The Complete Guide To: Tunisia

With its heady mix of spices, ancient history and Hollywood film-set credentials, there's more than a touch of glamour in this North African country, says Margaret Campbell


SUN? SEA? SAND?

Yes, in abundance. Squeezed between Algeria and Libya, and barely bigger than England and Wales, Tunisia boasts a varied range of landscapes. Its sandy Mediterranean coastline stretches for 1,000 miles from Tabarka's oak and cork forests to the southern beaches of Djerba. As autumn takes hold, the northern beaches are getting chillier, but the climate in the south makes the winter months more than bearable. Away from the fertile coastal plains (this was once the bread-basket of Rome), the country's interior is characterised by olive-tree-lined fields that wouldn't look out of place in Tuscany, the remote Dorsale mountain range and four different types of "desert", creating numerous possibilities for adventure tourism.

Cinema directors have been drawn by the scenery and light, and Tunisia's countryside has featured in films as different as The Life of Brian (Monastir) and The English Patient (Mahdia, Sfax). Yet there's much more to this value-for-money destination than its climate and landscapes: empires have come and gone, leaving a rich architectural patchwork; stubborn vestiges of French colonial influence co-exist with the older Islamic traditions and the modern world; and nomadic Berber traditions have left their mark on what is now a largely sedentary culture.

WHERE'S BEST FOR A BEACH HOLIDAY?

Just over an hour south of Tunis, Hammamet's holiday potential was discovered in the 1920s by a wealthy Romanian, Georges Sebastian. He constructed a superb villa, described by Frank Lloyd Wright as the perfect building, and Europe's artistic elite began to visit. The villa was later used by Rommel as his North African base, then by Churchill while he was writing his memoirs; Sebastian eventually handed it over to the state for use as a cultural centre. Dar Sebastian is at Avenue des Nations Unies (00 216 72 280 410); admission 3 dinars (£1.20). Open daily 8.30am-6pm (5pm or earlier during Ramadan). The area between Hammamet and Nabeul is now the country's largest resort. From spring to late summer, its sandy beaches and 150-odd hotels are full; as the winter approaches, sun worshippers head further south, to Sousse, Port El Kantaoui, Mahdia and Djerba. Three UK holiday companies with an established presence in Tunisia are Panorama Holidays (08707 595595; www.panoramaholidays.co.uk), Wigmore Holidays (020-7836 4999; www.aspectsoftunisia.co.uk) and Cadogan Holidays (0800 082 1006; www.cadoganholidays.com).

ANY MORE INDIVIDUAL HOTELS?

The dar is to Tunisia what the riad is to Morocco - a chic boutique hotel, often occupying a former merchants' house, offering personalised service in stylish surroundings. An alternative term is "résidence de charme". More and more of them are springing up, especially in Tunis. The 12-room Dar El Médina, a luxurious villa in the heart of the old town (64 Rue Sidi ben Arous, Tunis: 00 216 71 563 022; www.darelmedina.com), has doubles from €110 (£78), including breakfast. For accommodation options throughout the country, visit www.tunisietourisme.com.tn.

CITY-BREAK TERRITORY?

Definitely. To date, the no-frills airlines have steered clear of Tunis, but given the success of Morocco in encouraging low-cost operators it seems likely that easyJet, Ryanair and others will soon touch down in the capital. Currently British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies to Tunis from Gatwick and Tunis Air (020-7734 7644; www.tunisair.com.tn) from Heathrow. Tunisia First (01276 600 100; www.tunisia first.co.uk) offers short-break packages to the city.

This dynamic capital can be divided up into the pre-19th century Medina (old town), the French colonial districts and the many miles of suburbs. The Medina is a fascinating and frustrating warren of tourist boutiques, mosques, hammams, tombs, Islamic libraries and small workshops. On the main streets, touts use every rhetorical strategy possible to entice tourists into perfume, leatherwork and carpet shops, but quite apart from the shopping possibilities, there is much to explore. The main Zitouna mosque on rue Jemaa Zitouna (open every morning but Friday) was for centuries the heart of the community and a centre of Islamic learning.

Its courtyard is an oasis of calm compared to the nearby souks. Ottoman influence is apparent in the architecture of the Youssef Day mosque, while the Dar Ben Abdallah palace (Impasse Ben Abdallah, 00 216 71 25 61 95; open every day except Monday, 9.30am-4.30pm; admission 2 dinars/80p) reflects 18th-century preferences. It houses the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, but is worth seeing for the building alone. What remains of the Jewish ghetto, or Hafsia, is located to the north of the Medina.

Having established a protectorate in 1881, the French set about creating a modern capital to the east of the Medina. Separated from it by the Porte de France, the New Town's wide streets, straight roads and art deco architecture contrast sharply with the Medina's packed alleys. Highlights on the main Avenue Bourguiba include the St-Vincent-de-Paul Cathedral, the French embassy and the elaborate Municipal Theatre. The fountains and covered passageways of the Place de 7 Novembre attract out-of-towners and locals alike, especially in the evenings.

In the 1920s and 1930s, art deco was imported from Europe, resulting in elaborate metalwork and stylised forms. The Villa Boublil at 16 rue de l'Autriche is a particularly fine example, and can be viewed en route to Belvedere Park, an extensive wooded area to the north of the city (open daily from 7am to 5.30pm in winter). Gastronomes should head for the Dar El Jeld (5 Rue Dar El Djeld, reservations on 00 216 71 560 916) for traditional Tunisian cuisine.

ANYWHERE OUT OF TOWN?

Not far from Tunis, the blue and white houses in the chic retreat of Sidi Bou Saïd have a unique charm. In the early 1900s, the ruling Bey (the Ottoman empire's regent) was persuaded by a French baron to decree that the village's buildings were all to be painted in identical shades: individual external touches are now best seen in the huge variety of nail-studded doors. With its panoramic views of the Mediterranean and the Cap Bon promontory (try the Café des Nattes on the main square for people-watching), it attracts film stars and jet-setters, and accommodation is best booked in advance. The Hotel Dar Saïd (Rue Toumi, 00 216 71 729 666; www.darsaid.com.tn) is worth a try. Doubles start at 245 dinars (£102), room only.

SOME FAMOUS NAMES?

"Carthage must be destroyed" - and so it was, despite spirited resistance by its rulers and generals, including Hannibal. Situated a few miles from present-day Tunis, the centre of the Carthaginian empire was razed to the ground in 146BC by the Romans, who already occupied much of what is now Tunisia. The Romans themselves were in turn chased out by the Vandals - but not before they had constructed villas, an amphitheatre and baths, and created a reputation of such decadence that St Augustine felt obliged to single out the new town's citizens for particular criticism.

The town was again destroyed in 697BC, this time by the Arabs. In an unwittingly ironic reminder of the transience of power, the current presidential palace sits on a hill overlooking what remains of the splendid Antoine baths. (Security rules prevent visitors from snapping it.) Many of the country's Roman artefacts and mosaics have been collected in the Bardo Museum (00 216 71 513 650) in the eastern suburbs of Tunis, on Metro line 4. This magnificent villa was once home to the Beys, and now houses North Africa's largest collection of Roman artefacts; open daily except Monday, 9.30am-4.30pm; admission 6 dinars (£2.50).

ARE THERE OTHER NOTABLE ROMAN SITES?

Plenty: Roman ruins are scattered throughout the country. The most spectacular is possibly the amphitheatre at El Jem, only slightly smaller than the Colosseum in Rome: in its heyday, it had seating for 30,000 bloodthirsty spectators. The massive walls rise impressively over a flat plain; inside, the underground chambers that held the wild animals, gladiators and unfortunate prisoners are claustrophobic and all too close to the arena (00 216 73 63 00 93; open daily, 8am-5.30pm Nov-April; admission 6 dinars/£2.50). The same entry ticket is valid for the nearby museum, with more mosaics and statues. Further north, Dougga has survived the vicissitudes of history equally successfully. Its magnificent Capitol, a temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, and Forum were protected by Byzantine fortifications and are well preserved. Other important Roman sites include Sbeïtla, Maktar, Thuburbo Majus and Haïdra.

ANY DESERT CITIES?

For Muslims, Kairouan is the holiest city in North Africa (and gave the English-speaking world the word "caravan"). Founded by the Arabs who moved across Tunisia in the seventh century, it became the centre of a rich religious, intellectual and cultural life. The city remains a place of pilgrimage: visiting it seven times dispenses the devout from the obligation to travel to Mecca. Paul Klee was one of those profoundly inspired by its architecture, colours and mosques, and the entire city is a Unesco World Heritage site. The key attraction is the Great Mosque (open daily, 8am-2pm, to noon on Fridays; the prayer room is closed to non-Muslims). In this water-hungry region, the small holes between the paving stones were designed to filter any rain to underground cisterns. Away from the medina, water is also the main preoccupation at the 9th Aghlabid Pools on avenue Ibn el Jazaar: 14 pools (only some of which have been excavated) held water which arrived by aqueduct from the Cherichera mountains, 22 miles away. Kairouan is also famed for three types of carpet, and the quality and origins of those on sale are strictly monitored.

Moving south, Tozeur is known for its distinctive architecture - locally made yellow bricks in austere but surprisingly fragile geometrical designs. The arid landscape in this region has provided the backdrop for Star Wars films, and many 4x4 trips north to mountain oases such as Tamerza and Chebika start from here. So do visits to the Chott el Jerid, a vast salt lake with mirages that glisten on its surface when the temperature rises above 30C. The * * annual festival provides an opportunity to watch camel racing, this year from 26 to 29 December. The troglodyte houses in Matmata, Haddej, Beni Aissa and Chembali were dug into the rock to provide protection from hostile outsiders and harsh sunlight and are an obligatory stop on most guided tours. While fascinating from an ethnological perspective, the reality of staring around other people's homes (albeit in exchange for a few dinars) can be disquieting.

WHAT WILL I EAT?

Couscous, served with vegetables and meat or fish, is the undisputed national dish. It is served with harissa, a spicy red sauce. Mechoui is grilled meat (usually lamb), often served at roadside cafés as meatballs or kebabs. Fresh fish and seafood are available all along the coast.

I WANT TO TRAVEL DEEP INTO THE SAHARA

Starting point for adventure tours into the Sahara, or for simple two-hour jaunts across dunes on a camel, is Douz, a genuine "gateway to the desert". Its spectacular Festival of the Sahara in late December brings together nomads, poets, artists, camel racers (plus animals) and even sand-hockey players. Wigmore Holidays (020-7836 4999; www.aspectsoftunisia.co.uk) offers excursions to the salt lake, underground villages and film sets. Siroko Travel (00 216 71 965 267; www.sirokotravel.com) specialises in desert trips. Adventure Treks (00 33 476 342 515; www.adventure-treks.com) organises trekking holidays in Tunisia. Most companies offering beach holidays can arrange short desert trips.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Passenger rail services have yet to be fully developed, but train travel is a reasonably inexpensive way of seeing the country. See www.sncft.com.tn for more information about the Carte Semaine pass, valid for unlimited travel over one, two or four weeks. (Follow the French link - the English language site is still under construction.)Louages are large shared taxis which operate non-stop on long-distance routes, while local taxis are usually forbidden from travelling beyond a certain boundary. Car rental is possible, although prices are high; internal flights are reasonably priced (Tunisair; www.tunisair.com).

MORE INFORMATION?

The Tunisian Tourist Office (020-7224 5561; www.cometotunisia.co.uk) in London is a good start, while www.tourismtunisia.com is also useful.

ISLAND LIFE

Tunisia has a sprinkling of islands off the east coast, with distinct identities. There are two main Kerkennah Islands, Gharbi and Chergui, linked by a causeway since antiquity; Gharbi is connected to Sfax by several ferries. Compared with the rest of the coast, tourism is low key, even in Remla, the largest town. Come here for wildlife, the working ports of El-Attaya and Kratten and a sense of time standing still. Djerba is the largest island, and has traditionally had the most diverse population: Arabs, Jews, Berbers and Africans developed key trade links across and along the Mediterranean. It was regularly invaded, yet was a base for pirates such as Barbarossa. Nowadays the long Sidi Mahares beaches and developed infrastructure make it an excellent and popular destination for a winter getaway. Spa breaks are an increasingly sought-after option. An alternative to the large hotels on the coast, the Dar Dhiafa is a 14-room boutique hotel in El Riadh (00 216 75 671 166; www.hoteldardhiafa.com) where doubles start at 180 dinars (£75), room only. Away from the resorts, there's plenty to explore in Houmt Souk, the capital, and in the coastal and inland villages. Highlights include the La Ghriba synagogue, Guellala potteries and the mosques in Houmt Souk. Djerba is linked to the mainland by a causeway from El Kantara (island) to El Kantara (mainland) and by a ferry from Ajim to Jorf. As two-country breaks develop, Djerba is likely to become an access point for Libya.

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