‘Con­tinue ex­plor­ing or give in to dark­ness’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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