Tunisia’s ‘City of Roses,’ where heritage blends with beauty

Ariana’s Rose Garden is crowned by the Rose Gallery, which takes visitors on a unique journey through the history of roses in Ariana.
Sunday 14/04/2019
A statue by Tunisian artist Hedi Selmi Ariana. (Ariana Municipality)
A statue by Tunisian artist Hedi Selmi Ariana. (Ariana Municipality)

ARIANA - “Wonderful in all ways” is how Tunisia’s north-eastern city of Ariana is often described. Located in the suburbs of Tunis, Ariana’s beautiful landscape, exquisite cuisine and unique sites attract visitors from around the country, especially in spring.

Ariana’s proximity to the capital makes it a key economic and educational hub. The city is home to El Ghazala Technology Park, dozens of schools for training engineers and technicians and research and development centres and companies, notably Alcatel, Archimed, Bilog and STMicroelectronics.

A 10-minute drive from Tunis-Carthage International Airport and in the heart of Ariana governorate, the city is renowned for its agricultural produce and dairy products. However, it is its flowers, mostly roses, that are its most importantproduct and for which it is given the distinguished title “City of Roses.”

It was on May 8, 1982, that Ariana was twinned with the commune of Grasse in the Alpes-Maritimes department on the French Riviera, which is considered the world capital of perfume. That connection has given Ariana a prestigious reputation for producing rose water and, from it, deriving many treasured perfumes and scents.

For this reason and more, Ariana is considered a “paradise on Earth” in the collective consciousness of its inhabitants. Indeed, a local proverb goes: “If Ariana was by the sea, no demise will be,” a reflection of the city’s beauty and distinctive fresh air.

Despite the advance of urbanisation, locals have maintained the centuries-old tradition of keeping gardens green and growing roses, for which the city is celebrated, but also many other varieties of flowers and delicate plants and trees, notably citrus, olive and orange. This results in a magnificent fragrance that extends far beyond the inner city, especially in the spring.

To uphold this tradition, the Municipality of Ariana established the Rose Garden in Bir Belhassen Park. The garden, covering 3,000 sq.metres, is home to 16,000 rosebushes and cuttings, 90% of which belong to the renowned variety of Gallica rose, locally referred to as the “Ariana Rose.” Introduced in 1637 by the Andalusians, the Gallica rose, grown in the city’s gardens, boasts a unique fragrance and a light pinkish colour.

Ariana’s Rose Garden is crowned by the Rose Gallery, which takes visitors on a unique journey through the history of roses in Ariana, explaining the natural and cultural aspects of its various types.

While the park is open daily throughout the year, the best time to visit is in May during the city’s Festival of Roses, which draws exhibitors from across the country offering a wide range of products at reasonable prices. During the festival, several varieties of flowers and roses can be spotted blossoming in Bir Belhassen Park next to a mosaic of products, notably colognes, perfumes and soap.

Nature lovers will find a lot to see when strolling through the park but the city has much more to offer in terms of historic sites, most of which are nearby. A 10-minute walk from Bir Belhassen takes visitors to the small, well-preserved Dar Ben Ayed, a Beylical

palace that serves as municipality offices. An architectural gem that is a relic of the past, Dar Ben Ayed is a must see for those interested in the city’s architectural heritage.

From there, another 10-minute walk down the Avenue Habib Bourguiba takes visitors to the modest mausoleum of Sidi Ammar, from where the yearly Great Kharja (journey) to the mausoleum of Sidi Bou Said takes place in August. Organised by Diwan al-Issawiya, the Kharja is a centuries-old mystical Sufi procession in honour of the saints.

The procession is generally headed by flag bearers followed by the adepts of the Sufi order who tour the streets chanting liturgical songs before heading to the coastal town of Sidi Bou Said, where many from Ariana spend the summer holiday.

Whether in May, August or any other time of the year, Ariana leaves a lasting impression on visitors, who find no shortage of places to discover. In the old quarter, passers-by are welcomed with freshly baked cookies as they pass through the neighbourhood’s low-lit alleys and traditional dwellings.

Other must-see sites include the local market, the City of Sciences, the Palace of Borj Baccouche and Ennahli Urban Park, which was inaugurated in 1997. Situated north of the city, the park occupies a staggering 210 hectares, 80% of which is a vast forest of eucalyptus and pine trees and the remaining space for public visits and activities.

No visitor will go hungry or thirsty while touring the city, with delicious restaurants, fresh juice shops and cafes offering inexpensive products lining the streets. The shops boast a fabulous array of choices, from traditional cuisine to revisited international gastronomy. Yet, the city’s most iconic offering will always be the strawberry/citrus flavoured ice cream, a specialty that a small business on Avenue Habib Bourguiba has grown famous for and that encapsulates the city’s beauty and charm.

A view of a narrow alley in the old neighbourhood in Ariana.(Ariana Municipality)