TUNIS, Tunisia » Long known for its sea, sand and sun, Tunisia has a new claim to fame, as the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
Popular demonstrations toppled the tiny North African nation’s longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January, inspiring a wave of pro-democracy protests that has swept the Arab world, from Morocco to Bahrain.
While the uprising that ended Ben Ali’s 23-year-long autocratic rule went relatively smoothly in Tunisia — especially compared with the bloody and protracted conflicts that have since erupted in Syria, Yemen and neighboring Libya — the hordes of European tourists that long thronged to the country have largely evaporated.
Tunisia’s border with warring Libya remains dangerous, and poor inland towns still see sporadic protests, but Tunis and the resort towns have regained their pre-revolt calm, and the country is on a path toward democracy.
Still, the country’s Mediterranean beaches and millennial ruins are largely deserted, and bargains abound. Travel operators who offer all-inclusive package deals at seaside resort hotels have slashed their already reasonable rates in a bid to lure visitors. But while those getaways abound in beachside relaxation, they can be isolating and don’t provide much of a taste of the country’s unique local color.
For a stiff dose of it, try the capital, Tunis, a sprawling metropolis peppered with vestiges of its ancient past. The Tunis suburb of Carthage was founded by Phoenicians in the eighth century B.C. and was the hometown of Hannibal, the general who crossed the Alps with elephants to launch his celebrated 218 B.C. attack on Rome.
Sacked by Romans — who famously sowed the soil with salt — Carthage would become Rome’s first colony in Africa.
You can still visit the vestiges of the city’s Roman past, including the remains of villas, the ruins of a first-century amphitheater, and the Antonine Baths, a seaside thermal bath complex.
Carthage is also home to another, more recent historical site, Ben Ali’s sprawling presidential palace. Police guard the compound, which has been empty since the former president and his family fled into exile on Jan. 14.
If Carthage doesn’t sate your appetite for Rome, a trip to Tunis’ stunning Bardo National Museum is in order. Housed in the former royal palace, the museum boasts one of the world’s premier collections of Roman mosaics, with room after room filled with mammoth, often impeccably preserved tiny tile masterpieces.
Tunis also has among the biggest and best-conserved medinas (the old city or historic center) in the country — indeed, in much of the Arab world. A warren of narrow streets with whitewashed buildings studded with wooden doors painted a rainbow of eye-popping hues, Tunis’ medina dates back to the eighth century and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Zitouna Mosque is both its geographic and spiritual heart. Built in the ninth century, it was remodeled and added on to by successive dynasties, each determined to outdo the last. Non-Muslims can visit the complex, with its breathtaking arched courtyard, mornings every day but Friday.
Tourbet el Bey is also worth a visit. Buried deep in the medina, it’s an 18th-century mausoleum where Tunisia’s monarchs, or Beys, as well as their children, wives and concubines were buried in elaborate marble sarcophagi.
Vendors in the medina who shuttered their shops during the revolution are again open for business.
In the sprawling, 667-acre medina, you can procure everything from cheap Chinese-made flip-flops to hand-cast gold jewels, as exquisite as their price tags are exorbitant.
If you shop up an appetite, the medina is full of little restaurants where you can grab grilled meats, egg- and tuna-filled fried pastries or tomato and bell pepper stews — all smeared with harissa, the piquant chili paste Tunisians use on virtually everything.
But for something special, try Dar El Jeld, a sumptuous old mansion that was transformed into one of the city’s finest restaurants. The food — think lamb couscous and a variety of fresh grilled fish — is mouthwatering, and the decoration is even more stunning than the dishes themselves.
Still, before booking a trip, check for travel advisories from the U.S. State Department. In July it issued an advisory urging potential travelers to Tunisia to be vigilant and warned against visiting the southern border region, where several thousand Libyans are living in refugee camps.
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