A major commercial port, an old city surrounded by walls the colour of parchment, stalls echoing with the sound of artisans at work, and a cuisine built around olives, almonds and seafood… Sfax presents an original face of Tunisia, at a distance from the typical tourist itineraries. Facing it, the islands of Kerkennah offer the charm of their well-preserved landscapes and their long beaches of fine sand.
What to see ?
Minarets and deserted beaches
Entirely surrounded by crenelated walls, the medina of Sfax is initially striking. Enter through one of its doorways and be plunged into another era, pulled along by the crowd of shoppers making their purchases among the little stalls. Here is a carpenter making spinning tops out of wood; there, a display of large rounded bread loaves with golden crusts. Pay a visit to the picturesque fish market: the locals of Sfax are crazy about seafood. Pause in front of the curious minaret of Sidi Amar Kammoun, with a medieval charm, then in front of that of the Great Mosque, decorated by a rich filigree of sculpted stonework. Leaving the old neighbourhoods, admire the buildings dating from the time of the French Protectorate: towers in the style of minarets, arched windows and ceramic tiles in the Neo-Moorish style. In Kerkennah, see the shallow-bottomed boats glide silently over the water. Contemplate the serene landscapes enveloped by sand, the sway of the palm trees and the glow of the sun setting over the sea.
What to do ?
Culture or bird-watching
In the medina of Sfax, visit the ancient Kasbah, today a museum dedicated to historical architecture, and the palace of Dar Jallouli, a sober and majestic dwelling from the 17th century. With its carved stone friezes and its panels of blue ceramic, Dar Jallouli is also a museum of folk art and traditions, and exhibits beautiful objects that once were part of the life of wealthy families: wardrobes, feminine headgear, beauty instruments, paintings under glass… Take a trip to visit the Coliseum of El Jem and the medina of Mahdia. In Kerkennah, take advantage of the sandy beaches and clear shallow waters surrounding the archipelago. A mask and a snorkel are enough to observe a rich subaquatic universe: crustaceans, underwater plants, the fish which are concentrated around the fixed weirs (see p. 58). Observe the crowds of birds: the region is one of the principal wintering grounds for migratory birds in the Mediterranean.
What to eat ?
Squid and fine pastry
The gastronomy of Sfax and Kerkennah is built upon seafood. You can taste, for example, stuffed squid, couscous with cuttlefish or fish cooked “Sfaxian style” (in a sauce). A typical dish of Sfax is fish accompanied by charmoula: an onion marmalade perfumed with raisins and cinnamon, simmered on a low flame for several hours. Taste the sweet and fruity olive oil: the Sfax region alone produces 40% of the olive oil in Tunisia. If there is any one area where Sfax sets the tone for the entire country, it is pastry. It’s certainly the best place to try the delicate texture of kaak warqa, the flaky samsa or the mlabess subtly perfumed with rosewater and orange peel. None of this is surprising as in the region can be found one of the principal ingredients of Tunisian confectionary: almonds, with close to five million almond trees.
Where to sleep ?
Bungalow or business hotel
In Kerkennah, choose a bungalow in a beachside hotel. In Sfax, a large business hotel or luxury hotel in the Neo-Moorish style. Whether in town, in the countryside or on the beach, you can also choose a smaller hotel, a bed and breakfast, a rural guesthouse or a youth hostel.
Fishermen, shipowners and traders
Sfax was once the gateway for goods coming from the Orient. Some came over land, with the caravans who crossed the Libyan desert; others, by sea, thanks to the ships chartered by shipowners of Sfax. It was also a powerful family of shipowners, the Jallouli, who constructed the remarkable palace in the medina known by the name Dar Jallouli. From the 19th century, Sfax developed numerous commercial activities: olive oil, banks, textiles, chemistry… which make it today the second largest city in Tunisia. Kerkennah, the neighbouring archipelago, is itself dedicated solely to fishing thanks to an ingenious system: the fixed fisheries. These labyrinths build in shallow waters, built form palms fixed to the muddy bottom, guides the fish towards traps with the fishermen come to collect them. The fisherman of Kerkennah use traditional shallow-bottomed boats with triangular sails, the loudes.
The universe of the medinas
The medina of Sfax is one of the best preserved in the whole of the Mediterranean basin, and an example of the urban planning typical in old Arab towns. Its crenelated ramparts, built in the Middle Ages, are pierced by monumental doorways; the most ancient were defensive devices, made to repel invaders. The Great Mosque, built in the 9th century, occupies a central position; its prayer hall, vast and full of arches and ancient columns, opens out to a courtyard and sober square minaret. The souks, streets dedicated to commerce and artisan activities, surround the Great Mosque and link it to the entrances of the city.
In the secondary streets, the modest dwellings rub shoulders with palaces, only recognisable by their great doors rich in decoration. But on entering, we find, all around an interior courtyard, magnificent arches of carved stone, marble columns, walls lined with ceramic tiles and carved stucco… which means to say, in the medinas the real façades can be found within the terraces!
Sfax is accessible by plane (Sfax-Thyna international airport, by road (260 km from Tunis via motorway) or by train. The islands of Kerkennah are accessible by boat (1 hour crossing).
In the medina of Sfax, buy the small wooden objects which were once part of everyday life: the qobqabs (clogs for the hammam), cooking utensils or multicoloured spinning tops. Stock up on pastries flavoured with almonds and rosewater: the variety of shapes, textures and flavours will delight you. From Kerkennah, bring back natural sponges or model of a traditional boat (“loude”) made by the artisans of the island.