So near, so far: The Tunis mix

Warm, lively, steeped in history - and wonderful for shopping. Could Tunis, just a couple of hours away by plane, become the new Marrakech? Frank Partridge reports

A few minutes out of Gatwick the pilot nonchalantly announces, "The computer says we'll make Tunis in two hours, 16 minutes." It seems bizarre, even today, that in just two and a quarter hours we'll arrive at the palm-fringed, turquoise waters of the African coast, within reach of the Sahara Desert. In no time at all we will be transported to the site of an ancient citadel where great powers have risen up and crumbled; to a centre of Muslim culture and learning; to an exotic outpost of the French Empire. With all that in prospect, you feel the flight should take rather longer than, say, a routine train journey between London and Manchester.

Arriving in Tunis in early spring is a shock to the system. Coats and jackets are hurriedly removed as we adjust from chilly grey to balmy blue; the sharp light has us fumbling around for sunglasses. Out on the highway, the code is simple: drive as fast as possible; use the horn incessantly; indicate only when all else fails. Tunis these days may be actively re-styling itself as an alternative destination for lovers of Mediterranean chic and cool, but it still feels half a world away from home.

The tourist board is pitching it as the new Marrakech, hoping to cash in on our desire for more exotic short breaks and, following Morocco's example, the Tunisians are converting traditional 19th-century homes into small and characterful boutique hotels. For Moroccan riads, read Tunisian dars - the Dar Saïd in the village suburb of Sidi Bou Saïd on a promontory north of the centre is an exquisite example. Think ornate tiles, carved ceilings, hidden courtyards and a hammam that visiting couples can hire for private use.

Sidi Bou Saïd appears to have been shipped, down to its last whitewashed breezeblock, directly from Greece. This was a favoured haunt of painters and writers who came from northern Europe in the last century to soak up its views, the heady atmosphere of its cafés, and the striking blue paintwork on its doorways, awnings and wrought-iron railings, set off by luxuriant greenery. Little has changed. Every evening, a steady procession of locals climbs the steep hill to the lighthouse at the top, pausing for a sugary doughnut at a hole-in-the-wall takeaway that never seems to close, to watch the sunset at the multi-terraced Café Chabaane. The pretty marina is directly below, and the sea and mountains in the distance. More atmospheric still is the Café des Nattes, halfway up the hill, with carpets thoughtfully provided on the steps outside for those who can't get a table. Inside, the old world and the new rub shoulders contentedly. Draped across cushions, a group of ruminative Arabs gurgles on their apple-tobacco water pipes; at the next table a younger, noisier crowd smokes cigarettes and taps on mobile phones.

The city's crowning glory, however, lies directly at its heart, where noisy, frenzied commerce has been taking place for the past 12 centuries. The Médina, once a walled city-within-a-city with a population exceeding 100,000, is best approached down the long Avenue Habib Bourguiba. It was named after the father of Tunisian independence, but built by the French in the late 19th century, and is distinctly Parisian-flavoured with its pavement cafés, ornate street lamps, exquisite art nouveau theatre and coiffeured ficus trees. At its western end, the boulevard changes its name to Avenue de France, and leads across a square to one of the Médina's main gates.

Inside, the teeming maze of twisting lanes and covered alleys is a bewildering assault course for the first-timer, especially in the centre around the magisterial Zitouna mosque, but the logical arrangement of stalls, workshops, souks and houses slowly reveals itself the longer you stay. Whether you stop and buy anything is another matter. The stallholders' point-of-sale technique is to cram as many items as possible into the available space, confusing the eye with limitless possibilities. Piles of wares and produce spill out into the narrow lanes, slowing progress to a pace where it's impossible not to browse. As soon as eye contact is made, the bargaining process begins, irrespective of whether you want to buy or not.

But the Médina is much more than a marketplace. There are residential areas in the northern and eastern quarters; cemeteries and mausoleums; schools, libraries and gardens. Quite apart from their spiritual function, the 36 mosques - nine of them large enough to have minarets - are a handy navigational aid when all seems lost. Among many fine buildings deep in the maze, two sumptuous dars stand out. The lavishly furnished Dar El Jeld is one of the city's finest restaurants, while the 12-room Dar El Médina is Tunisia's first boutique hotel, belonging to the same family since it was built in 1820. Within a few paces of the frenzy outside, and despite being open to the elements, a pleasing arrangement of tiled and cushioned courtyards and alcoves provides instant relief. Just how the designers manage to conjure cool, interior breezes out of a hot, windless day is one of Arabia's many mysteries.

Like the tourist haunts of its friendly rival, Morocco, Tunis is not quite like anything in Europe. And to reinforce that impression head to the ancient citadel of Carthage, separated from the modern capital by a saltwater lake. It has its share of reassuringly familiar Roman ruins (including a reconstructed amphitheatre), but only as part of a complex mosaic spanning 1,500 years of history from the Phoenicians to the Muslim Arabs. They all set their sights on its sheltered harbour and strategically pivotal location near the northern tip of Africa. Time and again, the city was destroyed and rebuilt. In 146BC, putting the seal on the Punic Wars, the Romans razed every Carthaginian building to the ground. By the time of Christ, they had rebuilt the place to create the third largest city of their empire. Four hundred years later, the Vandals invaded from Spain, chased the Romans away and destroyed almost all their handiwork; in AD670, they in turn were conquered by the Arabs. With no spare land available, each new invader used the rubble of the buildings they destroyed as foundations for their own. Archaeologists have been unearthing these remains for 150 years, and much remains below ground.

The Carthage Museum, one of 12 historic sites that can be visited with a rover ticket costing just seven dinars (£2.80), is left off many a visitor's checklist because the new city boasts the Bardo. Arguably the finest museum in North Africa, it has a fabulous collection of Roman mosaics taking pride of place. Painstakingly reconstructed piece by piece, some of these sprawling, evocative scenes of second- and third-century life cover entire walls. The museum's collection of treasures is so vast that 200,000 artefacts have had to be packed away in warehouses, waiting for new space to become available when an ambitious renovation programme is completed in 2010.

Tunis today is an intriguing mix of European heritage, deep Arabic roots and North African location. And even though it's just around the corner, it's a wondrous place for a long weekend.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

GB Airways flies to Tunis from Gatwick five times a week on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com);

Tunisair (020-7734 7644; www.tunisair.com) flies from Heathrow. Wigmore Holidays (020-7836 4999; www.aspectsoftunisia.co.uk) offers four-night stays in Tunis from £495 per person, inclusive of return GB Airways flights, transfers and bed and breakfast at Dar El Médina.

STAYING THERE

Dar Saïd, rue Tuomi, Sidi Bou Saïd (00 216 71 729 666; www.darsaid.com.tn). Double rooms start at 260 dinars (£103) room only. Dar El Médina, 64 rue Sidi Ben Arous (00 216 71 563 022; www.darelmedina.com). Double rooms start at €110 (£79), including breakfast. The Residence, Les Côtes de Carthage (00 216 71 910 101; www.theresidence-tunis.com/en). Double rooms start at €299, including breakfast.

EATING AND DRINKING THERE

Dar El Jeld, 17 rue des Tamis, The Medina (00 216 71 200 894).

Dar Zarrouk, rue Hedi Zarrouk, Sidi Bou Saïd (00 216 71 740 591).

Tam Tam, 7 Avenue du 7 Novembre, Sidi Bou Saïd (00 216 71 728 535).

VISITING THERE

The Bardo Museum (00 216 71 513 650; www.di.com.tn/museebardo) is open daily except Monday and some religious holidays, 9am-5pm.

MORE INFORMATION

Tunisian National Tourist Office: 020-7224 5561; www.cometotunisia.co.uk

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