Tunisia one year on: Simon Calder explores the source of the Arab Spring

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The Arab Spring dawned in Tunisia a year ago, yet tourists have been slow to return to this multi-faceted North African country.

Ice-cream and fine wine: the bosses of the Swiss conglomerate, Mövenpick, may be wishing they had stuck to those profitable lines rather than expanding into hotels in North Africa. On New Year's Day, the chic lobby of the Tunis Mövenpick hotel was, like the rooms, mostly empty. Perfectly attired and mannered staff wished the handful of guests bonne année – a greeting that was returned with feeling.

After decades of misfortune, the Tunisians deserve a good year. The "Arab Spring" began in Tunisia. It was triggered by the self-immolation of a street vendor named Mohammad Bouazizi. He was enraged beyond desperation by the corrupt regime of President Ben Ali. His death, on 4 January 2011, triggered an uprising that led quickly to the departure of the ruling family.

As the people of other North African and Arab nations staged their own topple-a-tyrant rebellions with varying degrees of success, Tunisia progressed relatively peaceably to democracy. As re-born countries from Cambodia to Nicaragua demonstrate, there is always a lull between calm returning to a strife-torn country, and tourists coming back. Which makes 2012 ideal to travel to Tunisia and have the place almost to yourself.

Range freely across the sands and through the souks, explore the labyrinth of faith and history, feast on fresh cuisine, and indulge in budget five-starness – while, all the time, convincing yourself that you are returning a favour to the country that did the world a favour, and making a personal contribution to a prosperous New Year.

The wrinkled thumb of territory pointing optimistically towards Sicily, known as Cap Bon, is the heartland of Tunisian tourism. "Even President Ben Ali has a holiday home here," says Lonely Planet's Tunisia guide from 2007. Not any more, he doesn't, having scarpered to the traditional retirement home for deposed dictators, Saudi Arabia. The pretty peninsula, dominated by a mighty, extinct volcano, is all the more alluring for his departure. At the base of the thumb is the leading resort: Hammamet. High walls protect the medieval core, the medina, while modernity sprawls along the shore.

Yet tourism and heritage co-exist cheerfully. Hammamet's heartland is comfortable within its stern stone skin. The walls keep quotidien noise at bay but allow breezes in to waft around the warren of lanes. They are lined with homes dressed in white to out-dazzle the sun, and splashed with blue to mirror the sky. Even the eagerness of the souvenir vendors is subdued by the air of serenity.

Hammamet's medina is the fulcrum around which Tunisia turns. Go south, and Africa opens up. The ancient inland city of Kairouan, one of the holiest shrines in Islam, stands in vivid contrast to the mesmeric, monochromatic dusty wilderness beyond. For Tunisia's essential humanity, ancient and modern (plus the Mövenpick), go north. But first, when you leave the colourful cocoon of Hammamet's medina, wander along a Mediterranean shore where the waves create a soundtrack like a constant ripple of applause. And meet the elephants.

You'll find the big beasts on the trunk road leading to Hammamet's beachside suburb, Yasmine, where French, Russians and a few British tourists rub tusks with a quartet of plaster pachyderms. For some on a sun, sea and souks trip to Tunisia, 3,000 years of history are cheerfully encapsulated in a snapshot of the Carthaginian warrior astride a flappy-eared brute.

An hour north, Jumbo jets and an assortment of Airbuses arrive at the nation's main airport, named Tunis-Carthage. You could head for the centre of the capital, where the Place 7 Novembre 1987 (the date Ben Ali seized power) is now the Place 14 Janvier 2011 (the day he fled). Or, within 10 minutes of the airport. you can see how civilisation looked 20 or 30 centuries ago.

A brief Hannibal lecture: Carthage, derived from a Semitic phrase meaning "new town", was established in 814BC by Dido, the Phoenician queen. Over the centuries, the city-state came to dominate the western Mediterranean. Its nemesis was Rome, which fought Carthage for control of Sicily and much else. The people of Carthage became known by the Romans as the Punici, and that label was duly applied to their bloody sequence of squabbles. In round two of the Punic Wars, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal led an army spearheaded by war elephants over both the Pyrenees and the Alps to defeat the Romans. But the tide turned, and Carthage was eventually levelled – with Roman infrastructure taking root among the ruins.

Carthage is nothing like the archaeological sites you find elsewhere in North Africa. Subtract, for a moment, the Punic and Roman remains, and you are left with a well-to-do coastal suburb. Smart cars are parked in the drives of once-smarter villas, prettily arranged around a pair of lagoons.

On closer inspection – specifically, of the models in a shed that is ambitiously described as a museum – you discover that these bodies of water were once the mercantile and military gateways connecting Carthage with the wider world. Close by, the Sanctuary of Tophet is studded with memorials to children. Were they sacrificed to appease the Carthaginian gods, as Roman propaganda had it, or was this a shrine to the souls of still-born infants?

The Carthage Museum, which occupies a former French colonial monastery plonked on a hill, provides no clues. The musée provides a haphazard cross-section of faces and fripperies from antiquity. If they leave you unimpressed: outside, metropolitan Tunisia is laid out before you. With strange fragments of classical sculptures in the foreground, the view unrolls to reveal an urban carpet of homes and streets and warehouses. Lake Tunis provides a patch of calm, while in the distance the cone of Cap Bon looks as though it has drifted in on some tectonic saucer from Iceland.

Neither Icelanders nor anyone much else, last Saturday, drifted in to admire the Antonine Baths of Carthage. Like the directors of Mövenpick, the Romans built palaces of indulgence far and wide. But surely none is so benignly located as this thermostatic complex: bathers could emerge from frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium to see the Mediterranean crash against a corrugated coast melting into the haze. Today's visitors, such as they are, can follow the coast by nipping a couple of hundred yards up the road and buying a 400-fils (20p) ticket from the railway station with the finest name in Africa: "Carthage-Hannibal".

A 10-minute rattle in an old French commuter train circa 1950, and you arrive at Sidi Bou Said. This is the cliff-top village that distils most succinctly the character of Tunisia. Cottages cluster around a cobbled lane that straggles up the hill. The stuffed camels and "desert roses" (crystalised, rather than cultivated, in Tunisia's deep south) are evidence of its showpiece status, but wander away from the main drag and its laconic traders ("cheaper than Asda") and a quiet contentment returns. Bougainvillea spills from the white walls of mansions that have housed successive generations of the good, the bad and the plain lucky.

The French sailed home to Toulon from Tunisia in 1956, but – as is the often the colonial habit – were unwilling to go through with a complete divorce. They retained a military enclave close to the nation's northernmost point, centred on the port of Bizerte. Seven years on, after a bloody confrontation, they abandoned this final fragment. Today, Bizerte is the ultimate, mostsatisfying piece in the touristic jigsaw of Tunisia. The journey north to the port dispels any notion that Tunisia is a desert nation. Indeed, there is a pleasing symmetry between the vineyards that clamber up the hillsides here and their counterparts across the Med in Languedoc and Provence. (And as with most of the Midi, Tunisian wines are robust rather than fine.)

France's colonial imprint has hardly faded from Bizerte. Handsome architecture from the first half of the 20th century decorates the place des Martyrs, so that you half-expect Charles Boyer or Antoine de St-Exupéry to breeze past.

Some sun-ripened voyageurs from France still frequent the town, attracted by the beaches that ripple north. But the heart of Bizerte trumps European intervention: it centres on a profoundly picturesque port, populated by fishing boats in primary colours and presided over by a kasbah whose walls are thicker than an Alpine elephant's thighs.

On the cool slabs of the French-built fish market, the morning's catch is laid out appetisingly. In less imaginative and enterprising parts of the world, you might head for the nearest fish restaurant and be fussed over by obsequious waiters. In Tunisia's northernmost citadel, you simply buy your sardines (40p per kilo) and take them outside to the chap busily stoking his industrial-grade barbecue.

He grills the fish to perfection, piles a plate high with salad and sliced baguette, and serves a priceless dinner for a handful of dinars. The burble of conversation mingles with the sizzle of the grill and the call to prayer of the muezzin. This is the meal that will remain seared on your memory.

Back at the Mövenpick, where ice-cream and fine wine are always on offer, the spectacular shore was as deserted as the lobby – except for a 4x4 that someone decided to take off road and on to the beach.

Beneath corrugated cliffs that add such drama to the seascape, seagulls perched on the decaying remains of a jetty and peered into the Mediterranean. Many of the snowbirds' nests along the shore are empty. A precious winter resource is being squandered – something that you may wish to address in memory of Mr Bouazizi and his courageous countrymen.

After the Libyan summer?

On Tunisia's long, crinkled coast, they say, 2011 was a good year for the tourist industry. How so, given that a year ago this month, the entire contingent of package holidaymakers from Britain and elsewhere was airlifted out because of fears for their safety? The answer: a "Gaddafi bounce".

The uprising in Tunisia quickly spread across the border to Libya. Colonel Gaddafi's regime was, as Tony Blair and the rest of the world now knows, cruel to another order of magnitude. But Libya also has a substantial middle class with funds stashed away in safe havens. When the bitter civil war began, they wanted to sit out the conflict with their families in safety – and the obvious location was just across the border in Tunisia.

The hotels in the resorts of Sousse, Djerba and Hammamet were just a day's drive from Tripoli, and had plenty of spare beds. Soon, a community of Libyans took up residence on the coast, watching developments across the border unfold on hotel televisions.

Tunisian hoteliers, and the staff who depend on tourism, were thankful for a dictatorship dividend to sustain them through the summer. But since the Colonel's death last October their long-stay guests have gone home.

Winter is proving bleak for Tunisia's tourist industry. Over Christmas and New Year – a time when every room on the Mediterranean coast should be full – solo travellers from Britain were welcomed on nine-day, £800 all-inclusive trips organised by the London tour operator, Travel One. "No single supplements" might be a noble promise but, over the festive season, it reveals an alarming slump in demand.

Travel essentials: Tunisia

Getting there

* Simon Calder paid £240 through Opodo.co.uk for a Heathrow-Tunis return on Tunisair (020-7734 7644; tunisair.com). BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies between Gatwick and Tunis. Charter flights serve Monastir and Djerba airports, further south, as part of package holidays sold by Thomas Cook and Thomson, among others.

Staying there

* The author paid £99 per night for a double room with breakfast at the Mövenpick Hotel Gammarth, Tunis (00 216 71 741 444; moevenpick .com), booked through LowCostHolidays.com.

Getting around

* For tourists in the Tunis area, Transtu runs trains every 12 minutes between the capital and La Marsa, via Carthage-Hannibal.

The same enterprise runs local buses, but taxis are so cheap – around 1 Tunisian dinar (45p) a mile – that most tourists use these. Do not agree a price in advance: it will almost inevitably mean you end up paying more than the meter fare. Tip generously.

* Tunisia's long-distance trains are run by SNCFT and are cheap and reliable: see sncft.com.tn for schedules and fares.

For trips beyond the rail network, the standard form of transport is the louage, a shared taxi, which departs when full.

More information

* Tunisian National Tourist Office (020-7224 5561; cometotunisia.co.uk).

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