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Tunisia: Treasures for the taking

It's been two years since the Arab Spring uprising, yet tourists have failed to return to Tunisia in any numbers. All the more reason to pay a visit

Dateline Tunis. Dates as in 14 January 2011, on the postcards and T-shirts commemorating the start of the Arab Spring, and dates as in piles of sticky caramel fruit, on special offer in all the shops as the new harvest hits the shelves. Life in the capital bustles on amiably, the barbed wire and armoured vehicles outside the French Embassy more reassuring than threatening.

Tunisia's archaeological patrimony has never been so impressively open for business. The Bardo Museum, one of the world's greatest collections of Roman mosaics, re-opened last July. I arrived to find a party of Tunisian schoolchildren and two Chinese people. This was a crush compared with the magnificent Roman amphitheatre of El Jem on the road south the next day, which contained just four tourists. And that still leaves Carthage. The assorted vestiges of the greatest Phoenician city of the Mediterranean share the coastline outskirts north of Tunis with a succession of seaside suburbs: Gammarth, La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said. La Marsa's tourist accommodation comprises mainly remote, gated luxury complexes, but it's also a popular township, with a couple of smaller hotels, sensible French-style restaurants, convenient small shopping centres and the excellent railway connecting to central Tunis via all the coastal suburbs, not least the famous white village of Sidi Bou Said, beloved of artists. But if its exquisite cobbled alleys, studded blue doors, bougainvillea-draped walls, Moorish cafes and souvenir souk are too tourist-geared for comfort, La Marsa is a sort of down-to-earth alternative.

On to Tozeur across the Chott El Jerid, the great saline tray whose brown crusted surface, dotted with dirty piles of salt and tiny domed shrines, conceals a shallow layer of water. In the roadside hut cafe, the shopkeeper rose from his bed to pour a coffee from a vacuum flask and negotiate the purchase of a dead scorpion in a crudely carved frame.

Tozeur, the major oasis and market town of the southern part of Tunisia has developed, but not excessively. There's a reasonably tasteful suburb of modern hotels; the Ksar Rouge, where I stayed, was excellent. The palmeraie is still enchanting: sheep grazing under the lovely arched canopy of the tall date palms, a sinuous dirt lane, bordered by terracotta walls, the low mud irrigation dikes that distribute the communal water. There are still horse-drawn carts used and new but non-intrusive additions, including a hotel consisting of wooden chalets on stilts.

Next door is an impressive private date museum, café and production facility called Eden Palm, run by the Chokmani family, whose patriarch is an unstoppable date encyclopaedia. To cut an enjoyable two-hour story short, dates are brilliant for everything from blood pressure to sagging breasts. And the gleaming steel-and-glass kitchen/lab produces a copious range of smartly packaged jams, patisseries and unguents.

North-west of Tozeur, the desert road winds towards the Algerian border. This is the domain of the 1960s tailfin Peugeot 404. Dusty beige pickup versions cart coloured plastic crates of dates, including contraband ones from the great Algerian palmeraies. What is booming in Tunisia is smuggling: dates, jeans, beer and above all petrol, from the hundreds of little roadside stalls selling cheap Algerian or Libyan gasoline from a suspended jerry-can. Also cafés: everywhere rows of men on metal chairs, whiling away the afternoon over a shared coffee, always ready for a courteous chat with a passerby.

I went for lunch at the Tamerza Palace Hotel, an opulently traditional building whose terraces gaze over a dried river bed to peaceful sand hills, palm groves and the ruins of the old village of Tamerza, the head of a dramatic gorge system used during filming of The English Patient.

Walking around the hill path behind another nearby beauty spot, Chebika, the call of a fennec desert fox sounded in the still air, and then the young man who had emitted it walked slowly down the rock face to chat, for no apparent gain.

A palm rat slipped behind a boulder, frogs croaked in the reeds of a rock pool, back at the car park a boy snoozed by the espresso machine. Later I heard haunting choral singing emanating from a tent under the palms of a central square. Rows of seated men were listening to a bearded preacher in Old Testament headscarf and robe, accompanied by hirsute young attendants in orange nylon over-vests.

"Who are we? Ansar Al-Sharia," said one, and hurried off to try to find me a CD of the music, most obligingly for a member of the Salafist party whose leaders are in hiding, sought for an attack on the US Embassy.

Tunisia's reputation for the civilised reception of visitors remains undented, it seems.


Getting there

The writer travelled as guest of Tunisian Ministry of Tourism (020-7224 5561; cometotunisia.co.uk).

The scheduled flight options from the UK are Tunisair (020-7734 7644; tunisair.com) from Heathrow and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick.

Staying there

Mouradi Hotel, Douz (00 216 75 47 03 03; elmouradi.com). B&B doubles from €45. Ksar Rouge Hotel, Tozeur (00 216 76 454 933; ksar-rouge.com/en). Doubles from €100, including breakfast. Golden Tulip Carthage, La Marsa (00 216 71 913000; goldentulipcarthagetunis.com). Doubles from €157.