Bizerte is an enigma in Tunisia, as many will tell you it’s both the oldest city in Tunisia and also possibly the least Tunisian in terms of History both recent and ancient.
Bizerte is a small city of under 200,000 people though this is enough to make it the 5th largest in Tunisia as a whole. However, do not let its size fool you. It’s a lovely city in a fantastic location rich with history which is why it’s essential that you include it in your visit to Tunisia or indeed as part of a sail around the Mediterranean.
Bizerte used to be a rather difficult trip from Tunis, given the single lane road to and from the capital. However, this has now changed and you can either go via the winding old road (avoid during wet weather) or use the relatively new toll motorway. This reduces the journey to a safe-as-you-like 35 minutes (Tunisian driving) or 45 Minutes (English driving). You can also get the louage from Tunis, the bus which will drop you in Zarzouna (the other side of the bridge ), or the train which will drop you off 10 minutes walk from central Bizerte.
Welcome to Bizerte!
The first thing you may notice about Bizerte is that it feels different to other parts of Tunisia. Its wide coastal roads and green hills are reminiscent of southern Italy or even some parts of Spain. You definitely get the feeling that this is a good place to grow crops and fish, which probably explains why this is the oldest settlement of civilisation in Tunisia. You can almost see the Phoenician settlers sailing from what is now Modern Lebanon, discovering this place and thinking what a good home it would make. It had everything they were looking for. Sea – check, hills – check, forest – check, wetlands – check, lake – check. Add in the naturally defendable position and you have the feng-shui for the ideal ancient town. Assuming that you are arriving in Bizerte by road, you will come via the bottleneck which is the bridge into Bizerte. (Bear in mind that this can be raised at 3pm and causes many delays). As you go over the bridge, make sure that you look down the large canal and see the industry and buildings on either side of the water. Also note the impressive minaret on the mosque on the opposite side of the canal from Bizerte which is in a town called Zarzouna and is not to be confused with Bizerte itself. If you do find yourself waiting for the bridge, believe me it’s better to turn right after the bus station and head down the side of the canal where there is a café from which you can patiently watch everybody else getting stressed waiting. Bizerte can be a little difficult to navigate for the first time visitor and has many one way (interdit) signs. I recommend that you turn right after the bridge and take the nice, wide coastal road which gives you the space to think and time pull over if you see anything that you fancy stopping to see.
At one with the sea
Bizerte is a port city and it is built right up against the sea. At the seafront of the city there is a wide mouth which provides a port which is currently only partly taken up with the modern marina. The industrial port is actually down the canal that you crossed over when entering the city. There are large changes coming to this part of Bizerte, which I will cover at the end of this guide. As you progress down the sea road you will come across a roundabout which will take you into the town. If you go left here, you can drive right into the heart of the Old Port. This is a good place to park the car as you can also walk down the seafront and over a small bridge across the entrance to the Old Port. This is well worth a look as it gives a great view of the entrance to the port.
Once you enter the port, you will see a beautiful double Kasbah that served to protect the small city of Bizerte from all manner of invaders. Originally this route would have been the main form of access into Bizerte and the lake behind, but with the advent of increasingly larger vessels, this was superseded by the canal that you crossed via the Bizerte bridge.
On entering the historic centre of Bizerte, you are immediately struck by the feeling that Bizerte has evolved over many years and is still a vibrant place today. The port is humming with fishermens’ cafés, traders and visitors to the main market, which is located behind the main row of buildings in the centre of the Medina. This is also a good place to park and have a break before more in-depth exploration of the town. A well-recommended café is the Marabout (lighthouse) which is on the left hand side of the port and is one of the “hole in the wall” cafés which serve the walkway to the port entrance. A nice ‘café direct’ should cost you about 750 millims (May 2008 prices) so you can also get a nice sandwich from Phantoms. There are also plenty of opportunities to buy some sweet doughy yo-yos and fricassee. Once you are recharged, your first choice should be to walk around the sides of the port itself and get your bearings. The port has been built up over the years and though often called Turkish, many of the parts near the front are from the time when Charles V was ruler of Bizerte. If you walk up the main Kasbah (on the right as you look out to sea) you can enter the ramparts for 500 millimes each and walk up onto the gun platforms which give a wonderful view of the seafront and also of the old Medina of Bizerte. The opposite wall, or Kisbah, also houses a café and aquarium. Unfortunately there is little in the way of information in these locations, so, if you are a history buff, it’s best to do your research beforehand. Standing on the ramparts, you can look out to sea and feel what it must have been like defending Bizerte and the fort itself in times past. It certainly saw some action over the years and changed hands a number of times. Looking behind, you can see the homes squashed next to each other in the Medina, the lovely minarets of the old mosques and the walkway to the market. It shows that the Medina is really a town within a city.
The inside of the city walls house the oldest part of the city. As you look opposite you can see some lovely houses near the other defensive walls. Work your way around and you can see the houses and buildings which date back to the times of the French rule in Bizerte, with their ornate balconies, many of which sadly need a little TLC but still retain their charm.
There are plans to renovate the old buildings and there is also an association for the safeguarding of the Medina, which I hope is supported. This should protect the historic buildings, some of which are currently being altered in a none too complimentary style. However, this is the difference in Bizerte. It is not a museum and people continue to live and work in this place as they have done for hundreds of years. Keep an eye out here for young boys taking a high risk by jumping from the sides of the Kasbah into the water.
Into the Maze
Once you have seen the port area, our next stop is the Medina itself which I recommend seeing during the daylight to avoid getting lost in the warren of alleyways. It is said that all the old families of Bizerte have their roots in this area. As you walk under the arches in the medina walls, your first must-see building is the old Mosque. It is the oldest mosque in Bizerte and it has been recently restored. Inside the mosque there is a warm, cosy design, which is still as popular as ever. On Fridays this mosque is very busy. Be warned, you do not want to get trapped when the faithful worshippers exit in their droves as the exits around the mosque literally become packed. The Medina, like the port, is a living breathing place and houses continue to be built and added to even to this day. Unfortunately there is little open to the public in the Medina as the majority of buildings are private homes, but I find it fascinating to see that people are still living here, although the more affluent families have relocated to houses outside the old city. As you exit the Medina, head for the other mosque in the port which is the Great Mosque. This is also very old and, at the time of writing this guide, it is undergoing renovation. To the right of the Mosque entrance is the office of the Association for the safeguarding of the Medina. It is worth a visit even if just to see an example of the inside of an old building with its wonderful ceilings and tile work. You can now choose to either wander into the narrow back streets full of workshops and hole-in-the-wall shops or turn back and head towards the main shopping street and the market itself.
The market is a lovely example of an old town retaining its importance. It is located behind the large coffee shops that line the waterside in the middle of the port. You can either enter the market via the steps behind the large mosque in the centre of the port, which takes you to the fruit and vegetable section, or enter on the other side, on a street that has more fruit and vegetable stalls. This entrance leads into the famous fish market. The market offers a fantastic selection of produce and it feels vibrant, especially on the weekends. You can get all your food here and can buy a variety of things from the shops that line the road behind. It is worth having an Arabic speaker with you to make sure you get the best price. The fish market in particular is fascinating, even for someone like me who doesn’t love fish! It is not so much the variety as the sounds and smells. If you raise your eyes, you can see the tiles and artwork above your head that for years has shown the customers the available products. Once you have finished in the market, walk down the road which has shops lining it, keeping the large mosque to your left. This road has a mixture of buildings from the colonial period and an eclectic mix of newer additions, which, although sometimes scruffy, provide the shops that are still popular today. There are a number of tourist shops here where you can buy popular souvenir items and also one shop that seems to sell nothing but eggs, which is something that I have never seen before. When you come to the end of the road, it opens up into a little square with a couple of cafés, a good cake shop for coffee and a cake along with a internet café (my brother-in-laws!) and a sweet shop. There is also a good sandwich shop over the road, directly opposite. If you choose to cross the road you will enter the more modern area of Bizerte centre. If you take the road to the right you will be taken to the main square where you will find the town hall of Bizerte, which is opposite a park. The bridge can be seen at the far end. If you stand in front of the town hall and look to the left, you will see what looks like a hanger which is where a large church once stood. This is the main administration area of Bizerte and is the location of some lovely French buildings. Once you have finished here you can head back into town for some further exploration and a bite to eat.