Part 6 of 6
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Many people are familiar with Santorini, Greece for its immaculately white village perfectly paired with magnificent views of the Aegean Sea. On the other hand, Chefchaouen, Morocco, which has been gaining momentum recently, is a city within mountains painted in shades of blue, rightfully earning the nickname “Blue City”.
What if I told you there is a town that combines the characteristics of Santorini and Chaouen? And yes, such a town really exists! Sidi Bou Saïd is one of the most picturesque towns in Tunisia and in northern Africa. It’s a town known to have attracted artists, musicians, writers, and the bourgeoisies. With its blue and white painted cliffside homes, you can see why!
Sidi Bou Saïd is Tunisia’s answer to the blue and white terraces. This small village on the coast of Tunis bears resemblance to the coast of Santorini, with every single house built into the cliff painted in blue and white. In the summer the smell of fresh jasmine scents the air and you are given a fantastic view of the Mediterranean and port below once you reach the top.
On the way up there are countless famous cafes where you can stop for a coffee or a fresh mint tea. Several souvenir stores line the streets selling everything from beautiful hand-painted ceramics to cheap souvenirs. Be sure to grab a bambaloni (thin fried doughnut covered in cinnamon sugar) at the top for all your hard work and pay a visit to the old woman giving henna tattoos opposite. This place really is magical.
With its white buildings, blue doors, wrought-iron windows, cobbled alleys and gardens overflowing with bougainvillea and other colorful flowers, and an ever pleasant scent of jasmine, Sidi Bou Saïd is easily the prettiest, most picturesque seaside town in Tunisia. This bohemian city can be easily visited on day trips from Tunis – it’s just 18 km away – and though that’s enough to take in the peaceful atmosphere, you will really want to spend a night or two there, which is what my boyfriend and I did.
The main road in Sidi is naturally touristic. Here is where we came across countless shops selling Tunisian attire, cafés, and food vendors. While my boyfriend and I really enjoy seeing the sights wherever we travel, we also try to take the time to get off the beaten path. It’s much less crowded and we love the opportunity to really see our surroundings. Even if it’s just for a short period of time, I recommend taking some time to roam and people watch in your new environment.
It was here in around 1207 that the Sufi teacher Abu Said el Baji established his Sufi order and settled, attracting many admirers and adherents to his preaching. When members of the Husainid dynasty took up residence here in the 18th century, they brought with them many leading musicians and writers of the day. This laid the foundations for Sidi Bou Saïd’s reputation as an artists’ village. Thereafter, it soon developed into an internationally known haunt of artists.
Thanks to the efforts of the French artist and music lover Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, author of a six-volume encyclopedia on Arab music, the village was given statutory protection in 1915 to ensure that it would be preserved in its original state. He was also the one who made happen the white-and-blue painting and the development of the village into a meeting point of various artists from the fields of fine arts, music and literature.
Sidi Bou Saïd can be easily reached by train from Tunis. The Blue Train leaves from Tunis Marine TGM station in the Ville Nouvelle every 15 minutes and also stops in Carthage, where you can visit the splendid ruins. The ride lasts about 35 minutes.
The village is a breath of fresh air after busy Tunis and serves as a weekend getaway for the city’ artists, bohemian youth, families and elite, as well as being a key stop on the Tunisia itineraries of tours and cruises. It overlooks the luminescent Bay of Tunis, with a steep road leading down to a pleasant beach and marina.
One of the most popular things to do here is simply kick back with a cappuccino and enjoy watching the world stroll by. You can also wander amid the quiet back streets (cars are banned) and take a cue from the relaxed ambience. With its credentials as a hip hangout for those of an artistic nature, this is also one of Tunisia’s top places to visit to pick up the ceramic work for which the country is famed.
It’s busiest in the afternoons and early evening, particularly on weekends, when Tunis locals come to enjoy a coffee and tea overlooking the sea. If you want to photograph the narrow lanes, come during the morning when there are less people about.
Another thing you can do in Sidi Bou Saïd is chase all the doors in town! This is inevitable, as it is such an important part of what the village is famous for! Make sure to observe the moucharabiehs, or mashrabiya (a typical decorative element in the Islamic world) – wooden latticework screens placed on balconies and windows to protect them and decorated them, so that windows can be left open for the air to circulate.
I kept stopping to admire all of the beautiful grand doors we kept coming across. So blue, so exquisite, and the Moorish architecture really topped it off. I lost count of how many doors I walked up to just to admire their impeccable designs.
One other thing you must definitely do is take in the views. Since Sidi Bou Saïd is located on a cliff high above the Mediterranean Sea, the views are simply breathtaking. It’s a bit hard to climb up to the centre of the village but just take it as a great exercise for your legs and butt. Most importantly, wear comfy shoes!
You can also make your way down the steep road to Amilcar Beach for a day in the sun. You’ll find cafes, umbrellas, loungers and watersports available. This beach is by far the best beach in the Tunis city area…absolutely stunning scenery with crystal-clear water, almost white sand and some good food and drink at the beach restaurant.
Last but not least, if you’re interested in seeing the Marina up close there are steps from the top of Sidi Bou Saïd that take you down to the Marina as well as a beach where you can swim. The steps offer breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. This stairway has received the name “ Chair of the Reformers” as the legend dictates it has a saint buried under each step.
With its signature blue-and-white buildings and its beautiful views, it has to be one of the highlights of any trip to Tunis. It is one of those tourist traps that retains its charm no matter how many loud tourists walk the streets!