Soak up a luxurious legacy

8th April 2005 at 01:00
The Romans left Tunisia a long time ago, but their extravagance and fondness for a hot bath are lasting gifts to visitors, Renata Rubnikowicz finds

Yes, of course," says Mr Yahyaoui, whose name badge, I notice, also says yes - three times over. I am asking, as you do, to have the hammam heated, just for me.

In Tunisia, once home to Queen Dido of legend, such extravagant requests quickly become second nature, even on a short break. The Dar Said, where the ever-smiling Mr Yahyaoui mans the front desk, contains its own hammam, where you can steam gently, leaning on walls of pale grey carved marble.

The recently restored, 150-year-old hotel du charme has courtyards with plashy fountains, curlicued doorways, and breakfast tables under the orange trees that line its outdoor swimming pool.

Like the rest of the village of Sidi Bou Said, a longtime artists' colony about 20 minutes from the centre of Tunis, the breakfast tables turn their backs on Africa to look towards the sparkling Mediterranean and Rome, whose ancient empire has left glorious traces throughout Tunisia. London's grey winter is a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride away, but beware. All this lush and scented greenery needs water, and apparently the rain can bucket down in spring.

After this optimistic morning, Carthage is a let-down. I should have read my Virgil more carefully. My sulks, kicking around the few dusty stones, all that's left after 28 centuries of history, continue at the Villa Didon, a new hotel nearby for which the phrase "achingly hip" was surely invented.

Alain Ducasse has opened one of his celebrated Spoon restaurants here, one of the few places in Tunisia where you can drink imported wine. The rooms are hard-edged and evenings in the bar and Sunday brunch are accompanied by a DJ playing deep house. If you want to have a holiday in a magazine spread, this is the place.

I much prefer our choice of restaurant back in Sidi Bou Said. Au Bon Vieux Temps, sitting above the jumbled white walls, blue doors and curly ironwork of the village, greets you traditionally with a jasmine posy and serves excellent lamb couscous with spicy harissa sauce and a splendid view. For evening atmosphere, the Cafe des Nattes, once the haunt of Sidi Bou Said's bohemians, is hard to beat. Sitting cross-legged, trying hard to drag on a chicha, or water pipe, of apple tobacco, and drinking mint tea or muddy coffee, we imagine ourselves back in the days of Gide, de Beauvoir and Paul Klee, who all visited the village.

Fortunately, the music is ambient and calm at Villa Didon, as we try to work out over French-style coffee if we can visit some of the Roman ruins that have caught my imagination in the brochures. El Jem, the massive colosseum that rivals Rome, is much too far south of Tunis to manage on a short break. My mood deepens.

But then we discover the Bardo Museum. This alone makes a visit to Tunis worthwhile. From rooms upon rooms of Roman mosaics, some as big as tennis courts, I remember the experience lined on a face of Poseidon, and the lively groups of charming animals and fishes. In another room, I find a line of heads of Roman emperors, wary as football managers (some of their reigns were equally short-lived). Somehow, despite its massive scope, history speaks on a very human level in this treasure house.

The souk in the medina, in the old heart of Tunis, is the place to find more antiquities, real or fake; buy your souvenirs; haggle and chat. As old men in long, hooded burnouses slip into the shadows, it's easy to see where the costume designers of Star Wars, filmed far south of here, got their inspiration. See, too, how Tunisian police wave on traffic at night with Luke Skywalker light sticks. In the souk all languages are spoken, although in general in Tunisia everyone can speak French as well as Arabic. Perhaps it is the quiet season, but I don't feel at all hassled as we pick over jewellery, essential oils, spices and carpets.

We watch a traditional tasselled hat being made (Tunisians always wear a red chechia), taste fresh dates and bump into a cart lined with green leaves and piled with fresh white curd cheese. In the heart of the souk, not far from the main mosque, is another traditional restaurant, the gorgeously tiled, 17th-century Dar Bel Hadj, which serves Tunisian specialities such as brik (a kind of pasty with meat, cheese or tuna, but always an egg fried inside) and doigts de Fatima (fingers of filo pastry with savoury fillings).

Despite the ubiquity of its hammams, Tunisia has not rested on its bathing laurels. Whether in vestigial homage to the Romans, or more likely as a result of its more recent French heritage, it is home to more than 30 thalassotherapy spas, many of them in resort hotels such as the Residence, a modern elegant beachfront palace of the kind that Tunisia does so well.

I'm afraid I sneer at the camel posing on the beach. Where Sidi Bou Said has history and character, this is luxury tourism pure and simple, I say to myself.

But then I slip into the heated saltwater indoor swimming pool and only one thought remains: "This is the life." The spa offers the whole panoply of mud treatments, hosings-down with high-pressure jets, mesotherapy and pressotherapy, but I opt for a simple massage, which is effective and, at about pound;10, a fraction of the price I would pay at home.

Further information from the Tunisian National Tourist Office: 020 7224 5561; At summer half-term, Odyssey Worldwide offers seven nights with breakfast at the Dar Said, including return flights from Gatwick (departing May 29) and transfers, for pound;755 (plus pound;9 fuel supplement) per person, twin share. Details: 0870 429 5090; Over the same period, Cresta has a three-night break at The Residence in Gammarth from pound;805 per person, based on two sharing, including five-star accommodation, breakfast and return scheduled Tunisair flights from Heathrow departing on May 31. Details: 0870 33 33 303,

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