I’ve wanted to go to Tunisia for years now. Spending most of my late childhood in France, I had heard great things about this favourite getaway that many French travellers indulged in. Yet for some reason, I only ended up visiting when I moved to the other side of the ocean, residing in Kingston, Jamaica. Funny how life works!
So in the second half of 2018, I finally satisfied my curiosity about this destination, which thrives on tourism, but has also, sadly, been the subject of tumultuous unrest in 2015. Fortunately, it is now largely back on its feet- reflecting the determination of Tunisians to keep their country safe and beautiful. It’s important to keep in mind that Tunisia has, for years, been one of the few Arab democracies, and you can see how attached locals are to such an ideology when you walk down its streets dotted with olive & citrus trees.
The long trip from Kingston to Paris via Miami, and the notoriously busy Heathrow airport, is what it took to get to the capital city of Tunis – situated along the Mediterranean sea. But, mind you, it was absolutely worth it.
I had some expectations, but not many. It’s always more fun to travel and leave room for surprises, and, most importantly: learn along the way by talking to locals. There’s a very strong Maghrebi influence in France, for historical reasons; so all I knew through that community was that Tunisians were a really friendly bunch and that the country looked something like a North African version of the white and blue Greek islands such as Santorini or Mykonos. I had also been to neighbouring Morocco, but Tunisia turned out to be completely different.
Where do I even start?
First of all, Tunis is a piece of eye-candy. Almost anywhere you go, there is that soothing blue backdrop of the sea and other cues that serve as constant reminders that while we may be in Africa, we’re also in the Mediterranean. A good indication of how diverse this giant continent can be- alas, something we seem to forget far too often. Whether it’s the jasmine trees, citrus trees, countless prickly pear vendors, the scent of good quality olive oil, the insanely flavourful peaches & apricots or that seductive lifestyle adopted by people of the region. We are in a tremendously interesting part of Africa, all compressed into this small country of 11 million people.
Like I always saw in the pictures, the houses are indeed white, the doors are mostly blue, and the architecture is stunning. The UNESCO heritage site of Sidi Bou Said, while touristy, is probably the best example of this. It’s also evident in La Marsa or the far less visited neighbourhoods such as L’Ariane.
In Tunis, I urge you to pay attention to the cultural mix unique to the country. There is the indigenous Berber and Amazigh heritage coupled with a very strong Arab culture. Additionally, there are Jewish, French, Italian, Greek and Phoenician influences which make for a multi-layered, rich and complex melting pot mostly evident in the beautiful faces of the people, if anything at all.
Like any country with Arab influence, the markets or ‘souks’ are an absolute must-visit. Glimmering with colours, textures & scents of all kinds, there’s that dreamlike feel wandering the alleys while being charmed by the hundreds of vendors. I want to recommend that you leave lots of empty space in your suitcase because you’ll want to pack a ton of memorabilia. Some items I personally recommend are the traditional hand-painted ceramics, extra cute tassel lined baskets, scented oils, beauty potions and small glass teacups – so you can relive Tunisian memories by preparing the traditional mint tea in your very home. Of course, there’s the food part that I’m just about to get to.
Less spoken about than internationally renowned Moroccan cuisine, Tunisian food is highly intriguing and, as a vegan, I found it very easy to travel and enjoy local specialities. Of course, there’s couscous (prepared slightly differently in Tunisia) but there’s also a lot more. For vegetable lovers, you can’t miss Salade Mechouia – a roasted vegetable salad that I ate almost every day. With a freshly baked slab of taboun bread (sometimes flavoured with cumin seeds), it’s the epitome of what putting together quality Mediterranean ingredients tastes like. On the subject of bread, I ate more gluten in one week than I would in six months back in Jamaica.
One dough speciality I thoroughly enjoyed was ‘mlawi’- a flat crispy bread often stuffed with olives & vegetables. It’s made fresh in front of your eyes, as all good bread should be! Also in dough specialities, you can’t miss the local variation of yeast-based doughnuts – bambolini. It’s gigantic but oh so airy & light. Sold on every street corner, it’s the only kind of doughnut I’ll ever eat from now on. And, of course, there’s the diamond-shaped sweet speciality made of semolina dough and stuffed with either dates or almonds. The syrup dipped Makrout is everywhere, and any decent baker will let you taste it before buying.
To offset the occasional sweet treat, you’ll always come across hills of what I like to call the holy grail of Tunisia: harissa, olives and preserved lemons. Harissa is a delightful spicy condiment that you must acquaint yourself with. And the olives in this region are simply precious. You can buy all these things at the historic Marche Centrale with its 400+ vendors making for a food lover and chef’s fantasy. It’s an absolute must-visit.
There, you’ll also find Deglet Nour dates in quantities that you’ve never seen before. Indeed, dates are sacred around here. Other fresh produce includes tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplants, green herbs and incredible fruits like prickly pear, oranges, persimmons, figs, melons, and grapes. By the way, Tunisia happens to be an excellent wine-producing country, so be sure to enjoy that well-kept secret.
The market is also a classroom to ask questions about food items you don’t recognize. This is the best way to learn, and how I found out about far less spoken about specialties such as bsisa and zgougou. If you love pasta, you’ll find that the Italian influence is loud and clear with the many fresh pasta vendors.
I could write a book about my week’s worth of travel in Tunis alone, but I’ll let this teaser tickle your curiosity and hopefully encourage you to visit. Don’t forget, Djerba and Hammamet are worth checking out too. I know that I, for one, that will be back to see more.
Here’s some practical info for you next trip to Tunis:
La Marsa is a great neighbourhood to stay for first-time travelers. Look for the Cosy penthouse on the roofs of La Marsa on Airbnb.
If you want to really indulge, the newly opened Four Seasons is jewel-like and still at a fraction of the price of luxury hotels in other places of the world.
From the Caribbean, Europe will be your best bet as a connecting hub. From Paris, there are multiple short two-hour flights a day between Paris Orly and Tunis Carthage Airport.
Tunisian Dinar. ATMs of reputable banks are available all over the city.
Arabic (Tunisian dialect) & French
Marianna Farag is the passionate food-loving author behind the blog ‘Nana’s Kitchen’. Currently residing in Jamaica, she has spent years travelling the world exploring and celebrating food. This love for world culture has evidently influenced her style of cuisine – even now as a vegan. Connect on Instagram @missmariannaf for more.