x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

At the heart of history

A weekend guide to Tunis A gritty yet lively urban centre, the Tunisian capital combines modern European-style boulevards, streetside cafés, parks and ornate apartment blocks with souqs, hammams and ancient monuments.

Bab Bhar, meaning gate of the sea, is a huge freestanding arch that stands on the site of the medina's original eastern gateway. It is now more commonly known as the Porte de France.
Bab Bhar, meaning gate of the sea, is a huge freestanding arch that stands on the site of the medina's original eastern gateway. It is now more commonly known as the Porte de France.

Architecturally and socially, Tunis is a compelling mix of the modern and secular and ancient and religious. On the modern side, there are grand, European-style boulevards, parks, streetside cafés, ornate apartment blocks and evidence of the surprisingly relaxed attitudes promoted by Habib Bourguiba, the first president after the country gained independence from France. The most interesting district of this sprawling capital city is also one of the oldest. Tunis medina is a vast network of crumbling residential buildings and souqs, ancient palaces, fondouks, hammams, monuments and madrasas. While parts of it have been gentrified, swathes of it remain well off the tourist trail and the rhythms of life continue much as they have done for hundreds of years.

From the 12th to the 16th century, under the Almohads and the Hafsids, Tunis was considered one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in the Islamic world. The medina contains more than 700 remarkable monuments to this past: at its epicentre is the Great Mosque of Zeitouna, the fifth most significant mosque in the Muslim world. Different trading zones are still in existence around the mosque, originally determined by the amount of disruption each activity caused. Thus the jewellers, milliners and booksellers were allowed to trade close to the mosque, while the dirtier, noisier trades such as carpentry were located further away. So well preserved are these souqs that many of the shops are more interesting than the products on sale.

Tunis medina, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979, is the city's main attraction. The best way to explore it is to give up trying to follow a map and simply allow yourself to get lost. Halfaouine is an underrated and under-visited district adjacent to the medina on its north-western side (as well as an inner wall around the medina, the Hafsids, who ruled from 1207 to 1574, built an outer rampart to enclose what were then the city's main residential suburbs, or faubergs). Place Halfaouine and Bab Souika are unexpectedly elegant squares filled with cafés, and fruit and vegetable markets, and were once the centre of nationalist demonstrations against the French. The whole district retains a slightly anarchic feel, with decaying buildings, hidden schools, mosques and many narrow alleyways and squares, which cannot be found on maps. Rue Halfaouine is a stinking rollercoaster ride of a meat market, with freshly decapitated sheep, piles of goats' feet, dripping sheepskins, fish and all kind of entrails.

Public hammams are a fun way to soak up the atmosphere of the city. The most impressive is the Hammam Sahib et Tabaa, behind the mosque of the same name in Rue de Salut, Halfaouine. The interior, which dates from 1812, is a spectacular arrangement of pillars and arches and was used extensively in Ferid Boughedir's 1990 film Halfaouine, a coming-of-age tale about a boy growing up in the area in the 1960s.

The Bardo Museum contains one of the most impressive collections of mosaics in the world. The interiors of all of Tunisia's main Roman sites, including Carthage, Dougga, Bulla Regia and El Jem, are here, in a suitably airy, grand palace to the west of the city. The remains of the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage are a 15-minute TGM ride from the centre of town and worth a whole morning or afternoon and can be combined with a trip to the gorgeous village of Sidi Bou Said, a few stops further north. In Sidi Bou Said, Café Sidi Chebaane, although quite touristy, has glittering views of the sea and mountains of the Cap Bon peninsula: enjoy the soft sunshine and blazing blue skies over a mint tea and a shisha.

Budget The biggest bargain in town is the Tunis medina Youth Hostel, housed in a former palace with a grand, glass-domed courtyard. Clean double rooms cost 19 dinars (Dh53) per night, including breakfast. Auberge de la Juenesse Tunis Medina, 25 rue Saida Ajoula (www.hihostels.com; 00216 7156 7850). Mid-range While Sidi Bou Said is an attraction in itself, staying there enables you to enjoy the beauty of the town after the hordes of day-trippers have left. The exquisite Dar Said is a converted villa with large antique rooms, elegantly tiled internal patios with ornate glasswork and fountains, and a giant bougainvillaea tree in the peaceful garden with the Mediterranean behind. Double rooms cost from 245 dinars (Dh688) per night, including breakfast. Hotel Dar Said, Rue Tuomi, Sidi Bou Said (www.darsaid.com; 00216 7172 9666).

Luxury Villa Didon in Carthage, now an affluent seaside suburb between central Tunis and Sidi Bou Said, is a new, 10-room designer hotel set on a breezy hillside overlooking the Gulf of Tunis. It is just 10 minutes from the airport and right next to the ruins of Carthage. Rooms have great views across ancient Punic ports to the sea. Inside, suites are open-plan, the centrepiece a bathroom built on a grey marble slab. Rooms cost from 370 dinars (Dh1,040) per night excluding breakfast. Villa Didon, 2016 Carthage Byrsa (www.villadidon.com; 00216 7173 3433).

Breakfast For a quick kick-start to the day, drop into any of the small cafés in the medina selling keftaji, a spicy Tunisian speciality of vegetables, herbs, spices and fried egg, served with bread and fried potatoes - it won't cost you more than two dinars (Dh5). Lunch For a relaxing out-of-town lunch try Fairouz, an upmarket Lebanese café on the Corniche at La Marsa. It is on the TGM line north of Sidi Bou Said. From an outside terrace under spiky palm trees, you can people-watch as wealthy Tunisians flaunt their stuff and bask in the sunshine almost every day. The menu is extensive, from hummus and felafel wraps from 2.5 dinars (Dh7) to babaganoush, kebabs and fresh salads.

Fairouz, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Marsa Plage; 00216 71 983815. Dinner Dar El Jeld dates from the 18th century and is probably the most spectacular restaurant in the medina. A grand wooden doorway leads into a cavernous dining room in an internal courtyard, surrounded by private alcoves. Dishes are Tunisian staples from kapkabou (fish with tomatoes, capers and olives) to olive beef stew. Dar El Jeld, 5-10 Reu Dar el-jeld; 00216 71 560916.

Emirates (www.emirates.com) operates daily flights from Dubai to Tunis, with returns costing from Dh3,830.

The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux (Random House Publishing Group, US$17; Dh62) includes a section about the author's encounter with rug merchants in the medina. rbehan@thenational.ae