The French decided the original channel running through the heart of the old city would not be suitable for what they had in mind, so a larger, deeper channel was dug a bit further to the west. The old channel was filled in, leaving what is today the old port, and a new colonial city was built on reclaimed land between the two.
From the end of the town beach, you pass a marina of sorts, then turn a corner and you're on another promenade alongside the new shipping channel, called Qantara which means simply "canal". A cafe occupies a great position by the waterside, but for some reason they have decided to block the sea views with a high wall. Further down, you pass more couples and fishermen, before the port of Bizerte begins.
The bridge is supposed to raise, Tower Bridge style, whenever a large ship passes underneath, but unfortunately I didn't see that happen.
Bizerte has a third beach worth mentioning, not for its beautiful sands or its clear water, but because this is where Bizerte's young and beautiful parade themselves in the early evening. If you cross under the bridge by the kasbah on the "wrong" side for Sidi Salem beach, and continue along to your right, you'll find yourself on a palm-lined promenade with lots of young people eating nuts and flirting. Over the road are the trendy cafes, similar to Starbucks et al with comfy armchairs, skinny lattes and chocolate brownies. These are where Bizerte's women spend the evening, as apart from one or two, Bizerte's portside cafes are male-only places full of smoke. There is also a very good pattisserie selling great croissants that you can eat sitting on the sea wall.
If you don't want to get sand in your shoes, but feel like taking the sea air, then I suggest you walk along the breakwater between the beach and the entrance to the old port. Fishermen line the path, fishing on the port side, where the water looks remarkably clear. Further on, large concrete bouldersprovide hiding places for more fishermen, and couples who are not there for the fishing. At the end is a small lighthouse, a popular place for smoking I found.
Despite the name, there are only about four or five hotels standing forlorn and neglected along the coast to Cap Bizerte 5 kilometres away. The beach narrows after the Bizerta resort, although the water is a bit clearer. You can walk almost all the way to the Hotel Corniche, before the beach disappears and you'll be forced to head inland to the road, as a couple of swanky houses have bagged the land right by the sea. Further on, the Corniche road joins the sea, running past quite a few restaurants, all of which were closed in April, as were all the shops. The beach returns in small patches from now on until Cap Bizerte...no long swathes of sand, just enough for maybe a dozen umbrellas each.
I'm told there are better more secluded beaches past Cap Bizerte, but the day I found myself on the Corniche, the wind made it tough going and black clouds promised rain. Plus I was hungry and hadn't expected everything, even the local grocery stores, to be firmly shut.
South of Bizerte, the other side of the new Channel, more beaches stretch off into the distance. Apparently you can take a bus to somewhere called Rimel (which would make sense, as the name means "sands") to access this beach. Another trip I wanted to make was further west along the coast to Raf Raf Plage, Sidi el Mekki beach and the slowly crumbling old port of Ghar al-Melh...but in March, rain did threaten to ruin a day at thebeach, so I decided to stay in town where at least there are cafes.
This huge expanse of pure white sand begins at the mouth of the old port, separated by a long breakwater. I'd read about Bizerte before going and all the guidebooks were quite negative about the beach, so I was amazed to find this so close to the city. The main problem is that it is exposed to fierce winds coming straight off the Mediterranean, and walking along here reminded me of being battered by winds on the Atlantic coast of Devon. When the wind drops and the sun shines, it can feel almost tropical, but the wind is never far away...at least in March, although the people at my hotel seemed to suggest the wind stays with them for most of the year.
There are a couple of hotels, the most noticeable being the posh Bizerta Resort, but the beach is so wide, long and empty I don't suppose it ever really gets very crowded.
If you take the alleyway between the last cafe and the kasbah, and instead of entering the small kasbah gate, instead turn down one of the roads to the left, you'll find yourself in the thick of Bizerte's medina. No walls encircle the medina, so it can be a bit difficult to know when you're out of the medina, but it is certainly a great place to wander. This is very much a residential area with no real sights, but you can stumble upon some picturesque archways and mosques. The lack of souqs is also unusual, but a huge souq takes place every day just outside the medina.
A good road to walk down is rue des Armuriers, which is opnly just inside the medina but runs the whole length of it, parallel to the main road to the old port. You can access it through an arched passage just next to the Hotel Africain, then turn right...this road will take you twisting and turning until you pass Bizerte's great mosque and eventually emerge down by the kasbah.
Ksiba means "little Kasbah", and this name was given to the collection of picturesque houses lying on the same side of the port as the Fort Sidi El Hani. Look out for the man lurking in an archway selling sandwiches. Also a cafe along this stretch sometimes overspills onto the quayside, with great views over the rest of the old port. The view is hampered by two things...the first is a tower block housing army families, while the second is an enormous floating restaurant, extravagantly built to look like an ancient ship but seeming very out of place among the tiny modern-day fishing vessels.
Opposite the Kasbah is the much smaller Fort Sidi El Hani, now a fairly upmarket cafe, with tables and chairs among the cannons along the quayside. Apparently there is supposed to be an aquarium of sorts inside too, but I didn't investigate.
I have to admit to being a bit miffed at this. I'd been led to believe that after paying a small fee to climb some stairs inside a northernmost tower of the Kasbah, I'd be able to walk all round the Kasbah walls. In reality, the best bits are fenced off, and you're left with a cafe, the seats too low down to take advantage of any views. To get a view worthy of a photograph, you have to be a bit inventive...ducking under ropes, straddling cannons, standing on chairs, that sort of thing. Highly illegal in Britain, but this seems to be the norm among Tunisians, so i did not feel at all bad about doing it.
If you find the tiny gateway I mention in the previous tip, you'll find an amazingly preserved mini-city inside. The gate is too narrow to allow cars, so, save for a few rogue scooters, the Kasbah is just for pedestrians. The streets are narrow and twisting, and usually full of children playing...don't expect to go unnoticed! The houses within the Kasbah look as if they have been recently given a lick of paint, and don't look anywhere near as rundown as they appear in older pictures I' ve seen. You can't really get lost, as there are only about 5 streets in total, although finding the one and only exit can keep you busy for longer than you intended.
Standing at what once used to be the mouth of the channel, the Kasbah's walls were built in the seventh century to guard the entry to the old port. The walls are huge and may seem unbroken...but search a bit, and you will find a tiny gateway leading inside.
If you only have ten minutes to spend in Bizerte, spend all of them walking round the old port. There are no particular sights, as the local people form the entertainment...Fishermen mending their nets beside brightly painted boats, groups of kids play football perilously close to the edge, while further along the quay, young and old alike sit drinking coffee in the shade of an ancient house reflected in the water. The old port used to be a canel leading from the sea to Lac Bizerte, trailing round an island on which stood the large Jemaa Mosque...all a bit hard to imagine now, as the French have designed the new city in such a way that the old port appears to have always been a dead end. They built a wider and deeper channel further east, filling in the ages-old channels and building their new town on top of newly reclaimed land.
In the evening, as the sun sets, nearly all of Bizerte comes out to walk up and down the quaysides, maybe stopping for a glass of tea or to grab a sandwich at one of the many cafes and food stalls dotted around the place