Down on the coast, I stroll around the vast Antonine Baths, which face the sea on a site worthy of Gladiator. I walk through dim passageways, under huge brick arches, and past lofty marble columns, which once filled vast halls.
Back in the modern Tunis, the city feels entirely different. On the wide, tree-lined Avenue Bourguiba, I almost do
a double-take and think I’m in Paris. France’s occupation of Tunisia left its mark, and cafes sprawl over the pavement in front of ritzy boutiques.
The Unesco-protected medina is also another world away – a dark, seductive warren of winding alleyways and vaulted souks that haven’t changed much in 500 years. At its heart, past the shops selling everything from silver jewellery to clothes and handmade rugs, lies the Great Ez-Zitouna Mosque, which dates back to the ninth century and is still a place of pilgrimage.
Back in the souk, I stop for lunch at the Dar Bel Hadj, a hidden oasis of marbled rooms and drifting waiters. There’s plenty of great local favourites to tuck into like couscous, brik (crisp pastry triangles filled with egg) and mechouia, a dish made from onions, capsicum and tomatoes mixed with olive oil, tuna and hard-boiled eggs. Perfect with a chilled local rosé.
Suitably refreshed, I head to the Bardo Museum – a gallery housed in the old, lofty Bey’s palace not far from the medina. It’s the perfect setting for its world-famous collections – several enormous and haunting Roman mosaics.
In spring, the weather is mild enough to enjoy more leisurely pursuits outside Tunis. A small train rattles out of the city to Sidi Bou Said – a summer resort perched on a hilltop. Once a getaway for the local elite, today the picture-postcard town is definitely tourist territory, but I can’t help falling for it. The main street meanders up around the hill, framed by handicraft shops, art galleries and white-washed houses with blue doors and shutters. I stop at one of the local cafes – Sidi Chabaane – which clings to the cliff top overlooking the Bay of Tunis, and bask in the sun on the terrace.
To sun yourself properly, head to the long sandy stretches of Gammarth, the nearby beach just beyond Sidi Bou Said and Carthage. It’s also worth lingering after nightfall when the discos of nearby La Marsa come alive.
Back in Tunis, for about £1, I’m steam-cleaned in a local hammam – having buckets of hot and cold water sloshed over me by very large women. Primped and preened, I’m ready for the Plaza Corniche Hotel, the latest hang-out for hip Tunisians. Like the rest of the city, it’s the perfect mix of buzz and chill. Head to the packed dance floor to work off your brik or relax in the garden lit by an eccentric collection of lanterns. Either way, like the Romans, you won’t want to leave.