St Tropez with an African accent: Fun, sun and culture on a winter escape to Tunisia


It could have been a complete disaster.

There’s nothing more dispiriting than flying off for a longed-for blast of sunshine while the UK is in the grip of extended winter, only to end up gazing through your window at a balcony covered in sand whipped by the wind off the sodden beach beyond the gardens below.

We’d escaped to Hammamet in Tunisia for a week’s all-inclusive lying-down and doing nothing. Except perhaps turning over, or occasionally sitting up (so as not to spill the drinks).

A vision: Dar Sebastian was described by Frank Lloyd Wright as 'the most beautiful house I've ever seen'

A vision: Dar Sebastian was described by Frank Lloyd Wright as ‘the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen’

It started well.

We arrived in a sunny 26 degrees, blinking like moles in the brightness, and delighted in the view from our suite, of gardens dotted with palm trees, two pools, a camel on the beach and, across the bay, the old medina.

The first couple of days went pretty much as hoped. But as my husband Grant and I were sitting in late afternoon on the roof of the kasbah at the entrance to the medina – we’d had a happy time wandering narrow streets and dodging hagglers – we felt the first few sprinkles of rain.

The temperature dropped. From then on it was clear we were going to need sweaters rather than swimsuits. Plan B was called for. Or rather Plan C – for Culture.

And what a joyful discovery it turned out to be.

Hammamet, a former fishing village on the south coast of the Cap Bon peninsula, sticks out into the Mediterranean like a thumb, and is within easy distance of the capital Tunis, the beautiful blue and white artists’ village of Sidi Bou Said and the ancient city of Carthage.

It was the country’s first resort, earning itself the reputation of Tunisia’s St Tropez.

In its heyday, international celebrities and artists were drawn not just by the light and colour, but to Dar (Villa) Sebastian. Built in the 1930s by Romanian socialite George Sebastian with his American wife Flora’s money, architect Frank Lloyd Wright called it ‘the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen’.

Bardo Museum

Bardo Museum

That’s a bit over the top. But it is lovely. It’s now the International Cultural Centre (entrance three dinars). White and elegant, it is set in botanic gardens with orange groves and jasmine, and an amphitheatre, added in the 1960s, which overlooks the Gulf of Hammamet.

There are still paintings on the walls, and a stunning colonnaded swimming pool overlooked by a vast black marble dining table. One bedroom sports a sunken four-seater bath, and you wander through the cool, airy rooms imagining the parties and just wishing the walls could speak!

George, 20 years younger than Flora, hosted everyone from Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor, with her then husband Ernest, to Coco Chanel. Her rival, Italian fashion designer Elsa ‘Shocking Pink’ Schiaparelli also visited and loved it so much she built her own house nearby.

During the Second World War the house was requisitioned by Rommel and, in a strange twist of fate, Winston Churchill came here after the war to write his memoirs.

Why the story of this exotic and decadent place has not yet been turned into a film, Great Gatsby-style and possibly starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is a mystery to me.

And all this just a hike away from our hotel, the Sentido Phenicia, a dazzling white 1970s-style building, with modern clean lines inside.

It’s best to remember that in Tunisia, a four-star is more like a three. But food was plentiful and the Tunisian specialities delicious: lots of fresh fish and traditional tagines. The staff and entertainment team worked tirelessly and cheerfully, and it was an excellent base for our cultural excursions.

We were curious to see how things had turned out for Tunisia after the Arab Spring started there three years ago.

A seafront wonder: The artists' village of Sidi Bou Said has long lured visitors to Tunisia

A seafront wonder: The artists’ village of Sidi Bou Said has long lured visitors to Tunisia

There was hardly a hijab in sight in the centre of Tunis, a bustling city with a modern feel, cafes filled with young people, and businesswomen who would not look out of place in Europe. The dramatic new white wing of the Bardo Museum would grace any world capital.

It houses, among many treasures, a breathtaking collection of Roman mosaics, including an exquisite 11th Century mosaic of a wine bottle and glass.

We took the hint and went to a wine-tasting at Chateau Bacchus, an easy trip from Hammamet (look out for a delicious dry pale rosé Gris de Bou-Argoub, and Vieux Magon, a decent red).

We tramped the ruins of Carthage, umbrellas aloft, and in a rare dry moment sat gazing down from the tiny terrace of the Cafe des Nattes at the ridiculously pretty blue shutters of Sidi Bou Said.

Grant found some knock-off ‘designer’ underpants, and I scooped up a stunning necklace of pink-dyed camel bone for under a tenner.

The rain finally stopped on our last evening, and we flew home next day more rusted than tanned, with the temperature back up to 26C. Annoying, for sure. But disaster?

We’d had a happy art attack instead.


 

Ned’s Tip: For the ultimate in five-star luxury, stay at Le Royal Hammamet, part of the Hotels & Resorts division of the General Mediterranean Holding group founded by businessman and philanthropist Sir Nadhmi Auchi

 

 

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