Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Tripoli

From Roman relics to a rusty VW Beetle, Libya’s capital is both sublime and incongruous. As well as chic hotels and surprisingly stress-free shopping, Fiona Dunlop discovers a newly warm welcome.

October 29 2010
Fiona Dunlop

Tripoli is a city to keep you permanently on your toes. Part Mediterranean, part African, part Arab and part Italian, Libya’s capital enjoys a geographical sweet spot as a launch-pad to the desert and a self-dubbed “bride of the sea”. After over 40 years of volatile diplomacy and air embargoes under the Gaddafi regime, it seems definitively to be coming in from the cold.

Few places juxtapose so adroitly the sublime with the incongruous; but the most unexpected delight is a relaxed commercial attitude and a no-bargaining culture – which, miraculously, even applies to the local taxi rate to foreigners. And of late, some surprisingly swish new hotels now blend into this extraordinary architectural hybrid, with a growing culinary scene following close behind.

Everywhere in this luminous white port of 1m people, elegant Ottoman and Italian edifices flank drab post-1960s concrete, an architectural parallel for how the city’s state-run enterprises tandem the private sector. Not yet six years ago, Libya reopened to air tourism; two years later it felt as if the authorities were on a roll. But in the wake of protracted consumer scepticism – and a major diplomatic wobble in the form of the repatriation from Scotland of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi – today it’s clear that only privately funded (usually foreign) projects will compensate for government caprice and delays. “Tell your children about it,” said one Libyan about an ongoing state-run renovation, “and when they eventually come, maybe it will be finished!”

But this too is the beauty of the city: the Tripolitanian spirit. The citizens’ humour and amiable indolence have carried them through thick and thin; from distant Phoenician and Roman times to Ottoman rule, through brief Italian colonisation and British administration to independence in 1951, rapidly followed by the oil boom of the 1960s and Gaddafi’s coup of 1969.

Tripolitanians also rate culture. At the must-visit Jamahiriya Museum, housed in the castle that towers over Green Square and the seafront expressway, exhibits kick off with two magnificent Roman statues of Venus and Apollo, followed immediately by... a rusty VW Beetle. You might, justifiably, wonder why, until you learn this was Gaddafi’s personal warhorse. The museum’s star, however, is the stupendous gallery to the ancient city of Leptis Magna. Framing a huge Roman mosaic floor, this stage-set of statues includes an imposing Emperor Claudius who looks entranced by a beautiful Diana of Ephesus. Mosaic panels are exquisitely detailed – evidencing how North Africans came to surpass their Roman conquerors at this art form – and whimsy makes an appearance, too, in a cherub surfing on an amphora in the Villa Nile panel. Upstairs a smaller-scale sculpture-fest includes a charming young boy gathering fruit, thought to be the son of Septimius Severus, the late second-century Roman Emperor born in Leptis Magna.

Of Tripoli’s many mosques, three are outstanding and, unlike in Morocco, it is not frowned upon to visit outside prayer times. Through the archway into the souk looms the minaret of the Ahmed Pasha Al-Qaramanli mosque, founded by a local hero who in 1711 engineered a century of independence from the Ottomans. Prolific tiling and plasterwork showcase skills that have now sadly all but died out. Around the corner, the older An-Naga mosque, a 1610 reconstruction of a 10th-century building, is striking for its simplicity and the recycled Roman capitals crowning the forest of columns in its multi-domed hall.

But the most sumptuous of the three is the c1834 Gurgi Mosque at the northern end of the medina. A hard knock is needed to rouse the 84-year-old caretaker, who will happily reminisce about working for the wartime Brits and catching glimpses of Mussolini, Churchill and Montgomery. Like the Ahmed Pasha mosque, the interior piles on the decorative excess of Ottoman and North African craftsmanship. Outside, in a sunken garden, you can’t miss Tripoli’s only substantial Roman relic, the four-sided Marcus Aurelius arch. Around it, the palm-tree-studded square has become a focal point for low-key tourism, from little souvenir shops to the excellent and very popular Athar restaurant. Continue in Roman mode here by ordering a jarra of lamb (or perhaps baby camel), slow-cooked in a terracotta amphora that is broken open at your table. You can count on a fantastically buzzy ambience, despite the (obligatory) absence of alcohol.

Wandering through the narrow lanes of the dilapidated old town, you pass dozens of majestic doors, so it is a pleasure to finally cross the threshold of a typical courtyard mansion, Dar Qaramanli. Used in the 18th century as a harem and later the Tuscan Consulate, it was restored 15 years ago but is in dire need of a follow-up. Despite the general dustiness, a potent atmosphere reigns in the first-floor Mosquito Net Room and Dome’s Hall, where traditional costumes, furniture and brassware are displayed.

Meanwhile, Tripoli’s smarter districts unfold in wide palm-lined streets to the east and west of the medina. In the Italian-era arcaded avenues that radiate from Green Square, between men’s fashion boutiques and computer shops, odd discoveries crop up. One such is Dar Fergiani bookshop, which offers umpteen translations of Gaddafi’s Green Book. Across the street, the magnificent stuccowork of Galleria de Bono may still be shrouded in scaffolding, so continue to Galleria Aurora, a theatrical precinct of soaring white columns punctuated by clouds of sweet shisha smoke and overlooking the wedding-cake Gamal Abdel Nasser mosque (converted from a cathedral). A few blocks east in the chic diplomatic quarter, it is worth seeking out the elegant coffee shop Arukan Asharki. You’ll exit replete with delectable baklava-style pastries and wired on cardamom-infused coffee.

For shoppers, Tripoli is a joy. The medina is a veritable entrepôt of African goods: pick through the coppersmiths’ souk to find an ornate silver-plated tray; drop into the tiny El Saadi shop to ferret out antique gold and silver jewellery that can be engraved; sift through subtly coloured rugs from the Jabal Nafusa, or try on Tuareg necklaces at Dagdog. Over in the complex of tourist and craft shops of Souk Al-Mushir, one can compare a sheepskin with a wolfskin and what looks suspiciously like the pelt of an ocelot. One block up is the traditional Souk Arba, a covered emporium of waistcoats, djellabas and glittery jackets – mostly imported, but who cares when the wares are so good-looking and the salesmen’s banter so enjoyable?

Like everything else, Tripoli’s foodie reputation has suffered, but this too is changing. Some of the top restaurants are in hotels, notably the authentically Moroccan Fes on the 26th floor of the Corinthia (try a lamb tfaya with caramelised onions, almonds and raisins) and the flamboyant new Akakus at the Al Waddan. This converted Turkish bath, complete with Italian art-deco mosaic floor and marble fountain, Murano glass chandeliers and glowing orange walls (courtesy of a slick Lebanese design team), makes an unexpectedly sophisticated setting for Levantine meze and Libyan main courses. All that’s missing is the chilled sancerre.

With 2,000km of coastline, Libya is renowned for its piscine delights. In the absence of barbecued versions at the legendary Al-Hofra seafood market, which was closed on a whim last year (though it may rise again), go to admire the varied morning catch at the new custom-built fish market on the main harbour, then make sure you eat some later. Digest it with the local tipple of sugary mint-tea loaded with toasted almonds, or a slug of decent coffee with cake at Caffé Casa, between the castle and the clocktower.

Finally, where to stay. Until very recently, the opulent Corinthia was the only five-star hotel in Tripoli and operated more or less perenially at 100 per cent occupancy. A year ago, it was joined by the swish, quietly modern Al Mahary, another landmark tower, smack on the bay. This followed a massive forward leap with the Al Waddan (a kind of style-conscious Beirut/Barcelona hybrid) and the delightful new medina hotel El Khan, closely modelled on Moroccan riads but with that inimitable Libyan edge. Tourism may still be embryonic, but that is precisely Tripoli’s appeal. Tell your children about it, as that renovation may just about be finished, but don’t be fooled. The words of the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, “the new comes from Libya”, may yet prove to be the case.