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.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

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.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?