Framed by wide sandy beaches dotted by unimposing resorts, the town of Bizerte in northern Tunisia offers a quaintness unrivalled by more tourism-centred meccas such as Sousse and Hammamet. Bizerte is an interesting clash of modern and historic imbued with a revolutionary spirit borne out of the newly found freedom of its population of around 160,000.
Formed around 1000 BC, Bizerte has a dynamic history marked by numerous occupations, including settlement by the Romans, Arabs, Turks, French and the Soviets. Bizerte was also occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, but was wrested back by American troops in 1943. It is famously the last Tunisian quarter to relinquish French control after the rest of the country gained independence from France in 1956; France clung tenaciously to Bizerte on account of its strategic location in the Mediterranean, finally abandoning it in 1963.
One of Bizerte’s main attractions is that its features have organically evolved and remain largely unblemished by mass tourism. Visitors do not have to brace themselves for the ‘hard sell’ – although the soon to be completed Goga Superyacht Marina and apartment development near the wharfside may indeed alter the unobtrusive and laid-back character of this historic town’s inhabitants.
The town has spacious, sandy beach and you are likely to spot a herd of camels grazing on the pasture adjacent to the sand on Rue de Corniche. A few of these delightful beasts can be seen taken out to graze in the morning and collected in the evenings by their owners. Camels and the Med apparently co-exist quite happily. The seemingly endless beach does not end until roughly 5 km north, at Cap Blanc. If you decide to take a day trip to Cap Blanc, the most northernly point in Africa and about 10km away from Bizerte proper, dramatic cliffs and crystal clear water await you.
The attenuated river inlet and small-craft port that is abuzz with fisherman hauling in their catches, as well as traders and visitors to the main market located around the Medina. One side of the inlet is lined with colourful cafes and shops, and the other with residential buildings in pretty pastels. A few wild cats scavenge for leftover scraps from the moored fishing boats, but they are a harmless addition to the scenery.
Among the architectural delights are the seventeenth century Great Mosque exhibiting Bizerte’s Turkish influences, and the Kasbah, built in the same century to guard the entry to the old port.
The winding markets behind the port offer an arresting riot of colours and bustling activity, from freshly harvested fruits and vegetables, insistently sold by traders, to brightly coloured pottery, to a wide selection of freshly caught fish available from the adjoining indoor fish market. While olives and dates are exotic and expensive treats for most British shoppers, these and other fresh produce can be purchased by for less than one pound per kilo in amole quantities. The busy market activity provides a marked contrast to the town’s stoic historical sites, such as Fort d’Eapagne and Fort Sidi El Hani, which charm the landscape.
Dining is ideal for those who prefer eateries where the locals can be found chowing down, rather than snack joints catering for tourists. Grilled fish with viande, pomme frites, couscous, rice and salad can be purchased for around five dinars in the market areas, while the cafes along the harbour offer pleasant views of the fishing marina and are nice places to sit and unwind. There are also more than enough decent patisseries serving up a range of appetising baked and cold desserts, and steaming cups of fresh mint tea.
Getting around is easy as there are plenty of taxis, or ‘louage’ as they are known locally. They are cheap hired and available from the market to the main taxi centre to Tunis. Taxis from Bizerte to Tunis (roughly an hour’s drive) run frequently and cost around five dinars per person in a shared taxi.
Like the rest of Tunisia, Bizerte was given another kind of independence in February 2011. This time, however, the battle was for psychological and political freedom. The self-styled ‘Father of the Nation’ Zinedine Ben Ali was defeated in a popular uprising sparked by the one-man protest of a now heroic vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. Locals are quick to exercise their new freedoms. The bricked-up charred remains of the Monoprix supermarket, once owned by the Ben Ali family, is a living testament to the town’s rejection of the erstwhile autocratic regime.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Bizerta Resort, one of the newer luxury hotels in the town. Located 60km to the north of Tunis and Tunis-Carthage International Airport, and on the coast road of Sidi Salem, this 4-star resort is ideal for the business, conference and holiday traveller. It rises to four storeys and is fitted out with a boutique, conference facilities and a fully kitted out fitness centre.
The resort has 100 rooms, 24 of which are communicating, and four spacious fully equipped comfortable suites. It may be just ten minutes walk to the centre of town, but the hotel also offers a variety of in-house restaurants and bars including Club Hypo, reserved for hotel guests and for members, the Hypo Bar, a peaceful lounge bar, the Corniche, a pool snack bar pizzeria, as well as Sidi Salem, offering Arab coffee and Shisha, together with indoor lounge and al fresco seating.
One of the main features of the hotel is its tantalising outdoor pool with picturesque views of the beach.