There I was, catapulted into the sunny world of Tunisia, so near and yet so far from cold old England, watching a group of girls trip happily along, arm in arm, up the impossibly beautiful main street of Sidi Bou Said – and singing at the tops of their voices.
Somehow my abiding impression of post-Revolution Tunisia is one of liberation and, yes, happiness. The place seems to bubble over with optimism in a way it certainly did not during the years before the uprising of December 2010, which toppled President Ben Ali in January 2011 and triggered the Arab Spring.
I say so near and yet so far because the Tunisian capital, Tunis, is only a two-hour flight away from Heathrow. The place in which you find yourself at the end of that two hours could be on another planet, as it is so different: muezzin summon the faithful to prayer at dawn and dusk from minarets; purveyors of fine perfumes mix up exotic ingredients to produce their wares in the narrow streets of timeless bazaars; and the kind of food and service that you receive in the better restaurants would compare with a five star hotel in London but at a fraction of the price.
I stayed in what is now called a boutique hotel, the Dar Said, in the adorable village of Sidi Bou Said, with its tumble of bright white houses, complete with blue shutters, looking across the bay of Tunis – a view that I count as one of the best I have ever seen. It is right up there with the Bay of Naples, as seen from Sorrento, the view “over the sea to Skye”, as seen from the western Highlands of Scotland, or the skyline of Venice.
The word Dar means “house of” in Arabic, so Dar Said means House of Said, denoting that it was once a private home. Like many Tunisian houses it has an internal courtyard with rooms leading off it – a little like the design of a Roman villa. There is a swimming pool for the use of guests, and a shady garden. The only strange thing about the hotel when I visited last month was that, apart from the group of three journalists, there were few guests.
Tourism is a major industry but official figures show that in February 2011 the number of visitors from the UK dropped to 1,411, down from 15,848 the previous year.
Numbers are climbing again but so far tourists are mainly heading south, to such resorts as the island of Jerba, in search of spring sunshine. Around Tunis, and in Hammamet, which I also visited, they were certainly conspicuous by their absence. Hoteliers reported it was a case of keeping fingers crossed for the coming season.
In Hammamet, with its lovely old houses and its old-world Ottoman Medina where you can buy leather goods, jewellery, and ceramics made in the nearby town of Nabeuil, I visited the Dar Hyatt Hotel, a converted villa on the seafront. Here I found workmen rather than tourists on the beach, busy repairing the fire-blackened villa next door that, as the property of a member of the former president’s family, had been attacked during the revolution.
In south Hammamet, which has been developed as a vibrant new tourist destination, with glitzy nightclubs and blocks of eerily empty tourist apartments, we ate well. I had Bouillabaisse (a sort of fish stew) washed down with a fine Tunisian wine, called Chateau Mornag, from the Cap Bon – a fertile peninsular in the extreme north east of the country. Total bill: about £15.
On the way to the restaurant we stopped off at the Villa Sebastian. The house, built in a sort of Arab-flavoured Art Deco style, is where Winston Churchill stayed during the war, after the British Eighth Army had chased the Germans out of north Africa and across the Mediterranean to Sicily. It was built in the 1920s by an eccentric Romanian millionaire called George Sebastian, who started a craze among rich Europeans to build exotic homes in Tunisia and people them with artists and writers. It is a gem of a house, with an overgrown park stretching down to the sea, and still contains its simple white furniture and a marble bath built for four.
I imagined Sir Winston sitting in it and smoking a cigar. There is, after all, the story of him receiving the president of USA in his bath with the remark: “The prime minister has nothing to hide from the president.”
Artists including André Gide and Paul Klee were among guests in the past at the Villa Sebastian. Back in Sidi Bou Said, less than an hour’s drive from Hammamet, I found myself peering at old black and white pictures of them hanging in a dark corner of the extraordinarily evocative Café des Naitres, a place where most customers sit around on the floor smoking hookahs. Sidi Bou Said was also a haunt of artists and writers during much of the last century. I took a stroll out of the town and up to the Sidi Bou Said Hotel, with its even more commanding views of the bay, where I had often stayed, and where the manager told me she was praying for tourists. The walk took me past a garish palace that was once the property of President Ben Ali. I remembered how I was once unceremoniously ordered off the grass verge outside by a rude guard. This time the young soldier on duty had time for a chat. “Who lives there now?” I asked. “No, one.” he replied.
So why did he guard it? He smiled and shrugged in a friendly way. “I don’t know.”
During the day, Sidi Bou Said, most of which is inaccessible to cars, is full of day visitors from Tunis, but in the evening it turns into a quietly rich sort of place where well-dressed residents saunter off to eat excellent meals at restaurants.
I had the best octopus, cooked in its own ink, that I have ever tasted at the Dar Zarouk – the restaurant associated with the Dar Said Hotel. This was followed by a sole, and then a lemon sorbet. The total bill was about 50 Dinar, about £23.
It’s interesting that the currency (tightly controlled and only exchangeable within Tunisia) should be called the Dinar, a word derived from the Latin for denaro, meaning money.
Reminders of the Roman conquest of the Carthiginians during the Punic wars and their subsequent occupation of what is now Tunisia are everywhere. We visited the Bardo museum, once a palace of the Bey, but now housing an astonishing display of Roman mosaics.
Would I go again to Tunisia in this volatile period, during which it is redesigning itself as a democracy? Answer: yes. I wish the new Tunisia all the luck in the world.
Return flights to Tunis Tunisair operates five flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £180, including taxes.
For reservations, call 020 7734 7644 or go to tunisair.com The Dar Said, above, offers a four-night stay from 16 July from £149 per night, based on two people sharing a double room. For more information or to book go to www.darsaid.com.tn For all your travel needs and for information on what’s happening in Tunisia, go to cometotunisia.co.uk