TUNIS — Tourism is on the rise once more in this North African country. Since the 2015 terror attacks, international visitors have been in short supply, but from early 2017 they have started trickling back. Tour guides, shop and café owners tell me about the lack of tourists, one saying that before the attacks he would sell at least one carpet a day, a recurring complaint I hear from those dependent on tourism.
My base is the resort town of Hammamet, which lies at the foot of the Cap Bon peninsula where a smattering of families paddle in the warm blue sea and picnic under parasols.
Originally a fishing village, nowadays the narrow, winding streets are packed with stalls selling all sorts of locally made goods; Berber jewellery, fruits that smell of the sun, green henna, brass pots and bambaloni, deliciously sweet and calorific deep-fried doughnuts eaten with sugar or honey.
As far as food goes, Tunisia’s is heavily influenced by Arabic and Turkish cuisine, bursting with flavours that sing of the vine, sun and earth.
In all but the cheapest restaurants, customers are welcomed with complimentary fresh bread, olives and harissa, which is a concentrate of garlic and red chilli pepper. Couscous, Tunisia’s national dish, a main course stew of chicken, fish or vegetables, is on menus everywhere.
Above: Tunisia and Tunis have flung open their doors to tourists again after a 2015 terrorist attack.
If you get the chance you just have to savour a bumper bowl of seriously fabulous chorba, a spicy barley soup with chick peas and vegetables in rich tomato stock.
A serious drop in tourism doesn’t affect the hospitality on offer, neither does it affect the traditional good humour of Tunisia’s inhabitants.
During my time in the country, I travelled to 13th-century Sidi Bou Said, a beauty queen village and the country’s chicest spot where the giddy scent of jasmine hangs in the air.
Only half an hour from Tunis, this one-time haunt and inspiration of painters and writers, could be a world apart. Perched on a cliff top, cobbled streets shiny from the passage of time, its bundles of dazzling whitewashed houses with bold blue shutters and pretty iron grilles are complemented by orange groves, giant eucalyptus trees and swathes of purple bougainvillea.
I stopped at one of the terraced cafés to drink in the bohemian vibe as well as a glass of mint tea with pine nuts, savouring giddy views of the shimmering Gulf of Tunis. You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed here since the days of Abu Said Kalafa, the 13th-century sidi (or saint) who gave his name to the village.
And, of course, what would a visit to Tunisia be without stopping off to explore its sensual, sub-tropical capital, Tunis?
Although radiating French flavour in its Parisian-style boulevards where flower stalls and newspaper kiosks rub shoulders with street-side cafés, patisseries and an assorted mix of colonial and modern buildings, a legacy of years of French rule, you will never doubt for a minute that you are in North Africa.
This is a city where yesterday and today blend seamlessly and the spice-scented souks, calls of the muezzin and dry desert heat are sure to stir your soul.
My guide took me to see the well-preserved medieval medina — Old Town — a froth of white domes, minarets and the smell of a world’s worth of pungent fragrances and freshly-baked bread. We walked through the Fez souk and the perfume souk, which in days gone by was famous throughout the Arab world.
Above: The ancient markets of Tunis are well stocked with unique souvenirs for the tourists.
In the teeming maze of passageways bursting with hammams (public bathhouses), mosques and tiny workshops, sun-leathered gnarled old men wearing red felt hats busily operate sewing machines. If you visit and are somewhat confused by the labyrinthine of alleys, my guide told me that the best way to explore is simply to launch yourself on the current of people and literally “go with the flow.”
The enclosed and serenely glorious Aghlabid-built Al-Zaytuna Mosque, also called the Great Mosque, is the city’s largest and the only one open to non-Muslims, who may enter the courtyard though not the prayer hall. Built in 732AD, it flourished from the 13th-century onwards as an important Islamic university. Now it is an oasis of peace in this city of heat and bustle.