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Tunisia - an easy taste of Africa

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August 2009. Tunisia has long been seen as a comfortable first taste of Africa, a sunny, all year round escape, with lively beach resorts on a 650 mile coastline. Now this year this friendly destination, outside the Eurozone is even more attractive. And affordable. Stay on the beach if you want to. But with good roads, and an excellent railway system, it’s an easy country to explore, from the ancient remains of Carthage, to the vast emptiness of the Sahara desert. This is my list of things you must try.

Trip of a lifetime

A trip to the Sahara desert, one of National Geographic’s “50 Places of a Lifetime”, can be done if you are prepared to stay over for a few nights. Best way is by train from Tunis – about eight hours – to the oasis town of Tozeur, renowned for its dates and ornate studded doors. Book a tour with somebody like Hafsi Travel. It’s about 140 miles to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane in the Grand Erg Oriental, an endless ocean of Saharan sand. They take you by 4x4, or on camelback, and you can can stay overnight in a tent to experience that tremendous early morning view over sand like fine velvet, the colour of scorched gold.You may want to retun via Matmata to see the Ksours (fortified villages) and the location for the planet Tatooine in Star Wars.

Two tone Tunis

Tunis, an easy train trip from the coastal resorts, is a lively old city combining French and Arabic personalities. The old heart of the city beats in the C7th covered market, the Medina, with its happy clamour of shops down many meandering ways and the eighth-century Zitouna “Grand” Mosque. Just outside the market, under a triumphal arch there’s a sudden culture shift to Belle Epoque France (this was a French colony for 100 years). Independent for 50 years Tunisia has kept the formal streetscape of a French town with names such as Place de l’Indépendance and Avenue de la Liberté. Find a café on the tree-lined avenue, sit back (although only some serve the excellent local wine), and you could be in a town deep in the heart of the Midi.

Go Green

Tunisia is closer than you think. And now there is a green travel option. London to Marseille by train is only half a day. Stay overnight and take the ferry to Tunis. You make the grand entry to the port, past the ruined Phoenician city of Carthage. Tunisian Railways’ “Carte Bleu” rail pass (www.sncm.fr) gives seven days unlimited travel on the excellent 1200 mile network from £10. First-class only costs £13. Trains are comfortable, and some are air-conditioned. Another train trip I recommend is to El Jem, one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters anywhere (three hours from Tunis). If you have time go to Metlaoui for the Red Lizard vintage train, another piece of preserved French heritage, twisting through scenic gorges in the Atlas mountains foothills.

Dido’s Lament

Founded by Queen Dido. Carthage once sheltered the mightiest fleet in the Med. It was Hannibal’s base for his elephant attack on Italy. Then came Roman payback. They burnt it to the ground in 146 BC, and build their own city in its place. Today it’s the middle of a smart suburb, a short train trip on the Tunis-Marsa line. It is worth visiting the museum, and walking around the imposing ruins of the Baths of Antonin, the second-largest in the Romanworld, and the Roman Theatre. Then see the Bardo Museum, on Tunis’s west side. Experts put the mosaics, mostly commissioned between the second and fourth centuries by the wealthy for their North African villas, on a par with those in the Louvre. Originally a 13th centurypalace, the building was restored and expanded over the centuries. www.tourismtunisia.com/

Brilliant in Blue

The village of Sidi Bou Said has cornered many of Tunisia’s superlatives.Set on a hillside above the Gulf of Tunis, under 30 minutes from the airport, it has some of the most seductive colour coordination on the entire Mediterranean coast. The standard decoration of white walls and ornate blue doors is said to have been the idea of Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger. The man was an utter romantic, wooing a girl he spotted on a London station with flowers, and marrying her. His former house in the village is now Centre for Arab Music.In the summer the village is very busy with day tourists. Try to arrive early, (Tunis-Marsa line) or stay late and take a drink at one of the many cafes, such is the Café des Nattes and Café Sidi Chabaane, bask in the soothing zephyrs of the black North African night, and glory in the view. There are some excellent fish restaurants.

Star stays

There are many inexpensive package holiday deals in Tunisia. But with prices low compared to the Eurozone, it’s well worth examining the new crop of classy small hotels, often well away from the crowds.One of the best stays in Tunis is the Dar el Médina, a new boutique hotel in a 19th-century Arab mansion (www.darelmedina.com) in the old centre. In Sidi Bou Said, the Dar Saïd (www.darsaid.com.tn) is a 19th century mansion, recently restored, with views over the Gulf of Tunis. Courtyards are heavy with the scent of jasmine and cypress trees.Heading the rich list of good restaurants is the Dar El Jeld, an old mansion in the Tunis Medina www.dareljeld.tourism.tn), and El Firma, in a former 1920s farmhouse at La Soukra; 00216 71863089.

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