There is enough history in Tunisia to fill a much larger country. With its lovely Mediterranean beaches, ancient history and exotic atmosphere, Tunisia has always been a special place.
But it’s also the place where the Arab Spring was sparked when street trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in search of justice on December 1, 2010. After that, it went a bit quiet which is exactly why it’s a marvellous place to go to now – few tourists, uncrowded sights, French-speaking locals pleased to see you.
Tunisia is a small country, wedged between vast Libya and even bigger Algeria. Its history includes great civilisations : the Phoenicians established their capital, Carthage, there in 1100BC and legendary general Hannibal and queen Dido who died for love of Aeneas were Carthaginians. Romans were there, Vandals rampaged there, belligerent Berbers and Byzantines invaded and then Arabs from the east arrived, bringing Islam with them. The country became an outpost of the Ottomans until France bagged it in the 19th century. In 1957 Tunisia became a republic with a population of (now) 10.5mil.
Tunis, the capital, is a fascinating city. It always was considered be very chic to go to Tunis. It was once considered one of the most opulent cities on earth. The walled medina, with its knotted network of alleys and traditional souks, is a Unesco heritage site and the 19th century French colonial Ville Nouvelle has wide tree-lined avenues of faded art deco architecture.
There are plenty of little cafes in Tunis for a glass of mint tea, a hookah or a brik, an local appetiser composed of a phyllo triangle filled with an egg, deep-fried with the yolk left runny, eaten with a squeeze of lemon.
The remarkable Bardo Museum in Tunis is packed with Numidian, Punic and Roman items and mosaics that make every room seem like it’s clad with the pages of ancient comic-books of life in Tunisia with chubby kids riding lions and tigers, hunting, fishing, getting drunk, passion and perversion.
The pretty suburb of Sidi Bou Said is famous for its white-washed walls and famous studded blue doors and the nearby Antonine Thermal baths were one of the largest baths the Romans ever built. At the end of the day head out to La Goulette for a fresh seafood supper.
Tourists have tended to go to the sandy beach resorts and islands, Djerba and Kerkennah, but it is inland that the empty road beckons. It leads to wondrous monuments, desert villages, oases and dunes. Elaborate domed mosques are everywhere as are Roman remains. Go round a corner and suddenly there’s a giant amphitheatre, still being used to entertain, like in El Jem, where camels mill around, and traders sell spices and herbs, jasmine, oranges, lemons, figs, almonds, pomegranites.
Or drive through the limestone hills south-west of Tunis and there’s the astonishingly well-preserved Dougga, a temple-decked Roman city with a theatre overlooking a green fertile valley that was once part of Africa’s fertile “bread basket” in the days when lions and tigers roamed. (The last lion in Tunisia was shot in 1907.)
After visiting Dougga, and the Roman city of Sufetula, both awash with temples, arches and forums, Carthage comes as a massive disappointment. The Romans destroyed the Carthaginian version of it, the Vandals had a go at the Roman version and over time all that remains is the lovely view of the sea and some paltry bits and pieces of carved marble. So visit Carthage before the other Roman sites to avoid disappointment.
The southern Tunisian desert remains underrated and a bit of a mystery as everybody says one can’t go there “because of the smugglers”, although a more accurate reason would be because there aren’t many decent roads. Camel-trek : yes, but car : no.
However, you can get quite far down Tunisia by road.
Pretty Douz is the gateway to the Sahara. From there you can see troglodyte villagers at Matmata, hot springs that steam up in the mountains, and cross the salt lake Chott el Jerid to get to Tozeur, an oasis town near the Algerian border, where the weekly market doesn’t seem to have altered in centuries, trading hand-made tools, livestock, camel saddles, Tuareg blue hand-dyed fabrics, olives and spices, guinea pigs for roasting.
Things become more like Lawrence of Arabia down there.
Camels for hire are a joy not to be missed. I joined a caravan going south across the dunes and never looked back. My camel, Max, was white and the champion dune racer of the area. His father, Schneider, also white, had apparently been in both the Afrika Korps and French Foreign Legion. Who needs fiction with home-truths like that?
The mysteries of why so many people have been lured into the desert did not pass me by as I jolted comfortably over silent, golden, undulating sand deeper into the Maghreb, and debated about not coming home to North London. Would some wandering Berber perhaps buy me and how many camels would I be worth, I wondered idly. Hmmm.
When to go : In Spring and in Autumn to avoid the heat.
There are daily direct flight London/Tunis
More information : Tunisian National Tourist Office Tel. 020 7224 5561