Museum of Popular Arts
Another first-rate museum. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since most of the exhibits here reflect the life of a member of the ruling elite: shoes inlaid with mother-of-pearl and so on. The displays are nevetheless interesting enough; but the real attraction (as with many museums in Tunisia) is the building itself, in this case the eighteenth-century bey's house. Typically, from the outside it reveals nothing (apart from a rather large door): inside its a beautiful example of islamic domestic architecture, which has been well restored - from close to it's obvious what is original and what is restoration work: step back and you have the impression of what it looked like when built.
As usual, a quiet and harmoniously proportioned space created by building rooms off a central courtyard, tranquil and private and with beautiful tiles and woodwork.
- Museum Visits
Walk the new town
It might not be the most exciting place, nor the most aesthetically pleasing, but the French colonial architecture in the new town of Sfax can make for some picturesque corners...unfortunately, I didn't take may pictures here, so you'll just have to take my word for it. At street level, there's not much to see, but look up occasionally and you'll see some unusual architectural styles wedged in between more modern, faceless concrete structures.
Modern Sfax seems to be a much more "happening" place than the centre of Tunis...all the trendy boutiques and upmarket cafes, and the new five star hotels....However, Sfax does go to bed early, so even the coolest cafe is in darkness by about half past nine, the only lights remaining in smoke-filled bars, billiards halls and internet cafes.
The only two pictures I took in modern Sfax were these, of the main pedestrian street connecting Bab Diwan with the town hall. Look out for the extremely popular patisserie on the corner...
I'd wanted to visit Dar Jellouli on both my previous trips. The first time, I cound't find it as I was busy being lost in another part of the old city, and when i did finally find it, it was closed. Last year (2006), I found it easily enough, but it was closed for renovation. So this Dar Jellouli museum, cited in my guidebook as being a highlight of any visit to Sfax, took on a mythical quality in my mind....I expected it to be the most amazing piece of architecture I'd ever see, filled with exotic and fascinating objects, the likes of which would never be seen again elsewhere.
Well, after traipsing round more than my fair share of Tunisian museums and finding them all remarkably similar, I am afraid to say that Dar Jellouli did disappoint on the exhibit side of things. All the familiar faces were there, the same shop dummies wrapped up in traditional costume in various poses showing a typical way of life...the same old pots and pans used for cooking...the same old horse saddles and gun holders and wedding gowns. The Arabic calligraphy room is more exciting, although the captions don't really give away much, so for someone new to Arabic calligraphy, it probably won't titillate. What really made the museum in Tozeur special was the enthusiastic guide's explanations...but here, you're on your own.
The building itself, though, is beautiful, well worth the entry price. Archways, tiles, balconies...don't judge this place from the drab exterior...inside, it really is quite special.
Hunt the mosque
The Great Mosque of Sfax is not difficult to find: it is in the middle of the medina, not quite on the main thoroughfare leadind up from Bab al Diwan: and unusually it announces itself on the outside, with the remarkable series of decorated niches on the eastern wall. What is harder is getting a good view of the equally remarkable minaret, a riot of kufic script in honey-coloured stone. From the surrounding alleys it is fleetingly glmpsed through the awnings and cables. A better view - and a chance to take a photo without getting in anybody's way - can be had by climbing to the terrace of the cafe in the street running east from the mosque's northeastern corner (look for the black and white painted horseshoe arch. Does a good arabic coffee as well.)
Museum of Architecture
If you are at all interested in architecture and building techniques this museum is a must. And if you're not I'd recommend it anyway, since situated as it is in the old kasbah it offers the opportunity to actually walk the ramparts of the medina, giving stunning views. Well worth 2TD (+1 for a camera)
The exhibits are very well presented and informatively labelled, many in English as well as French & Arabic, and the staff are helpful.
Sfax medina is jam-packed with markets, each with its own name and specialising in a certain thing. The locals all know exactly which alley to turn down to find fruit, which archaway to pass under to buy your fresh fish, where the best olive-wood bowls are sold...but as a tourist, you can only hope to blunder around, stumbling on the souqs by complete chance. Look for something and you'll not find it, but you will find everything else.
Don't restrict your market wanderings to inside the medina, as just outside Bab Jebli is a huge market complex within some impressive vaulted halls. The fish market is probbaly the most colourful, if the most pungent, but the markets for spices and food are also worth wandering round.
Back inside the walls, just inside Bab Jebli, you might be lucky to track down a famous film star...the Blacksmiths' Souq! This two-story former caravanserai played the part of a cairo souq in the film "The English Patient"...although unlike many film stars, the Blacksmiths' Souq has not aged terribly well, and is now unfortunately an empty shell.
Getting lost in the backstreets
A map is useless here, as the streets really do form a maze. Pick a backstreet, then another, and another, and soon you'll be lost, no idea which way is north and which is south. You won't be lost for very long, as eventually you'll hit the walls, or will emerge on one of the many busy shopping streets, but not until you've discovered a souq full of blacksmiths, a shop selling chocolate waffles, a mosque or three, and have done your best to try and find the narrowest street in the medina.
There are a few sights worth searching for, like Dar Jelloulli for example, a traditional house which is now a museum. On my first visit, I never found it, but this time I came across it very easily, only to find it was closed for renovations! The fun part was searching for it though.
Kasbah - Museum of Traditional Architecture
In the southwestern corner of the medina lies the Kasbah, a castle-like structure built into the walls. It is now a museum of Traditional Architecture, and for a few dinars you can enter. Despite not really being up on my architecture, I found many of the exhibits quite interesting, especially the old photos of mosques and houses in old Sfax, and how they have changed over the years. For those with a greater interest in architecture, then maybe the outdoor exhibits showing all the different ceiling styles will take up more of your time, but I was more interested in climbing the towers and walkways above. Some of the towers have makeshift wooden ladders which you can climb if you dare to reach the great viewpoints above. The views over the old city aren't the best from here, as the houses do seem to be more concretey than you expect, but you do get a good view over the new city and the busy traffic down below. If you can get high enough, you can also see the sea, and even the Kerkennah Islands.
Entrance costs 2TD, plus 1TD to take photos.
Sfax's medina is surrounded by soem pretty impressive walls, running almost unbroken for maybe 3 kilometres. Of course you can walk all round them on the outside, but it is more interesting to try and do this on the inside...some of the streets are so narrow, and these wall-side streets are also a bit more "rustic" than the others, with sand instead of stone or tarmac. These streets are mainly residential, so you won't find too many people...what you will find are kids playing football, goats tied up in doorways, and washing hung out to dry on the ramparts themselves. Look out for the eight gates and the many towers. One corner of the old city is a walled compund containing the red light district, but apart from that you can follow the walls nearly all the way round the inside.
The best place to begin exploring Sfax is Bab Diwan. This is the main entrance to the old city, with three huge gateways leading to the narrow alleyways just inside. Outside is a square of sorts, with a few trees and seats, a popular place to sit at night. Opposite, in the new town, is a short pedestrian street with one of the best patisseries in all Tunisia!
Entering Bab Diwan, the best way start is to try to work your way over to the other side of the medina. A long, narrow and extremely crowded street will take you there...turn right inside Bab Diwan, but before going through a tunnel to cheap hotels, turn left up the narrow alleyway which is rue Mongo Slim. This will take you through the souqs, past a couple of old mosques and zaoias, and dump you at Bab Jebli. Alternatively, take the equally narrow street straight on from Bab Diwan, rue de la Grande Mosquee, which, as its name suggests, takes you through more souqs to the Great Mosque of Sfax.
If it is too hot to explore much, or you are too thirsty, turn left inside Bab Diwan, and follow the walls for maybe 100 metres, until you come to Cafe Diwan, set into the old city walls. (see Restaurant tip...)
Rock the Casbah
You must visit the medina while you are in Sfax. It's a crazy, bustling marketplace in an old area of the city which is surrounded by walls. There are no cars inside, just pedestrian traffic. There are Medina's in most of the large Tunisian cities, but Sfax's seemed the most inviting of the ones I visited.
This Medina was also the place where parts of "The English Patient" were filmed
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