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krisek Sfax - A travel report by Krys
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Sfax,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  Sfax
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krisek's travel reports

City with the perfect medina and walls. Sfax.

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The large but well organised city of Sfax has the largest most complete wall surrounding an old quarter, the medina, in Tunisia. Its medina conforms to the Islamic principles of architecture.


The northern section of the medina wall
The northern section of the medina wall
The city of Sfax, in the middle of the Sahel's coast, was on my list of places to visit only because of its near perfect medina. The city had a great history. It once was an independent state, which was so attractive that the Europeans kept fighting for the dominance over it. It was the Sicilians, Spaniards, Venetians, and the French.

I arrived in Sfax already with a broken arm, after failing to agree on a treatment in the city of Gabes, and a major negligence from my travel insurer prompted my moves. I was making my way up north to Tunis, literally to the airport, so I could go back to the UK for my operation. Fortunately, in Gabes I was given a major review of my condition, and the doctor there improved the immobilisation of my arm, so I could travel safely.

I was staying in Sfax only for a while. I found the city really well organised. Better organised than Tunis. In Sfax tourists could find that their hotels were signposted on almost all major roundabouts. The city felt like a big place, but it was easy to walk about. The main attraction, the completely walled over medina, was located in the centre of the city, near the harbour and the cargo train station. Routes leading to the medina were easy to navigate and had a few cafes and shops providing refreshments and snacks. There were also a few internet cafes as well, which came handy for me, as I needed to cancel hotel reservations for that part of my holiday, which I needed to curtail.

But before I travelled farther north, I had a look at the medina, visited a castle and a museum and took a short refuge in a cafe sipping rather interesting coffee.

Favourite spots:
The Kasbah of Sfax
The Kasbah of Sfax
The Kasbah of Sfax, otherwise known as a castle, and its vicinity, including the little Place de la Kasbah, was definitely my favourite place in the city. In tandem, the Kasbah itself and the square in front of its entrance could not be more dramatically different from one another. The square was leafy with plenty of shade and places to sit down and chill, while the Kasbah and its courtyard was basking in the sun with no shade anywhere. It was also barren, but built from a warm-coloured stone, which created a spectacular contrast to what one could find just outside the main gate.

The Kasbah was a very interesting piece of architecture in its own right, and in addition it was hosting the Tunisian Architecture Museum, displaying building patterns found across the country spanning several centuries. One could wander around freely on the ramparts, although the views from the upper walls were less spectacular than in other cities.

What's really great:
The medina of Sfax seen from above. The Grand Mosque (white roof) seen in the centre.
The medina of Sfax seen from above. The Grand Mosque (white roof) seen in the centre.
Sfax's main quality was its medina. It was built in a perfect compliance with the Islamic urban rules. The result was incredible. The satellite picture opposite illustrates the rules. The main (great) mosque, according to the convenants should be placed in the centre of the city, so everyone living on the four corners of the wall would have almost equal distance to the temple, regardless whether they lived in the eastern, northern, western or southern ends. The baths and markets (souks) were built nearby as well for the same reason. The castles were built usually on one of the corners, the highest and preferably on a hill. Other corners were built in a form of mighty towers. There were four main streets leading from the four main gates to the main mosque. This type of Arab architecture emerged around 9th century, when the cities were laid out on a grid pattern.

The medina in Sfax was less crowded than other medinas I had seen in Tunisia. It was more relaxed and everyone was friendly.

Sights:
Bab Diwan, the gate to the medina at the southern wall of the city.
Bab Diwan, the gate to the medina at the southern wall of the city.
A few Tunisians I met en route to Sfax had warned me that there was not going to be much to see in the city. Well, I am not sure why they had said that, as I found that Sfax offered a fair number of places to explore.

The main sights were: the giant main gate of the medina - Bab Diwan; the mighty Tower of Fire, whose nickname indicates the fact that it was used as a signal tower - Borj Ennar; the Great Mosque - started in 849 and rebuilt several times to resemble the grand mosque of Kairouan (closed for non-Muslims); the Kasbah and its museum; Dar Jellouli Museum occupying a 17th century mansion; and the Town Hall - boasting three-colour facade. There were also a few other interesting pieces of architecture in the new town.

For those, who wanted to explore the streets of the medina, the best avenues to stroll along were: Rue Borj Ennar, Rue de la Grande Mosque, Rue Sidi Ali Karray, Rue Bab Ejjedide, and the few souks near the Bab Jebli, the northern gate.

Accommodations:
Room #209 at the Hotel Songho Syphax
Room #209 at the Hotel Songho Syphax
I stayed at the Songho Syphax Hotel, a former Sfax Novotel, near the city's stadium and gardens. It was a large hotel with predictable amenities and comforts typical to a 1970s Novotel hotel. Rooms were being upgraded, and all featured spotless bathrooms, large comfortable beds, TV sets and telephones. The carpets were also clean. Bathrooms had tiles ceiling to floor, and toiletries were provided. Hot water was the norm and the towels were fresh, fluffy and clean.

The reception was not particularly helpful, and liked to take things lightly. They offered money exchange services, but did not carry too much cash, so not always prepared to change large sums. Yet, the guys were easily convinced to assist in sending overseas taxes, book restaurant tables, and allowing for a car to stay at the hotel's carpark after check-out.

I booked the hotel via http://www.booking.com who charged €50 per single room, which in fact was a double room. This was not too far off what the hotel charged directly.

Nightlife:
Strawberry anyone?
Strawberry anyone?
Nightlife was not one of Sfax's strengths. I heard only about two clubs adjacent to hotels, which were relatively safe to go to. One was the Club Le Rameau at the Hotel Mercure (Avenue Bourguiba), and the other at the Hotel Sfax Centre. At the Songho Syphax hotel they told me that there were also nice bars, which served alcohol (wine and beer) at the hotels Alexander, Andalus and Colisee. Other, regular bars, scattered around the city did not normally serve alcohol, and those, which did were sleazy and seedy, and male-dominated.

The best way to spend a night in Sfax was at one of the cafes and bars on the Boulevard de la Republique and south of Avenue Bourguiba, mingling with the locals puffing shisha. French and Arabic came handy for having a conversation, but many locals, particularly younger ones, could manage basic chat in English.

Hangouts:
Ties on the lantern.
Ties on the lantern.
I would have picked two spots for lounging and relaxing. One would be the Place de la Kasbah, very leafy and full of inquisitive school children, which would get breathless asking for their photo to be taken by my big camera. The other would be the park-like avenue between the Bab Diwan and Place de la Republique. But there were also some interesting and comparably laid back souks, which were great for browsing. Many of those were just local markets offering fascinating items and tools, so no tourist hand grabbing and touting there.

Sfax had a whole range of cafes and patisseries scattered around. Many could be found in the immediate vicinity of the medina and the main routes leading towards it. There was even one on the top of the Kasbah, but unfortunately it was closed when I visited. With cafes in Tunisia, the trick was that most of them were reserved for men and for women it was better to stay out. Unless the cafe was open-air. Otherwise, the gals could go to patisseries.

Restaurants:
Southern stretch of the medina's wall
Southern stretch of the medina's wall
I ate at the hotel restaurant at the Songho Syphax. I normally do not do that, as I always want to explore what cities have to offer in their catering landscape. However, my late arrival to Sfax and other logistic challenges related to my physical condition prevented me from running about the city trying to pick a place to have a grab to eat. The restaurant was not too bad. I had a feeling it was more geared towards business travellers. But that also meant that the service was very professional and swift. The menu was of a good size and offered a fair selection of local, Mediterranean and somewhat interesting dishes. Their cheese board was fantastic with an incredible quality of the produce. Another quality was the fruit platter, which featured berries and fruits one would not normally expect to see in Tunisia. Strawberries were the best.

Other recommendations:
El Jem's amphitheatre
El Jem's amphitheatre
El Jem, North Africa's gem, was just 65 kilometres north from Sfax. This small town's proud possession was world's third largest Roman amphitheatre. I had been capable to accommodate over 30,000 blood-thirsty spectators. UNESCO listed the colosseum as a World Cultural Heritage Site, and when I visited, the ticket to see the monument was TND8 plus TND1 for a camera. The site would look exceptionally spectacular from the air (as many satellite photographs indicate), but exploring it from the ground was also quite overwheling. The shear size of the arena was impressive! And its obvious oval shape looked incredible. The arena was 65 by 39 meters, and the entire structure measured 148 by 122 meters. Rome's colosseum in comparison is: 85 by 53, and 188 by 155 meters.

The best time to visit the colosseum was at sunset, when the sun gently enters inside the oval through the partially collapsed side.

The 1 hour distance between Sfax - El Jem could be done by train, bus or louage (minibus).

Published on Sunday May 16th, 2010


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Fri, May 21 2010 - 08:36 AM rating by rangutan

Great!

Thu, May 20 2010 - 12:48 PM rating by eirekay

Love the gender bias tips! These architectural finds really show well in the photos you've chosen!

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