Postcard from: Djerba, Tunisia

When I asked work for some time off last year to join my family on vacation in Tunisia, the unanimous response was: “where?” Until recent political turmoil brought Tunisia to the front pages of newspapers (and into the State of the Union), few Americans had actually heard of the small North African country. But for the French (and Europeans in general) Tunisia is a popular and affordable travel destination, a mere 2 hour flight away from Paris. Best known for its beaches, the country also boasts an amazing archaeological heritage. The ruins of Carthage, 15 km away from the capital of Tunis, are a must see, for example. El Kef in the northern part of the country has a splendid Byzantine kasbah rising out of the old medina and El Jemin the east, holds the remains of a UNESCO World Heritage listed Roman amphitheater. On my most recent trip to Tunisia, I met my family in Djerba, a small island in the Gulf of Gabès, where my grandmother was resting at the Radisson Blu Resort & Thalasso following knee surgery. Here are some of the highlights of Djerba.

Djerba is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in North Africa. At one point, over 100,000 jews lived in Tunisia, but today less than 2000 remain, half of them in Djerba. The majority settled near Er-Riadh (or Hara Seghira) where pilgrims and tourists converge to visit El Ghriba, a beautiful synagogue which houses the world’s oldest Sefer Torah. The exterior is just plain white, but its beautiful interior consists of warm blue tiles, drenched in sunlight from the  coloured glass windows, as well as dark wooden panels and seats where you will often find elderly men reading religious books. 

“Borj el-Kebir” means Big Fortress and that’s pretty much what it is: a big fortress dating back to 1595, overlooking the sea and surrounded by palm trees. Located right outside the port of Houmt Souk, Djerba’s largest agglomeration, there’s not much to see inside. But from the top of its tower, you can enjoy a view of the whole town and the surrounding areas. Houmt Souk, which literally means “Market neighborhood,” is best known for its market where you can find everything from dates, fish and spices to leather goods, clothes, silver jewelry or colorful dishes. Check out the fish market in the marche central as well every morning.

Other highlights of Djerba are of course the delectable food and beautiful beaches. Enjoy freshly caught fish, merguez, tagines, harous (Tunisia’s version of harissa,  a red pepper sauce made by salting onions and letting them ferment, then combining them with dried peppers and spices) or my childhood favourites: briks (deep fried triangular shaped pastry pockets filled with meat or tuna and an egg.) Sip fresh mint tea while snacking on makrouth, gazelle’s horns or fresh dates. Morocco is also the largest producer of wine in the Arab world, and its rosés in particular go very well with the local cuisine (or with a beautiful beach sunset). Finally, take a stroll on the beach, by foot, on horseback or camelback!

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