It’s often the people that make travel a success or not. The characters that you meet on journeys through a country, the welcome received, the number of smiles garnered. You can measure places by these encounters, however fleeting and they can make or break a trip. That is certainly the case on my latest travels on a weekend in Tunisia. There was history, beautiful architecture, some wonderful food and sunny days but it was the people and their stories which really brought alive this vibrant, changing, colourful country and made me want to explore it even more.
A weekend in Tunisia – Meeting the people in northern Tunisia
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Arriving at Sadika Keskes’s glass work studio it’s immediately clear that this is somewhere special. There’s a tranquility about the place, despite it being a hub of work and activity. In Sadika’s home, which I was invited in to so we could talk about her work, every rug on the floor can tell a story, every picture paints its own tale, there is history here and the interior feels like a curated piece of art in itself.
Sadika is the most famous glassmaker in Tunisia, bringing the art back to Tunisia where it had been absent since the 14th century after she studied glassblowing in Murano, Venice. Her work is beautiful and so tactile, her gallery filled with shiny, coloured glass that glistens like candies.
I couldn’t stop reaching out to touch them, feeling their smooth forms, suddenly wanting my life to be filled with glass. Sadika agrees, she sees stories in the depth of the glass, wanting to watch how the light catches it and changes it and brings it alive.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a more positive person, she really wants to make a difference to the world. Her daughter told me, even when the world seems to be falling apart she can look around and smile and say, “well what can we do with this”. I couldn’t help but pick up a shiny blue glass water bottle to take home, something to sit on my table as I work and remind me to always look for the positives no matter what.
Sadika’s workshop is somewhere anyone can visit and from later in the year there will be a new restaurant and gallery too. There’s something special about this place, it shines from within, and not just from the glass itself.
I also met Nouha Louedi, great granddaughter of the founder of Riviere d’Or, the olive oil company that has been producing this thick, sweet oil since 1928. It was wonderful to see her passion for this amber liquid gold, the love for it and as I sat down to taste some with her I could understand why.
It’s such a simple pleasure but those are so often the best. Riviere d’Or work with local artisans to create art around their oil, selling it in bottles shaped like the Hand of Fatima, or coming with a silver clasp shaped as olive tree branches. It’s another place anyone can visit and a great opportunity to bring home a souvenir from Tunisia.
One of the men in Tunisia really making a difference in their community is Rached Kobrosly. His vineyard, Domaine Neferis, about 40 minutes outside of Tunis works with local villagers who join together each season to help harvest the grapes and create bottles of his prized wine which sells for a premium across the world. It was interesting to visit on my weekend in Tunisia and hear him talk all about the process to make his Tunisian wine and to try some of it which was delicious. I love the sound of his summer parties where people gather for food and drink in the grounds of his historic house.
The people I met out and about by chance brought so much warmth too. Stopping for a drink in the heart of the little seaside town of La Marsa where the thick coffee was served in glasses, chunks of sugar to sweeten.
Tinkling coffee cups in picturesque cafes where the cats stretched lazily and the games of chess, word puzzles, chat and laughter lingered as days got off to a slow and perfect start. Seats were offered, conversation shared, everyone interested and wanting to chat. The vibe was relaxed, friendly and a moment I wanted to stretch out, as long as a sunny Tunisian day.
A weekend in Tunis – from the seaside town of La Marsa to pretty Sidi Bou Said and historic Carthage
Of course it was lovely to explore the towns too. The seaside town of La Marsa sits prettily on the Mediterranean coastline, where the blues of the sea match those of the sky and you can only feel happy thoughts, breathing in the fragrant warmth each morning. I stayed at Dar El Marsa, right on the seafront which was the perfect location to explore the area from.
It was also the ideal spot to head up to the roof terrace as dusk fell, the live music catching on the breeze, the food and drinks complementing the cool vibe. This really did feel like modern Tunisia, embracing all of its colour and character.
The blue and white hues of Sidi Bou Said were nearby too. The most picturesque of towns, unashamedly beautiful and proud, somewhere for wandering and pausing and feeling content within, even as you bustle with the crowds a little.
The sea sparkles down below and all around Sidi Bou Said, reflecting the ever present sunshine, warming the cheeks of young couples who gather on the walls to sit and laugh and chat the day away.
It was wonderful to explore the new nightlife on the outskirts of Tunis, a concept really coming in to its own over the last couple of years with Happy Hour where the drinks flow. There is a youthful energy to Tunisia as bars like those in the ToBe Carthage area have started opening up, many allowing you to sit with your feet in the sand, listening to the sound of the waves as night falls and the cocktails start coming.
Of course there’s history too in Tunisia, so much history, which is often overlooked. Carthage, the remains of which lie just outside of Tunis, was once one of the biggest cities in the Roman Empire, home to several hundred thousand residents.
Today it’s possible to walk through the deserted, crumbling hallways of the same baths the gladiators would have stretched and luxuriated in and to step around now-toppled marble and petrified wood pillars.
I loved feeling the cold of the stone as my fingers drifted over carved sculptures, writing still so distinct, patterns of flowers and intricate designs as precise as the day they were finished.
Tip toeing over mosaic floors which still look so decorative, imagining the hands that placed each tiny piece in to place a thousand years ago was just so evocative and I wondered about the feet that had passed over them, who they belonged to and the stories they could tell.
Visiting the Tunis Medina
Back in Tunis I stayed at the atmospheric Dar Ben Gacem and loved pushing back the heavy wooden door straight in to the heart of Tunis medina, the perfect place for exploring and meeting more of the wonderful characters that make Tunisia shine.
Every glance seemed to allow a new decorative door to materialise, studded and colourful and standing almost as if completely unaware of its beauty. As locals wandered past with baskets overflowing with freshly baked rolls and bags of pungent spices, school children chatted with arms casually flung over one another’s shoulders and woodworkers carved intricate bowls, I wanted to just stand still and enjoy it all.
Tunis medina is an incredibly friendly place, people genuinely concerned I might be lost, wanting to check I knew the way, smiling, passing a greeting, offering advice. I felt welcomed and just so happy here, it was the ideal spot for a wander on a weekend in Tunisia.
Perhaps my favourite times were as dusk began to fall over Tunisia. The light that burns brightly for so long and struggles to rest, reluctantly fades. The cheerful shouts of the day rest easily into more hushed tones and it’s a perfect time for a wander. Here, life can still be glimpsed, with snapshots in to barber’s windows or from family murmurings coming from behind beautiful doors and where outside the fragrance of jasmine hangs heavily.
It’s the people that make Tunisia shine, that allow it to stand out as somewhere that needs a light focussed on both it and all the industry, beauty and art being created here. There are characters that are looking to make a difference, to both Tunisia and the wider world, it’s a friendly place, ready to welcome so easily and I can’t wait to return to get some more of that addictive, feel-good light they shine.
Check out more of my reasons to visit Tunisia here.