Two and a half years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia is back on the tourist map. Jan Fuscoe finds out why.
Nearly two and a half years after its Jasmine Spring revolution, Tunisia is right back on the tourism radar. For a really unique get-away-from-it-all trek head south to the dramatic desert landscapes of Tataouine, instantly recognisable as the backdrop to key scenes from Star Wars.
Walk with dinosaurs
Not literally, of course; they died out millions of years ago. But footprints of herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs were discovered in the desert area around Chenini back in 1955, and in February of this year, the vertebrae fossil of a 15-metre-long tail was found in Tataouine’s Bir Amor locality. The Memory Museum of the Earth in Tataouine is the place to find out more and, if you’re driving around the Chenini area, the life-size dinosaur casts of the odd stegosaurus looming from a hillside are a fun reminder of their existence.
Eat like a Tunisian
Nearby Djerba is called the ‘Island of the Lotus-Eaters’, where Odysseus almost lost his men to the seductive honey-sweet fruit. You won’t find any lotuses these days, but thanks to the mild climate, Tunisia has fruits and wonderful vegetables all year round. Berber in origin, couscous is Tunisia’s national dish and the steamed semolina grains are served with meat, fish or vegetables, often accompanied by harissa, a fiery chilli sauce.
Celebrate the Sahara
The desert festivals are a perfect opportunity to experience Berber culture. At the Festival of the Ksour Saharien in March and Douz’s Festival of the Sahara in December you’ll have a chance to hear music played by Saharan Berbers. The all-male troupes from Libya, Sudan, Mali and Tunisia play traditional drums, flutes, pipes, horns and stringed lutes and will likely be accompanying traditional dances that represent aspects of their lives, whether hunting, fighting or even cooking. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of the traditional ‘amphora dance’, whereby a tribesman twirls effortlessly with up to ten clay vessels on his head.
Meet the village people
The Berbers have lived in North Africa for over 4,000 years and it’s possible to understand part of their culture by exploring the desert around Tataouine. Once nomadic, the Berbers were excellent tradespeople who built barrel-vaulted rooms, some stacked up to four storeys high, to store their grain, salt and olive oil. Villages like Douiret, with its troglodyte dwellings carved out of the sandy rock, were built strategically high on a hill to be easily defendable from raiding parties. Douiret is now deserted, protected from vandalism by a few sun-grizzled Berber shepherds, but nearby Chenini, where the oldest structures date back to the 12th century is still inhabited, and happens to share its name with one of the moons of Luke Skywalker’s home planet.
Try souks in the city
Houmt Souk is Djerba’s main market and, on Mondays, where you can watch the fish auction, haggle over a Berber rug or their fine silverware. A tip when haggling: don’t if you’re not interested in buying.
Sabre an opportunity
It’s no wonder George Lucas was so inspired by this landscape. The ksour, or fortified granaries, are literally carved out of the rock. The best preserved of all is that of Ouled Soltane, instantly recognisable as the Slave Quarters of Mos Espa where Anakin Skywalker lived as a boy. Thirty miles south of Tataouine, the ksour is easy to reach by road and has been beautifully restored, offering the perfect backdrop for a photo.
Admire the mosques
Unlike in many other Islamic countries, Tunisia’s mosques are not open to tourists. That’s not to say that they can’t be admired from outside, of course. Some of the most beautiful mosques can be found in Djerba on the road to Houmt Souk.
Enjoy a cuppa
You’ll notice dozens of cafés full of men, young and old, and occasionally women, drinking strong coffee or tea and puffing on a shisha pipe. It seems to be something of a hobby, sitting, chatting, playing dominoes and watching the world drift by. Why not do the same? Order a sweet mint tea that will usually be poured, with a flourish, from a great height, people-watch and admire the scenes around you.