Tunisia – Welcome to the Dar side

by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)

I thought only my obsession with Star Wars and Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, both filmed in Tunisia, would bring me to this North African country.
But even hardliners like Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Judean’s People’s Front would be easily seduced by Tunisia’s Dar side of the Force.
Everybody likes to try something different on holiday and waking up in a Tunisian Dar hotel is brilliantly leftfield.
A Dar – which is a converted family home – offers an experience you simply can’t get anywhere in Europe.
From the bustling street these buildings look unremarkable but step inside and there’s a unique world of boutique luxury, serenity and service that will leave you totally de-stressed.
Using typical North African design features – think big rugs, tiles, whitewashed stone walls – Dars mix Tunisian culture with European comfort.
The high standard in design of a Tunisian boutique hotel is matched by the personal touch as many are family-owned.
Dar hotels typically have under a dozen rooms – some with as few as four – and offer the choice of cooking your own meals or having them served to you.
A weekend break at the multi-level Dar Om El Khair in Nabeul, with its stunning fi rst-floor pool and mini cinema, or the traditional Dar Said in picturesque Sidi Bou Said, feels a world away from home but is only a two-and-a-half hour flight from the UK.
And while the warmth – even in December – plus the miles of blue sky and beaches are a big pull, it’s the markets that are the mustdo attraction.
Found in the walled medina areas of towns, they are full of atmosphere, while bigger stores in Tunis offer branded goods at amazingly low prices. Jewellery and big-name clothes are shockingly cheap. Levi jeans are just £25.
You can ramble around the narrow souks for hours. Tunisia is particularly good for pottery. A large, beautifully decorated bowl will cost you under six dinars (less than £3) if you know how to haggle, while a packet of saffron costs just one dinar, or 50p. And when you need a rest the shisha cafés (a glimpse of how coffee shops used to be before Starbucks) offer a place to drink mint tea and smoke a hubbly bubbly, if that’s your thing.
The half hour I spent discussing a deal for two camel-shaped plates and a scarf was the most fun I’ve had in ages.
Having seen a fi xed-price stall earlier in the day (which is perfect for nonhagglers) I strode in to the medina within the walls of the seaside castle in one of Tunisia’s main tourist resorts, Hammamet, with supreme confi dence.
I knew exactly what I should be paying so when the stall owner and I began our business transaction, his over-pricing tactics were brushed aside with such ease I began to wonder if my great-grandad had been a Tunisian market trader.
“I cannot go below 40 dinars, or I will be paying to give you the plate, ” the trader protested.
“Yes you can, ” I told him. I’d previously seen the same plate for six dinars. We settled on six dinars. Result.
When I questioned whether a 50 dinar silk scarf was actually silk, he looked offended. “Are you calling me a liar, Mr Englishman?” he asked.
When his boss took over the bargaining, I asked about the same scarf and he confessed: “This is polyester, ” before adding, “but this one is pure silk – 80 dinars for you.” Yeah right!
The Tunisian food is excellent. I’ve never tasted couscous as light as in the Der Belhadji restaurant in Tunis. The seafood was even better. The squid and octopus are particularly enjoyable, as was the sea bream. And it’s all so cheap.
I particularly liked the hilly streets of Sidi Bou Said, just half an hour north of Tunis, where you can get sweeping views across the Mediterranean bay.
But for a dip in the lush blue ocean and a visit to the seafront fish restaurant El Mansoura – once visited by Madonna – it’s worth travelling an hour east, past the flamingos, to Kelibia.
From the restaurant vantage point you can watch brave souls step on to the seafront platform which takes the full force of the crashing waves.
It’s rude not to try different cultures so once I’d eaten my fish platter, my mate Carl and I took the walk of fear.
Gripping the railing for dear life, a huge wave engulfed us.
After the water drained away I was a little surprised to find Carl had gone but relieved to see him curled up like a baby, clinging to the railings at the other side of the platform. You just can’t pay for memories like this. Different? Tunisia is brilliantly different.

TUNISIA FACTS
Tunisair operate four flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £170 (inc taxes). For reservations call 020 7734 7644 or visit www.tunisair.com
Rooms at Dar Said start from 335 Tunisian dinars (£158).  All rooms are double and the price includes breakfast (Price per room not per person). www.darsaid.com.tn
Rooms at Dar Om El Khair start from 60 Euro (£55) per night, based on two people sharing. All rooms are double and the price includes breakfast (Price per room not per person). www.daromelkhair.net
For further information on Tunisa visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk

All images © Copyright Garry Cook

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