Bizerte — A Phoenician port city and a Tunisian liberation symbol

Sunday 20/11/2016
A general view of the old fishing port of Bizerte. (AFP)

Bizerte - Only 30 minutes’ drive from Tunis, visitors can enjoy the diverse his­tory and natural scen­ery that Bizerte — the northernmost town of Tunisia — of­fers. Not only is the town a gem of the northern coast, it is a symbol of freedom and martyrdom for its role in Tunisian independence.
Lying along the Mediterranean, Bizerte is one of the oldest towns in Tunisia. It was founded by Phoeni­cians about 1100BC as a small har­bour for maritime trading.
Although it continued to play an influential role under Roman and Byzantine rule, Bizerte is best re­membered by Tunisians as the last piece of national territory to gain independence from French colo­nisation. The town had served as military base for the French Army since the 19th century.
“It was the first town to be in­vaded by French colonialists and the last to gain independence. Due to its strategic location, the French Army kept it under its control even after Tunisia gained its independ­ence. One of the last battles against colonisation happened in this town,” historian Mustapha Bouhaja said.
Although Tunisia gained inde­pendence in 1956, it was not until 1963 that the French Army with­drew from Bizerte.
“The French refused to retreat because of the town’s crucial mili­tary importance for France and its location in the southern part of the Mediterranean,” Bouhaja said.
“The Tunisian government had to engage the French Army in a bat­tle, which cost between 3,000 and 5,000 Tunisian lives. Bizerte then became the symbol of sacrifice and true independence and freedom of Tunisia.”
Bizerte boasts a rich history, a va­riety of architecture and fascinat­ing nature that entertain visitors on a beautiful journey through its lavish beaches, wildlife and monu­ments. Its historic sites display the influence of both modern French and ancient Byzantine architec­ture.
Upon entering the old quarter of Bizerte, visitors are greeted by the charming details and grandeur of the Byzantine fort that encircles the old city, or kasbah. Dating to the sixth century AD, the fort was erected under Byzantine rule and rebuilt during Spanish occupation. It still houses cannons from the time it was a military base.
Inside the kasbah’s narrow al­leys, the exceptional stonework and old wooden doors, as well as the panoramic view from atop the houses, some of which have been converted into coffee houses, are a treat. At the steps of the fort lies the theatre that hosts the summer International Festival of Bizerte, an event that gathers national and in­ternational artists.
The oceanographic museum of­fers a unique insight into ancient fishing methods and the fish popu­lation thriving in Bizerte’s sea and the nearby port area provides a vibrant glimpse into the daily life of fishermen. Sitting in their col­oured boats, they repair nets as they prepare to sail or bargain over prices of fish destined for seafood restaurants, many modelled after the Phoenician boats that once an­chored at the harbour, straddling the port area.
Bizerte is popular for its golden sandy beaches and peaceful re­sorts, attracting both residents and tourists.
For adventure seekers, Bizerte offers the opportunity to explore caves in the mountains overlook­ing the beaches.
“It is both an athletic and scien­tific experience to visit the caves scattered around the region. Many tourists visit the town to discover the caves, which exist in both ver­tical and horizontal types. Some caves are more than 150 metres deep,” said Mohamed Anwar Dah­dah, president of the speleology as­sociation of Bizerte.
“Perhaps the best caves for ex­ploration are El Haouia, which is 240 metres deep, and the Cave of Boutouil with a depth of 104 me­tres,” Dahdah said.
The region also favours long hikes and camping trips in the mountains surrounding the town. A particularly attractive site is Cap Angela, a rocky headland consid­ered the northernmost point in the African continent
“The town has the farthest tip of Africa, which is a majestic place to visit. The view of the beach and the panoramic scenery are unique and you always remind yourself that you are standing at the tip of Africa, which is simply overwhelming,” said Bilel Nafati of Change Bizerte Association, an environmental pro­tection group.
Cultural events in Bizerte are not limited to its renowned summer festival. The long-standing Men­dole Fish (Chawri) Festival takes place in June. “It is a culinary expe­rience to visit the festival and taste the different recipes and varied traditional ways in which the fish is prepared. It is definitely something to discover,” Nafati said.