North African magic Tunis’ ancient buildings are being restored after years of neglect, and there’s a new self-confidence in the air.
Tunis shares a line of latitude with Sicily’s south coast and it’s as lovely as Marrakech. But unlike the “St. Tropez of the Orient,” where Hollywood stars discuss property prices over mint tea, Tunisia’s capital is not yet hip. Marrakech, Tangier, Havana … We tend to travel to these cities only after their popularity has peaked, often looking, mostly in vain, for the faded myth of wilder, more exciting times. Reason enough to take a closer look at Tunis, which is actually two cities rather than one. Located on the Mediterranean, looking across to Europe, it has always been a crossing point between Orient and Occident, Europe and Africa. This is mirrored in its architecture. There’s the colonial “ville européenne,” with its straight avenues and blue-shuttered, white Art Déco facades – a miniature Paris in North Africa; and just a few steps away, the winding streets, covered bazaars and sand-colored, probably eighth-century Ez-Zitouna Mosque of the Medina – the city’s Arab heart.
It’s easy to miss the plain wooden door on busy Rue du Pacha, but knock and it opens onto an oasis of beauty, a Moorish courtyard with pillars, symmetrical arches and hand-painted tiles. Hotel owner Leila Ben Gacem, 49, greets us with a charming smile. She has laid the table for her guests. The labyrinth of colors and shadows looks like it did centuries ago, but in fact, a new era is now dawning. “We get different kinds of travelers these days,” says Ben Gacem. “Once, Europeans came here only to bathe, only to the coast.” They wanted a cheap seaside vacation and turned their back on the rest of the country. But since the more-or-less peaceful revolution, visitors interested in culture and history have been asking who was behind the Arab Spring and why Tunisia is the only Arab country to have made a successful transition to democracy. Without any help from travel or hotel agencies, many Tunisians began to rent out their houses for bed and breakfast, a model for success that has taken hold all around the Mediterranean.
Ben Gacem bought and renovated her hotel, the Dar Ben Gacem, amid the turmoil of a transforming society. Mondays, the laborers turned up for work, Tuesdays, they demonstrated again the dictatorship, Wednesdays, they were back at work. Today, jasmine and bougainvillea blossom in the courtyard and the building is adorned with Arabian wood carvings and pillars allegedly sourced from the ruins of ancient Carthage. She welcomes each of her guests like a personal friend. “Our country has little oil or industry,” she explains, “so our raw materials are hospitality and a cosmopolitan outlook.” Good neighborly relations are another, given that “the Medina is a network of myriad micro businesses,” she says. “The baker, the joiner, the taxi driver. We work together, but each of us is our own boss.” The hotel furniture is from AD 93, a cooperative of artists and artisans who salvage old building material from derelict houses, things like wrought-iron grilles, old tiles and marble, and turn them into tables, mirrors and vases.
Any particularly well-preserved items end up at Eddar, an antiques shop on Rue Sidi Ben Arous. Youcel and Ali Chammakhi have crammed every inch of the over 500-year-old, three-story family home with treasures: in the kitchen, vintage Italian posters, stopped clocks and old silver jewelry, and here, there and everywhere, the hand of Fatima warding off the evil eye. The crooked little rooms are piled high with gramophones and records, and anyone who has ever wanted a rusty tin can from which a genuine desert fox may have sometime drunk, will strike it lucky here. This building is not so much a shop as a time machine.
Just around the corner, an unremarkable door opens into the El Mnouchi café, a former caravanserai, where young people smoke shisha and watch Champions League soccer games. It was once an exclusively male den, but today, many emancipated Tunisian women are frequenting these kinds of public spaces. Some, like the Panorama café, are well hidden, but you are sure to find someone to tell you the way – through an old carpet warehouse and up the stairs till suddenly, you find yourself looking out over the Medina on a fantastic terrace of colored tiles, where hipsters and students, including young women in headscarves, are drinking mint tea and smoothies.
I meet two old friends here, Mhamed and Hmida Mistaoui. Now in their mid-thirties, they were born in Paris and raised in the Medina; they switch effortlessly between French, English and Arabic. Their parents studied medicine and biology in Paris; when they returned to Tunis, the old family home became an adventure playground for the kids. The water came from a cistern, and they would bathe at the public hamam. Snakes, ghosts and fantastic stories inhabited the house. But though they loved it dearly, they had to leave it in the 1990s because when called to a medical emergency, it took their father too long to make his way through the city’s narrow streets to the site of the accident. Also, their mother had to rise at six each morning to drive the children to school before vendors blocked the street. And so they moved, like so many middle-class families, to the modern suburbs, trading their charming neighborhood for Internet and running water.
Workers from outside Tunis filled the old city houses, renting single rooms but not generating the cash for their renovation. The Medina, once the pride of the bourgeoisie, fell into decay and became a symbol of backwardness. Not until the turn of the millennium did a new awareness arise for its sleeping treasures.
When the brothers unlock the door to their old house today, it almost breaks their hearts: The ceiling has collapsed in places, the walls are damp and bats are nesting on the patio. Mhamed and Hmida dream of turning their old home into a guest house. “How will the Medina look in 20 years’ time?” I wonder. We take a journey into the future through smart Banlieue Nord, where the pair live today, through Carthage district with its elegant villas to Sidi Bou Saïd, 20 kilometers away. This sleepy village overlooking the sea attracts visitors from the city in summer, strollers and artists who know where to find the clearest light. August Macke and Paul Klee fell under its creative spell and produced their famously luminous water colors: sharply contoured shadows on white walls, blue balconies above a turquoise sea – a weightless, Mediterranean dream.
Mhamed and Hmida take me to their favorite spot for an apéritif, the hilltop boutique hotel Villa Bleue with its spectacular view of the Gulf of Tunis. It looks ancient, but was built only recently in the Andalusian-Arab retro style of the Medina. The owner, an entrepreneur and art collector, bought three buildings in the Medina purely for their tiles and marble and had them transported to Sidi Bou Saïd for its walls and floors.
Pretty though Sidi Bou Saïd is, there’s nothing left to be done here, and that detracts a little from its appeal. The perfectly restored houses command astronomical prices – if anyone buys them at all. Instinctively, you feel drawn back to the old heart of the city, where bright streets still alternate with dark ones, where everything is still in the throes of change.
The evening ends in the candelit restaurant of the former palace that is now the Dar El Jeld hotel, where we meet Leila Ben Gaçem again. An oud player is plucking his personal version of Charles Aznavour’s “La Bohème.” The waitstaff are a little stiff, but the couscous with stuffed calamari is sensational. After a few glasses of Vieux Magon – Tunisian wine is something else – our dreams fly skywards. Ben Gacem talks about opening another hotel and encourages the Mistaoui brothers to pursue their project. She knows that European culture tourists and the Tunisians currently rediscovering their forgotten heritage will help awaken the Medina to new life. We suddenly feel like Paul Bowles must have in Tangier and Jimi Hendrix, in Essaouira: that we have discovered a magical place before its becomes so hip that the spell is broken.
A night in Medina
Sleep between ancient walls dating from the 17th century.
Tuck into couscous
Sample Tunisian fare on the patio of a former caravenserai.
Admire the gorgeous mosaics at Bardo National Museum.
Enjoy the hotel’s historical elements and stunning sea view.