Discovering Tunisia: Bizerte
One of the most known city in Tunisia is Bizerte. It has been for centuries a lively city on the sea, in the North of the country, in touch with several different populations and enriched and developed by the commercial routes in the Mediterranean. It is the northernmost city in Africa and one of the most ancient human settlements in Tunisia.
Bizerte was founded around 1100 BC by Semitic Phoenicians and it has been visited and controlled by several populations, such as Romans, Vandals (northern tribes from nowadays German areas), Turkish people and French for decades. In fact, it always embodied a fundamental role in commerce and a strategic point for military strategy. On one hand, it was ideally located between Europe and Africa, making the commercial exchanges and travels easier and richer; on the other hand, it represented the perfect spot where to host military vessels, ready to leave for any Mediterranean city at any moment, which made of Bizerte an even more appealing and strategical spot for the populations who invaded it. In 1881 Tunisia became a French protectorat; it acquired the independence in 1956, four years after hosting Habib Bourguiba and his speech to promote the country’s desire of detaching from France. Nonetheless, Bizerte was the last city to be freed by the French control, in 1963.
Bizerte still preserves some architectural and artistic elements of the former populations and influences, hidden around the city, like the French structure of some houses, the use of decorative and colorful tiles and the lively market hosted in the centre, very close to the main Mosque and the Church Notre Dame de France.
The market is indeed one of the elements that should be seen in the city: the streets fill up with stands, carts, animals and objects. Walking around, the senses get submerged by the colors, perfumes and sounds of the street: three or four stands expose incense and perfumed herbs, lighting up few branches to make you appreciate the exotic smell; some women lively chat around the fruit stands, comparing pieces and exchanging recipes and gossip; men crowd up around a shoe seller, who’s screaming his lungs out to advertise the newest model arrived; some kids play with stray kittens in the middle of the street, while others help their parents with customers and chores. A group of men is lazily drinking coffee in a terrace, observing the coming and going of people; farm animals walk around and chew straw, sheep in particular.
In fact, if you seize the occasion and visit Tunisia at the end of August, you’ll see hundreds of them scattered around, along the streets, on roundabouts, in the city centre or at the market: people are hurry up to buy them before the 1st of September. On that day this year, the Muslim community celebrates a religious festivity called “Aïd Elidha” (in Arabic, in Tunisia is also known as “Aïd Elkabir”), or the “sacrifice day”. It is one of the main festivities of Islam and it remembers and celebrates the episode of Ibrahim (or Abraham), who accepts to sacrifice his only son Ismael (or Isaac) to God, without questioning the order received. Before he sacrifices his son, God sends his angel Jibra’il (or Gabriel) to stop him and exchange Ismael with a sheep. The festivity aims at celebrating the devotion and commitment to God as show by Ibrahim: for this reason, sheep and other farm animals are bought, fed and well raised. It is a bit surprising, for a western gaze, to see this intense commitment to traditions and celebrations: people take care of every detail and aspect of the holiday to celebrate their faith and spend an important day with their loved one, sharing a meal and a day together.
From the market, keep walking towards the harbor and enjoy the nice view: colorful boats are anchored one close to the other, while others slowly glide away on the water’s surface, towards the open sea. On your side ancient Roman walls accompany your walk till the sea and to one of Bizerte’s old points of access. The sea has been, and still is, a crucial element for the city: it has been a means of connection with other populations, and the principal source of food. Bizerte is famous for its cuisine focused on fish and sea-food and you will have a taste of it if you visit the Sport Nautique, the most famous restaurant of the city.
Take a seat in the back veranda with a view on the sea and get ready for a delicious lunch. The starters consist of octopus, gambas, squid and Tunisian salads (finely chopped veggies mixed with olives and chili, for an extra spicy touch). Try the bread from a local bakery and indulge in the tomato tapenade: exquisite! Move then to the main dish, fish -of course- that changes every day, depending on what has been fished and bought. All the ingredients are fresh and tasty and they truly represent the spirit and traditions of the city. To finish, get a mint tea, warm and sweet, and relax. The salty breeze, the ships sailing by and few kids diving from the pier complete the experience and add that something more that will make the whole experience unique.
Bizerte and the areas around it are famous among the locals for the uncontaminated beaches, free from the oppressive presence of resorts and buildings, and ideal for private trips surrounded by silence and the rumble of the waves. For this strong connection between the sea and the city, sea lovers have found in Bizerte the perfect place for investing: more and more yachts pass by in the marina every day, stopping to see the city and to try the great gastronomy, attracting in turn, a growing group of foreign investors. Some factories, in fact, moved one or few of their branches to Tunisia, seizing its economical and international growth to optimize the costs of productions. They see in the country a valid possibility of self-development, given by tax facilitations, lower costs and skilled manpower.
The strategic position of Tunisia plays, as well, a crucial point in the investors’ decision: it is often perceived as the ideal country for international contracts, since it has open, deep understanding and connections with both Europe and Africa. As in the past, it connects perfectly different cultures and needs, adapting itself to the necessities and work environments. Carlo Battaglia, business partner of Magic Yachts, remarked multiple times the convenience of developing its company in Bizerte. His laboratories, hosted in the Parc d’Activités Economiques de Bizerte (a partnership both private and public that hosts and support foreign investors in Bizerte), restores and creates boats. Carlo said that although he was first skeptical about moving the business to Tunisia (there is still the idea, among investors, of economic and political unsafety in the country), he is now quite happy with his decision: he said that Tunisians adapt and learn fast, are well prepared on the subject and work enthusiastically on projects. The company is therefore able to offer quality products for both Europe and international customers, like Japan.
The growing opening to international actors attracted also other investors from different sectors, like CPT, a company specialized in the production of industrial machines. Its spokesperson, the project manager Luca Galfetti, confirmed the positive remarks made by Mr Battaglia, underlining the advantages of a scarce competition in the territory and the fast-learning character of the locals. Nonetheless, he noted that there are few difficult points in the process. First, it can be hard for the workers, in particular at the beginning, to accept and apply a foreign approach to work, reporting issues and doubts to the chiefs of department and working cohesively. Second, he said that under a personal point of view, it’s hard to start a new life in Tunisia: integration among locals it’s a long and intense process, so expats often don’t mingle too much and go out together. Night-life and socializing can be long and difficult too, and these aspects should be considered before moving to Tunisia.
Bizerte is a calm city that, despite the passing of time, the influences of many different cultures and the difficulties faced, keeps alive until nowadays its strong character, its structure, its past. It is slowly renewing itself, investing more in factories and in the primary sector, but still keeping its connection with the Mediterranean sea strong. It is still one of the most important spots in the modern commerce routes and it still represents a crucial point of contact between Europe and Africa. Bizerte keeps an eye on the past and protects its origins, while working on its potential and transforming itself to reach the future.