In 2019, the New York Times included Tunisia as one of its “52 Places to Visit.” Let’s go! So, we signed up for 2020, 2021—no spoilers here—international travel became somewhat constricted due to Covid, and in Tunisia a bit uncertain as the new president of 2019 shut down the Parliament not soon thereafter.
Thus here in 2022, we finally find ourselves in this Northern African country, which is too often overlooked for its long history, which includes Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Ottoman Empire, French Protectorate, and, finally, independence.
We were not disappointed. Centuries-old houses turned into tourist accommodations are elaborate with colorful doorways, rose-petal strewn pools in the courtyard where breakfast was served, ornately carved ceilings in bedrooms, doors with heavy iron keys, and rooftop terraces for watching sunsets. Although these buildings retained their historic character, the heated towel rack and other such amenities were appreciated. In December, low tourist season, few other guests, but sometimes we were solo, treated to local delicacies: couscous, tagine, and the omnipresent dates and citrus.
When visiting the food markets, I wished we had kitchen facilities to cook. Cartloads of fennel and artichokes, abundant seafood, and sometimes graphically depicted meats. (Who doesn’t want a cow hoof on the counter or a fleece to illustrate the butcher’s products?)
We dined away from out guesthouse only two nights during an eleven-day trip, but what an experience! We asked for recommendations for seafood in Sousse, a seaside city, and learned of La Caleche. As it happened, it was also the night of the World Cup Championship game between France and Argentina. Curious about whether or not a former “French Protectorate” would cheer for France, I asked our waitperson, Imed, who quickly responded that he preferred the American team. What drama! Even though we are not necessarily soccer fans or “football”-knowledgeable, we could tell that this was an extraordinary match-up.
Emboldened by the good spirit of the evening, I queried our waiter if octopus might ever be available, as it was not on the menu–the item we’d sought out–even though the grilled Dorade and fruits de mer were delicious. Absolutely, he told us, so we made a reservation for the following night for 6:30 pm. Fresh seafood is not a problem in Tunisia as the fishing industry is evident in the daily markets. When we arrived at La Caleche for evening #2, our table was set with linen, and I was presented with a bouquet of roses! Did we want our octopus grilled or cooked in garlic? “Both,” I told our new best friend. We could have one of each, trading plates midway as is our custom. By the way, Tunisia also has a burgeoning wine industry, and over the course of our stay, we learned which vineyards were dependable. What a feast. Yes, the food was stellar, but the generosity and hospitality of Imed is what is truly memorable.
We felt similarly about others we met on our travels: the wonderful hostess at Dar Antonia guest house in Sousse, who put up with my minimal French skills, and our guide/chauffeur Ridha, the most knowledgeable tour leader we’ve encountered in a very long line of guides. Likewise, Mosaic North Africa, the company that arranged our itinerary, guide, and accommodations was stellar, particularly when we kept having to delay the trip. Finally, Tunisia is wonderfully economical for USA travelers–always a bonus.