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Post-revolution Libya finds Tripoli in high spirits

Trabulus. Ar Roz al Bahr. Bride of the Sea. Roman Oea. The White City. The Havana of North Africa. Whatever its name, Tripoli has been delighting travellers for centuries. Libya is a land of peerless hospitality and greetings that last for minutes; its capital’s architecture encompasses imperial Roman, traditional Islamic, shabby-chic Ottoman, Italian grandeur and oil-boom dictator kitsch.

Set against Libya’s unfathomable history, the four decades from 1969 to 2011, when Libyans had the great misfortune to be ruled by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, seem the merest blip in the long life of this resilient nation. Yet with Qaddafi gone, the delight of Libyans on the streets of Tripoli is palpable and affecting. There is a special joy in travelling to this bewitching country after its liberation. “Libya hurra! Free Libya!” is a refrain you’ll hear on the streets, where entrepreneurial enthusiasts peddle bracelets, brooches and badges, T-shirts, mugs and tracksuits emblazoned with the old-new national tricolour of red, black and green.

In spite of a declaration of autonomy by eastern tribal leaders earlier this month and reports of sporadic violence, tourists are making a tentative return sooner than expected. Airlines, crucially, have been voting with their wings. Tripoli was Etihad Airways’ first new destination in 2012. Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, Lufthansa, Air France and Alitalia are five of a number of international airlines that are now flying to Libya, with British Airways soon to join them. I have travelled to Libya four times in the last 12 months, twice during the revolution and twice in its aftermath, and already I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

While western governments including the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office are advising against all but essential travel to the capital, some tour operators are more sanguine. “We’ve had absolutely zero problems in terms of security,” says Nicholas Wood, director of Political Tours, which has just led a debut trip to Libya. “I do think things have significantly improved since we were last here in October. None of our group felt threatened at any moment. It’s definitely not the war zone people make it out to be, but you have to be self reliant and plan carefully.”

The last time I was in Tripoli, back in the autumn, was a few days after the Qaddafi regime had fallen.

Foreign correspondents were combing government buildings and hopping over foreign embassy walls for incriminating documents. There was no running water in either the Mehari or the Corinthian, the two main hotels in the city. One of the most memorable evenings during the post-Qaddafi euphoria sweeping the city was a high-spirited evening spent swapping stories with the late, great war reporter Marie Colvin – hers were the best. She was having a ball in Libya and had been reporting as courageously as ever from the frontline in Misrata.

Then, Martyrs’ Square was eerily empty at night. It took another few days for the crowds to pour out and fill the capital’s most important public space. “We were too scared to come out,” said Yusra al Massoudi, an effervescent civil engineer who couldn’t stop smiling. “We didn’t dare believe we were free.” Now fear has been replaced with pride. “All of my life I never felt this was my country. Libya was like Qaddafi’s farm. Now, only now, for the first time in my life, I feel proud to be Libyan. This is my country.”

After the revolutionary tension and torpor, the highly atmospheric medina or Old City, one of Tripoli’s great, hassle-free attractions, has come back to life. Start off in Martyr’s Square beneath the massive walls of the castle that stares out impassively towards the southern shores of Sicily, silent witness to 1,000 years of wars and intrigues between marauding corsairs, pirates, Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, Arabs and Turks. Just south of it is the entrance to the venerable Suq al Mushir, which plunges you instantly into a maelstrom of sights, sounds and smells, not least gold-filled jewellers’ windows by the score. Does anyone love gold as much as Libyans? Sharp-elbowed little old ladies in their white farashiya wraps, the traditional costumes worn by their forebears for centuries, jostle with street-chic young men in tight black shirts and spray-on jeans, perhaps a Kangol beret worn rakishly back to front. The old and new collide.

After all your exertions in the labyrinthine medina, all those purchases in Suq al Turk, Suk al Attara and Suq al Harrara, cool your heels with an ice-cool frappé latté in Casa, a thoroughly modern cafe opposite the freshly painted Ottoman clock tower. A stone’s throw away, immediately recognisable by its octagonal minaret that surges above street level, is the many-domed (30) Ahmed Pasha Karamanli Mosque that dates back to the late 1730s. Awash with intricate floral patterns and bold Moorish designs, this is the largest and most highly decorated mosque in Tripoli.

If frappucinos smack of the inauthentic, delve deeper into the medina until you find one of several more evocative – perhaps downright dilapidated – cafes, and take your place on an old bench alongside men playing cards or backgammon over a steaming glass of mint tea. Navigationally challenged from birth, I have lost count of the number times I have got lost in the medina over the years, and I do it again now. It never matters. You can always plot a way out over an apple tobacco-filled shisha. The golden rule, too often forgotten where I come from: take your time.

Revolutions happen, foreign powers invade and colonise, dictators come and go; the insouciant Tripoline has seen it all before. Perhaps little has changed since 1845, when James Richardson, the British explorer and campaigner against the slave trade, arrived in Tripoli and was struck by the city’s relaxed way of life. “Whether the extraordinary indolence of the people proceeds from the climate, or want of occupation, I know not,” the magnificently moustachioed Colonel Hanmer Warrington, the British consul, harrumphed. “But they are in an horizontal position twenty hours out of the twenty-four, sleeping in the open air.”

In fact, Tripoli is getting busier by the year. New shops, hotels and restaurants are springing up all the time. More adventurous travellers are already making a beeline for a country that has been neglected for decades. In Zumit, a former caravansaray built in 1816 for travelling merchants returning from or embarking on perilous expeditions across the Sahara, now converted into a charming boutique hotel next to the second-century AD Arch of Marcus Aurelius, I bump into Robert and Sarah, two middle-aged Britons. They’re raving about Libya and Libyans.

“We’ve wanted to come to Libya for years and now seemed the right time,” says Robert. “The people are fantastic,” adds Sarah. “I can’t get over how friendly and welcoming they are. We’ll definitely be back.” We compare notes on our respective gluttony in Tripoli. We have all made the gastronomic pilgrimage to Tajura just along the coast, an opulent dinner of fresh fish at Barracuda I, one of several restaurants strung along the seafront.

Huda Abuzeid, a friend from revolutionary reporting days, is a Libyan film-maker who returned to Libya for the first time in 2011 to help the anti-Qaddafi opposition. She’s now making Tripoli her home and is setting up the Rashad Foundation to help rebuild civil society. “Libya has a Mediterranean climate with a Mediterranean culture, we’ve got a beautiful sea, lovely ruins, masses of pristine desert and mountains that rival Tuscany,” she says. “But perhaps the most exciting thing, now that Qaddafi has gone, is that visitors now mix freely with Libyans, engaging with people who after years of isolation are really excited to interact with the outside world.” She’s right. This is why people stop you in the streets and thank you for visiting.

Tripoli is also an ideal base for quickfire expeditions to satisfy history buffs and desert adventurers alike. About 60km to the west is Sabratha, westernmost of the three ancient settlements that with Oea (modern Tripoli) and imperial Leptis Magna made the Roman provincia Tripolitania, province of the three cities. Intimate, invariably deserted and with one of the world’s most dramatically sited theatres only yards from the turquoise Mediterranean, this is a site so fabulous it’s little short of lunacy to miss it. It is hard to beat a Mediterranean sunset dip in the ancient port, tumbledown columns and peristyles visible in the clear water below, swimming against this ancient backdrop as the Romans did 2,000 years ago.

Then, 128km to the east of the capital, there’s Leptis, Lebda to Arabs, Lepcis to purists and pedants. Where Sabratha is compact and elegant, Leptis is vast on a scale that is never less than imperial. I only have a day, but you could spend several days wandering the site without repeating yourself, marvelling at the tons of marble deposited across the city by Septimius Severus, the original African Roman emperor done good. The only other foreign visitors are a couple of journalists. Then there is the odd family of husband, wife and squadron of small children weaving through the ruins, and the occasional militiaman cutting an eccentric figure.

Born in Leptis, then a remote corner of the empire, Severus rose to the highest office in 193 AD and showered his hometown with riches in what must rank as one of history’s greatest property and construction booms. Leptis is monumental, extravagant beyond a 21st-century tyrant’s wildest dreams, the tone set by the massive Arch of Septimius Severus, built in 203 to commemorate the emperor’s visit to his birthplace and celebrate the power of imperial Rome – hence the marble reliefs of triumphal processions, winged Victories, captive barbarians and a united imperial family. Subtlety was not the architect’s strongest suit. In the words of the art historian Bernard Berenson, writing of the ruins of Leptis to his wife in 1935: “In their present state they are evocative and romantic to a degree that it would be hard to exaggerate.” If anything, after continued disregard by the last regime, they are even more so today. In almost 25 years of travelling to Libya, I have barely seen other tourists at either Sabratha or Leptis. It is one of the most extraordinary treats, and you have to wonder how long it will last.

A final word on security. Although Tripoli is still home to a number of armed militias who keep the peace in their respective neighbourhoods, the security situation is almost entirely benign in the capital, as responsible western security companies advise. Visitors can wander through the Old City alone at night without so much as a raised eyebrow from Tripoli’s famously courteous and welcoming inhabitants. While Benghazi and the great Roman sites of Sabratha and Leptis are also safe to visit, Ghadames and much of the south are a little too hairy for tourism as security is sketchy. My wife reminds me to mention I was (briefly) kidnapped by armed Touareg on the road to Ghadames last September. Accidents happen. Ghadames and the south more broadly will come back.

For those of a more timorous disposition, who, perhaps, blanche at the sight of an AK-47 outside strictly government hands, it is still probably a little early to visit. Libyans report that just as tourism was starting to grow again, the revolution stopped it in its tracks. But that won’t last too long and there’s little doubt that Libya will be back on the map again. Those travellers who relish something a little different, who fancy a rewarding adventure in a newly liberated country, would be hard pushed to find a better place to visit.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary, the story of a 1,930km journey by camel along the slave routes of the Libyan Sahara. He is a senior advisor at Albany Associates, which has worked with the National Transitional Council in Tripoli, and is a Trustee of the Royal Geographical Society (