‘Continue exploring or give in to darkness’
In a corner of Le Mediterranée, an Italian couple are sizing up the afternoon. Sophisticated, smart, somewhere in their late 50s, they have glided into the restaurant from one of the yachts moored outside in the marina of Port El Kantaoui – the purpose-built tourist zone that sits six miles (10km) up the coast from the centre of Sousse. They are quick to display their ease in this gilded setting. A bottle of something chilled is dispatched, another ordered. A pair of veal steaks emerges from the kitchen. A fog of cigarette smoke swells above their table, as it tends to when Europeans find themselves in the less regulated context of North Africa. And I sit, hearing their laughter, and marvelling at how loudly it crosses the room.
It is not that they are being boisterous. It is that nobody else is eating. The menu is a feast of French finesse, the waterfront position delightful – but there are more waiters than diners, and the lobsters in the tank look confident that they will see tomorrow.
This is no surprise. Three miles (5km) further north, Kantaoui Bay resort attempts to be inconspicuous. It has even changed its owner and its name. But it will struggle forever to escape the fact that, on June 26 2015, when it was known as the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, 38 people – 30 of them British – were shot and killed as they relaxed on its beach. The deadliest terror attack in Tunisia’s history achieved its aims – to introduce a climate of fear; to harm the economy of a country where tourism is a vital cog. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) swiftly brought in travel restrictions which effectively banned British citizens from visiting; tour operators pulled out. The embargo would stay in place for two years, and although it was finally lifted in August, there has been no rush to return. Thomas Cook announced in the same month that it would begin selling breaks to Tunisia again – but its fly-and-flop packages are available for no earlier than February.
Down in the heart of Sousse, tourists are barely more numerous. A smattering of bronzed Germans are under parasols at the five-star Movenpick Resort, but its colossal pool is all but free of splashing children. And the souvenir section of the city’s medina is becalmed. I halt when a shopholder on the narrow alley Souk El Caid tells me that the ubiquitous but lovely Arabesque ceramic plates on his shelves are This personalised d holdall in faux leather is ideal for or the airport and weekend breaks. . one Tunisian dinar (30p) – each. If he has a profit margin here, it must be meagre. He gives me a defeated smile where once he might have proffered hard-sell, and I go inside to buy six for a total bill of £1.80.
“These are hard times,” says my guide, Hammi Hassen, as we sip mint tea at a café five doors down. “Ten The Talitha dress, in cool l cotton, is modest odest with an artisan san twist – and a stylish addition to any warm-weather her city wardrobe. be. years ago, I was busy throughout the summer. Now, if I have a week’s work in a month, it’s a good month.” He spreads his arms, frustrated. “What can you do?”
A familiar question. The answer, I have long decided, is to continue exploring – or else give in to the darkness of our damaged decade. And with only scant inspection, Sousse reveals itself – not as just a corridor of beach retreats, but as an urban dervish. Much of its medina is still devoted to daily existence. Its main market, on Avenue Mohamed Ali, sells giant chunks of tuna and grouper while emitting a citrus aroma from tangerines and limes stacked in crates. These semi-precious lapis stone and pink tassel teardrop earrings are the way to make a statement. The surrounding streets thrum with everyday commerce at a noise level befitting what is Tunisia’s third-biggest city. Its size is especially apparent from the tower of its ribat, a ninth-century fort built following the Arab conquest of North Africa – apartment blocks craning their necks; railway lines ebbing south to pretty Monastir, north II Bussetto’s Buss half-zipped wallet is compact compa enough to put in your pocket – and souk-friendly, too. Ancient Ancien Greek sandals, in burgundy patent leather, combine comfort and style and an are perfect for a city break.
Tunisia is yet to embrace boutique tourism in the way of, say, Marrakech and its stylish riads. But you can still find chic outposts and design flourishes. Chief of these, perhaps, is Sadika House (sadika.com), the glass-blowing studio which has been run by the artist Sadika Keskes in Gammarth since 1993. Educated in Tunis but trained in her oeuvre in the Venetian glass workshops of Murano, Keskes is one of the main figures of Tunisian creativity. The studio is open to visitors, who can watch vessels being shaped fresh from the furnace – and buy items in the adjacent shop (such as delicate jugs from 35 Tunisian dinar/£10).
Long a magnet for poets and painters, Sidi Bou Said has accommodation to match its beauty. The Hotel Sidi Bou Fares (00216 71 740 091; hotel boufares.com) is a bijou hideaway of just 10 rooms, decorated with Arabic tiling, dotted around a courtyard. Doubles from 200 Tunisian dinar, with breakfast. The town is easily reached from Tunis-Carthage Airport. Expect to pay 15 Tunisian dinar for the 10-mile cab ride.
to Tunis; ships in port, the freighter Roseline, in from Izmir, spilling her guts on the quay.
But then, Sousse has had time to grow. It was founded in the distant 11th century BC, as Hadrumetum, by Phoenician settlers from (what is now) Lebanon. Its back-story is retold at its superb Archaeological Museum – most notably the Roman chapter (second century BC to fifth AD), which is dissected in detail. Wandering its rooms leaves me conflicted – sad that I am the only customer in an institution that was modernised as recently as 2012, but consoled by the remarkable mosaics within: Neptune a swarthy mess of a deity, lobster claws peeping through tangled hair; Venus on a seashell in a masterpiece that pre-empted Botticelli by 1,200 years; Cupid all mischief, playing a flute as he rides a dolphin.
Its vein of history has long made Tunisia more than a bucket-andspade destination. In between the Phoenicians and the Romans, the Carthaginians made Carthage (now Tunis) one of the ancient world’s most powerful seats of empire; after the Arab new wave of the eighth century AD, the Ottomans arrived in the 16th, bringing architectural grace and flair.
Each of these epochs lingers – although there is no doubt as to the highlight. El Djem lies 45 miles (72km) south of Sousse, a town which bloomed in the Roman period – not least between 228 and 238 AD, when skilled hands crafted an amphitheatre whose magnificence sings through the ages. It is visible even as you approach the outskirts, rearing above the plain, an arena of honeyed limestone that held up to 35,000 spectators. To cross its threshold is to tumble into the third century – into the din of gladiatorial sword-clash and the roar of lions in holding pens. Three tiers of seats rise, and you can still go up, upon stairs that have sustained a million footsteps, to the top level, and peer down in awe. Again, I do this with little company – there are maybe 20 other visitors on a warm morning. I cast my mind back to my last trip to Rome, to the queues at the Colosseum – to the postcard touts
El Djem’s amphitheatre, left; the town’s archaeological museum, below