On the itinerary of every visitor to Tunisia, the hilltop village of Sidi Bou Saïd is hardly a secret anymore. But that has done nothing to diminish its enduring charm.
The Tunisian hilltop village of Sidi Bou Saïd may no longer be a secret, but its charm endures.
From the train station at the base of the hill, it takes me about 10 minutes to walk up to Sidi Bou Saïd’s tiny central square, passing 19th-century mansions, art galleries, and souvenir stalls with pottery and wire birdcages set out before them. A number of cobbled lanes radiate from the square; I follow one at random toward the highest part of the village. On either side of me now are whitewashed houses accented in vivid shades of blue, a color that appears on heavy studded doors, window shutters, wroughtiron grilles, and boxy mashrabiya— oriel windows enclosed with wooden latticework that keep homes cool but also allow women to look out without themselves being seen. Untamed tumbles of pink bougainvillea, hibiscus, and honeysuckle shroud gates and break up the overwhelming white-and-blue palette. The cloying scent of
jasmine flowers perfumes the late-spring air.
Though I have visited Sidi Bou Saïd a number of times over the last dozen years, it’s still easy to get lost among the hilly maze of small, shady streets and intertwined pathways that wander with a medina’s sinuosity. As I climb, I catch glimpses of the glittering Mediterranean and the shoreline below, where ancient Carthage once stood.
Sidi Bou Saïd sits atop Jebel Menara (“Hill of the Lighthouse”) on a promontory jutting out into the Gulf of Tunis. Carthaginians and Romans once lit fire towers here to guide sailors, and Arabs, after conquering the region in the seventh century, constructed a small ribat, or fort. There was little else on the hill when a Sufi holy man called Bou Saïd made it his retreat for prayers and meditation. After he died in 1231, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage, around which grew the village that would eventually bear his name.
In the Ottoman era, nobles began building summer palaces on the hill’s forested slopes; though just 20 kilometers from the old center of Tunis (and now considered an eastern suburb of the capital), Sidi Bou Saïd boasts a fresher, more salubrious climate. Its popularity as a holiday retreat and artists’ colony soared during Tunisia’s 75 years as a French protectorate, especially after the Tunis- Goulette-Marsa (TGM) railway line reached the base of Jebel Menara in the late 19th century.
Today, the chic white-and-blue village is the most sought-after address in the country. It’s a magnet for tourists, but also beloved by wellheeled locals. Indeed, Sidi Bou Saïd has been the ultimate Tunisian travel fantasy for so long that it’s almost a cliché. Yet somehow, its charm endures.
Sidi Bou Saïd is
for the flâneur, the directionless stroller. Much of the pleasure here comes in private discoveries: a small pool carpeted with flower petals; a brilliant yellow door among dozens of blue neighbors. But the place is not large, and even the pokiest door-photographing ambler won’t spend much more than an hour on foot before ending up at the famous café perched above Sidi Bou Saïd’s little cobblestone square.
In the mid-19th century, when Tunisia was still part of the Ottoman Empire, a grandee named Larbi Zarrouk converted the original entrance of the old village mosque into a café. Cafés were fundamental to daily life in Tunisia, and this one became the heart of the community. In Arabic it’s called Kahoua el-Alya, or “High Café,” in part for the two dozen stone steps that lead to it from the square. But it’s better known as Café des Nattes, a reference to the rush mats (in French, nattes de jonc) that line the benches, seating platforms, and—in the evening—the edges of the steps themselves.
Taking a seat inside, I order a Turkish coffee dashed with orange-blossom water from longtime waiter Hamda Hagui, who has worked at the café for 30 years. He brings my coffee, chats for a moment, and then returns to his customary spot at the doorway, where he can watch the activity in the square below.
The view from—and onto— Café des Nattes is picturesque in the literal sense, and countless painters have set up easels here in order to capture the village’s exquisiteness. Paul Klee and his German expressionist friend August Macke visited in 1914. Klee produced a watercolor sketch of the sea from a nearby garden gate, while Macke painted the square and café in View of a Mosque, one of the most iconic images of early-20th-century North Africa.
Sidi Bou Saïd has drawn writers too, Gustave Flaubert, Simone de Beauvoir, and André Gide among them. “Sidi-bou-Said is bathed in a fluid,
nacreous, sedative milk that is almost cool, a contrast to the heaviness of the last few days,” Gide wrote of a summer morning in 1946. “I went out into the garden; the leaves, withered by yesterday’s sirocco, are breathing again and dripping. Only the foreground is visible: a few cypresses and the white walls of the nearest Arab houses, which seem to melt in that silvery vapor. Everything is soft.”
Such vapory, saturated softness returns in the late afternoon. The greens of the pines and palms deepens, the sea turns a plummy sapphire, and the lowering sun gives the worn paving stones a sheen of gold.
After another slow turn through the upper part of town, I head for Sidi Bou Saïd’s other great café, Sidi Chebâane. Cut into a rocky spur above a small, yacht-filled port, its tiered terraces offer an uninterrupted panorama over the Gulf of Tunis and the mountainous Cap Bon Peninsula, which points toward Sicily.
The spot is impossibly romantic, the view mesmerizing. Flânerie, a 19th-century Parisian playwright once said, is a “compromise between laziness and activity,” and Café Sidi Chebâane caters well to my languor. Lingering over a second, then third, glass of mint tea with pine nuts as shifting blue tones play out over the sea, I find it impossible to leave until well after sunset.
Hungry, I get a small fricassé sandwich—a deep-fried bun stuffed with tuna, hard-boiled egg, olives, capers, and a lashing of fiery harissa chili sauce—from the cupboard-size shop below Café des Nattes and stroll back down the hill. I am in no hurry and make a wider loop this time, passing the extravagant Moorish palace of Dar Ennejma Ezzahra. Now home to the Center of Arab and Mediterranean Music, it was built by the Orientalist painter, musicologist, and scion of a French merchant-banking family Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger.
Erlanger’s impact on Sidi Bou Saïd is indelible. He was largely responsible for the strict bylaws enacted in 1915 requiring its houses to be painted white and trimmed in blue. That pleasing aesthetic unity, framed by such an idyllic setting, seems a guarantee that the village’s allure is unlikely to fade anytime soon.
A flâneur’s first dictum is “never hurry.” That could equally be the motto for any visit to Sidi Bou Saïd. I stand for a while in the warm breeze as the sky drains of color and the silhouette of Cap Bon melds into the dark sea. Then, slowly, I continue down the hill.
Clockwise from this picture: Tea with pine nuts at Café Sidi Chebâane; Sidi Bou Saïd is full of remarkable doors; Hamda Hagui, the long-serving waiter at Café des Nattes.
Sidi Bou Saïd’s tiny central square near the steps leading up to Café des Nattes.
Mediterranean views from the hillside terraces at Café Sidi Chebâane. Opposite: Inside Café des Nattes.