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Sidi Bou Said – Bohemian Retreat

By Kate Byrne

Posted: 1st April 2014 15:16

Tourists flock in waves through the quaint, cobbled streets of Sidi Bou Said, which lies 20 kilometres from the Tunisian capital.  The village was originally a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the tomb of 13th Century holy man, Abou Said ibn Khalef ibn Yahia Ettamimi el Beji, after whom the village was named, but now is a thriving attraction for foreigners and Tunisians alike. Sidi Bou Said has such a charm, that the constant flow of tourism fails to distract from its authenticity. 

Atop of a cliff, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the village is decorated uniformly; the buildings and stair cases are dazzling white and are embellished with vivid blue doors, balconies and window frames.  It is understood that the French painter Rodolphe d’Erlanger applied this colour scheme to Sidi Bou Said in the 1920s and it has remained a unique feature of the Bohemian village ever since. 

Whether it is the paintwork or the idyllic location, there is something inspirational about Sidi Bou Said which has made it a magnet for artists, writers and other creative types.  Past residents include artist Henri Matisse, French philosopher Michael Foucault and renowned surrealist Paul Klee.  Klee arrived in 1914 and his time in the village influenced a change in his work, marking a significant turning point in his use of light and colour. 

By day, the main street, Rue Dr Habib, is uninterrupted by cars as they are banned from the central village.  The cobbled walkway is lined with a bazaar that is heaving with craft stalls, selling jewellery, aromatic oils and the village’s traditional sugar coated doughnuts. The highlight of any visit to Sidi Bou Said, however, is surely a trip to Dar Ennejma Ezzahra.  The extraordinary, hill-top palace is open to visitors as both a stately home and Tunisia’s National Centre for Arab and Mediterranean Music. 

Rather than withdrawing from the village with the tide of tourists and heading back to Tunis for an evening, it is worth staying the night.  When dusk arrives, Sidi Bou Said is reclaimed by the locals who gather in bustling cafés and bars in the vibrant centre as the smell of jasmine lingers in the warm air.