Trail of the unexpected

Drink mint tea and soak up the literary connections in Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said, perched atop a hillside overlooking a magical expanse of the Mediterranean, seems a typical Greek island village. Houses are brilliant white sugar cubes, with shutters and doorways painted a distinctive blue. Swathes of purple bougainvillea spill over walls and along arches. Skinny grey cats weave in and around narrow alleyways, or snooze in steep stone stairwells. Except that this is Tunisia, not Greece.

Sidi Bou Said, perched atop a hillside overlooking a magical expanse of the Mediterranean, seems a typical Greek island village. Houses are brilliant white sugar cubes, with shutters and doorways painted a distinctive blue. Swathes of purple bougainvillea spill over walls and along arches. Skinny grey cats weave in and around narrow alleyways, or snooze in steep stone stairwells. Except that this is Tunisia, not Greece.

Only 15km along the coast is Tunis, the country's buzzy capital city - a heady mix of sophisticated urban elegance and traditional North African bustle. Sidi Bou Said, by contrast, has preferred to take life rather more quietly. Beloved by European artists and writers since the early 20th century - the artists Paul Klee and Louis Moillet lived here and the writers Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and André Gide visited - the village has changed little since Gide wrote ecstatically about its beauty. Living in Sidi Bou Said, he mused, was like "bathing in a fluid, mother-of-pearl sedative".

That soporific quality remains. For two hours each late morning the car-park at the bottom of the village fills up with coaches from nearby tourist resorts, and a wave of day-trippers advances up the hill towards the village centre - marked by its mosque and the legendary Café des Nattes.

They take photographs of the jasmine sellers (it is the sacred flower of Sidi Bou Said, and the village seems permanently awash with the scent), buy bambaloni doughnuts from the stall and head back to the car-park with a fistful of postcards and (if they fell for the patter) a wrought-iron bird-cage or two. For the rest of the time, tranquillity reigns.

The pace of life in Sidi Bou Said is slow. Its relaxed, friendly café life is an institution. The most celebrated is the Café des Nattes (Café of the Rush Mats), generally referred to by the locals as El Kahwa al Alya ("the café at the top") - a reference to its position at the top of a flight of steps below the minaret. You can sit outside on the wooden verandah and watch the world go by. But the real revelation is the interior - cool, dark, and supremely decadent. The decor is Islamic dark red and green, with huge pillars painted candy-stick style in twisting bands of colour. The customers comprise an easy mix of long-term residents, short-term visitors, writers and artists, recently augmented by prosperous Tunisians (mainly media folk) who have made second homes in the more-recently-built villas set on the hillside terraces running down from the village to the marina below. They sit, or recline, on stone platforms spread with the mats that give the place its name. And, night and day, the men of the village suck meditatively on their chichas, Tunisian water pipes that draw tobacco smoke through flasks of perfumed water.

Café-visiting apart, the chief delight of spending time in Sidi Bou Said is simply to wander. Off the main street, with its cobbles polished over the centuries by thousands of pairs of feet, steep lanes twist up past the back of the mosque and towards the lighthouse at the top of the village. Through metal gateways you can glimpse the gardens and courtyards, vibrant with orange groves and birdsong, of some of the great former private residences of the 18th century (one has been beautifully restored to become the Dar Said, the village's top quality small hotel). On the way to the lighthouse, you'll pass countless houses with heavily-studded wooden doors - Andalusian in style and typical of the village - along with elaborate lattice-work window screens (moucharabiehs) painted the same blue as the doors.

From the lighthouse itself you'll be rewarded by the most spectacular view - across the rooftops and domes of the village, over the beaches and marina at the foot of the cliffs, and out to sea across the Gulf of Tunis to Cap Bon. The village's other well-known café - the Café de Sidi Chabaane - has a version of this same view. Sit out on its terraces in the evening, as the village sounds fade, the scent of jasmine intensifies and the horizon melts into a painting of yellow and red, and raise a glass of thé aux pignons (mint tea with pine nuts) to the good taste of André Gide.

Sidi Bou Said is reached easily by light railway, the TGM, from Tunis. The journey takes about 20 minutes. The village's lovely Dar Said hotel (00 216 71 729 666; www.darsaid.com.tn) offers excellent accommodation from around £100 per double room per night. Wigmore Holidays ( www.aspectsoftunisia.co.uk; 020-7836 4999) offers four-night breaks in the Dar Said for around £599 per person, based on two sharing and including flights to Tunis and transfers to Sidi Bou Said. A cheaper option for independent travellers is the pretty Hotel Bou Fares (00 216 71 740 091) where a double room costs around £30 per night

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