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.

Sidi Bou Saïd’s tiny cen­tral square near the steps lead­ing up to Café des Nat­tes.

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.

Mediter­ranean views from the hill­side ter­races at Café Sidi Che­bâane. Op­po­site: In­side Café des Nat­tes.

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