Ensconced in a seaside bluff just 9 kilometres (5 miles) from Four Seasons Hotel Tunis, the dreamy village of Sidi Bou Saïd offers all the history and panorama of a European hamlet, but with far fewer tourists. Here, whitewashed structures with arched blue doors form terraces above the sparkling Mediterranean. The placid beauty of this coastal enclave has long beckoned to artists and thinkers such as expressionist painter Paul Klee and philosopher Michel Foucault.
It was French artist and musicologist Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, though, who left a lasting mark. The façade of his striking Andalusia-meets-Arabia palace, Ennejma Ezzahra, spurred the city to adopt an azure-and-ivory colour palette in the 1920s that persists today. The palace is now open to the public as a museum, where guests can admire the interior design, Erlanger’s paintings and a wide-ranging collection of Tunisian musical instruments, as well as appreciate the traditional music of Tunisia at the Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music.
Photographer Grant Legan, on assignment for Four Seasons Magazine, arrived in Sidi Bou Saïd in the morning, just as its winding streets were coming alive. “People were unloading giant wooden crates of fruits and vegetables into the restaurants and shops,” he says, “and locals were gathering in coffee shops.”
Café culture is alive here, from Cafe des Delices, a multilevel spot where the unobstructed sea views are just as sought after as the beverages, to the more unassuming haunts favoured by residents. Legan wandered into one with tour guide Fathi Bou Guezza. “You walk upstairs and there are all these small windows allowing the morning light to come in. It creates this moody, library kind of feeling,” he says. “There were a lot of locals hanging out, drinking coffee and tea and smoking shisha pipes.”
Back outdoors, Guezza treated Legan to a bambalouni, a large ring of fried dough sprinkled with sugar, served hot by street vendors. “Eating these with a cup of coffee or tea on the way to work is part of the morning routine here,” Legan says approvingly.
As he wandered the cobblestone streets lined with shops, galleries, studios and restaurants, Legan stopped to examine the elegant graffiti encircling a window on one quiet alleyway. “Graffiti can often feel aggressive,” he says, “but this had a rhythm to it that was soothing. It almost felt like calligraphy – it was that same sort of brushstroke.”
All the while, Legan was struck by the genuine congeniality he encountered as he roamed the city. “You see smiles and waves and watch conversations start on the street as one person passes another and stops to chat,” he says. “Walking around with Fathi, I felt like I was part of the neighbourhood, and I really appreciated that.”
On his way back to the Hotel, Legan stopped to visit the ruins of ancient Carthage. Established around the ninth century BC by the Phoenician princess Dido, Carthage was a lively port city, rebuilt and expanded by the Romans some time after they conquered it in the Punic Wars.
“We walked through the Baths of Antoninus, a large thermal bath area where you could see some of the remnants of what used to be,” Legan says. This thermae (bath complex), built by the Romans in the second century AD, is the largest on the African continent. More remnants include Roman villas, an amphitheatre where gladiators once battled, a theatre, and the tophet, a ceremonial site and burial ground.
Four Seasons Hotel Tunis Concierge Fadia Mokadmi could have predicted that he would be drawn in by the ruins: “After visiting Carthage, guests are fascinated by the magnificent history that combines legend with reality.”
Don’t have a full day? There are plenty of ways to savour your Tunisian experience.
No visit to Tunis is complete without the experience of a traditional hammam. “The architecture and the design of our hammam makes one disconnect almost instantly with the outside world,” says Four Seasons Hotel Tunis Spa Manager Pierre Habert. “Hammam is a therapy whereby various body masks are applied, allowing for complete muscle release. It totally resets the body’s energy flow. Through a hammam treatment one can truly feel the traditional flavour of Tunisia.”
Wind down your day with a glass of crisp Tunisian wine and unparalleled Mediterranean views at Salon Alyssa. Assistant Beverage Manager and Property Sommelier Aziz Hathout says you’ll survey “myriad shades of blue and green and a horizon that disappears in the deep blue waters of the sea, surrounded by the hills of Cape Zebib in the north and Cape Bon in the south.”
YOUR JOURNEY BEGINS HERE
Where will you choose to take your time?