Tabarka, home to coral reefs and music festivals in Tunisia’s north-west

Sunday 08/01/2017
A boat leaving the port of Tabarka

Tabarka - Tabarka’s locals advise visitors to start at Maal­oula — the Crocodile’s Head Hill. Children say the crocodile-shaped hill protects the town. An ancient leg­end — still popular among the el­derly and children — recounts that Tabarka was a refuge of a Roman god that was hunted by other dei­ties for marrying a human.
Escaping his demise, the Roman god settled along with his family in Tabarka, a coastal Tunisian town along the Algerian border overlook­ing the Mediterranean Sea.
Only 175km north-west of Tunis, Tabarka is a charming coastal town with an exotic air and shrouded with mystery. The vista includes lustrous beaches, green forests and mysterious mountains. The town is famous for its landscape, with a combination of mountains and the sea, providing a rich environment for ecological tourism.
“Tourists who come to this re­gion get to discover the lifestyle, the traditions and the local dishes as they are immediately immersed in the town. It is an opportunity to discover the region through its peo­ple’s own way of living,” said Adel Selmi, founder of Purenature, an ecotourism tour project.
“The region is rich with forests. Locals have a rich culture that could be of great wealth to visitors. It contains different hiking trails of­fering hikers many choices of ad­ventures.”
With its own international airport, Tabarka boasts 21 hotels that can ac­commodate up to 6,000 guests. Vis­itors can enjoy diving with one of its three diving clubs and explore the beauty of the reefs and coral. The town offers hiking trails and two thermal therapy stations.
Tabarka, which dates back some 2,800 years, is not only a haven for nature lovers. It also has a rich his­tory spanning a myriad of civilisa­tions, including Roman, Phoeni­cian, Arabic and Turkish.
Among the town’s hallmarks is the historic Genoese castle, built on an offshore rock. The fort was the home of the Tabarquinis, coral fishers who fled Italy and settled on the island.
“In 1537, during the time of Otto­man ruler Hayreddin Barbarossa, sailors from Genoa kidnapped his right-hand man, Dargut. The Lo­mellini family intervened to release him and as a reward, Barbarossa gave the Lomellini family the small island attached to the mainland of Tabarka. The place became a port from which they could transport the coral of Tabarka to Italy. They built the fort that still stands today,” Selmi said.
“The ruling family of Lomellini lived in the fort for 200 years along with 1,800 sailors and came to be known as the civilisation of the Tabarquinis. They brought artisans to work on the coral. In 1740, the king of France wanted to buy the island but Ahmed Pacha, the bey of Tunis, sent troops to reclaim the is­land and captured the people of the fort. Some settled in Tunisia and others fled to Italy where they built the new Tabarka as they called it,” Selmi added.
In addition to the fort, the rock pinnacles of Tabarka are not to be missed. Soaring 25 metres of height, the needles of ochre-coloured rock were sculpted by wind and water over millennia. Past the rock pin­nacle, stands the Tabarka Basilica on the remains of a fourth-century cistern that was rendered into a three-aisled church during the rule of Christians.
Tabarka contains a wealth of cor­al used in making jewellery. Fishing coral is a vital local activity and the town’s artisan shops abound with an array of beautiful coral-based jewellery.
The town is also famous for musi­cal festivals, including the Interna­tional Festival of Jazz, Latin Music Festival and Tabarka Rai Festival.
“This year’s edition of the jazz festival attracted tourists and Tu­nisians in great numbers. In a way, these festivals made the town a centre for culture,” said Mounir Mlaouhi, general secretary of the committee organising the jazz festi­val and treasurer of the Association of Ecotourism and Artisanal Fish­ing of Tabarka.
“Tabarka offers visitors a vari­ety of musical genres ranging from jazz, samba, blues, to soul and other genres that people now await impatiently. Tunisians, Algerians and tourists danced to the sound of music all throughout the festival.”
Taking place in summer at the ba­silica of Tabarka, the festival, first organised in 1973, hosted many in­ternationally renowned artists over the years, including Billy Paul, Bar­bara Hendricks, Kool and the Gang, Diana Krall, Miles Davis, the Temp­tations and Al Di Meola.
“Tabarka has an eclectic history, which contributed to its unique­ness. The festivals managed to pro­mote the image of a town that is open to other cultures, a town that celebrates through music,” Mlaouhi said.