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Explore the richness of Tunisia

PUBLISHED: 17:25 13 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:40 25 August 2010

SKYLINE: Carthage is famous for its ruins and its heritage.

SKYLINE: Carthage is famous for its ruins and its heritage.

WITH the euro strengthening against the pound, North African city Tunis is the summer destination where your money is still guaranteed to go a long way.

WITH the euro strengthening against the pound, North African city Tunis is the summer destination where your money is still guaranteed to go a long way.

Steeped in history and bustling with a chaotic vibrancy, Tunisia's capital has much to offer the British holidaymaker from ancient ruins to beaches, markets and palaces.

The city nestles in the Gulf of Tunis in the north-east of the country and is still fairly unscathed by widespread Western tourism.

Richly mixed architecture documents the different civilisations Tunis has been home to over the millennia with Andalucian, Roman and Arabian influences everywhere.

The upmarket Avenue Bourguiba, a street lined with pavement cafes and tobacconists, is a good base for exploring what is on offer and is just a short walk from the city's Medina with its traditional souk markets and smoking shops.

Taxis from Tunis airport should take no longer than 15 minutes and cost no more than 10,000 to 15,000 dinar (£5 to £7.50). Cabs are run on a meter so just make sure the driver switches it on.

Taxis in Tunis are cheap, especially compared to London cabs. A 25-minute journey should cost no more than 10,000 dinar (roughly £5), but that doubles after 9pm.

Tunis is perhaps best known for its chaotic and colourful souks within the Medina which offer a plethora of handicrafts, from clothes and jewellery to food and spices and electronic goods.

It can be an intense experience as the stall owners grapple you to buy something but it is a good opportunity to practice the art of haggling - be firm and it is possible to get goods down to half the original price.

Along with the markets, there are dozens of architecturally and historically important buildings. If you don't have much time to meander through the back streets, two must-sees are the Toubet el Bey, the mausoleum of the Husseinid princes and the Ez-Zoutouna mosque, the largest most sacred building in the city. It is open to visitors until noon every day except Friday, the Muslim holy day.

Tunisian food is spicy and rich - meat in a sauce with rice or cous cous is typical and fish is very popular.

The Dar Belhaj restaurant in the Medina is a 300-year-old former residence where the top businessmen and officials in Tunis eat.

Its dark, extravagant interior induces a moody and heavy atmosphere and you can imagine many political agendas being set here.

When we were there, as if it were staged, mid way through a delicious feast, paparazzi and an army of suited officials and ministers burst in, whipping the waiters into a frenzy.

Dinner costs between 40,000 and 50,000 dinar (£20 to £25 per head).

It is just a short trip from the Medina to the Bardo Museum, a former Turkish palace.

Parts of the building are being renovated but it still has excellent collections from the Roman, Carthaginian and Arabian periods and is a good place to get to grips with Tunis' history.

It is located in the Rue Mongi Slim and open every day from 9.30am to 4.30pm except Mondays.

Moving out to the suburbs of the city, a good place to get hold of some quality traditional Tunisian craft, is the Maison de l'Artisant on the Avenue de l'indépendence.

Funded by the government to promote traditional Tunisian wares, you can see the workshops in action of carpet weavers, glass painters, artists and textile designers.

These are genuine artisans and it is not appropriate to haggle with prices like it is in the souks.

Tunisia is an Islamic country and it is therefore respectful to wear modest dress. In mosques in particular, men should be in long trousers and a shirt and women should cover knees and shoulders.

Being Muslim governed, alcohol is not widely available in the city centre - instead there are hundreds of coffee shops.

But that doesn't stop the locals staying out late and many along the Avenue Bourguiba are still buzzing at 5am. There are a few neighbourhoods where it is possible to drink freely apart from hotels.

The touristy seaside town of La Marsa has a small selection of lively clubs, bars and restaurants which are full of local young people.

Meanwhile the Lac Palace area, about a 20-minute taxi ride from Tunis is bustling from 10pm onwards.

Culture vultures will certainly want to make the 20 minute drive to the north-east of Tunis, where lies the ancient city of Carthage.

Founded by the Phoenician princess Elyssa, also known by her Greek name Dido, the city was a formidable enemy of the Greeks and Romans, who eventually destroyed it in 146BC.

It is possible to walk over and through the ruins of the Antonine Baths and climb the steps of the impressive 10,000 seat amphitheatre where concerts are still held today.

The Carthage Museum at the top of the hill houses interesting artefacts including a giant head of the Princess Antonine and a skeleton of a young Roman man found in 1994 on the Byrsa Hill.

After exploring Carthage a visit to Sidi Bou Saïd, a charming blue and white-washed 13th-century village perched high above the Bay of Tunis is definitely recommended.

A lush and pretty haven just 12 miles from the city centre, it is the perfect place to sit and admire the spectacular sea views from one of the hilltop cafes.

Sidi Bou Saïd's beauty was not lost on famous musicologist Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger who sited his resplendent palace there and which is now the Centre of Arabian and Mediterranean Music. Kept in the same state as when Baron d'Erlanger lived there, its Andalucian-Arabian craftsmanship is jaw-droppingly beautiful with intricate wood carved ceilings and the finest marble floors and walls.

You can walk down to the beach from Sidi Bou Saïd, but it is quicker and easier to get a taxi.

The beach gets very busy with locals during the summer months.

Be aware that Tunisian men freely express their fondness for women and will beep, whistle and holler to get your attention whether you are accompanied or not.

It can be embarrassing and while not generally malicious or threatening it may make a lone woman feel uncomfortable.

Dressing modestly will drastically reduce the amount of attention you draw to yourself, although it is fine to wear swimming costumes on the beach.

Tunis isn't an easy city to get to grips with. It isn't as accessible as other traditional European destinations - you will have to get taxis around and it isn't advisable to go alone to certain places late at night.

But its variety, rich past and density of culture renders it a good choice for history lovers and those not averse to a bit of curious attention from the locals.

Anyone willing to put in the effort, explore and keep an open mind will most definitely reap what they sow.

TOURIST INFORMATION

How to get there: Tunisair fly from Heathrow. details see www.tunisair.com

Most romantic place to stay: Dar el Medine 5-star boutique hotel in the Medina was built in 1825 and the former home of a militant. Its stunning Arabian interior has remained unchanged and its calming ornate rooms are a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the streets outside. www.darelmedina.com

Most luxurious place to stay: The 5-star 22-storey landmark Hotel Africa in the Avenue Bourguiba is the tallest building on the street. The staff are impeccably polite and the rooms afford excellent view over Tunis. The buffet style breakfasts and dinners provide good quality food. www.elmouradi.com

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