Off the Beaten Path in Sousse
At first glance, the city of Sousse, on Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast, looks like a resort destination with sprawling hotels and kilometers of sandy beaches. But there’s more to Sousse than package tourism, and even if you’re only there for a few days, it’s worth looking beyond the obvious to experience a more authentic version of life in Tunisia.
Known as “the pearl of the Sahel,” Sousse sits less than two hours southeast of the nation’s capital and is the country’s third largest city. Many visitors begin and end their visits at Port el Kantaoui, a pristine tourist complex built around an artificial harbor, where the rich and famous dock their yachts.
I suggest you start at the other end of town—at bled el arabi (literally, Arab town), what English speakers call “the medina.” Once inside the ramparts, built by the Aghlabids around 859 AD, venture off the main thoroughfares and wander down any side street that looks interesting. Don’t be afraid to get lost—you can always follow an outer wall to an exit. You’ll be rewarded with glimpses of everyday life as you explore the residential quarters: little boys kicking a soccer ball in an open square, women sweeping their stoops, freshly baked bread coming out of an oven. You’ll also have the chance to admire the architecture—especially the colorful arched doorways and the intricate barmakli ormoucharabieh windows—without the distraction of the crowds. Notice the mix of styles, reflective of the diversity of cultural influences in Tunisia.
You may also want to visit a local market. Instead of the popular and somewhat touristySouk el-Ahad (Sunday market) downtown, try the Souk es-Sebt (Saturday market) located a few kilometers north in Hammam Sousse. A vivid cornucopia of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and aromatic spices — as well as household items, straw baskets, pottery, second-hand clothing, and more — can be found there, most of it for a few dinars.
While there, consider picking up an exfoliating mitt (look for the coarse black rectangles or the softer green or pink ones) and some tfal clay, used for washing, that you can take with you to the hammam. With origins in ancient Rome and the Ottoman Empire, thehammam is an opportunity to partake in a ritual unfamiliar to many Western visitors. Try the women-only hammam around back of the Slim Centre mall, or ask for recommendations for a neighborhood hammam rather than using the one at your hotel. You’ll find both the sensual, relaxing experience of a steam bath and optional scrub, and the opportunity to mingle with local women or men.
The beaches in Sousse will surely beckon you. If you walk north from the hotels district, you’ll get beyond the cordoned-off areas to sections of beach where local families spend Sundays picnicking under large umbrellas. You can even find totally empty stretches of sand farther north in Chott Mariem or Hergla.
When it comes time to dine, I recommend seeking out a “fast food” or other local eatery rather than a restaurant geared to tourists. Instead of bland, international-style fare, you’ll find the real flavors of Tunisian cooking—from rich chakchoukavegetable stew, chickpea lablabi drizzled with local olive oil, and platters of grilledmerguez sausage, to amazing sandwiches stuffed with chawarma and salad and spread with spicy harissa. One good example is Le Grand Maghreb on Boulevard 14 Janvier in Hammam Sousse. You’ll have to forego a glass of wine, but you’ll gain so much more.
For a local beverage, try one of the fresh juice bars like Am Salem, located down the pedestrian alley to the right of the Municipal Theater, where you’ll find delicious seasonal flavors made with real, fresh fruit. And don’t forget a glass of téy billouz, mint-flavored green tea with almonds, served at Café Noisette near Dreams Beach Hotel. The alluring scent of shisha smoke in the air may entice you to try a puff of apple or mint-flavored tobacco.
You can also get a little closer to Tunisian culture with an Arabic language lesson. Even if your stay is brief, you can arrange for an hour-long lesson or two at a local language center and pick up a few words of lahja Tounsiya (Tunisian dialect) that will endear you to locals. Try Alef Formations in Hammam Sousse.
Finally, let the call to prayer (el adhan) make you pause in your daily activities for a moment of quiet contemplation. In the early evening, there’s nothing like strolling barefoot on the beach with the sound of the waves mingling with the echoes of the call to prayer as the sky changes colors at dusk.
Andrea Calabretta is an American Fulbright scholar living in Sousse.