We have just finished a scrumptious lunch when a violinist makes his way into the room we’re sat. Obviously he has been told that we are a group of Brits as he serenades us not with a romantic classic but with Yesterday by the Beatles! He quickly has us all singing along adding to the jovial mood of the afternoon. Luckily there is a French group next to us who he then moves onto playing a much more traditional rendition of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. All this simply adds to the magic of the Dar, the Tunisian version of a riad or gîte, that we are enjoying lunch on a sunny afternoon.
Arriving at Dar Zaghouan, the driveway is bordered by rambling dog roses that direct us to the farm house flanked by broad cooling almond trees and surround by olive groves and vineyards.
This farm restaurant has been attracting locals and tourists alike for years and offers only the freshest food, all produced on the farm itself. From the olive oil pressed on site to cheeses made in the stone huts dotted around the farm and even fowl that has, no doubt, been killed a matter of hours before, the food is exceptional. Hot stone-baked Khobz Tabouna bread with appetisers including classic harissa, soft cheeses, light and warm cheese-filled mini briks, fresh salads and grilled vegetable ragout whet our appetite and it is hard to stop eating these to leave room for the main course.
But it is worth the wait. The spatchcocked quail that had been cooked on open-air charcoals and simply seasoned with salt and pepper is served with a rich couscous accompanied by chunky potatoes, carrots and chickpeas. As the Tunisian musicians charm and captivate the diners, I barely notice the sweet pastry laid before us.
After lunch we explore the farm further – from the office filled with antiques and collectables and traditional olive pressing room to the wonderful guest rooms and out buildings dotted around, it is a peaceful and relaxing place. We see women making La Rose Canina, rose water, from the farms very own dog roses while another group uses the rose water to make Kaak biscuits, a butter biscuit ring filled with an almond paste and rose water filling which are terribly moorish. Cheeses from creamy ricotta to hard cheeses similar to parmesan are made in another hut.
With an inviting pool in the shadow of the Zaghouan Mountains, this is the perfect place for a country getaway that will have you wondering if you are in France or Italy.
Tunisia is a country of contradictions. Just two hours from the UK and on the same time zone, Tunisia has been a popular destination for years. But after civil unrest and the recent infamy of starting the Arab Spring with its revolution in 2011, tourists are rediscovering the country and all it has to offer. From good weather, pristine Mediterranean beaches and World Heritage listed national parks to a magnificent selection of Roman ruins and historical arts and ancient medinas selling all sorts of wares it truly does have something for everyone. Despite the past unrest, the mainly Muslim Tunisians are known for their tolerance and are welcoming and warm hosts. The new secular constitution for the first time explicitly protected not only freedom of religion, but freedom of conscience with the ancient synagogue in Djerba as well as beautifully preserved Christian churches in central Tunis.
A great place to base your self while staying in Tunisia is the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said. Set on the hill with its white washed houses accented with bright sky blue doors and windows, winding cobbled streets, cascading walls of bright bougainvillea and jasmine and orange trees, heavy with fruit while we were there, it is picturesque as well as convenient. Many of the Dars, restaurants and bars feature panoramic views across the bay.
Dar Said is a boutique hotel Arab-Andalusian in style that’s 24 rooms are set around inner courtyards with fountains and perfumed creepers climbing the walls. The pool is flanked by orange trees and has fabulous views to the Med. Built in 1863, it first became hotel in 1948 and has since became very popular with the likes of Prince Albert of Monaco, John Hannah, Claudia Cardinale and Billy Zane all staying there. The multiple terraces and cool rooms provide as oasis away from the heat of the day and the hustle of the city.
Dar Said’s sister restaurant across the road, L’Espace Dar Zarrouk is a great place to eat in town, as is Au Bon Vieux Temps next door with delicious fresh seafood and Cafe des Délices, further down the road, is the perfect spot for a cold glass of wine and olives and to watch the world go by.
Being so close to the capital Tunis, we had to make a trip in, not just to see their national museum, but also to shop at the fabulous Medina.
Tunis has a wonderful European feel with wide tree-lined boulevards featuring four stemmed lanterns and cafe tables and chairs spilling over the pavement and giving the locals a place to catch up over coffee and watch the world go by. There are also the Middle Eastern cobbled streets, walled cities and the bustling souks filled with mystery, charm and a whole lots of bargains. Everything imaginable is on sale at the main Medina, you just need to find it. I recommend stocking up on rose and perfumed flower oils, olive oil, and harissa, all of which are locally produced to a very high standard. Stop at one of the many cavern like bars for refreshments or a restaurant hidden up narrow winding staircases that offer an oasis from the heat (or odd downpour) of the streets, Dar Bel Hadj is one such oasis.
If you are interested in history, culture or simply the beauty of art you would be remiss to miss the Bardo National Museum. With one of the largest collections of mosaics and charting the Tunisian history from the Phoenicians and Romans through to the Christians and Muslims it offers a rich and colourful look at ancient civilisations and their sense of beauty. Set in a 13th century palace, the walls and ceilings are intricately carved, decorated and adorned so you need ensure you take in the floors and ceilings as well as the walls.
And it is not just central Tunis that offers you the chance to take a step back in time with Tunisia.
The Roman empire really left their mark on the plains and deserts of Tunisia. From the aqueducts and town ruins to well-preserved Roman baths and the El Jem amphitheatre – an impressive colosseum, there is a lot to see for history buffs.
In the ancient city of Utica it was a case of old meeting new as fragrant rose geranium and damask roses grew between the paving stones of ancient villas whose mosaic fountains could still show-off their impressive artistic flair. Get a good guide to point out and explain the details and with a bit of imagination you can be transported back to the life of the nobleman or woman of Roman times. Utica Museum, set on the hill with spectacular view toward the sea, also displays some fabulous examples of the Roman and Punic occupations.
With a cold beer in hand and a fresh plate of warm mini briks, I watch the sky turn orange and pink over the Mediterranean at the end of another glorious day and realise how quickly Tunisia has charmed me.
Tunisair operates five flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £237, including taxes. For reservations, please call 0207734 7644 or visit www.tunisair.com.
For more information or to book a room at Dar Zaghouan, visit www.darzaghouane.com
For more information or to book a room at Dar Said, please visit www.darsaid.com.tn.
For all your travel needs and for information on what’s happening in Tunisia, please visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk.
[photographs by: Belinda Wanis and Keith John Lewis]