As Tunisia receives renewed interest from travellers seeking a unique blend of Mediterranean sea and sun with traditional North African hospitality and no crowds, we share highlights of our visit to Tunis, the capital city and our experience of Arab/Andalusian charm at The Residence by Cenizaro.

 

Tunis: First the chaos then the calm

It was our second day in Tunisia and our curiosity found us exploring the historic Medina of Tunis, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the heart of the old city. 

Medina of Tunis, Tunisia Travel

Previous experience from visiting medinas in other North African cities like Marrakech had prepared us to expect attention from market hustlers. On this occasion, however, we seemed to have attracted a really persistent one. 

“Where you from [sic]?” asked a grizzled man who had suddenly appeared from nowhere. 

We simply smiled in response and kept walking. 

“You enjoy your holiday [sic]?” he inquired further, keeping pace with us as we navigated the medina’s narrow alleyways. 

We nodded and kept our smiles plastered in place. We knew that showing the slightest interest would give him a hook. A ‘friend’ in a medina is never really just a friend. Everyone is trying to sell you something!  

“Today is last day of big exhibition at Bey palace. I take you there. It’s not far. Yes?”

“No!” Omo responded firmly, “Thank you.” 

“Last day…” he teased. “Good view of oldest mosque in Tunis from top of palace.” (The ‘palace’ being a government-approved carpet shop). 

Medina of Tunis, Tunisia Travel

Finally weary of his entreaties and our patience finally eroded, we decided that it was time to ditch our hustler. 

Our decision was aided by the glittering embroidery of a Berber kaftan hanging from a nearby shop which caught our attention. Stopping suddenly, we stepped into the shop, pretending to browse Tunisian fashion. Without another word, the Tunisian ‘carpet sting‘ guy kept walking and soon disappeared into the distance. 

The kaftan shop turned out to be more than an escape route, fully capturing our attention with a beautiful selection of kaftan designs and babouches (colourful leather slippers).

Haggling and banter are expected when shopping in a medina and our efforts paid off as we picked up a few items and left behind a happy shop owner.  

Shopping in The Medina of Tunis, Tunisia Travel

Carrying on where we left off, we continued pounding the cobblestones of the medina.

The Medina of Tunis is an intense cultural immersion into dars (similar to Moroccan riads), souks, colours, scents and tradition. The usual hustlers notwithstanding, we felt safe and stimulated by the carnival-like atmosphere around us. 

Eventually, we ended up at the same government carpet shop from the earlier sting attempt. It was one of several mosaic themed rooftop terraces which provided excellent views of the old city.

The monochromatic mish-mash of buildings was disrupted by the rectangular turret of the Ez-Zitouna (Zaytuna) mosque and in the far distance, the spires of Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul. Both structures showed contrasting sides of Tunisia’s multicultural heritage.

Having satisfied our curiosity and successfully sidestepping another carpet sting, we made our way towards the historic French quarter where old world French colonial architecture and Parisian style sidewalk cafės added another dimension to the history of Tunis. 

The Medina of Tunis, Tunisia Travel

Experiencing the organised chaos of downtown Tunis was a great start to our trip. However, we welcomed the thought of retreating to the luxury and calm of The Residence, our hideaway on the Mediterranean coast.

 

Is Tunisia travel safe?

During the short taxi ride back to the hotel, we talked about our medina experience and juxtaposed it with the many questions about safety we had been asked by friends prior to our trip. 

Medina of Tunis, Tunisia Travel

The dastardly 2015 terror attacks in the coastal city of Sousse and at Tunis’ Bardo National Museum had understandably dented global confidence in Tunisia’s tourism industry. 

However, 2018 travel advice from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) suggested that apart from some flashpoints near the border with Algeria to the west and Libya to the south-east, the rest of the country was considered safe to visit. 

Our confidence was buoyed further by insights from travel industry experts like Lonely Planet and tourism operators who predict that 2018 could be the year of recovery for Tunisia tourism.

The Residence Tunis Gammarth

Shukran!” we thanked our taxi driver as he went through the unobtrusive but reassuring security checks outside The Residence, located in Gammarth, a northeastern Tunis neighbourhood on the Mediterranean coast.

As we stepped into the grand marble foyer to the rich scent of orange blossoms, a smiling concierge whispered, “Marhaban! Welcome back!”

 

The Residence, our hideaway in Tunis

The Residence, part of the Cenizaro luxury collection, was the ideal base for our Tunis adventures.

Spa & Thalasso, The Residence Tunis by Cenizaro | Luxury Travel | Tunisia

We were able to arrange a local tour guide at the front desk and looked forward to visiting the ancient city of Carthage and the Roman ruins; both civilisations being very significant to Tunisia’s history. 

However even before we left the Residence, there was an opportunity to experience some of Tunisia’s Arab/Andalusian heritage through interior design. 

The Residence Tunis | Luxury Travel | Tunisia

When done properly, design can be a powerful storytelling medium on its own. The architects of The Residence clearly had a story to tell. 



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Tall white columns supporting an endless row of semi-circular arches enhanced the feeling of space and being transported back in time. Mosaics, tiles, geometric patterns on chiselled plaster and decorated doors combined to showcase the different cultures (Ottoman, Arab and European) that have influenced Tunisian architecture. 

Paintings by local artists such as Selmen Nahdi displayed throughout the hotel provided insight into aspects of Tunisian life. Expertly crafted floral arrangements brought life to the hotel’s public areas, representing the local fauna while the playful sounds of water fountains were a reminder that the Mediterranean Sea was right outside our doorstep.

Our reverie was disrupted when we were told that our guide was waiting for us.

 

Carthage and Sidi Bou Said

Tunisia, a country that has historically been a crossroad of civilizations, is one of those destinations that leaves the first-time visitor pleasantly surprised from seeing the result of the blending of multiple cultures. 

The Baths of Antoninus, Baths of Carthage, Tunis

Our tour began at the old Carthage port which, between 7th and 3rd centuries BC, was a key regional trading and military hub of the ancient Phoenician empire. 

The Romans didn’t like the Phoenicians very much and after several wars including the Battle of Carthage in 146 BC, they flattened the entire city. The centuries which followed saw many artefacts plundered, leaving very little to show the past glory of the city. Now a sleepy Tunis suburb, it took the knowledge and storytelling prowess of our tour guide to bring ancient Carthage to life for us. 

The Baths of Antoninus provided us with a more immersive historical experience; walking between stones and pillars in-situ that once formed the site where Romans sought wellness and relaxation. The best part is we were ALONE with no crowds!! 

Our guided tour concluded with a walk through the cobblestoned streets and alleyways of Sidi Bou Said, an Instagram-perfect coastal town close by. Like many North African cities and towns with Arab influences, the doors tell their own story; the more intricate the designs hinting at the social standing of the occupants of the house. 

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis

Our peek into Tunisian history and culture left us wanting more. Over dinner back at The Residence’s L’olivier restaurant, we talked excitedly about returning to visit other notable Tunisian towns such as El Jem, Dougga and Hammamet.

 

Camels and wellness

The view from our sea-facing room the next morning was the perfect start to a day of relaxation. An excellent breakfast buffet (a mix of Continental and Tunisian specialities) was a precursor to a walk along the hotel’s private beach. 

Except for a solitary camel herder who was asleep on a deck chair and hotel security guards, the beach was deserted. We imagined that pre-2015, it may have been considerably busier even during off-peak periods like this. 

Beach at The Residence Tunis Gammarth

The camel herder had woken up and approached us for a ride. Instead, we engaged in casual conversation with him. He expressed hope that the summer would bring many back tourists to Tunisia. 

He spoke affectionately of his family and we were reminded that despite the ongoing post ‘Arab Spring’ reforms in the country, life for many ordinary Tunisians was still a long way from being perfect. We joined him in hoping for a better year for the country. 

Although it was already April, the cold chill from the long winter still lingered, making swimming in the sea or the hotel’s outdoor pools unattractive. Fortunately, the hotel’s award-winning Spa & Thalasso included a heated indoor saltwater swimming pool. 

A refreshing swim, a stress-busting couples massage with luxurious oils and a detoxifying thermal bath combined to form the perfect high note upon which we ended our first visit to Tunisia.

The Residence Tunis by Cenizaro | Luxury Travel | Tunisia

 

Not goodbye but see you later Tunisia

Every large city (including Tunis) tries to find a balance; a balance between the past and the present, the ancient and the modern, bedlam and calm. This is the appeal of city breaks; the chance to experience it all. 

Medina of Tunis, Tunisia Travel

Tunisia may have had its recent challenges, but the bigger picture tells the story of a country seeking to reclaim its place in the hearts of travellers. Whether you seek to go off-the-beaten-path or simply enjoy a weekend of history, culture and luxury, you will find a warm welcome waiting for you in Tunisia. Just remember to avoid the carpet stings.

Have you been to Tunisia recently? Share your experience with us.

Is Tunisia Safe to Visit? Travel Tips

Disclaimer – Special thanks to the management and staff of The Residence Tunis for their hospitality. Our stay was provided complimentary. All thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are however ours.

 

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