Bizerte — A Phoenician port city and a Tunisian liberation symbol
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.