​Tunisia – the Charm of the Orient

Published 17.01.2018

Photo: Typical buildings on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis

„Tunisia – isn´t that dangerous?“ I heard this comment a few times when I mentioned my travel destination over New Year´s Eve to my friends. This question surprised me a bit. Is Tunis more unsafe than Paris, London or Berlin? I don´t think so, will get back to that later.

My trip started with Tunisair. This airline offers the best connections to Tunisia. A friendly service but no business class … oops! But no problem, the flight only took two hours from Germany. Since I already had been to Tunisia a few times (I worked there for a German tour operator in the 80s), I had a fixed plan for my week – medina (old city) in Tunis, history in Karthago, culture in Sidi Bou Said and relax in Gammarth.

Photo: View over Carthage (Karthago)

Quite frankly, the top hotels have mostly seen better times. However, I have a very cool recommendation for all looking for comfort and a typical accommodation at the same time: the stunning Palais Bayram is located right in the middle of the medina, hidden behind beautiful gates. This wonderful place seduces with its historic architecture. Cabs cannot take the guests right to the entrance, the alleys in the old city are just too small. So plan a few minutes for a walk with your luggage – or call the hotel in advance and they will get someone to help you.

Photo: The Sky is in the house! - Palais Bayram in Tunis

I enjoy a warm welcome and have a short walk around. Then I just leave my suitcase in my suite and off I go to explore the medina! All these narrow alleys look the same and unfortunately, I have neither GPS nor a good old map. Not very smart! After a few minutes, I am completely lost, gosh! I ask a group of young girls, one of them almost gets a heart attack because of my unexpected question … and then all of them are giggling (and me too). Unfortunately, they cannot help at all, despite my explanations in French. With a little help from above (possibly), I manage to find my little palace – more coincidence than anything else. Never stroll through the medina without a map in the evening – lesson learned!

Photo: Fell in love with this place - Palais Bayram in Tunis

My hotel suite is just a dream. Blue walls, awesome old furniture, and a gorgeous chandelier.The bathroom tub is another highlight – it is a really old piece with golden fixtures. I really don´t need the TV, but the free WiFi is a must, of course. I don´t feel like having another walk in the dead medina at this time, so I have dinner in the restaurant of Palais Bayram. Very elegant and matching the historic style of this place – however, no alcohol is served here! So I have to do without wine while enjoying my vegetarian couscous. No problem! Tunisia is a rather moderate country, but here and there you notice of course the influence of the Islam. I realize this again in the very early morning when the muezzin calls for the first prayer. All good, but does it have to be so loud? Fortunately, I always have earplugs with me – that´s the solution.

Photo: I felt like a king in my blue suite at Palais Bayram

Breakfast is served in a little „salon de thé“ – very typical Tunisian. I get a fruit salad, cheese, assorted bread and I order a tasty omelet – just wonderful. The espresso is excellent, what a great start into the day. And the sun is shining – woohoo! So now it is time to explore the medina in daylight. During the day, it´s quite a different story. One little shop after the other, filled with junk but also with beautiful things such as jewelry, pottery, and leather goods. Where to look first? The merchants are friendly, not too intrusive. Even at this time of the year, the little alleys are full of people. And – oh my gosh – I discover an old long play with German hit songs („Schlager“) of the 70s, including a song of my dear friend Katja Ebstein - one of Germany`s most popular singers in those days. I take a picture for her. She will love it!

Photo: Shop until you drop in the medina of Tunis

Time for a very needed second coffee. But where? There are so many nice cafés. I have a look at the awesome Café Mnouchi with its retro-style but move on to the Café Panorama. As the name suggests, the view over Tunis is just stunning – and my espresso and the fresh orange juice are fantastic. I watch all the young couples holding hands and even exchanging kisses. Well, it seems like Allah is not watching – it´s good the way it is. A few days later, I taste some of the lovely sweets at Café El Ali – what a sin! You can also eat very well in this place, where they serve vegetarian dishes. Don´t miss the famous coffeeshop M`Rabet, which is mentioned in every guidebook – very Tunisian and likewise with an awesome view.

Photo: Café Panorama - best view over Tunis!

Photo: Tasty little sins at El Ali in Tunis

After my caffeine infusion, I explore with its impressive Catholic church, lots of cafés, shops … and many people. After all, it´s Saturday and the sun is shining. Tunisian hipsters and beautiful young girls in tight jeans (some of them with a headscarf) are all over the place. Tunisia´s next top model might be among them ;-).

Photo: Afternoon stroll on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis

What a contrast in the afternoon; I want to know where the „jeunesse dorée“ of Tunis goes for coffee or dinner. Off we go to Berges du Lac, a relatively new neighborhood, approximately 20 minutes by cab from downtown. Before I forget – taxis are ridiculously cheap in Tunis and good even for limited travel budgets! At the „716“ I get a giant fruit platter, more healthy than all those sweet cakes looking at me. Cool people all over the place. However, if you are looking for authenticity, just forget about this place. Here you rather get an impression of the modern face of Tunis, including a breathtaking lake view and a wonderful sunset. Bad news again for wine (and beer) lovers – no alcohol is served. However, you can smoke your cigarette or even a shisha indoor – hard to believe but true. I feel like I´m in a German bar in the 80s, very funny. For dinner, I go to one of the fancy places just next door – again, no alcohol but wonderful food. I get used to having a fruit cocktail with my dinner instead of wine.

Photo: Spectacular sunset at Café 716 - while a plane is about to land at Tunis airport.

The next day it´s time for an excursion to the legendary artist village Sidi Bou Said. The train takes you there from downtown Tunis in approximately 25 minutes. The trip does not even cost a dollar – but you have to accept local standards in return. But who cares? The train leaves, even if not all doors are closed and sometimes it stops again when someone comes running after the departure of the train. How cool is that? From the station, you only walk a few minutes to the center of this lovely village. A symphony in blue and white. The famous painters Macke, Klee, and Moillet were fascinated by Sidi Bou Said when they visited this enchanting place in the early 20th century. I totally understand them. White houses with blue doors and balconies, the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains of the Gulf of Tunis in the background, it is simply magic.

Photo: So blue - enchanting Sidi Bou Said

Don´t miss the sunset at Café des Délices with its decks and the colorful Tunisian blankets all over the place. Take photos, then put your smartphone away and just enjoy the breathtaking view – life can hardly be any better. After sunset, you may want to explore a few galleries – I recommend „Rock the Kasbah“ with awesome furniture and the house of Achraf Baccouch, a very edgy artist who lives alternately in Dubai, New York, and Tunis. Achraf´s art represents excellent Tunisian creativity and combines tradition with modern aspects. His pictures of international celebrities such as George Michael and Meryl Streep in front of Tunisian landmarks are simply stunning. Ah – should you wish to stay overnight in Sidi Bou Said, I have two recommendations for you. The chic Villa Bleue is a bit expensive but offering excellent quality and marvelous views. If you want to treat your travel budget with care, you may consider to staying at the charming Hotel Bou Fares – very small, friendly staff and a lovely patio where breakfast is served if the weather allows.

Photo: The incredible view over the Gulf of Tunis from Café des Délices

Photo: Edgy art by Tunisian designer Achraf Baccouch

Carthage (Karthago) is another highlight in the Tunis region. If you missed part of the history lessons at school, you get a great opportunity to learn about the Romans and famous Hannibal who crossed the Alps in the 2nd century BC and fought the Romans. Carthage is a true open-air museum with many columns and artifacts and a wonderful view over the Gulf of Tunis. The old Cathedral on Byrsa Hill is a great landmark and the interesting museum is just next door, not to miss!

Photo: The Byzantine-style cathedral (19th century) on Byrsa Hill, Carthage

After so much history it is time for a coffee or a drink at Villa Didon, a very elegant boutique hotel just close to the mentioned sites. Cool design and staff, an excellent gastronomy and an awesome view. No wonder this is one of the favorite places of the beautiful people of Tunis, in particular during weekends. Many rich locals have lovely residences here, hidden behind big walls.

Photo: A lovely cheese platter at Villa Didon

From Villa Didon you can walk to the Punic ports, located at two lagoons. After that, have a drink at the popular Punicart Café – a great place to watch a spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. At this café, I fell in love with a big red cat that slept in a basket just next to the bathroom sinks. Nothing and no one could keep this cool kitten from enjoying a very deep sleep.

Photo: Cool cat having a rest at the Punicart Café

After so much architecture, culture, and history, it is time for relaxing on the beach! Although January is a bit cold for a swim in the sea, you can still enjoy long walks on the beautiful shores of Gammarth and La Marsa, just a 20-minute cab drive from downtown Tunis. The elegant Mövenpick Resort is ideal for enjoying a few nice days close to the sea. It is definitely one of the best hotels I have ever seen in all of Tunisia. Located right on the beach, only a 10-minute cab drive away from La Marsa with its cafés, restaurants and a little shopping mall, the Mövenpick is offering great service, a very good spa with gym, indoor pool and hammam (Turkish bathhouse). And this Swiss hotel chain stands, of course, for an excellent gastronomy. The breakfast buffet is awesome, I could not resist the panna cotta with berries in the morning – just mouthwatering. And guess what – from the second morning on, I was automatically served my beloved double espresso. That´s what I call great service! Five well deserved stars, thumbs up for the Mövenpick Resort Gammarth.

Photo: Life is good at Gammarth beach!

Photo: Pool with a view at the Mövenpick Resort Gammarth

Good Luck, Tunisia!

Let me close this post with a few general thoughts regarding Tunisia. After the terror attacks a few years ago, safety measures were considerably increased. You can see police all over the place and when entering a hotel, you have to pass security. In shopping malls and museums, your bags are checked but I never felt disturbed or uncomfortable. Same goes for strolling in the streets. Most locals are friendly – in particular when you say „bonjour“ or „aslemma“.

Unfortunately, the overall development of the country has not that much improved after the revolution a few years ago. The economy is still weak and many people complain about high taxes and prices. A lot of young people are out of work and the popular jobs in the Government are often given to friends.

However, Tunisians seem to love life. Cafés and restaurants are full and people have fun even without alcohol. There are, of course, bars and restaurants where alcohol is served – after all, Tunisia produces wines that are not bad at all. Although the capital region is rather liberal there are, of course, religious people who pray five times a day. At the same time, many locals are less interested in that. You can see many beautiful women with lots of makeup and nicely dressed, some of them with a headscarf. I have hardly seen women in long coats, let alone chadors. This may be a different in the Southern part of Tunisia where people are more traditional.

In summary, I really enjoyed myself in this little country where I had worked for a German tour operator over 30 years ago. Good luck to Tunisia, may the economy and tourism recover again soon. Bonne chance!

N.B. Most of the photos were taken by Zouhayer Guemri, a very talented young Tunisian photographer and tourguide. Have a look at his Instagram page!

You will find more images in my photo gallery.

Photo: The enchanting lobby of Palais Bayram, Tunis

Photo: Panorama in Sidi Bou Said

Photo: I loved the design at the Mövenpick Resort in Gammarth

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