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Post-revolution Tunisia awaits tourists

In this photo taken Sunday, July 9, 2011 a group of camels walks down a mostly empty beach on the island of Djerba, Tunisia.
In this photo taken Sunday, July 9, 2011 a group of camels walks down a mostly empty beach on the island of Djerba, Tunisia. Paul Schemm / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 8th century B.C. and was 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 1st century A.D. 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 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 8th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Zitouna Mosque is both its geographic and spiritual heart. Built in the 9th 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.

Here are some of the best shops in the sprawling, 667-acre (270-hectare) medina, where you can procure everything from cheap Chinese-made flip-flops to hand-cast gold jewels, as exquisite as their price tags are exorbitant:

—Ed-Dar: Equal parts shopping extravaganza and cultural outing, a visit to this chock-a-block store is a must. Every surface in the 15th century Arab house-turned-emporium is hung with antique rugs, stacked with hand-glazed ceramics and shines with intricate silver jewelry.

Three brothers, Ali, Youssef and Taoufik Chammakhi, founded the store in their childhood home in 1980 after their collection of handicrafts culled from the breadth and width of the country burgeoned out of control. Most of the pieces here are one-of-a-kind heirlooms that were bought directly from families that had kept them — sometimes for centuries.

Prices range from a few dozen dinars for a tile, hand-painted by Ali Chammakhi himself, to tens of thousands of dollars for a collection of gem-covered military decorations with pieces dating back to the 1750s. Don't miss the rooftop terrace, a lush oasis of potted plants with a knockout view over the medina.

—Youssef Gassem: Just downstairs from Ed-Dar, affable rug-seller Youssef Gassem hawks his wares in a tiny shop piled high with Berber and Persian carpets, kilims and rugged tent rugs made from camel hair. There's something for every budget, from small synthetic models that run for fewer than $100 U.S. to mammoth, century-old kilims in vegetable-dyed wool that fetch upward of several thousand.

Gassem's assistant works up a sweat as he unstacks the carpets, and you might be asked to help unfurl them. If something strikes your fancy, be prepared to for marathon negotiations, which take place over seemingly endless glasses of sweet mint tea.

Next door, Gassem's brother Ridha sells an impressive array of antiques out of an equally tiny locale. A veritable Ali Baba's cave, it's piled high with petrol lamps, hammered copperware from the 1920s, and old-school hand-embroidered curtains, napkins and sheets as well as centuries-old tiles rescued from old Arab houses.

—A nearby covered lane houses the "Souk des Chechias," where an ever-dwindling number of craftsmen hand-make the boiled wool hats, like stunted fezes, that were once an integral part of the national dress. Since Tunisian men adopted the universal uniform of jeans and T-shirts, the chechia — imported from Spain in the 14th century — has largely fallen out fashion, and the lion's share of production is now shipped to Libya and Nigeria.

Second-generation chechia-producer Outaiel Jaoui still has two stores on the souk, where he serves up traditional red and black hats to Tunisians for formal occasions and a chechias in a rainbow of bright hues for visitors. Nine laborious steps go into these little hats, which start out as oversized knit rasta berets and are boiled, molded, ironed and dyed into something resembling a retro pillbox. Worn on women, they breathe a Jackie O-esque retro elegance.

—El Makhsen: This old stable-turned-warehouse-turned-wood-working factory is among the medina's hippest shops. The brainchild of designer Mohamed Messaoudi, El Makhsen sells contemporary home decorations inspired by traditional Tunisian designs. Arm chairs have the minimalist lines of Danish furniture but are upholstered in bright wool kilims. Vases are covered in glazed curlicues of Arabic script, while earthenware tajines are served up in sleek monochrome hues. Nearly all the products are made in Messaoudi's own atelier outside Tunis.

—Across the street, Le Foyer de l'Artiste, has similarly contemporary takes on traditional Tunisian jewelry. The chains of interlocking hammered loops worn as decorative fasteners on brides' multilayered silk gowns are morphed into necklaces and dangle seductively from gold-plated earrings. Old coins look surprisingly trendy on chunky silver bracelets or on artfully beaded earrings.

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 on from the U.S. State Department. In July, it issued an advisory urging potential travelers to Tunisia be vigilant and warned against visiting the southern border region, where several thousand Libyans are living in refugee camps.