Long history that’s as colourful as the souk

A courtyard in Sidi Bou Said.
A courtyard in Sidi Bou Said.
The Solent Flyer hovercraft. Picture Mike Harvey

Study to be held over city hover link up

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From Roman ruins to the medina, there are centuries’ worth of attractions in northern Tunisia. RACHEL JONES samples the past and present of the Carthage coast.

It’s as if turquoise seas and azure skies aren’t enough for the citizens of Sidi Bou Said.

Every householder in this Tunisian resort has painted window frames, roofs and doors a

brilliant blue too.

The effect is a crisp, clean scene of brightness, beauty and cool tranquillity.

It’s also a colourful indicator that this is a town where people are proud to live – and keen to

follow the rules!

We’re told that residents aren’t allowed to paint their properties any other colour – and if

they do, the authorities redecorate and send them the bill.

This may or may not be a joke. Regardless, they’re probably on to something.

Sidi Bou Said is a sophisticated resort climbing the cliffs of Tunisia’s Carthage coast and

offering views of the glinting Mediterranean and Boukornine Mountain, not to mention

some of the country’s most sought after properties.

It’s a town of boutique hotels and lovely homes with peaceful courtyards. One notable

building represents the rest, having been turned into a curious mix of lifestyle museum, shop

and showhome.

No prizes for guessing the colour scheme here. But there are also a few surprises including

rooms revealing traditional Tunisian life and a courtyard you’re hard-pushed to leave. Here

you can sit in the calm inner space with fountains trickling and pretty mosaics and tiles

complementing the square of sky above.

It’s a given that Sidi Bou Said offers restaurants with great views. At Au Bon Vieux Temps

there’s the bonus of good food and we dine on brik – filo pastry wrapped around egg and

tuna - harissa, olives, salad and locally-caught fish.

I’m with a group visiting for the day from our base 11 miles away. We’re staying in a coastal

suburb of capital Tunis - a good location for exploring resorts and ruins, as well as the

colourful and enticing medina (or old quarter).

It’s an alternative Tunisia to popular beach resorts and the Sahara-covered south – location

for Star Wars and The English Patient (as any self-respecting tour guide will boast).

The attractions we visit are also worthy of a movie set. This was the centre of ancient

Carthage and the Phoenicians and Romans left their mark.

The Roman ruins at Carthage feature the fascinating Antonin baths, which stand – or rather

crumble - in front of a gorgeous sea view.

Oudhna archaeological park is what remains of the ancient city of Uthina and is a very

special site. It’s a case of Time Machine Tours as we imagine the life of a Roman lady,

enjoying the stylish baths and perfumed gardens (with the horrible bits of ancient civilisation

removed of course).

Glass and marble mosaic floors are impressive enough and then an enthusiastic guide runs

water over them. Deep blues and reds burst through the aqua flow and the mosaics are

suddenly as clear and bright as they would have appeared to Roman bathers.

Amazed and strangely refreshed – even if he didn’t go as far as filling the bath and letting us

step in – we wander the heavily scented gardens of fig trees, rose geranium, damask rose,

stocks and rosemary.

The Bardo Museum in Tunis could seem sterile in comparison but is no less wonderful.

Wall-to-wall mosaics depict Roman gods, astrological signs and maritime scenes. This is the

largest collection of mosaics in the world, beautifully preserved and not to be missed.

As if we haven’t been spoiled enough with views, the next day we’re eagerly peering across

the lakes and trees of Ichkeul national park for some of the 180 species that roam here.

Among these are an abundance of birds – including flamingoes. Yes flamingoes – you don’t

need to travel as far as the Rift Valley to spot the pink feathered favourites. They migrate

here in their thousands.

Park ranger Jamal clearly loves his job. The sight of a species almost has him jumping for joy

and when he spots the flamingoes gathering, we fear for his safety. We’re at the top of a cliff

after all.

All is well and he merely passes the binoculars. Jamal’s dedication to his work is wonderful

to see and his enthusiasm is infectious.

After the peace of the park, the flurry of the souk in Tunis is quite a jolt. Rugs, slippers, bags

and spices crowd the vision and provide an eventful shopping experience.

It reminds us we’re in North Africa but laid-back and liberal Tunisia also has a distinctively

Mediterranean flavour. Menus of olives, fresh fish, tomatoes, aromatic couscous and

flavoursome stews are a reminder of two major cultural influences.

It all adds up to a history and culture as colourful and varied as the textures and shades of

the souk and as distinctive as pretty Sidi Bou Said.

Travel facts

Tunisair operates five flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from

£237, including taxes. For reservations, call 020 7734 7644 or visit tunisair.com.

Accommodation

Rooms at the five star Regency Tunis Hotel in Carthage start from £111 per night, based on

two people sharing a double room on a bed and breakfast basis. For more information or to

book, visit regencytunis.com

For all your travel needs and for information on what’s happening in Tunisia, visit

cometotunisia.co.uk