I’m standing by a small garden wall in Tunisia looking at some flowers; a typical everyday scene you might think. And normally you would be right. But in this scene, this particular garden wall is over 5,000 years old and those particular flowers are part of an equally historic mosaic floor of a house in the ancient city of Utique, once one of the most famous Phoenician cities in Africa.
The truth is, I’m definitely having a moment here. It’s not often you can visit an historic site, a UNESCO protected one at that, and have unrestricted access to such ancient stones. But another moment is nigh. My brilliant guide, Slim, picks up a small watering can and, aiming it at the floral floor mosaic, whispers to me “wait and watch the magic happen” and sprays water over the tiles. Suddenly, they transform. The colours, faded over the centuries, become vibrant; a reminder of how they once must have looked thousands of years ago. I catch myself, realising I am standing there with my mouth half open, getting a little emotional, but seeing old stones come back to life is emotional. Right?
Since the dawn of the Arab Spring, a dawn that actually began with Tunisia back in 20111, tourists have forsaken the country for the trendy souks and celebrity veneer of Tunisia’s near neighbour Morocco. That’s what revolution, albeit a short and relatively bloodless one does to a country. Whether it was to avoid perceived danger or just through a lack of information, a once thriving and prosperous tourism industry has suffered badly.
Tunisia however deserves better. This is a land of contrasts; on one hand over 800 miles of Mediterranean coast, on the other, the spectacular Sahara desert and the location for more than a few famous movies including Star Wars and The English Patient. On your doorstep, thousands of years of antiquities and no less than 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, from the magnificent ruins of Hannibal’s Carthage to the Medina of Tunis and the Muslim and Jewish quarters of Djerba.
A short ride from Tunis is perhaps a perfect example of just why Tunisia deserves to be back on the tourist radar. Perched atop a steep cliff, with the shockingly azure Mediterranean as the perfect backdrop lies the beautiful village of Sidi Bou Said. The cobbled streets, white and blue painted houses and flower and vine draped walls have been a magnet for writers and artists for decades, inspiring the likes of Gustav-Henri Jussot, Paul Klee and August Macke to live and work there. Small wonder then it has a reputation for being the most expensive piece of real estate in Tunisia. That said, just picking a table in one of the many sea fronted cafes lining the cliff face is a perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon and evening, listening to live music and sipping a drink or two while the sun goes down.
Speaking of drinking it seems Tunisia is one of the most liberal of Islamic countries, its relaxed attitude to alcohol consumption just one example of its progressive secular outlook. Women have full legal status, allowing them to vote and own and run their own businesses and wear what they want.
In fact I find the whole Tunisian experience quite refreshing in comparison to other more traditional Arabic countries. Perhaps it is the strong French influence, an influence prevailing not just in the language (where it is second to Tunisian Arabic) but also in the cuisine, where lunches are expected to last long into the afternoon. Slim brings me to Le Bon Vieux Temps in Sidi Bou Said for a leisurely lunch, a delightful place bang opposite the sea where the main courses were no more than £13 each. “you have to try the briks” he tells me while tucking into some locally sourced extra virgin olive oil and crusty bread. “deep friedpastry parcels ofminced lamb or vegetables and an egg.” After his revelation at Utique, how can I refuse?
Whilst Hammamet is perhaps the best known of its many tourist resorts, there are other towns such as Bizerte, Zaghouan and Gamarth where you can find a more traditional way of life shaking hands with modern tourist living. Golf and Spa treatments, Thalassotherapy in particular becoming a Tunisian signature therapy of choice.
Yes Tunisia has many similarities to Morocco; but at a much more affordable and realistic price. The new government is having to learn quickly and perhaps it will be a while before this investment pays off and provides real competition to Morocco.. Until then, you can enjoy the delights of everything except perhaps the crowds.
Tourism is returning to Tunisia and not before time as far as I am concerned.
All images (c) Andy Mossack
I love it. How do I get there?
Return flights to Tunis
Tunisair operates five flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £237, including taxes. For reservations, please call 020 7734 7644 or visit www.tunisair.com.
Rooms at the five star Regency Tunis Hotel in Carthage start from £111 per night, based on two people sharing a double room on a bed and breakfast basis. For more information or to book, please visit www.regencytunis.com
For more information on what’s happening in Tunisia, please visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk
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