awesome things to do in Nicaragua.”
So close to my homeland Sardinia, yet a world apart, it didn’t take me long to fall in love with this Northern Africa country. The landscape, the atmosphere, the people of the lovely island of Djerba (the largest of North Africa) made my visit memorable and I have resolved to go again as soon as possible and spend more time there.
Here are ten reasons why I think anybody should visit Djerba.
Ten reasons to visit Djerba
The beaches are gorgeous and the sea oh so clear
I am spoiled when it comes to the sea: I grew up in Sardinia and I know what a beautiful beach is supposed to look like. I make a fuss if the water isn’t clear enough or if the beach is not to my standards. Djerba is beach perfection: a piece of Caribbean heaven at a stone’s throw. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw how clear the water was, and needless to say, I sprinted to jump in it, much to the amusement of my friend.
Find out more about Sardinian beaches on my post “How I got to one of the best beaches in Sardinia (and almost killed myself there).”
Yes, it is THAT clear.
The cultural heritage is very interesting
Lella Hadria museum is a good introduction to the history of the island, whereas the Museum of Art and Traditions a good place to learn a bit more about its culture. Yet, one of the top places to visit in Djerba is Djerba Explore, a park that reproduces a traditional Tunisian village – including several homes and a well which functions with a camel – and where it is possible to get a full understanding of the traditional way of life on the island.
A traditional home in Djerba
Djerba is multicultural and an example of the peaceful cohexistance of different religious groups
Before visiting Djerba, I knew very little about it. I had no idea that there is a Jewish minority that lives on the island – around 1500 people against a total of 160000. I had the chance of seeing the Lag Ba’omer, a celebration which takes place on the 33rd day after the Jewish Easter and that in Djerba is celebrated at the Ghriba. Located in Hara Sghira, Djerba’s Ghriba is the oldest synagogue of Africa, built in 586 BC.
Celebrations at the Ghriba
On this occasion, Jewish from all over Tunisia as well as other countries gather for the celebrations and for prayers. An old ritual sees women writing their names on eggs, praying for fertility and marriage, and throw them with the rest in the hope to see their wishes come true. Men read their prayers.
Exploring the Ghriba
On the other side of the synagogue, in the caravanserai built in the early 20th century to host the pilgrims and now no longer used, people dressed up for the occasion gather for the most mundane part of the celebration: eating, drinking, chatting and playing. The atmosphere is lively, festive yet relaxed.
Dressed to impress: these two sweet ladies are celebrating in the Ghriba
There is some amazing street art
A whopping 150 international artists have participated in Djerbahood, a project to paint the walls of Erriadh, a traditional village in Djerba. Seeing one of the oldest villages in Tunisia colored with some beautiful murals is a unique experience.
Djerbahood – the walls of Erriadh are colored with beautiful murals
There are great shopping opportunities
I love traditional markets and the suq in Djerba didn’t disappoint me at all. Shops sell fantastic souvenirs – mostly ceramics but also lovely cotton fabric – at a real steal (but haggling is the rule here) and the overall look of the area is stunning. White buildings stand against the blue sky, dotted by the blue of the doors and windows. The atmosphere is relaxed, yet busy. All in all truly enjoyable.
The beautiful suq
The food is delicious
I am a picky eater, but food in Djerba did not disappoint me at all. Fresh salads, delicious fruit juices (my favorite is the strawberry juice), cous cous, grilled tuna, seared fish. Every time I sat for a meal, it was a real feast for my taste buds. Not to mention, I loved the mint tea (preferably with pine nuts) that was served after each meal.
There are some fantastic places to stay
Djerba is a popular tourist destination that is packed with all-inclusive resorts. Yet, the best places to stay are the beautiful boutique hotels that are scattered across the island. Dar Dhiafa is a small hotel composed of a series of traditional homes, all refurbished to keep the authentic Djerba style and at the same time guarantee guests the maximum comfort.
Dar Bibine puts together a traditional Tunisian home with modern design to guarantee comfort and a lovely environment. It definitely is one of the best places to stay in Djerba and one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever seen.
People are truly lovely
People in Djerba are really kind and friendly. Wherever I walked, I was met with a welcoming smile, a kind word and a shy curiosity. Tunisians all speak French, and lot of them also speak Italian and English so it was really easy to communicate. Finding such nice people made my stay there truly memorable.
A group of young men in Djerba – they thought it was hilarious that I cared to take a picture
There’s cats all over
It is no secret that I love cats. Visiting a place and seeing cats roam around makes it all the more charming to me and this is one of the reasons I love Djerba. My only hope is that animal welfare is properly implemented here, and that cats as well as other animals are treated well and given proper veterinary care such as spaying and neutering to begin with.
I love to see cats when I travel
The pace of life is relaxed
Nobody in Djerba ever seems to be in a rush. People calmly go by their daily business and always find time to chat with their friends, have a mint tea in the middle of the day, enjoy the marine breeze that cools off the island in the late afternoon.
The pace of life is so relaxed in Djerba. Even cats take it easy
It’s easy to see why I feel in love with Djerba and I can’t wait to visit again and explore more of it.
It’s easy to see why I want to go back to Djerba
Have you ever been to Djerba? What did you enjoy the most about it?
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