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A long weekend in Tunis

You’ll find glimpses of elegant Paris in Tunisia’s capital, but it’s the souks, minarets and ancient crumbling satellite cities that speak to a time when this corner of Africa ruled the Mediterranean

A long weekend in Tunis
Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul, Place de l'Indépendence. Image: Alamy

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One of the problems with bad news is that, usually, it hangs about with greater obstinacy than its positive counterpart. While the 2015 terror attacks in Tunisia were appalling acts of violence, their stains have far out-lasted the travel warnings that followed. Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice against trips to the country was rescinded last August — yet eyebrows are still raised at the suggestion of travel here.

So, is it safe to visit? Here, Tunisia might raise its own eyebrows and ask whether you’d direct the same question of Paris, Berlin, London or New York — all of which have fallen prey to the same horrors. Tunisia has long been a reliable choice for cheap beach breaks, but this has generally overlooked Tunisia’s other virtues as a destination — the historic sites, the echoes of foreign cultures, its wild swathes of Sahara desert, the souks in the Medina, the exotic dexterity of its food.

At a time when Egypt is still (partly) in the FCO’s bad books, a long weekend in Tunis merits reappraisal for those interested in visiting a vibrant corner of North Africa. As it occupies the same time zone as the UK and flights to the Tunisian capital take just over three hours, it’s a plausible option for a long weekend.

Pure theatre
The third century (AD) Roman amphitheatre at El Djem is arguably more striking than its cousin in the Italian capital. Granted, it’s smaller than the Colosseum (in its heyday, it held 35,000 spectators), but you can still climb up through tiers of seating, and do so with only a fraction of the crowd that you’d expect of the Eternal City. Accessible by day trip from Tunis; Viator offers tours from £93. uk.viator.com

Ancestral elegance
In the second century BC, Tunis’ predecessor, Carthage, was one of the most significant cities on the Mediterranean — powerful enough to attract hostility from the empire over the water. Its destruction by Rome in 146BC was almost total, and the key archaeological sites that survived were built by the conquerors, but the The Bardo museum keeps Carthaginian embers glowing with grand mosaics and statues.

Said and done
Located 12 miles north east of Tunis, Sidi Bou Said is Tunisia at its most eye-catching. Pitched on a hill above the sea, it clings to a colour scheme of whitewashed walls, with blue doors and window frames. It offers exquisite views of the Atlas Mountains in the distance from the terrace of Café des Délices and boutique lodging in the Hotel Bou Fares (doubles from £60). 

getty-long weekend tunis-cafe des delices

View from Café des Délices over Sidi Bou Said. Image: Getty

Three to try… Where to stay 

Royal Victoria
Situated on Place de la Victoire, this four-star retreat was formerly the British Embassy in Tunis. It retains a discernible grandeur in 40 rooms and suites of sophisticated Moorish decor. Doubles rooms from £70 a night. 

Regency Hotel
The beach is some 10 miles north of central Tunis, where the suburbs of Gammarth and La Marsa meet the Mediterranean. Four-star retreat the Regency Hotel, in the former, offers double rooms from £92 a night.

Delfino Beach Resort
Thomas Cook returned to the resort towns of Monastir and Hammamet in February. A seven-night, all-inclusive stay in the latter in May, at the Delfino Beach Resort, flying from Gatwick, starts at £421 a head.

Colonial spirit 

Midway along the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, France and Tunisia are performing a waltz. It’s a faltering affair of half-forgotten steps but each partner is keen to maintain its poise. The former is leading, projecting its Christian architectural values onto Tunis’ prime thoroughfare via the Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul — a Catholic masterpiece, finished in 1897, which recalls the 75 years (1881-1956) when Paris ruled the country. But the latter won’t be marched about the floor. It adds a flourish to the routine directly opposite in the granite statue of Ibn Khaldun, a feted Arab historian who was born in Tunis in 1332.

The message of the dance ebbs into the maw of the street, where mopeds buzz and cars idle, as taxis radiate that butter-yellow of many big cities.

I’m not shocked to find this culture clash. The Tunisian capital has witnessed several new brooms — the Berber tribesmen who founded it in the second millennium BC; the Romans who destroyed then rebuilt it; the Arab settlers who swept into North Africa in the eighth century AD; the Ottomans who came after; the colonial French. Not all these influences are visible at every corner, but they’re here in some way — and their tug on the city’s fabric is ceaseless and thrilling. Avenue Habib Bourguiba could be the Champs-Élysées — long columns of trees providing cover from the sun, jewellery shops pulled back in long arcades — but for Tunisia’s reminder, horns honking in a clot of traffic, that the street bears the name of its former president.

It’s a tapestry that begs closer inspection. And so I stroll south, into the maze of lanes that frame the Marché Central — Rue d’Allemagne and Rue d’Espagne staying true to their European heritage, just as the stallholders proffering bushels and dates at the side of the market are loyal to the Arabic world. But it’s only when I step west onto Rue El-Mokhtar that I fully enter the latter, the Medina marking its territory in the thrum and chatter of merchants and hawkers, a sudden cacophony — and sage and mint in powdered piles in the Herb Souk on Rue El-Metihra. I push further, through Souk El-Blagdjia, a fairytale of wedding dresses and flowers. And I stumble onto Rue Jamaa ez Zitouna — where the Al-Zaytuna Mosque harks back to the eighth century, its 141ft minaret rearing over the clutter at its feet. Here, finally, Paris is banished. The waltz is over, and Tunisia stands alone on the dance floor, a winner’s sash around its shoulders, France a ghost in the wind.

Essentials

Apart from flights with package tour operators, the only direct connections to Tunisia from the UK are currently operated by Tunisair, which serves Heathrow and Gatwick from Tunis. Return tickets from £194.

discovertunisia.com

Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)