Time to re-visit Tunisia

With the FCO lifting the warning for most of the country, Liz Gill explores the wealth of history, heritage and modern day amenities that Tunisia has to offer

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In one of the rooms of the Bardo museum in Tunis stand headless Roman statues; the heads are in glass cabinets on the walls. This, Anmar our guide explains, is because when one emperor died and was replaced by another only the statues’ heads were changed: the bodies were idealised anyway so they could be used again and again.

In another room he stops and points with a proud flourish to ‘our Mona Lisa’ – a mosaic of Virgil flanked by two muses and writing the Aeneid, the only known likeness of one of the most important poets of antiquity.

Along a passageway he pauses beside a traditional door and draws our attention to the fact that it has two knockers. One is for women, the other is for men. They make different sounds so that the door can be opened by someone of the appropriate sex.

The Bardo is a wonderful museum, housed in a former Ottoman palace and full of artefacts and interiors that tell the story of a country washed over by wave after wave of invaders and rulers for the past 3000 years: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Crusaders, Arabs, Turks, Spaniards and French, the latter ruling it as a protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956.

Exhibits range from the small but telling – a baby’s clay feeding bottle from the third century BC with a funny face drawn on it – to the magnificent. Here is the world’s best collection of mosaics including the jaw dropping Triumph of Neptune, once a floor covering but now, as part of a recent major revamp, set into a huge wall. I always used to think mosaic was a rather dull, static medium but here the fabulous creatures, both mythical and real, seem almost animated. Some are nearly completely intact like a giant jigsaw with only a couple of pieces missing.

Amid all these wondrous things, however, is a reminder of a tragedy: a memorial to the terrorist attack in March 2015 with the names of the 22 who died and the flags of all the countries they came from. It was this attack and the one in Sousse three months later in which 38 people were killed, 30 of them British, which led the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to advise against all but essential travel. The result was a catastrophic collapse of Tunisia’s formerly thriving tourism industry.

The FCO has just lifted the warning freeing up most of the country and its 700 miles of coast – warnings are now confined to land borders – and all the major tourist attractions. The timing means last minute summer holiday bookings are now feasible as well as the chance to make winter sun plans. In fact with flying time from London less than three hours – although this is Africa the country sticks up into the Mediterranean only 80 miles south west of Sicily – Tunisia is perfectly feasible for a long weekend. And being only the size of England (with a population of just under 11 million) it is possible to pack in a variety of experiences even within a single day.

So, for example, you could explore archaeological locations in the morning, unwind in a thalassotherapy spa in the afternoon and go bargain hunting in the evening. Tunisia has eight UNESCO World Heritage sites including Carthage, founded by Queen Dido, home to general Hannibal of crossing the Alps with elephants fame and then, after his defeat in the Punic Wars, one of the jewels in the Roman Empire crown.

So important was the city that the imperialists built an 80 mile long aquaduct to supply it with water from the springs at Zaghouan. Sections of this remarkable achievement can still be seen alongside one of the main roads in the area. Zaghouan itself has sizeable remains of the Water Temple which on the day we went was full of families, the children clambering over the ruins and teetering over long drops with what seemed to be complete disregard for health and safety.

We were told it was a festival day and indeed we seemed to encounter several festivals during our short visit. There was a big one in Hammamet, the popular ‘garden city’ seaside resort, with a procession full of floats and musicians and children in fancy dress which was passing by when we went into the medina, the old walled centre, and still passing by when we came out an hour and a half later. At Dar Zaghouan, a farm where you can not only stay the night and eat in the restaurant but also learn about cheese and bread making, olive pressing and the role of local herbs and spices in medicines and cosmetics, there was a party in aid of charity with local chefs creating vast pans of traditional dishes. Eating was following by dancing and singing with the sort of gusto that would normally in the UK only follow large amounts of alcohol.

Tunisia does produce some fine wines but drinking them is mainly confined to hotels and restaurants. Elsewhere it’s tea, coffee and the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted, made, I’m told by boiling the lemons whole, blending them with sugar and water and then sieving the mixture.

Similarly, in Sidi Bou Said, a beautiful hilltop village with narrow alleys, white houses, blue doors and spectacular views, crowds of young people sang along joyfully to the street musicians.

We felt warmly welcomed wherever we went. There were financial reasons in some cases, of course. We were there before the restrictions were removed and people were obviously desperate for any tourist income but even here transactions tended to be fairly gentle and good natured with banter as well as bargaining as we shopped for leather, wood, ceramics and kaftans. Elsewhere we were met with smiles or mild curiosity and the occasional request from someone to be photographed with us. Several times people stressed how we must spread the word back home about safety. Certainly some security measures were noticeable including stoppages and checks on motor vehicles by police, barriers at hotels with guards using mirrors to look under cars, other guards on the beach, scanners for handbags and luggage.

Returning tourists will no doubt be drawn to the big hotels but there is an interesting trend in the growth of boutique hotels or dars: there are now around 150 in the country for those who want something more intimate and more authentic.

One called Ken, for example, – the word means once upon a time in Arabic – is like a mini village: as well as villas and apartments, a restaurant and swimming pool there are craft workshops and a costume museum with beautifully embroidered wedding dresses which we’re told might have taken a year to make. Another room houses a collection of carpets.

You can hire your own car or take one with a driver for around 200 dinar or £65 a day. And although English is fairly widely spoken any French – or Arabic of course – can be very useful.

Further information can be found at www.discovertunisia.com