The wait for admission to the Colosseum was approximately three and a half hours. The queue was so long that I initially mistook it for the line leading into the Palatine Hill, as I couldn’t even see the Colosseum when I joined the end of it. It was pouring rain and bitter cold in the middle of May, yet scores of soggy tourists were huddled alongside me in technicolour rain ponchos waiting for the chance to pay €12 (around £10) to be herded into the great arena like wild animals before a gladiatorial hunt.
That was when it struck me: in about as much time as it would take to wait in that queue, I could ride the metro to Rome’s airport, hop an 80-minute flight to Tunis and catch a cab 15km to Carthage, where, for a mere 12 Tunisian dinars (£3.30) I could be blissfully alone with equally impressive relics of Roman engineering and architecture.
Later that week, I decided to give it a try.
Tunisia has suffered a crisis of reputation over the past decade after the revolution that ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 threw the country into turmoil and began the broader Arab Spring. What had once been a regular haunt for holidaymakers and European artists and intellectuals (Paul Klee, Michel Foucault and Simone de Beauvoir all spent extended stays here) suddenly seemed fierce and untouchable. Those that did venture here often did so in the insulated safety of all-inclusive package tours, which kept them in the close confines of seaside sanctuaries like the Mövenpick resort and spa in Sousse.
Tunisia’s reputation was further damaged by a pair of terror attacks in 2015 at the height of ISIS’s international campaign that roiled the country and prompted a major overhaul of anti-terrorism initiatives. The UK government still suggests tourists exercise caution in the region, but notes that “The Tunisian government has improved protective security in major cities and tourist resorts.”
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Despite this bump on the road to democracy, now more than ever is the perfect time to visit the Tunisian capital, and to do so on your own terms. The country has emerged from the Arab Spring with a functioning democracy, a stabilising economy and a hunger for tourism. It’s currently the only Arab nation with freedom of expression, and the capital buzzes with young people expressing new ideas through concerts, political rallies, art shows and film festivals, which just a decade earlier would have been impossible.
There are still ancient Roman and Punic ruins to explore, beaches to enjoy and incredible arts and crafts to bargain for, all unencumbered by crowds. What’s most exciting is that Tunis is bursting with the creative energy of a generation taking full advantage of its newfound freedom of expression and fervour for preserving its heritage in new and unexpected ways.
One of the locals leading this charge is Leila Ben Gacem, a social entrepreneur who is committed to saving local crafts and artistry that were at risk of disappearing.
“When people travel, they want a story, they want to be part of something,” Ben Gacem told me over a plate of roasted lamb and aubergine in the elaborately tiled courtyard of Dar Ben Gacem Kahia, one of two medieval homes in the vibrant medina of Tunis that she has painstakingly renovated into guesthouses over the last decade.
When people travel, they want a story, they want to be part of something
Ben Gacem knows a story when she sees one. After a career working as an engineer around Europe and North Africa, she grew sceptical of foreign investment and development and returned to Tunisia in 2013 to see if she could encourage economic growth by preserving cultural heritage rather than replacing it. She spent months seeking out and listening to the stories of hundreds of artisans in Tunis’ Unesco World Heritage-listed Medina – shoemakers, perfumers, woodworkers, bookbinders, milliners, weavers – and founded a leading grassroots organisation, Blue Fish, to help them keep their businesses afloat and their crafts alive.
One way to do that: bring the buyers to them. “Our local market is too small to preserve our arts and crafts,” she told me. But by restoring historic homes as guest houses, she’s brought thousands of visitors from around the world into the workshops and storefronts of the Medina’s artisans.
“At first the artisans didn’t understand why people wanted to see their workshops or watch them make hats or slippers,” she said, but now it’s become a symbiotic relationship. Guests receive a customised map with the locations of dozens of workshops and shops full of handmade leather goods, rugs, perfumes and treasures that make for very happy hunting in the warren of souks. As a result, they seek out and support micro businesses that are keeping Tunisian heritage alive.
Ben Gacem also put a small army of craftsmen to work restoring the guesthouses. It took seven years for the gypsum carvers, ceramicists, wood workers and stone layers to restore the first guest house to its former glory. Like the rest of the enchanting Medina, every element of the buildings has a story, from the broad marble slabs on the floor of the courtyard (“We had to remove and label them, one by one, to put in the plumbing,” she told me) to the mismatched columns that were likely repurposed from Roman ruins by the Arabs who founded the Medina in the 7th Century.
Ben Gacem believes that Tunis’ cultural heritage shouldn’t just be preserved, it should be passed down. The guesthouses have become hubs for culture, hosting dinners, lectures and concerts that are open to the public and full of locals from the neighbourhood. She also encourages young artisans to take up apprenticeships and trains local teens in the hospitality industry, so that the cultural legacy of the Medina will stay in the hands of its residents.
While Ben Gacem works to preserve culture inside the Medina, outside its walls a swell of young Tunisians is redefining that cultural heritage through arts, music and design. Among the standouts is Anissa Meddeb, who blends Tunisian textiles and Asian influences to create fresh, fashion-forward clothing for her brand Anissa Aida. Born and raised in Paris to Tunisian parents, Meddeb studied fashion in New York before deciding to move to Tunis to start her own line.
When she first got started in 2016, she said it was tough finding quality fabric in a sea of fast-fashion polyester. So she scoured the small towns in Tunisia to find the best silk, linen and cotton weavers to collaborate with. “I wanted to get back to the roots of artisans,” Meddeb said. It took her months to find the right partners, but now she commissions fabrics from across the country for her line, which is sold in local boutiques like Musk & Amber as well as in shops across Europe.
When I asked Meddeb why a rising design star would move from a fashion mecca to Tunis, she was clear: “There’s an energy in Tunis now, especially with younger artists. People have something to say.”
There’s an energy in Tunis now, especially with younger artists. People have something to say.
For travellers looking to tap into that energy, and the beautiful design that goes with it, head to the neighbourhoods north of downtown Tunis. Closest to the city centre, in Mutuelleville, stop by L’artisanerie for hand-woven plant hangers and decorated mirrors, then visit Mooja and Elyssa Artisanat to try on the latest in Tunisian fashion. In the trendy La Marsa neighbourhood, you’ll find contemporary pottery in a fresh black-and-white palette at Noa Atelier; a floor-to-ceiling selection of handwoven foutas (a traditional towel perfect for the beach or your guest bathroom) at Hager Fouta; and streetwear with cheeky phrases like “The Harissa People” (a nod to Tunisia’s piping-hot chilli paste) in Arabic calligraphy at Lyoum. Finish your tour in the seaside neighbourhood of Sidi Bou Said, where, tucked among the charming blue-and-white houses, you’ll find Rock the Kasbah, a quirky homewares store built into a traditional house.
But great design isn’t the only thing you’ll find dotted among the luxurious houses and charming villages along the northern coast. It is also where you’ll find those world-class Roman ruins I escaped the Eternal City to find.
Long before there was Tunis, there was Carthage, the ancient Phoenician port city that was Rome’s arch-rival for centuries. In the epic poem the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil tells how Carthage’s founder, queen Dido, fled Tyre in present-day Lebanon and landed in North Africa. When she pleaded for a scrap of land from the leader of the local tribe, he tossed an ox hide on the ground, saying she could have the land the hide covered. In a deft move of both semantics and surgery, she sliced the hide into thin ribbons and encircled an entire hill just above the port with it. This is Byrsa Hill, the best place to start a day of exploring the Punic and Roman ruins of Carthage.
At first glance, Byrsa Hill, which is dotted with villas and mansions, looks more like Beverly Hills than a Unesco World Heritage site. But unlike Beverly Hills, if you want to put a pool in your Byrsa backyard, you better call an archaeologist first. For centuries, one civilisation after another built homes on this piece of prime real estate, and digging just a few metres down can turn up African red slip pottery or the remains of a Roman mosaic.
While the hilltop offers sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea and a few Punic and Roman-era ruins, its main attraction, The Carthage Museum, is closed for renovation until further notice. Instead, stick to the sites at the foot of the hill: one ticket gets you into all eight major sites, which are within walking distance or a short cab ride.
My favourite of the eight is the Tophet, or Punic, cemetery. It may be one of Carthage’s more diminutive sites, but its grisly history lends it an outsized role. Here, the ancient Phoenicians offered child sacrifices to the goddess Tanit and commemorated each one by erecting a sacrificial stone engraved with her image: a circle perched on a triangle, with outstretched arms. Dozens of these stones are clustered among a grotto of palms, in a placid but eerie scene.
Just up the road, the Antonine Baths cut a more imposing figure. The series of sand-coloured arches and marble pillars were part of a cistern and public bath constructed during the Roman era, one of the largest ever made. The complex is so vast that on my last visit I watched a lone Tunisian boy scout spend nearly 20 minutes trying to find his troop in a game of Sardines.
For those with an even greater hunger for ancient history (and a rental car on hand), a day trip to Dougga is well worth the effort. Just two hours’ drive south-west of the capital, Dougga is the best preserved Roman city in North Africa. The vast Unesco complex, with its imposing Roman forum and temple, stands alone on a hill overlooking vast plains bursting with yellow wildflowers in the spring and amber grain throughout summer and autumn. You can spend hours wandering through the warren of well-preserved streets, imagining what life in the Roman town must have been like, and do it with the peace one can never find in Europe. Both times I visited, in April and June, I had the place entirely to myself.
Tunis may not have Rome beat in every category (the food, which is heavy on a trifecta of eggs, tinned tuna and harissa, often leaves something to be desired), but it doesn’t have to. As Tunis folds its past into its future, it is creating its own legacy as a capital of culture, history and freedom.
Comeback Cities is a BBC Travel series that showcases under-the-radar capitals, champions the urban underdogs and revels in the success stories of cities that have turned their fortunes around.
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