I've mentioned how beautiful Sidi Bou Said was before, that beauty even shines through the crowds walking its cobble stoned streets.
Still, we really enjoyed the still, quiet mornings when we didn't have to "wrassle" our way through the crowds.
Perhaps the vibrant energy that the crowds bring adds it's own color and energy to the mix, but in the quiet moments you're allowed the time to just stand and enjoy the view wrapped in your own little bubble.
Still, no matter how wonderful the view, we found ourselves on the TGM headed back to La Marsa. It was no different on this morning.
There's something about the Mediterranean brightness of La Marsa, of the whitewashed buildings and the palm tree lined road that has such a retro feel for me.
And though there were tourists, there didn't seem to be as many of them.
I really enjoyed the cafe culture in Tunisia. Folks actually took time out of the day to socialize, read, contemplate, or whatever.......the moment was yours to enjoy.
And while the view and the beach was nice......
It was starting to get pretty warm.
Plus, we were here on a mission......a lunch mission.
We headed back down the side streets of La Marsa, past the well to do homes, bright white, with blue windows, doors, and trim. You could tell this was the high rent district.....
Some of these places may not have looked like much from the road......
But the Mediterranean was this building's backyard.
We found the street where Le Golfe was fairly easily.
We walked in just as they were opening. The woman who kindly seated us before they were opened the day before, first looked at us in surprise, I guess most "tourists" visit just once. Then, giving us a bright smile, told us, "welcome back" and waving with her open hand told us, "your table is waiting!"
You gotta love these folks!
Our server was also the same as the previous day, he's so nice and welcoming.
We started with a Mushroom Salad - Salade de Champignons (13 TND - about $7.50)
Man, this is so good. Just enough chew, wonderfully grilled, with a smokiness that reminds me of stuff done over binchotan. Nice salt and cumin, brushed with olive oil......it hit all those flavor points.
The Missus really wanted to try the Salade Nicoise au Thon mi-cuit (16 TND - about $9.50 US)
The seared tuna was nicely seasoned and tasted fresh. The balsamic reduction really added to this salad.
The olive wood really lifted the Sardines Grillees (8 TND - about $4.75 US).
There was one item I really wanted to try. I'd seen fresh Bluefin Tuna several times during this trip. Once, in a market in Carthage, I watched in horror as two of the "fish cutters" went at a beautiful bluefin with chisels, hammers, and saws, just hacking the daylights out of it.
So today, I inquired about the Les Carpaccio de Poisson (20 TND - about $12 US) and was told it was "thon rouge", bluefin. So of course we had to get it!
This was very nice, the fish super fresh, the flavor mild, the texture light, but meaty. They gave us a little bowl of "soy sauce".....place very strong quotations around that, with wasabi. I went with lemon which added a nice acidic touch to the dish.
All in all, a wonderful meal, in a beautiful and relaxed setting. What more could we ask for?
We had been a bit disappointed with Carthage and caught the TGM, the light rail back toward Sidi Bou Said. But instead of getting off there, we just went to the end of the line to La Marsa. We had really enjoyed the "vibe" and folks in that little seaside village when we visited. We were also lining up lunch. Rafael, that regular visitor to Dar Amilcar, recommended a restaurant in La Marsa named Le Golfe.
So we got off in La Marsa and like before were totally confused. We knew the address and hailed a cab. But after trying to converse with us for about 30 seconds he drove off. Just then a friendly looking gentleman eating an ice cream cone walked over and asked us.....
"you speak English?" We both immediately answered, "Yes, do you?" He smiled and nodded side to side, "No....." It was really funny. He put his hand up with a single finger pointing to the sky and placed a call on his cellphone. A few minutes later a young lady, obviously his daughter appeared. Alright, she must speak English, right? The first thing she told me was.....
"I don't speak English!" Me, laughing: "But, you are speaking English!" Her: "That is all I speak....."
This was hilarious. We were all laughing. Finally, I displayed the address of the restaurant. I didn't know that I had the phone number on the listing. The nice gentleman used his own cell phone and called the restaurant and got directions. I recall hearing some thing about "tourists...." He then hailed us a cab and gave the driver directions. Our cabbie was very serious looking. The drive was very short, the restaurant was a couple of blocks from the waterfront in a very upscale looking residential area. The fare was just 1.5 TND, about 95 cents! I gave the driver 4 TND and obviously thinking that I didn't know how to calculate prices tried to give me back my money. I explained to him that it was all for him. After all, the distance was so short. 4 TND is basically $2.50. We really enjoyed La Marsa.
The restaurant is very understated. In fact, we would have probably walked right past it.
The look is very modern.
We'd arrived before lunch service, but the nice woman told us to go ahead and have a seat. So we took the table overlooking the beach just steps away.
You gotta love the view.
We had a seat and just took in the view and the breezes from the Mediterranean.
Then the woman came up to us and told us it would be a short while for lunch since service hadn't started yet. We were just happy that they let us in and we were able to take in the wonderful view. But she also brought over some water and even asked us if we were going to have wine with lunch. They could get us started on that right away. So of course we got the Blanc Magnifique. They even brought bread over.
How nice was that? We would have been happy just to have waited, this gracious hospitality just made this experience so nice.
The Missus and I decided to just go for it and order whatever we felt like.
Since we've ordered it everywhere, we decided to get the Salade Mechouia (10 TND ).
Loved the presentation, down to the drizzle of balsamic vinegar and the capers, a local staple, which really added to the mechouia.
Overall, this was good, but not the best we had in terms of just plain flavor. A good salade mechouia has a very pleasant savory-smokiness, this one was good.
The Salade de la Mer (21TND) was very nice and refreshing.
Our favorite dish of the meal was the Seches Grillees (14TND).
Baby cuttlefish, so tender and full of flavor, simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and yes, a good amount of cumin. Grilled over olive wood, which seems to impart a nice smokey flavor which really brings out the sweet aspect of salt.
Goodness, this was possibly the best thing I ate in Tunisia!
The Missus had some reservations over my ordering Les Carpaccio de Bouef (20TND). But they were out of Carppacio de poisson on this day. We were rewarded with a refreshing and delicious dish.
Served on a ice cold slate. This was excellent.
Like the mechouia, because we order it everywhere, we got the merguez (11TND).
This was very nice, though in line with other versions we had during our trip.
We enjoyed a nice relaxing meal. The place started filling up with what seemed to be a combination of ex-pat/foreign officials and well to do locals. In all we spent about $70 US.....we've spent more at a "gastro-pub" in San Diego that didn't even come close to this in terms of food and service. This was by far the best meal we had in Tunisia.
We walked back to La Marsa and the TGM. As we crossed one of the streets I heard the honk of car horn. A cab passed me by, arm outstretched, waving to us. It was the cabbie who dropped us off at Le Golfe! In fact, everytime he'd see us, we'd hear a honk and without a doubt he'd be smiling and waving to us. For a $1.50 tip, we had a friend for life it seems! Such was life in La Marsa I guess.
the benefit of spending a couple of days in a single location is that you're able to get into a routine. In Sidi Bou Said the daily routine included a stop at this little neighborhood bakery in a cul-de-sac right downstairs from busy Habib Bourguiba.
At places like this, you select your snacks and pay by weight. The very mild-mannered, soft spoken gentleman running the place got used to seeing us, greeting us with smile on our visits.
On our last evening in Sidi Bou Said, the Missus was relaxing, doing stuff on the iPad. I went to the grocery, then stopped by the bakery. I was asked where my wife was....they had gotten used to seeing us together. I told him She was "resting". I placed the pastries the Missus wanted on a tray and carried it for weighing. I told the gentleman we were leaving in the morning and thanked him for being so nice. He placed everything gently in the box, weighed it, then went back to the pastry case and placed a good half dozen more pastries in the box, turned to me, placed his hand over his heart and said, "this is from me....thank you." Folks like this gentleman and Sophie really made our stay in Tunisia just that much special.
The other regular stop was the grocer on Habib Bourguiba. On our first visit, we noticed the "door".....a door that usually had a line of men waiting.
Of course the Missus couldn't help herself. She kept wondering what was behind this door. Everytime we dropped by to purchase water or whatnot, the Missus would see the line and be beside Herself. We just didn't feel comfortable standing in line for the unknown.....
On my last trip to the market, I found the door open......opportunity knocked!
So what was behind the door?
In Islam, alcohol is forbidden, so I guess to be sensitive to Muslims, all the booze is kept in a separate room.
When we first decided to visit Tunisia, the first place that came to mind was Carthage. I mean really, Carthage. You'd be surprised at how many people I've met who have no idea that Carthage is actually in Tunisia. Then of course, there's how I first heard of Carthage when I was a child. There's the story of how Hannibal crossed the Alps with his army which included elephants!
Carthage itself is just a a couple of kilometers from where we were staying, so on one rather bright morning we headed off down Avenue Habib Bourguiba....to Carthage. The first thing that was obvious when we arrived was that Carthage was a pretty upscale neighborhood. Think of having several ancient ruins in, well, La Jolla......it was pretty strange overall. The signage was kind of ambivalent as well. After the drama of El Djem, Sbeitla, and Ksar Ghilane, this was pretty tame. Anyway, the site we enjoyed the most was the Antonine Baths, the third largest Roman bath complex in the world. According to what I've read, bath houses were very important in Roman Society and this seaside setting surely reflects that.
Most of what remains is the foundation and what I'm assuming are the underground network used to heat and move water.
I gotta say, the Roman really understood "location, location, location....."
The other locations we visited were somewhat non-descript. Some had trash strewn about. We decided to that a visit to the Byrsa Hill and the Musee de Carthage would be in order. It was really interesting trying to find the museum. Eventually, we found a sign and scrambled up this hill to the museum.
That building to the left is the beautiful Saint Louis Cathedral.
Which was not open to the public.
The view from the hill is dramatic. You can easily understand the importance of this location....
The museum itself, less so, as it seemed unorganized and haphazard. For me, the best display was of these two sarcophagus dating back to Punic times.
For some reason, even though it was still morning, the heat was getting to me......sort of like this mutt.
We headed down the hill to the TGM station and caught the light rail to La Marsa. After all, it was just about lunch time.......
One of the places recommended to us by Rafael was Au Bon Vieux Temps. Located right off the main tourist street of Rue Hedi Zarrouk, the place has a nice, almost romantic feel.
Perfectly in character, we arrived just at the beginning of dinner service. We enjoy the quiet before the chaos.
Though folks rave about the views, I really didn't think it that great from where we sat on the patio.
The menu featured both French style and Tunisian style dishes. The prices were the highest we'd encounted in Tunisia, but still pretty reasonable by US standards.
We were still in search of a Tunisian wine we really enjoyed. Not really knowing where to start and wanting a "blanc", we simply ordered the most expensive bottle on the menu at 42 Dinar, which was about $25 US at the time. It turned out to be a good choice as this bottle of Magnifique was light and refreshing, with a crispness to it. We ended up getting this whenever we saw it on the menu.
As the meal goes, we found that we preferred the Tunisian style dishes to the French preparations, like the Fruits de Mer (18 TND - $10 US) which was kind of waterlogged and mushy.
The Duck Pate, a bargain at 10TND, think six bucks, had some potential, the flavor was decent, but the texture was a bit too waxy.
For me, the best dish of the night was my Lamb Couscous (26TND - $15).
This was by far the best couscous we had on our trip. It was light and fluffy. I thought the vegetables were going to be somewhat onerous, but they were fork tender, not mushy, but yielding perfectly under my fork. The lamb was simply flavored, but was also very tender....loved the gamey flavor. It really didn't need the spicy sauce provided, which actually covered up all the wonderful flavors.
The Missus loved Her stuffed squid (22 TND - $13US).
The squid was very tender, we don't really remember much else about this dish.
Right as we were finishing our mains, a gentleman who claimed to be the owner came up to us and started a conversation. He talked the Missus into ordering a dessert, which She loved....probably because of all the pistachios and the rose water. Since She obviously enjoyed the rose water so much, he brought Her a glass with a bit more of it to pour over the dessert....
He also told the Missus She should check out the upstairs VIP area where Presidents, King's, Queen's, and Prime Ministers have eaten. He was a pretty smooth operator.
The Missus managed this photo....perhaps you'll recognize someone.
Overall, this wasn't bad. Perhaps if the prices were a lot higher I'd complain a bit more about the place. On the bright side, we found our favorite Tunisian wine and that makes this meal worthwhile. And as you can tell; we didn't leave hungry.
We admired the sunset as we walked back down the hill.
We were amazed at all the folks sitting and still having coffee at the busy cafe across from Place du 7 Novembre.
Folks laughing and carrying on, chatting as they ended the day.
Meanwhile, right across the street, it was time for prayers at the Mosque.
An interesting contrast for us. Such is life in Tunisia........
We got up pretty early in the morning. The Missus decided that we should check out La Marsa, a village which is the last stop on the TGM, the Tunis train line. The Missus however, wanted to walk to La Marsa and we got some basic instructions from the folks at Dar Amilcar. La Marsa was somewhat sprawling, but looked more upscale. There are signs you notice that indicate a more well to do lifestyle; more cars and folks exercising. Folks who have to work long hours or hard labor just don't have the luxury of putting on some rather stylish work-out gear and go jogging. La Marsa really had a laid-back Mediterranean vibe which we really enjoyed....we later found out that many Europeans also enjoy the vibe as this is where the rich Tunisians and ex-pats live. We wandered the streets of La Marsa until we walked pass the Mosque.
Right past the mosque was a rather busy coffee shop....well, the coffee shop wasn't very busy, but the shaded little area across the street was. It seemed like this was where the locals hung out, socializing and chatting.
This seemed like the perfect place for a short break and a "cafe express", what the Tunisians call espresso.
So we had a seat, looked around, and just soaked in La Marsa.
One thing we quickly noticed was that everyone was facing the same direction. Toward the coffee shop and the little street in front of it. I'm not sure why this was, but hey, if it's good enough for the locals, right? I recall tweeting, "having a cup of cafe express with the locals, all facing the same direction, like camels toward the sun." Or something like that.
There was a bit of excitement when two cats decided to duke it out under a chair. What made it slightly humorous was that there was a gentleman seated in it! He was calmly reading a newspaper when all screeching hell broke out below him. He literally levitated out of his seat into the road. Ah, such was the thrill of having a cafe express here; you never knew what was going to happen next.
A few blocks away is the waterfront, here you suddenly knew why this was prime real estate, and why the Ottoman's made this their summer capital, a place to escape the heat.
We loved the palms, the white-washed look, it was so Mediterranean to us.
A few blocks away is this building. You could tell right away what it was.......
The perimeter of the ground floor was ringed by various shops, most of them selling meat, poultry, and charcuterie.
The center portion was where all the produce was located. Here's a view from above.
There was quite a good selection.
Our favorite shop here by far was the little pickle and olive shop.
There was just a staggering array of pickled items in this shop. The friendly guy running the place kept trying to give us samples.
At this point we decided to just go ahead and have a nice self-catered lunch. We'd hit up someplace a little bit nicer for dinner.
Right across the street from the other side of the building is a location of Monoprix Market, the big grocery chain in Tunisia. And next to the market is this Patisserie.
I took that photo a day later since the place was really packed on this day. I was just trying to survive long enough to get a baguette.
We started walking back the way we came, but then decided that the TGM might be a good bet. Thing was, we couldn't find the train station. The Missus went up to a gentleman and asked, he spoke some English, but then I noticed that he was blind. Leave it to the Missus to find the one blind guy in the crowd to give us directions. So we walked around looking for the TGM station. Finally, we saw a young lady, book in hand, she looked like a college student. So we went up and asked her if she spoke English, which she did....quite well by the way. We asked her where the train station was and she told us to follow her. We told her that she could just point it out to us, but she insisted on walking us there. We actually walked back toward the mosque, but on the other side, a good half kilometer. We felt really bad that the young lady, "Sophie" had to walk all this way with some strangers. She led us to the TGM station, told us to wait, and went to the window and spoke to the person issuing tickets. A couple of second later she came back and said, "your train will be here in a few minutes....here are some tickets, this is from me. I hope you enjoy Tunisia." My goodness, what could we say! I felt like we should be giving her some money, but thought that would have just insulted her. So I simply got her name, we shook hands, she smiled, turned around and walked away. Bless you Sophie, you're a wonderful ambassador of your city! You really touched us and we'll always remember your generous and kind gesture.
We caught our train and made it back to the Sidi Bou Said station and did the short 10 minute walk back to the Dar Amilcar.
While the Missus went upstairs to freshen up, I spoke to the woman working and she led me to the kitchen and I got some plates, silverware, and glasses for us.
We ended up having a nice lunch......nice cheese from Monoprix.
Peppers, olives, and various pickles from the stand in the market......
Man, that baguette was really good!
Sitting around the pool........
Having a nice bottle of wine......
Life was good!
We also met a friendly gentleman who was sunning at the pool. I believe his name is Raphael. He told us he was from Toulouse and visits Sidi Bou Said just about every 6 weeks or so. He told us it's cheaper to have a little weekend holiday in Tunisia than it is in France. Anyway, he gave us a couple of recommendations for places to eat.
Our time in Tunisia had been quite a whirlwind, from bustling, confusing, and hustling Tunis, to amazing El Djem and Sbeitla, the vast desolation of the Chott el Jerid, and the beauty of the Grand Erg Oriental, our days had been full. It was time to wind down a bit. Which is why we decided to stay out of Tunis and stay in the village of Sidi Bou Said. Located to the North of Tunis, this town has gained a reputation as a town for artists. The whole town is draped in white colors with bright blue doors, windows, and trim. It gained protected status in 1915 and while researching Tunisia, I constantly came across the word beautiful and relaxing in descriptions of the town. The Missus and I were kind of bushed by this time. You see, even though you might think we go like crazy when on vacation, we're not like many of the, ahem, Chinese or Korean tourists we see. We don't do well in tours, we have the attitude of "we'll return someday", so if we miss something, so be it. We try to take in a bit of where we're visiting, not just blitz through a place to say we've been there, another notch in our belt. Most times it is the journey, not the destination that really makes the trip worthwhile. And though we have so many photos, it's the stories, most of which never make it to the blog, that we remember....like the time I was poaching wi-fi from across the street by sneaking into the restaurant of the Hotel Carlton in Tunis. You could only get decent wifi on the balcony of the restaurant. It was past dinner and the place was closed so I just walked in. As I was checking email and such, a team of men walked in and started fumigating the place....no masks, gloves, nothing....they were just blasting the place! Of course this is where we ate breakfast in the morning. It made me wonder if this was a regular event and what effect it had on the breakfast each day????
Anyway, wanting to enjoy Sidi Bou Said, but not wanting to hang with all the tourists up the hill in Place Sidi Bou Said, we chose a little place called Dar Amilcar. Both the Missus and I had our doubts when the taxi drove up to this street.
Right across from a huge empty lot, full of brown withered grass and trash was a compound with the sign Dar Amilcar in front.
Once we entered into Dar Amilcar and was greeted by the owners and the staff, we knew this was the right place. On the first floor is a spacious lounge and eating area, where breakfast is served.
Though we didn't spend much time down here, some of our most memorable moments of our time in Sidi Bou Said were spent here....more on that in a future post.
There are three suites and a bedroom in the guest house....ours was the Asdrubal Suite, which was huge......
We ended up spending four really nice nights here. Like much of Tunisia, the wifi was a bit spotty, but that really didn't matter.
We came to really enjoy our walks into Sidi Bou Said proper. Being away from all the crowds of tourists was nice....as were the quiet nights.
It was about a 20 minute walk past the train station, the mosque and the busy coffee shop past Place du 7 Novembre to Rue Habib Thameur.
Up the cobble-stoned hill was where most of the tourist action took place.
Though we loved the views.......
The colors and architecture, we ended up coming up here only three times during our four night stay, twice to eat, and once to get ripped off (just joking).
The place was often crawling with tourists and somewhat pushy touts and just wasn't our scene.
Though the people watching could be interesting at times. Along with all the European tourists, it seems like folks from around Tunisia came to visit Sidi Bou Said. It was a little peaceful and pleasant oasis (of a different kind) outside of busy Tunis.
In spite of all the tourists and visitors, we found the food in Sidi Bou Said to be pretty good. Yes there were some tourist trap coffee shops and restaurants, but sprinkled amongst them were places like the simple, straight-forward, and reasonably priced (for the area) Cafe Restaurant Chargui.
Located through a little portal, in an area that was probably once a courtyard, this restaurant is very, well.....bright and white, and potentially very hot. We were the first customers of the day so we got a little covered and raised gazebo. It seems that the sun shone very brightly around these parts.
The menu was simple and the prices not bad......of course you'd pay more for the "Couscous Royale" (20 Dinar), but if you keep it simple, the prices aren't bad.
Like a simple Salade Tunisienne (4 Dinar - $2.50):
Or the Salade Mechouia (5 Dinar - $3).
This was an interesting version. First off, it had a nice spicy kick to it, which helped to lift the entire roasted pepper salad. I also think there was some tomato in this. The acidic component balanced things out nicely.
The Merguez Grille (10 Dinar - $6), also had a bit of spice to it. It wasn't the run of the mill spiced lamb sausage.
They sure love their soggy fries in Tunisia....along with over-cooked pasta!
The brik was just ok, the egg was overcooked (2 Diner - $1.20).
After lunch we wandered around a bit, then hit the market (an interesting post on that is coming up) for some H2O, had a nap and a lazy afternoon.
We were still kind of just unwinding, so we decided on a very popular place on Avenue 7 Novembre called Tam Tam.
The place looked quite modern, in fact, the place looked like it could be dropped into a mall in the US and fit right in....say along with one of those places like California Pizza Kitchen.
I quickly saw something on the "specials" menu that I pointed out to the Missus...the Seiches Grille.
For some reason, countries other than the US seem to be able to cook cephalopods....and the thought of it grilled over olive wood just seemed delish.
Of course, this was still Tunisia, so there was the bread.....
And of course Harissa.......
The seiches were not bad......
Salt, pepper, and not over-cooking these buggers.......
As for me, I decided on something that went against all of my sensibilites......
For some reason, the thought of a tuna and cheese pizza just sounds wrong. But why not, right? The "tuna" here, like in Europe is pretty good quality stuff; it ain't "Chicken of the Sea". And you know what? I was pleasantly surprised.
Just in terms of being a pizza this wasn't bad. The crust was nice and crisp, light, and yeasty. The tuna actually went well on this....I was surprised at the amount of very mild flavored tuna. It was put on the pie after baking so the mositure content was still good. I'll be the first to admit, I was totally wrong about this.
Though I won't be going out of my way looking for it, I rather enjoyed it.
After dinner we walked around a bit, then headed back to the Dar Amilcar........the Missus went on a rampage with the iPad (we found an area in the room that got a decent signal). I just turned on the television.....
We were settling in for a relaxing couple of days.
Remember that empty lot across the street from the guest house? Well, even that was growing on us.....it looked really nice out there as the sun set.