A Few Days In

Unearthing a Gem: Tunis, Tunisia

by Leigh Millard
A A street near the medina in Tunis. All photos by Leigh Millard.

DARA Artisans is one of our trusted resources for beautifully designed and responsibly handcrafted home goods around the world. On a buying trip in Tunisia, Leigh Millard, director of sourcing and artisan relations, unearths some of the country's unique characteristics, handiwork, and hidden gems. It's a celebration of a culture and place at a time when news cycles often reduce the country to dispiriting headlines.  

THE SCENE

A true gem, Tunisia is located in North Africa, a stone's throw from Sicily. It's a paradise for photographers, food lovers, and collectors of beautiful handmade goods, both old and new. It could also be described as a cultural cousin of Morocco; they are regional neighbors and share many characteristics, but Tunisia marches to its own drum — and always has. It is home to the ancient city of Carthage, whose leader, Hannibal, challenged the Roman Empire at its height .

It's also the site of the first Arab Spring uprising just five years ago. Despite early conquests, the value of education over military might is so deeply ingrained that Tunisia enjoys a level of security and prosperity that have sadly eluded others in the region. Every Tunisian I met was happy and willing to discuss their recent revolution. The passion with which they told their personal stories of newfound freedom and empowerment was nothing short of inspiring. There's a palpable hopefulness and warmth in the people, who happily share the delights of their land with a devoted hospitality that has been passed down through nomadic traditions.

While the country's diverse culture and landscape merit an in-depth exploration, a visit to Tunis, the capital city, is a perfect weekend excursion. Tunis offers a dazzling cultural melange that manifests itself in myriad ways — from architecture to food to language. You'll hear locals conversing passionately, switching back and forth between Arabic and French in the same sentence. It's a delight for the ears. A single building might contain Florentine balconies, black and white Moorish archways, and Sicilian-style painted tiles all blended together, often graced with a uniquely Tunisian feature: massive, intricately studded wooden doors, which are painted in blue, yellow, or white. Surprisingly fertile farmland nearby means produce is fresh, delicious, and abundant. Due to its location on the Mediterranean coast, you'll find plenty of freshly caught seafood and shellfish, no matter the season.

Tunis, Tunisia Medina Textiles

Textiles in the medina.

There are two distinct parts to the city: the newer section, where most residents live and work, and the old medina, once a walled city that retains the look and feel of old Tunis. Step inside and you are instantly transported to another time, where merchants and artisans hawk their colorful wares (quite gently, compared with most markets I've visited), men in robes leisurely smoke hookah and sip coffee while discussing the day's affairs, and residents of all ages slip down alleys to their favorite hammam, a Turkish-style communal bath house, for an afternoon steam and scrub.

The new city has a distinctly European air, evidenced in the elaborately molded white facades of many buildings, which are crumbling yet beautiful. The action is centered around Avenue de Bourgiba, often referred to as the Champs-Elysees of Tunis due to its many fine stores, wide berths, and leafy arcades where one might relax at a Parisian-style cafe, watching young families and couples pass by from the comfort of a cane chair. On the weekends, this avenue is closed down to traffic and becomes a place to stroll, hear live music, and people-watch.

WHAT TO DO

Get lost in the medina. Hear me out. Even locals don't know all the ins and outs, every food stand, or jewel-of-a-shop tucked away in a back alley. But with an area of roughly one square mile, it's impossible to truly lose your way. The whole medina has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its significance as the beating heart of the city and a living relic of a way of life that has almost disappeared. Once home to dozens of guilds, you'll still find a few master artisans crafting leather slippers, weaving silk, or working in fine silver and hammered brass, quietly honing their skills in dusty attics or tiny workshops. It's a pleasure to simply walk around and take it all in, observing the countless charming details and scenes from Tunisian daily life as they unfold.

Stroll further down the cobblestone streets and you might encounter the mid-day rush for honey-laced sweets, savory pastries, and fresh juices. Observe which stands are the most popular with locals and slip in among them. Watch a future husband select copious amounts of wedding jewelry for his bride, a tradition hearkening back to when a girl was valued through her weight (thus the heavy silver bracelets and amulets), but beware a stray goat that threatens to head-butt passerby as his owner naps in a sunlit doorway.

Tunis, Tunisia Shoe Maker

A shoemaker at work in Tunis.

After a short time wandering you'll begin to get your bearings — elaborately ornamental doors, enthusiastic vendors, and unusual merchandising serve as landmarks. One of my favorite such markers was a cart covered entirely in veiny green cabbage leaves, with briny feta-style cheese piled high on top. If you get too turned around, consider it an opportunity to practice your high school French, as most in Tunis are fluent and will not meet your well-meaning attempts with the haughtiness you find elsewhere (ahem: France).

There is no shortage of fabulous places to shop in the medina. It's generally a good idea to wander for a bit and explore your options before making purchases, but if you find something you love, sometimes it is best to go for it — most stores don't have signs and can be difficult to locate a second time around. Haggling is expected and encouraged, even if you feel the price is reasonable to begin with. Tunisia offes some of the finest and most interesting rugs and textiles in the world, and you'll see plenty of them, displayed from above in rich layers or stacked to fill up entire walls with their color and warmth. You may find yourself sipping mint tea in a shop while a merchant unfurls several dozen rugs to show you, and you needn't be a serious customer to enjoy this tradition.

Other wares include stunningly detailed painted ceramics, in every shade, spilling out from shop after shop, complemented by handsome carved olive wood or hammered metal serving pieces. You'll still find traditional clothing for sale: pointy leather slippers, embroidered tunics, wool shepherd's cloaks. Perfumes, spices, and jewelry abound. Lovers of antiques will delight in the Ste. Lorient Bazar, located at 44 Rue Jamaa Zitouna, not far from the Eastern gate of the medina, which specializes in spectacular vintage costumes and silver tribal jewelry.

For a true Tunisian experience, visit a hammam — the Turkish-style bathhouse. Prepare by picking up your own fouta, a light cotton towel available in a range of colors and styles throughout the medina for only a few dollars, and a scrubbing mitt. While the hammam is segregated by gender, it is not for the modest. Up until recently, the female bathhouse was a prime location for mothers to scout out future wives for their sons, as little of the body is kept secret once inside. What will likely happen is this: You'll be led through a series of doors and steamy tiled rooms where women or men in various stages of undress are pouring hot water over themselves, chatting, laughing, lounging on banquettes, or refilling buckets. A stoic, matronly woman will take the mitt you provide her and proceed to vigorously buff off your outermost layer of skin and then apply a tingly mud mask, rinsing and massaging your limp carcass. You'll emerge glowing, refreshed, reborn! Hammams dot the medina and are mostly of consistent quality; ask your concierge to recommend one close to your hotel.

Tunis, Tunisia Old Palace in Medina

Architectural detail in the medina.

WHAT TO EAT

Tunisian cuisine is fresh, vibrant and accessible. You needn't be an adventurous eater to try it, as most of its ingredients will be familiar. It is the second largest producer of olive oil in the world, and chances are that if you've sampled oil "bottled" in Italy, a good deal of those olives are coming across the sea from Tunisia. Don't miss the ubiquitous and nationally beloved harissa pepper sauce — for fans of this trendy condiment, you've come to the source. Different versions can be smooth, chunky, spicy, mild, or smoky; it's worth sampling a few to find your perfect version.

Expect to see lots of tuna, eggs, peppers, olives, citrus, herbs, couscous, fresh vegetables, and a multitude of spices, all in delicious combinations. Unique to Tunisia is a pastry called brik; my first was one of the most sensational food experiences in recent memory. Ground beef, herbs, and a perfectly poached egg are wrapped up in an impossibly thin and delicate pastry, which is fried to a crisp, doused with lemon juice, and devoured by hand before the yolk has a chance to drip onto your plate, a childhood game remembered fondly by many. Brik can also be filled with lamb or tuna, but you won't find pork anywhere as it is not consumed by Muslims.

Tunisians prefer to prepare their fish simply, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and a dash of olive oil or lemon, in order to let the flavors of the sea shine. You'll find it grilled whole, served with a side of mechouia — grilled sweet peppers with tomatoes, onions, lemon, tuna, and hard-boiled eggs — or baked in a spiced couscous with vegetables.

After a meal you'll be offered an array of bite-size treats flavored with almond, rosewater, orange, sesame, and honey. Wash it all down with Tunisian citrus, a cloudy, slightly bitter blend of lemon and lime juice that has been cooked down with the peel and some sugar.

For a sit-down lunch in the medina, you can't beat to enjoy traditional meals in an airy, plant-filled courtyard. At dinnertime,  is the most well-known and prestigious of restaurants, and you'll understand why after a night of sensational cuisine in a lavishly decorated setting. Most nights feature live performances from traditional musicians. Reservations are recommended. Although I'm no stranger to fine dining, some of my best culinary moments were when I popped into tiny, hole-in-the-wall lunch places that catered to average working Tunisians. Imagine a crusty half baguette filled with roast chicken, harissa, preserved lemons, tomatoes, lettuce, and green pepper sauce, served with a side of French fries, for $1. Look for these spots on the side streets off of Avenue Bourgiba.

Tunis, Tunisia Silk Weaving in the Medina

A weaver at work.

WHERE TO STAY

For a truly memorable experience, you'll need to stay at . The exquisite boutique hotel is in a converted family home nestled on a peaceful yet populated street in the medina, lovingly decorated with art, objects, and furniture from some of Tunisia's most skilled artisans. The attention to detail throughout the property is astonishing: I slept beneath a carved, painted wooden awning, lounged on chairs made from repurposed kilim rugs, and opened the door to my room with an old key tethered to a handmade felt fish, a favorite national symbol. You can meet fellow guests over breakfast or relaxing over afternoon coffee in the courtyard. With luck, you'll encounter owner Leila Ben Gacem, a tour-de-force of a woman who exemplifies Tunisian hospitality. We spent a charming afternoon visiting workshops in the medina and shared a delicious street lunch as I listened to her tales of Bedouin tents and revolution.

HOW TO GET THERE

As exotic as a trip to Tunisia may sound, it's not the far-flung destination you might imagine. No visa is required and it is less than a three-hour flight from Paris. A host of airlines, including Air France, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, and Tunisair fly direct from major European cities. Most hotels will offer transport from the airport, or you can simply use a metered taxi.

GETTING AROUND

For going longer distances, taxis are easy to hail and very inexpensive. They run on meters, which work out better than negotiating in advance. Otherwise, walking is your best bet, as the city is quite pedestrian-friendly — stepping into the street without even looking for oncoming cars seems to be par for the course for most locals. Within the medina, some of the streets are too narrow for cars to pass down, so you may have to walk a few blocks if you're headed to a hotel or restaurant from outside its walls. Avenue de Bourgiba connects directly to the Eastern gate of the medina and together they form the main and most well-known part of the city.

WHEN TO GO

Spring is the best season for traveling to Tunisia. By April and May the weather is warm enough to head to the beach. The summer is high tourist season and brings many European visitors, as well as an influx of expats who live in Paris, London, and New York. Wintertime visitors can take advantage of lower prices and fewer crowds, but you'll want to pack plenty of layers for differing temperatures.

LOCAL CUSTOMS

Tipping at restaurants and hotels is acceptable up to a point — you are actually encouraged not to over tip. A degree of modesty is advisable in clothing, but needn't be overdone. While the majority of Tunisians are Muslim, they generally practice a moderate form of the religion and a large number enjoy nightlife and drinking alcohol. As with any major city, you should keep your belongings close at hand and exercise caution when walking around alone, particularly at night. It is not recommended to go wandering around the medina late in the evening, as the stores and cafes are mostly closed and some parts are not well lit.


SHOP DARA ARTISANS

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