Among the countries convulsed by the Arab uprisings, Tunisia has made the most successful transition towards democracy. The seahorse-shaped country is the smallest nation in north Africa - its size and population of 11m people is roughly parallel to that of Greece and the US state of Georgia - and it is also the one upon which rests the greatest hope. Last year the country held its first free and fair presidential elections since it became independent from France in 1956. At the start of this year, Tunisia appeared ready to show itself anew to the world.
But two weeks before we flew to Tunis, gunmen shot and killed 23 people (22 tourists and one Tunisian) at the Bardo museum, the capital's foremost cultural attraction. On Twitter, hundreds of thousands pledged #JeSuisBardo. They promised to visit. I do not take hashtag solidarity too seriously but I shared the sentiment. A fortnight later, my girlfriend and I were on a full aircraft heading to Tunisia's biggest city for a four-night break.
Tourism accounts for 7 per cent of Tunisia's national income, the bulk of that figure generated by its coastal resort hotels. We began with a night at one of the best, the Residence, 30 minutes' drive from both the airport and the centre of Tunis. Our room smelled of orange blossom and looked out on to a pool and the beach where the sea curled into the sand. Like many such luxury places it exhibited universalism (service that would have shamed a courtier, extravagant latherings of beige) with parochial touches (hammam, palm trees).
The attraction of a resort such as the Residence is obvious. For one thing, it is secluded, making it a favourite with not only well-heeled holidaymakers and business travellers but also, as the general manager explained, senior members of the Tunisian government. For another, it offers the type of pore-altering treatment that I last experienced on a night out in Glasgow, only in this case with the toxins leaving the body. Helped on our way by a kind woman with a scrubbing mitt, we left the giant human tagine of the Residence's hammam feeling as if we had been physiologically exhumed.
Notwithstanding the pleasures of doing next to nothing, I was impatient to see the city of Tunis. I was curious to find out whether it could become a destination in its own right, for people who want to do more than lie around in an agreeable state of exfoliated stupor.
The Palais Bayram, which opened in February, is aiming to be the premier place to stay in the medina, the old town that grew up around the Zitouna mosque from the 8th century. The French brought wide boulevards and a grid system when they "modernised" Tunis but the medina's narrow paths chart its older legacy as home to Arab dynasties such as the Almohads and the Hafsids. Although there are hotels in the medina, most tourists visit on day trips.
Built in the 18th century, and once the residence of the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of Tunisia, Palais Bayram has been painstakingly restored over the past eight years and sits in the oldest part of the medina. Only traditional methods and materials were used in the renovation; each of the 18 suites is a tiny museum of marble, antique woodwork, stucco lattices and painted ceilings. One suite has original blue and white Iznik tiles, named after the town in Anatolia that produced the pottery born of arabesque patterns and Chinese blues and whites that enchanted Suleyman the Magnificent, the longest reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1520-1566). The hotel says the tiles are worth three times as much as the building itself.
I doubt there is any more magical place to stay in Tunis. As night descends the call to prayer is the only sound heard in the central courtyard, which, centuries ago, advisers to the kingdom crossed on their way to the neighbouring mosque. Moonlight shines against the tiles. Inside our tiny museum, all is calm. The Mufti would surely be proud.
Although we were wisely kept away from the Iznik tiles we otherwise had the hotel to ourselves. It has yet to open all of its facilities - later this year visitors will be able to enjoy a tea room, a spa and hammam, as well as a rooftop bar with views out over the low houses of the medina. Its tables and chairs not yet being in place, on this visit we made do with a good bottle of Tunisian red (Night and Day) while slumped on the dusty floor.
The restaurant was operating on an ad hoc basis during our stay but what we ate was delicious. The croissants were nearly Paris-quality, the brik pasties with egg and shrimp were perfectly crispy. Couscous and harissa enlivened the slow-cooked lamb and fresh fish.
One of the problems Palais Bayram may have, though, is that it is one of the most appealing things for travellers to see in Tunis. Already tourists are visiting the former palace. And while that speaks to the quality of the workmanship and renovation, it also suggests that the city might be lacking in other things for travellers to do. Is there enough to woo visitors away from the coastal resorts towards the hustle and bustle?
In contrast to some old towns, which increasingly feel contrived for the tourist seeking to buy a piece of exoticism, Tunis's medina feels authentic. A Unesco heritage site, every colourful door has a story (the more elaborate the pattern the better off the family). As well as the usual tat, the souks sell bucketfuls of dried nuts and fruit, a bitter salty cheese and teeth-smashing sweet biscuits. Hassle from vendors is much rarer here than in Marrakech.
Tunisians, young Tunisians especially, were more than happy to field my amateur questions. All expressed regret and shame over the Bardo incident. Some feared it would be used as a pretext for a crackdown by what they see as a largely unreformed security service - a concern shared by human rights groups. And, more broadly, they expressed a sense of fragility about what has happened since the revolution in 2011. There is freedom to express one's views but one in three young Tunisians does not have a job. One woman in her twenties, an IT consultant, said, "There is now much more expression - but there isn't really debate." Another Tunis dweller pointed to the length of copy in newspapers: "You see, these articles are now so long because we can say whatever we want. But there is no quality control."
To sample more of everyday Tunis life, we travelled 30 minutes to visit three suburban towns on the northern coast where many middle class Tunisians live. In La Marsa, at sunset, the beach was full of families and young couples enjoying the last of the day. We noticed a queue outside Salem's ice cream parlour and joined it. The scoops - hazelnut, pistachio - were as good as any in Italy and a quarter of the price.
Neighbouring Carthage is more purposefully geared for tourism. Although little remains of the city that finally succumbed to the Romans in the Third Punic war, the Carthage National Museum atop Byrsa Hill rewards anyone with enough imagination to recreate the 2nd century BC. Down by the sea, we stopped at Neptune, a faded but excellent restaurant, for clams, tuna and harissa salads and a bottle of Tunisian rose on the terrace. Afterwards we walked amid the white and blues of Sidi Bou Said, the pretty seaside town that inspired some of the greatest work of the artists Paul Klee, August Macke and Louis Moilliet.
At the end of a trip in which we felt nothing but safe and welcome, we wanted to see the Bardo and its bewildering mosaics. We expected to find one of the world's great museums empty but there were scores of schoolchildren. After asking around, I learnt that it has become a mark of patriotism and resilience to visit the Bardo. An archaeologist told me that attendance numbers were higher than before the attacks. "They are coming out of curiosity and solidarity," she said. Curiosity and solidarity. Are there better reasons to visit a place?
John McDermott was a guest of the Palais Bayram (knowledgehotels.com; double rooms from €173) and The Residence (www.theresidence.com/tunis; double rooms from €323). For details on visiting the Bardo, see bardomuseum.tn
Photographs: Eyevine; Robert Harding; Alamy; Corbis
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