Tunisia provides desert delights and rich history

A trip in Tunisia

A trip in Tunisia - Credit: Archant

There is enough history in Tunisia to fill a much larger country. With its Mediterranean beaches, ancient history and exotic atmosphere, Tunisia has always been a special place.

But it’s also the place where the Arab Spring was sparked when street trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in search of justice on December 1, 2010. After that, it went a bit quiet, which is why it’s marvellous to visit now ¬– few tourists, uncrowded sights and French-speaking locals pleased to see you.

Tunisia is a small country, wedged between vast Libya and even bigger Algeria. Its history includes great civilisations: the Phoenicians established their capital, Carthage, there in 1100BC and legendary general Hannibal and queen Dido, who died for love of Aeneas, were Carthaginians. Romans were there, Vandals rampaged there, belligerent Berbers and Byzantines invaded and then Arabs from the east arrived, bringing Islam. The country became an Ottoman outpost until France bagged it in the 19th century. In 1957, Tunisia became a republic and now has a population of 10.5million.

Tunis, the capital, was once considered one of the most opulent cities on earth. The walled medina, with its knotted network of alleys and souks, is a Unesco heritage site and the 19th-century colonial Ville Nouvelle has wide tree-lined avenues of faded art deco architecture.

There are plenty of little cafes in Tunis for a glass of mint tea, a hookah or a brik, a local appetiser composed of a phyllo triangle filled with an egg, deep-fried with the yolk left runny, eaten with a squeeze of lemon.

The Bardo Museum in Tunis is packed with Numidian, Punic and Roman items and mosaics that make every room seem clad in the pages of ancient comic books of Tunisian life. There are chubby children riding lions and tigers and people hunting, fishing and getting drunk or indulging their passions and perversions.

Pretty suburb

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The pretty suburb of Sidi Bou Said is famous for its whitewashed walls and studded blue doors and the nearby Antonine Thermal Baths were one of the largest baths the Romans ever built. At the end of the day, head to La Goulette for a fresh seafood supper.

Tourists have tended to go to the sandy beach resorts and islands, Djerba and Kerkennah, but inland, the empty road beckons. It leads to wondrous monuments, desert villages, oases and dunes. Elaborate domed mosques are everywhere, as are Roman remains. Go around a corner and suddenly there’s a giant amphitheatre, still being used to entertain, like in El Jem, where camels mill around and traders sell spices and herbs, jasmine, oranges, lemons, figs, almonds, pomegranates.

Or drive through the limestone hills southwest of Tunis and there’s the astonishingly well-preserved Dougga, a temple-decked Roman city with a theatre overlooking a green valley that was once part of Africa’s fertile “bread basket” in the days when lions and tigers roamed. (The last lion in Tunisia was shot in 1907.)

After visiting Dougga, and the Roman city of Sufetula, both awash with temples, arches and forums, Carthage comes as a massive disappointment. The Romans destroyed the Carthaginian version, the Vandals had a go at the Roman version and all that remains now is the lovely sea view and paltry bits and pieces of carved marble.

The southern Tunisian desert remains a bit of a mystery as everybody says one can’t go there “because of the smugglers”, although a better reason would be because there aren’t many decent roads. Camel trek, yes, but car, no.

However, you can get quite far down Tunisia by road.

Pretty Douz is the gateway to the Sahara. From there you can see troglodyte villagers at Matmata, hot springs that steam up in the mountains and cross the salt lake Chott el Jerid to get to Tozeur, an oasis town near the Algerian border where the weekly market doesn’t seem to have altered in centuries, trading hand-made tools, livestock, camel saddles, Tuareg blue hand-dyed fabrics, olives and spices, guinea pigs for roasting.

Camels for hire are a joy not to be missed. I joined a caravan going south across the dunes and, as I jolted comfortably over silent, golden, undulating sand, I contemplated not coming home to north London. Would some wandering Berber buy me, I wondered, and how many camels would I be worth? Hmmm.