A trip to Tunisia cannot be complete if one doesn’t visit the charming city of Zaghouan and its countryside. History and culture saturate the environment and inspire stories about the populations who inhabited the place. If you are planning to pass by, start your trip with a light walk at the Jebel Zaghouan National park, and then move to the city.
The park is famous for hosting one of the tallest mountains of Tunisia, Jebel Zaghouan, which peaks are curiously shaped like a laying elephant and a dromedary. The park offers a suggestive view on the mountains and on the valley, decorated by trees and many bushes. In particular, it is possible to spot three of the most present and important plants of the Tunisian landscape: the dog rose (or rosa canina), the carob tree and the Aleppo pine. The rose grows quickly, especially in the Mediterranean area and it has been used for a long time for creating medicines (it is apparently ideal to enhance blood circulation and to quickly cicatrize tissue) and in recipes. Still nowadays, its extract is used to compose perfumes and for the preparation of Kaak Warka, typical sweets from the Zaghouan region filled with almond paste that look like small donuts. The carob tree holds an important place in the Tunisian heritage and in nowadays everyday life: the carat, a unit of mass for gemstones and of purity for gold, takes its name, indirectly, from the Arabic word for a carob seed, carrat.
The national park doesn’t only collect nice plants and an incredible landscape, but it also hosts the remains of the starting point of the Roman aqueduct. The building, shaped like a semi-circular temple and built on top of an artificial terrace, consists of a porch with niches, that centuries ago hosted statues of divinities, and a central covered room, in which the spring sprung under the cold glaze of the statue of Neptune -now gone. The aqueduct is 132km long and is one of the longest ever built by the Roman empire. It is indeed suggestive to visit the structure and the small thermal temple close by: it makes you feel closer to history and to what life was like hundreds of years ago.
The city of Zaghouan fits perfectly in the natural environment: driving from the park, you can see the houses and neighborhoods slowly growing in number and consistency, accompanying you step by step to the city centre. The city adapts itself to the territory: it follows the irregularity of the mountainous ground, bending and adjusting itself depending on the inclination. For this reason, the city has been built on multiple levels, almost like on a ladder, recalling some Greek or Andalusian cities’ heritage.
The white walls, the small squared houses with colorful doors and intricate details decorating the exterior are delightful to see. They tell you about the development of the city, from its foundation by the Romans, to the multiple people and influences who passed there and marked the culture and character of the city. The architecture and decorations speak about the Andalusian influence and the migration of the moriscos. These populations left behind a copious use of colorful tiles, the stylish Arab arches and windows, the Roman mosaics and the lively markets. The final effect paints a suggestive and picturesque image in front of you.
Zaghouan witnessed, in fact, massive migratory flows from Spain, especially by moriscos, people who were forced to convert from Islam to Catholicism after the Spanish Reconquista, in 1492. They imported the Arab-Spanish architectural style, still very visible, and the cultivation of roses, to create perfumes. The city shows also traces of the French passage: the style of certain houses in the centre and the decoration of the iron railings remind of the French taste. The city hosts several neighborhoods who burst with life and represent, through their people or the setting, the influences received. The Andalusian and Muslim areas, close to each other, are the most colorful and interesting to see -especially for photographers and instagrammers looking for amazing pics-, but if you are craving some food different from meat and cous cous, head to the Italian neighborhood, full of expats or people who lived in Italy for a long time before coming back to Tunisia. The markets clumped in the narrow streets and in the small squares are always fascinating: the way in which goods are exposed and advertised, their quality and their rich diversity are unique. When wandering around, keep your eyes open and look for public fountains: they are hidden in niches in the walls and beautifully decorated with mosaics and brass decorations: some represent proper images of people or animals, while others are mesmerizing geometrical compositions.
Visiting a new city can be exhausting, especially if it’s summer and the heat is intense. To restore yourself and have some great food, head to La Ferme Écologique Dar Zaghouan, just outside the city. The agritourism is brand new and will treat you like a king: located in the countryside, it has been created just last year: it is composed by a main body, that hosts the kitchens, the congress hall (yes, you can also have business meetings there), a beautiful patio covered by vines and trees, and a small concert space, where musicians will play music during meals and events. Around the property, there are chalets and bungalows, if visitors want to spend few nights and relax (50€ per night), and small buildings in which people work and produce the food consumed at the agritourism. Dar Zaghouan, in fact, was created with the double intention of offering an ecological resort and to support circular development. The structure, in fact, is 50% energetically independent: it uses renewable resources like solar energy, biomass and a system of water recycling, that collects rain waters, filters them, and uses them for showers and irrigation. Moreover, it uses original and vintage furniture and architectural elements from the surrounding area: the owner buys wooden pieces hand-decorated from old houses and integrates them in the structure, bringing continuity between the past and present.
The farm also supports local producers, buying their products -100% bio veggies- and incentivizing them to come to the farm to work. It offers a nice and safe place of work, where they can focus on traditional activities and productions: for example, a group of women works in one of the chalets, creating the delicious sweets Kaak Warka above-mentioned. The sweets are in part bought by the farm for the everyday menu and for the events, and in part sold in the city.
The three hectares farm is a green and relaxing spot, surrounded by olive trees and silence. If you pass by, try the menu (12€), in particular the home-made ricotta, the spicy couscous and the home-made bread (produced with an old Berber Hoven), you won’t regret it! Dar Zaghouan also provides a number of guided tours around the region, depending on what you are interested in: you can visit the caves in the national park, or indulge in more cultural and historical tours. It is mostly known among locals, and Tunisians who moved abroad: when they come back for vacations, they pass by for relaxing and enjoying an amazing meal. Nonetheless, the structure often hosts business meetings and conferences of important organizations and actors, like FAO or the Tunisian Ministers of the Environment, of Culture or of Health.
Zaghouan and the farm itself show how Tunisia is an eclectic country that is sincerely and deeply attached to its culture and history, but is also projecting itself towards the future and a more sustainable development. The city is a small beauty, rich in culture and life: it is a pleasure to walk around the old, central streets and see history parading in front of you, on the walls, on the tiles, in the market. Take some time to look around and discover the hidden perks of Zaghouan.