Travel: Funky Old Medina
Stroll the cobblestoned streets of Tunis medina, the old city within Tunisia’s capital, and smiling merchants will beckon you to enter their shops—not necessarily to buy, but pour le plaisir des yeux. If you do not understand French, they happily will translate: “for the pleasure of your eyes, sir.”
Dating to the seventh century, the Tunis medina is a warren of streets pulsing with excitement. Visitors to the heart and soul of this northern African country’s capital encounter locals clad in djellabas and chechias (traditional robes and round felt hats), teenagers wearing the latest Western gear, calls to prayer from the mosques, chirping cell phones, and the scent of fresh bread, spices, and honey-drenched pastries.
Amid this setting, brothers Salah and Mustapha Belhaouane opened the Dar El Medina hotel, converting an 18th-century building that, until last fall, had been the home to five generations of the Belhaouane family. The first Belhaouane to inhabit the structure—his first name has been forgotten—was a dey, an official who served the bey, or ruler, who governed Tunis during the time of the Ottoman Empire. The Belhaouanes retained possession of the house during France’s occupation of the country in the 19th and 20th centuries and through the revolution that enabled Tunisia to become an independent nation in 1956. Having outgrown the home but not wanting to sell it, the family permitted Salah and Mustapha to transform it into a 12-room hotel. The two left intact its multihued tiles, winding staircases, and intricate stucco friezes decorated with geometric patterns, flowers, and verses from the Koran, and added bathrooms and modern amenities, allowing guests to experience in comfort the charms of an authentic medina home.
Two of the city’s best restaurants are among the attractions within walking distance of the hotel. In its dining area, the courtyard of a house built in 1700, Essaraya offers meze riche, an assortment of squid, harissa (chili paste), tajines (quiches), and other Tunisian specialties. The Dar El Jeld features haute Tunisian cuisine that includes a chickpea and honey dessert that takes three hours to prepare. Its name translates to “girl’s hair pastry.”
The souks, or native markets, provide a feast of a different sort. Gold, silver, and ceramics vie for your attention, but a rug maven will want to visit Ed-Dar, a former family home with rooms that now are filled with hundreds of carpets and tribal rugs such as kilims from Douz, Tatouine, and other southern Tunisian towns. Jerry Sorkin, an American expert on North African rugs, operator of a Pennsylvania rug store, and founder of TunisUSA, a tour company that arranges trips to Tunisia, says that Ed-Dar’s owner, Ali Chammakhi, offers reasonable prices and never misrepresents his wares. Over cups of tea, the urbane, soft-spoken Chammakhi unfurls kilims that were given as presents to newlyweds or were prized dowry pieces. He explains how the colors were produced: The red dye comes from a native root, the blue from indigo, yellow from saffron, and green sometimes from olives. Spend time with Chammakhi and you can acquire more than just a beautiful rug; he also offers well-woven insights into Tunisian culture and history.