The Bay of Tunis is hauntingly, heartbreakingly beautiful, a mesmerising haze reaching towards the strange striated coast of Cap Bon and brooding twin peaks of Bou Kornine. From the rooftop of Tunisia’s newest maison d’hôtel, there’s also an uninterrupted view of Carthage, its lush tumbling hills stretching back to the lake and modern city of Tunis beyond. This is a landscape of extravagant gestures and grand passions, one, you quickly realise, entirely up to inspiring mythic Dido’s tragic tale, as well as the furious spiteful destruction wrought by the Romans in 146 BC.
Dar Fatma, in the northern village-cum-suburb Sidi Bou Saïd, is an intimate five-bedroom affair, sitting beneath a still-working lighthouse, and next to a small, dusty Muslim cemetery. I woke each morning to the tack-tack-tack of a straw-hatted gravedigger (not burying the dead, just quixotically picking off the tenacious, life-asserting weeds), and the sight of a sea so brilliantly, eerily blue it blurred into the sky. The hotel is, for the most part, beyond the reach of the tour bus hoards that regularly descend upon the village. Shorts and singlet clad day trippers do occasionally troop past, in search of the view or up for a brief peek at a famous Sufi saint’s burial spot, but in the morning and from late afternoon you’re left with just the gentle rustle of eucalypts for company.
Architect/designer owners Patrick and Amel Marguier’s style is, in Tunisia, unique; an unfussy contemporary precision that sometimes asserts itself, but more often defers to the rambling nature and traditional scale of the old courtyard house. Rooms are all white walls and white linen, stripped back to best highlight their original, individual features – a vaulted ceiling, a tiny mosaic-clad set of stairs leading to a sleeping nook – embellished only with evocative life-size photographic scenes of the Tunis medina as it was in the early 20th-century, fittings by Philippe Stark and the odd piece of Ikea. Bathrooms of soft grey slate are scented with orange blossom and conjure up the city’s famous hammams (but without the grime and omi in her big-knickers). My room – Sara, each bears a girl’s name – had the town’s trademark blue wooden window grills, and, ah, that view.
Beyond the bedrooms, apart from the afore mentioned roof, there’s a shady little courtyard where Amel serves breakfast. It’s a lovely place to start the day, wondering whether it’s one for Punic and Roman ruins, the city’s still beguiling medina, or perhaps just a dip in the sea (found down the bottom of 365 rock-hewn steps). With endless pots of café au lait, fresh citronnade, bamboloni (the local speciality doughnut, a sweet loop of Arab and Sicilian influences), seed-flecked rolls and croissants at your disposal, there’s no hurry to decide. No hurry at all.
Sidi Bou Saïd is around 30 minutes from the centre of Tunis on the suburban TGM Marine train line.