Tunisia: The Cheap Alternative to Greece

Small country: Check
On the coast of Mediterranean beaches: Check
Blue doors on white homes: CHECK and CHECK

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

Don’t lie to yourself, as much as you love the rush of big cities like London, Barcelona, or Tokyo, sometimes you just need a good portion of sun, beach, desert, and palm trees.

Definitely, I do.

Now imagine a place where you can spend the day exploring towns filled with religious, cultural, and architectural history, AND have dinner by the Mediterranean sea. Well, that’s Tunisia!

Overlooking the Mediterranean and the town of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

And right now that’s Tunisia without the crowds that fill every single corner of Greece or Morrocco… for cheaper!

Tunisia wasn’t exactly a destination of my dreams – in fact, I wasn’t even sure where it was on a map a year ago. When I ended up rooming with three beautiful Tunisian roommates in Egypt, we became a family. They invited me to visit and I booked my flight.   

Ofla, one of my Tunisian roommates in Egypt, and I enjoying the sunset at a cafe in Sidi Bou Said

The first things that come to mind at the thought of Greece are the blues and whites of Santorini domes and doors. Since I’d never been to Greece, when the girls and I took a day trip to Sidi Bou Said, I thought we’d cross the Mediterranean to Santorini.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with the beautiful medieval village of Sidi Bou Said. Originally a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the tomb of a 13th-century Sufi holy man from whom it takes its name, Tunisia’s celebrated blue and white village is so enchantingly pretty that it can sometimes seem more like a painting.

The best photoshoot ever. All photo credits go to @wim.sgr

Seen from a distance, it shimmers under the fierce Mediterranean sun like a giant mosaic. Seen from within, it’s a labyrinth of winding alleys and secret passages, where crooked flights of steps lead to flower-filled courtyards.

You see the signature colors everywhere – dazzling white walls and staircases, with everything else a uniform shade of vivid blue. Plain exteriors are typical of traditional North African architecture and commonplace in Tunisia.

An overview of Sidi Bou Said

Doors, window frames, shutters, decorative iron grilles, and elaborate window screens, known as moucharabiehs, are all painted the imperial blue of a peacock’s tail.

#CoolStoryTime:

Note a moucharabieh on the top left of the picture

A moucharabieh is made of wood and is built around a window or balcony protecting it from the sun and the heat of summer.  The opening panels allow the room ventilation. Air passes through a moucharabieh to channel towards water-filled jars cooling it before it passes into the room.  These were the first air conditioners. Women could also look out at the city without being seen by passers-by as tradition prescribed.

Me at Le Vieux port De Bizerte

A friend told me the government had plans to carry the color scheme nationally and it showed when I was visiting Bizerte (a city an hour north of Tunis). Apparently, this implementation existed a long time ago but colonialism did not appreciate the unification of a nation.

Cafes along Le Vieux Port de Bizerte (a city 1.5 hours away from the capital of Tunis)

While sharing a language and many cultural elements with the Arab world, Tunisia still maintains its own identity. Tunisia has a compelling modern history and a culture of progressive Islamic teachings. The country’s first constitution dates to 1857. Women won the right to vote in 1957 (In Saudi Arabia, women didn’t vote until 2015). And let’s not forget Tunisia sparking the Arab Spring in 2011.

Sorry for the Snapchat quality image but I feel like we’re famous and this is a paparazzi shot.

A marang of French and Arab cultures reflects Tunisia’s 75 years as a French colony. The country attracted famous European artists and writers like Michael Foucault (who taught at the University of Tunis), Henri Matisse, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Reasons I’m Obsessed with Tunisian Doors

Me in blue door heaven.

Though the doors of traditional Tunisian buildings are very decorative, they are not just a means of forming a barrier between the home and the outdoors.  

A traditional door is large and made of solid wood. Sometimes the main door incorporates a smaller door. This acts as a defense mechanism but is also more convenient for everyday users. Generally, these doors were installed in a stone wall and were assembled using large nails to form patterns like the eye, the fir tree, and the star shape.

#CoolStoryTime (again):

A traditional Tunisian door with 2 knockers.

Most traditional doors have two door knockers. These make different sounds so the occupants know if their visitor is male or female – male on the left knocker and female on the right.

Rahma (@rosa_negra618), Wiem (@wim.sgr), me (@zahratravels), and Olfa (@olfa.mahfoudh)

It’s hard to believe that I’d just met Wiem and Rahma that day. We look like we’re the cast of Sex in the City here. Obviously, I’m Samantha.

To end the evening, we stopped at Arts Cafe, a quaint 3 story coffee house with million dollar view overlooking the sunset on the Mediterranean.

Sure, we can talk about security and conflicts but we can also talk about how far Tunisia has come now and how open and welcoming (not to mention BEAUTIFUL) its people are.

Rahma, Olfa and I at Arts Cafe in Sidi Bou Said

I hope if there is one thing you take away from this post, its to explore off the beaten path and really bond with locals. You could be in the most beautiful place and not have a good time because of your interactions with its people weren’t positive. 

Do you have any substitutes for crowded destinations? Let me know in the comments!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Mr.Lotus! says:

    Never got such in detailed blog regarding this small beautiful country along the mediterranean. Thanks Zahra 🙂

    1. A special place like Tunisia deserves more attention. Hopefully, this is just one of many to come. Thanks for the read!

      1. Mr.Lotus! says:

        My pleasure!
        Where are you from basically? (very difficult question to ask to a dynamic traveller :p )

        1. I’m Pakistani by ethnicity but home is Toronto, Canada.

  2. Mr.Lotus! says:

    That name speaks! Geographically we are close 🙂

Leave a Reply