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krisek Sidi Bou Said - A travel report by Krys
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Sidi Bou Said,  Tunisia - flag Tunisia -  Tunis
8794 readers

krisek's travel reports

Scented with jasmine growing on orange trees.

  8 votes
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Sidi Bou Saïd is a romantic little town on a hilly shore, packed with white and blue villas, a superb place for a late afternoon stroll, or a morning stroll, or a lunchtime stroll. And it smells wonderfully!


Cafe
Cafe
If it were possible, my nose should be writing this report! And since it is not feasible, I will try to express what my nose might have written by typing this travel story with my right hand. And only with my right hand. My left arm is still in plaster following a nasty break, after having fallen a victim of vicious camel rage in central Tunisia. Well, but this report should not be only about the smells.

Sidi Bou Saïd was on my itinerary almost from the very beginning of the holiday's planning stage. This was based on the place's description in a number of guidebooks, which I flipped through at a Waterstone's store in the City; an elegant spot almost as if it were specifically designed for artists, rebels, loungers, or simply posh people with plenty of free time. Hmm..., sounded as an interesting spot to check. Yet, I really did not know what to expect.

The town was not necessarily split into old and new in an obvious way, however the older part, which was characterised by narrow alleys, galleries, small boutiques, cafes, and pastry shops, stood out from the rest. It was also the part of Sidi Bou Saïd, which was the most visited by tourists, who seemed just wandering about without a cause or method. Simply browsing through the souvenir stands, the galleries and the mansions. Or just wandering, full stop. This most picturesque part was located on a slope of a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Tunis. And on a good day, one could see all the way across the water to the capital on the other side, and even the mountains beyond. Mountains, where quite drinkable and quaffable local wines were being produced.

The rest of the town was not particularly grabbing. However those, who'd like to come to Sidi Bou Saïd from central Tunis by the metropolitan rail, would need to pass though it, as the station was based in the newer part of the town. The train took only about 25 minutes from the capital and cost less than €1. And it was all uphills from there to the galleries and mansions.

Favourite spots:
Large door
Large door
Sidi Bou Saïd had a few very cosy corners, which turned my head. Those narrow alleys, giant doors and fantastic shade of blue were magical. But there was one spot, which I liked most. It was about two thirds from the start of the main pedestranised avenue uphills, in the north-easterly direction. It was probably the highest point of the avenue, from where the Bay of Tunis was nicely visible, and the superb Cafe Sidi Chebaane (on the picture in the section above) was located right below the point. It was a slightly open area, compared with the rest of the neighbourhood, as the route was flanked by mansions. This little spot felt suddenly different. And the Cafe Sidi Chebaane was not a bad place in its own right. It had great sitting areas, was rather photogenic and the little harbour below was a fine observation subject.

What's really great:
An arch
An arch
The most fascinating quality of Sidi Bou Saïd was its scent. It was almost hypnotising. And I had not seen, or rather smelled, that combination before. It was the jasmin, which was growing on the orange and mandarine trees planted in the alleys of the older part of the town that was wafting through the air, tingling the nose and stimulating imagination. First, I did not spot the jasmine at all, and could not figure the fragrance. I would not expect the flowery plant to grow on citrus trees. What a receptory sensation. It was really strong! This was making Sidi Bou Saïd simply unforgettable, and very special, too. Almost like a 'signature feature' of the place. And this was in addition to the superb ambiance and the beauty of the white and blue architecture!

I visited the town twice. At the beginning of my holiday and at the end, and being welcomed by this familiar scent for the second time was incredibly seductive and magnetising. Almost as if saying 'why did you ever leave me?'.

Sights:
Car park
Car park
The town had a number of lovely Tunisian mansions preserved in their original character by wealthy colonialist and other foreigners. Some of the houses could be visited. One of the best was Dar Ennejma Ezzahra, built in the Moorish style at the beginning of last century. Incidentally, the guy, who built it, Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger (French painter), influenced local authorities to introduce a special law or regulations in order to make sure that all structures of Sidi Bou Saïd be white and blue.

Another great mansion open to visitors was Dar el Annabi, once house of a religious leader (mufti), whose grandson (a cardiologist - quite ironically, it seems to me) still occupied 55 of the rooms inside.

Accommodations:
Step alley
Step alley
As Sidi Bou Saïd was so close to Tunis, if not de-facto part of it, I did not consider staying there overnight. Instead, I made a reservation at Hotel Salammbo in the heart of the capital. It was located in the one-way side lane about 100 yards from the Old Theatre on Rue de France. It had clean rooms (en suite TND32 (£16)) decorated in a retro colonial style. The beds were fantastically firm, and the bed linen was crispy clean. Not all rooms were en suite, so it is better to book one in advance. The bathrooms had tubs and showers in one, and were rather basic, but included bidet, which I liked very much. Air conditioning was extra (I think TND9 per day, if I remember well), and in the summer I think it would be necessary to have it on, as it was getting rather stuffy in the evenings.

The rate included continental breakfast, which included a hot beverage (coffee), half of French-like baguette, butter and jam. Nothing spectacular, but better than nothing.

Nightlife:
A tree in the house
A tree in the house
I did not notice anything too obvious with regard to nightlife in Sidi Bou Saïd. I was not quite sure how long the cafes and the tea houses stayed open. But when I was leaving about three hours after sunset, the vendors were still setting up their store stands offering incredible collections of sweets and dates, ranging from caramelised nuts, various types of nugat (the lemon was matchless), and Turkish delight. So, there must have been some night action going on in the cafes and tea houses later in the night. Having said that, I think that if there was a night-time action in Sidi Bou Saïd, then there must have been an activity gap between 9 pm and the time the nightlife kicked off. During this gap, the number of people in the streets declined dramatically, and if the tradespeople were not still propping their stands, I would have believed that the town had no nightlife to speak of. And since, I have not checked the night action myself, I cannot say for sure anyway...

Hangouts:
A shop
A shop
The entire town was like a great hangout. Walking along the alleys lined with white houses with wooden blue window shutters and giant studded blue doors, some of which were so big that the 'word' gate would not begin to describe their size, was superb. General traffic was not allowed along the central lane, which helped the walking feel relaxed.

Sidi Bou Saïd boasted a number of lovely galleries. For the place has been artists' favourite spot for centuries. The likes of Odysseus, Cervantes, and Simone de Beauvoir loved it. If they were still around, they would also be able to relax or seek inspiration at one of a few cafes, at least a couple of which overlooked the sea.

If shopping was one's thing to kill time, then Sidi Bou Saïd could cater for this as well. The vast majority of the shops and stalls were geared for tourists, obviously, and offered mainly handicraft and local sweets. The goods ranged from ceramic work to scarves, to rugs, to soft camel toys.

Restaurants:
Au Bon Vieux Tempts - view from the main dining room.
Au Bon Vieux Tempts - view from the main dining room.
Restaurant du Chargui promised nice seaview terrace, but it was not so. Well, one could see the sea, but the view was not spectacular and the terrace was... hmm... not very special. It was relatively an inexpensive place, and their lemon juice was fantastic! Even the mint tea was strong and well balanced between bitter and sweet.

The restaurant Au Bon Vieux Temps (eng. Good Old Times) at the other hand, which had served celebrities and heads of state, had a nice terrace and giant windows, which offered views of the Gulf of Tunis. It was not cheap. Mains ranged from TND20 (€10) to TND38 (€19), and starters were TND10 (€5) on average. It also had Tunisian wines, which were nicely quaffable. I had prawn bisque TND8 (€4), and couscous with garoupa TND28 (€14). Both were superbly yummy! The service was very professional and friendly and had a jolly nice sense of humour.

Other recommendations:
Main drag
Main drag
Sidi Bou Saïd was just 2 kilometres north-east from Carthage. It was linked with Tunis by the metropolitan train, TGM, which took approximately 25 minutes to reach the centre of the capital city. The station in Sidi Bou Saïd was in the new part of the town, south of the Place 7 Novembre, which in turn was a bit south of the most picturesque part of town, and the grand mansions.

It was not easy to park a car for free in Sidi Bou Saïd, as the majority of the side lanes and main roads leading to the town were tow-away no parking zones. However, just before the main market, there was a paid carpark, charging TND2 per vehicle, no time limit. Very convenient indeed, but not very big - it might have had room for about 200 cars.

Published on Monday April 26th, 2010


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Fri, Apr 30 2010 - 06:58 AM rating by bineba

Thank you for this very 'fragrant' report. Sounds like a very nice place to visit when in Tunisia.

Tue, Apr 27 2010 - 07:58 AM rating by pesu

Jasmine, lemon nougat, Simone de Beauvoir and that incredible blue... Guess I would like Sidi Bou Said. :) Great inviting report, thanks for sharing your impressions (with your right hand only!).

Mon, Apr 26 2010 - 11:53 PM rating by rangutan

Marvelous, very HOT report!

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