Sun and surprises in Tunisia

Mariam Ghaemi has her pre-conceptions challenged by a visit to Tunisia

Sitting on the cool stone steps of an ancient amphitheatre in the warming rays of the sun, I keep having to remind myself of my whereabouts.

Such gems from history are more usually associated with ancient Greece or Rome but I am not even in Europe. I am actually on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, in Tunisia.

Those who are unfamiliar with the North African country may be surprised to discover it has much more to offer than just palm-tree lined sandy beaches.

It has almost 23,000 cultural sites – including seven on the UNESCO World Heritage list as well as championship-quality golf courses and outstanding spa facilities.

The country’s landscape also throws up plenty of surprises with lush olive groves in the fertile north, which is in stark contrast with the landscape of the Sahara Desert in the south.

Tourists have been flocking back to Tunisia after the political protests at the end of 2010 and into 2011 which led to a new, democratically-elected government.

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Amine Souissi, director of marketing and communications at the Tunisian Tourism Office, told me nearly 8 million tourists visited Tunisia in 2010, but last year this dropped to 4.6m.

I did not come across any trouble during my trip, but the Foreign Office advises visitors to be aware of the current political and security situation which means protests could erupt.

Mr Souissi was my guide when I first visited Tunisia at the end of April this year to attend a conference on the future of Mediterranean tourism, hosted by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

We heard how Tunisia’s tourism industry seems to have recovered following the riots, but it still faces the challenges of attracting visitors while so many are tightening their belts and amid strong competition from other destinations around the world.

At the conference Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the UNWTO, said there needed to be less reliance on sun and beach and more of a focus on the country’s cultural assets.

During my tight five-day schedule in Tunisia I only visited the beach a couple of times – at Gammarth near the capital Tunis and on the island of Djerba – because there were so many other sights waiting to be explored.

In the Tunis area we managed to fit in Catharge – a city founded by the Phoenicians in 814BC, then destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans – and the picturesque blue and white-washed village of Sidi Bou Said, which is a haven for artists and art lovers.

You can stroll up the main street, casually browsing the crafts and leather goods stalls until you reach the caf� at the top of the hill – which is well worth the view.

It was when we reached Djerba – which is known as the ‘island of dreams’ and is off the southern coast of Tunisia – that, for me, it started to feel like Africa. After settling into my suite at the luxurious Park Inn Ulysse Resort and Thalasso, I wandered down to the glorious sandy beach next to the hotel – and spotted camels. It was the first time I had seen camels outside of a zoo and could not resist a ride.

Another popular attraction is Parc Djerba Explore, which is an interesting mix of a museum, traditional way of life demonstrations, crocodile farm – said to be the largest in the Mediterranean – and shops. Museum director Nejib Chammakhi, who oozed friendliness and charm, said: “It is peaceful. It is romantic this island. Enjoy your stay.”

Peaceful was exactly how I felt after a day unwinding at the spa at Park Inn. Within a maze of treatment rooms, which seemed to go on forever, I reached a seawater pool where you could swim to outside. When I fancied a change I moved on to a Turkish bath and sauna – all of the highest quality – and I rounded off the self-indulgence with a pre-booked massage.

Tunisia boasts nearly 840 hotels, said Mr Souissi, who showed me a number exuding extravagance, including the Hasdrubal Thalassa & Spa in the Yasmine Hammamet resort which makes claim to having the largest presidential suite in the world at 1,542 square metres.

Hammamet itself – which is on the coast south-east of Tunis – has two sides to it: the Spanish fort and charming old medina – which I loved – and the new medina at Yasmine Hammamet – which reminded me of a theme park.

Wandering around the original medina, browsing stalls and watching the craftsmen at work was one of my favourite parts of the trip.

Tunisia may have been somewhere that was not on my wish-list of places to visit, but having been, it has opened my eyes to the sort of holiday that can be enjoyed there.

Yes, there are beaches, spa facilities and golf courses, but if you are prepared to explore you will stumble upon a wealth of cultural sites that will give an insight into the country, more than any resort ever could.

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