I have long remembered an enchanting afternoon spent in a beautiful seaside district of Tunis, wandering through narrow streets of whitewashed buildings, admiring the striking blue doors and window trim contrasted with the startling blue of the Mediterranean Sea in the distance. I had travelled overland with my girlfriend through Morocco and Algeria and had entered Tunisia through the Sahara Desert around the mid-point of the country. We had taken a bus from Sousse to Tunis and stayed there for several days in order to pick up our mail from home at the American Express office. Those were the days before the internet and affordable long distance calls, and letters from home were our only link with family and friends.
We were headed overland to Libya to meet a family friend of Bronwyn’s, so we didn’t linger long. I didn’t have any strong memories of Tunis other than the huge, palm-lined boulevard running through the modern portion of the city, this neighbourhood I’ve described above with the startling while traditional homes and the miles and miles of olive orchards lining the coast. I can’t even remember how we got to the beautiful area of Tunis that I held in my memory, but I knew I wanted to see it again.
While I was busy writing about our adventures in Lebanon, Anil was pouring over our Lonely Planet Tunisia making plans for touring the sights of the capital city and the towns and villages along the coast and deeper inland. When he read the description of Sidi Bou Saïd, a village near Carthage, a short local train ride from the center of Tunis, I knew that was the village I held lovingly deep in my memory. We were lucky to have a warm, sunny day forecast before the coming rainy weekend and we made plans to take the TGM (Tunis Gare Marine) train to see this special place.
The TGM station is located at the western end of Boulevard Habib Bourguiba (named after the first prime minister of Tunisia). This is the lovely main street I remember from my first visit in 1972. It was quiet when we arrived at the little station; the morning rush hour was over and a train was waiting on the platform looking ready to depart. The fare to Sidi Bou Saïd was about half what we would pay for a bus ride back home, so it made sense to go on the train rather than hire a taxi and driver, as many tourists do.
It is always great to travel as the locals do, and this little trip was no exception. The train car was a little worse for wear, but then we didn’t expect it to be luxurious, based on what we had seen with the state of the streets and buildings in the city itself. The first class car, where we headed, was already full with men heading out of the city but after crossing the long causeway that bisects Lake Tunis, the men began to get off at the small stations that are situated between Tunis and Sidi Bou Saïd.
I cannot describe to you the contrast between the derelict neighbourhoods away from Boulevard Habib Bourguiba and the gleaming white-washed, bougainvillea-draped streets of this village, named for a 13th century Sufi saint. What was most surprising, was how little it has changed in the intervening 38 years. I was delighted to find that hamlet has not allowed itself to buy into the commercialization that extensive tourism usually brings. While there are several shops selling carpets, puppets, pottery, and other Tunisian handicrafts, they are restricted to the main street and actually add to the colour rather than detract.
There were few other tourists that morning and we were able to wander the tiny streets and admire the views of the azure Mediterranean in peace and quiet. We stopped for a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and some traditional Tunisian pastries at a café with a view to die for. This was the Mediterranean that I had seen previously, had fallen in love with, and had dreamed of seeing again. There was nothing like this along the coast of Spain, France, Italy or Lebanon. If you’ve seen posters of the best that Greece has to offer along it’s hundreds of islands, you will have an idea of what we were treated to that afternoon. Here we were, in Tunisian paradise, without the enervating heat or the crowds of the summer months. Can life get any better?