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Travel: Tunisia

When I last visited Tunisia I was in no hurry to return.

Writers, poets and artists have been drawn by the unhurried vibe of life in Sidi Bou Said. Photograph: Shutterstock
Writers, poets and artists have been drawn by the unhurried vibe of life in Sidi Bou Said. Photograph: Shutterstock

At that time, November 2010, there was a palpable sense of edginess. The unease was most apparent in the capital, Tunis. Armed soldiers moved me on for trying to take the most innocuous of photographs. I would be the sole diner in restaurants seemingly on the verge of bankruptcy and my hotel had a depressing, almost oppressive air. I encountered some of the most aggressive beggars I've ever met, presumably driven by desperation at their poverty.

The revolution ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime two months later was no great surprise to me. The people of Tunisia had had enough of corruption, high unemployment, poor living conditions, inflation and a lack of political freedoms.

Since the revolution, however, the feisty north African country has been transformed, although there is a long way to go. Now in the early stages of democracy, a huge wave of political parties – currently more than 100 – are jostling to make their mark and small-scale protests are widespread.

Even so, on my return this spring I found a country more akin to the image long portrayed by the tourist board: a land of sun, sea, sand and some culture. Throughout my stay I sensed no tension, and no beggars or soldiers approached me. On my first day, in Tunis, the transformation could not have been clearer: I walked past groups of protesters outside the prime minister's offices. They were highlighting the country's high unemployment. An hour later I drove past a large demonstration by Islamic protesters. Under Ben Ali's regime such dissent wouldn't have been tolerated.

A healthy tourism industry will be one of the keys to whether Tunisia can make a success of its new start. The country is keen to move away from a reliance on budget holidays and a growing number of boutique hotels, luxury spas and the like are emerging. Many of the boutique hotels are converted dars (grand traditional houses), just as many riads were converted to luxury for holidaymakers in Morocco a few years ago.

I stayed at Hotel Dar Said, a large villa atop a hill in Sidi Bou Said on the outskirts of Tunis. The village is one of Tunisia's prettiest spots, with its higgledy-piggledy distinctive white and bright blue buildings clinging on to the hills. The hotel is an elegant yet slightly shabby mid-19th century building with charming rooms peppered with gorgeous tilework. My high-ceilinged room had an old marble bathroom and a huge sofa worthy of a state reception. I could have happily spent hours on the whitewashed terrace, with its row of little blue tables overlooking the Gulf of Tunis and mountains beyond.

There are two sides to Sidi Bou Said. During the day it is something of a tourist trap. However, in the morning and evening the souvenir shops are closed and it takes on the air of a sleepy village, with locals chatting at the cafes and strolling the cobbled winding streets. In the evening, step into the renowned Cafe Des Nattes and you will feel welcome even if you are the only non-Tunisian present.

It is the perfect place to have a sweet mint tea or a puff of the hookah pipe as you marvel at its illustrious history, which attracted artists, writers and intellectuals as distinguished as Paul Klee, Andre Gide, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus during the 1920s.

A few steps away and you are slap-bang in the 21st century at the smart if garish bar at Dar Zarrouk restaurant, with its pulsating beats and dizzying cocktails. This is where the richer, beautiful young things hang out – at least those ones who have embraced western ideals more than those of Islam.

Dar Zarrouk Restaurant next door is much more sedate and one of Sidi Bou Said's best eateries. It has a gorgeous tree-laden courtyard ideal for sipping drinks on a hot night. A few doors along is another splendid, though rather formal restaurant, Au Bon Vieux Temps. Recent distinguished patrons here have included that well-known French double act, Sarkozy and Bruni.

Sidi Bou Said is a faultless base for a long weekend discovering Tunis and its environs. These include the remains of the ancient city of Carthage, which include a Roman amphitheatre. It's astounding to see the neglect some of these priceless ruins receive. Near the cafe, for instance, is a patch of Roman mosaic tiles, completely unprotected and wearing away under the soles of ambivalent pedestrians.

The same amazing casual attitude to antiquities at Carthage can be seen at the Bardo museum in the centre of Tunis; equally unmissable is the city's medina. You can easily get lost in its seemingly endless maze of alleyways, not only through the riot of colours, smells and sounds, but literally too. It's good to veer away from the touristy centre and search out the more ramshackle areas selling goods for the locals.

A splendid restaurant called Dar Belhadj sits in the centre of the medina. Easy to miss and opening up like a Tardis behind unprepossessing green wooden doors, it was once a grand old house. Its glorious courtyard is the main salon, bedecked with intricate tiling and trellis work. Here you can tuck into dishes such as mezzes with harissa, tagines or couscous with lamb washed down with a bottle of tasty Tunisian red.

The medina also houses another boutique hotel, the Hotel Dar El Medina on Rue Sidi ben Arous, again hidden behind a big wooden door offering no clues as to its delights. Above two floors of smart if spartan rooms is a roof terrace where you can take mint tea and cakes in an alcove overlooking the medina, and people watch to your heart's delight.

Getting there

Tunisair (www.tunisair.com) operates five flights per week from Heathrow to Tunis. Prices for return flights start at £360. British Airways has return flights from Glasgow to Heathrow from £112 (ba.com).

Where to stay

Hotel Dar Said (www.darsaid.com.tn) has rooms from £140 per night, Villa Didon (www.villadidon carthage.com) has rooms from £160 and Hotel Dar El Medina (www.darelmedina.com) has rooms from £120.

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