magical road trip into the unfamiliar
Nike cr7 enfant mercurialx proximo ii tf on our road trip through southern Tunisia, we drove through extraordinary landscapes stony desert, rugged mountains, sand dunes, shimmering salt flats, fertile oases. We passed remote homesteads with palm frond roofs and stopped at roadside shacks selling spicy stews or sweet pastries. In isolated villages we glimpsed ways of life unchanged for centuries turbaned men in billowing white jellabahs, riding horses with embroidered and tasselled harnesses; veiled women with tattooed faces; souks selling dates, pomegranates, spices and pottery; and everywhere a smiling hospitality that made us ashamed of our British reserve.
Ksar Ouled Soltane doesn’t look much from the outside a high walled, windowless compound of tawny mud, next to a hilltop mosque. But inside is a magnificent four storey fortified granary, with one of its two courtyards dating from the 15th century now a Unesco site. A young guide told us that members of his tribe still use it for weekly prayers, community meetings and festivals. Each barrel vaulted storeroom, or ghorfa, is about 8ft high and up to 30ft deep; some still have ancient palm wood doors with hefty peg and hole locks. Inside, the clay and gypsum walls are decorated with handprints, family names and messages to Allah.
Southern Tunisia’s steep escarpments are dotted with caves where Berbers have lived since the 11th century, when Arabs destroyed their lowland villages and mercurialx proximo ii tf farms. After a delicious morning snack of ftair, a sweet fritter, we visited Chenini, where 500 villagers still live in caves in the craggy cliff face. A youth in a blue turban and baggy trousers proposed himself as our guide. Like many local boys, Nagi had spent several years selling newspapers in Tunis, but returned to look after his grandmother, and, he explained, to help preserve traditional customs and the Berber language, which locals still speak.
He took us first to the village cemetery, each grave marked with small standing stones two for a man, and three for a woman. Nearby, in a cave mosque, lie the tombs of the local marabout or saint, and of the Seven Sleepers imprisoned Christians, who miraculously grew to 12ft tall, awoke after four centuries, and died (again) as Muslim converts.
We followed Nagi up steep clay steps and along narrow paths to Chenini’s cave homes, which are constructed in tiers following the geological strata of the cliff. We ducked through a low archway to a small whitewashed courtyard, where his 70 year old grandmother sat at her loom. She was a startling looking woman with purple tattoos on her nose and chin, colourful clothes and clanking jewellery. Beyond her, the family ghar had been burrowed into the hillside cool in summer and warm in winter. A separate cave served as a kitchen, with an ancient electric fridge.
At lunchtime, we stumbled down eight storeys of steep steps, through a series of caves, to a burrowed out caf with two tables. As we ate chorba (spicy soup) and brik l’oeuf (a pastry envelope containing a fried egg) Nagi tucked into chicken and chips and asked if we had any Wayne Rooney souvenirs.
Driving north west, we passed more troglodyte villages and blank walled granary fortresses, impregnable in the stony desert. In the distance, a skyline of sharp peaks loomed. A plump, grey jerboa scuttled across the road. Sheep and black goats grazed on dry scrub. As we gazed back towards the glittering Mediterranean, a convoy of 4x4s roared past, whisking holidaymakers from coastal resorts on a « safari,
The troglodyte settlement of Matmata bustles with tourists and touts. Here 100 cave dwellings survive, some dating incredibly from the fourth century BC. Each consists of a large circular pit, 30ft deep, reached by mercurialx proximo ii tf a rope ladder or earth ramp, with tunnel like underground rooms leading off it. Many are now restaurants or hotels, and we had lunch in one chakchouka (chickpea stew topped with a fried egg).
The troglodyte settlement of MatmataAs we drove west, the stony hamada desert gave way to the erg pale, ridged sand, scattered with grey green tufts. To the north rose the dramatic peaks of Jebel Tebaga. The road was dead straight, and utterly empty. Discarded tyres were piled at the roadside like postmodern art installations. Mirages appeared and evaporated. A dust devil created a whirlwind of sand. Camels stalked slowly across the sand strewn road haughty, languid, heads held high.
In Douz, palm frond fences attempt to hold back the Sahara, and locals are wrapped in hooded cloaks against blown sand. At the Muse du Sahara, a guide explained nomadic traditions of swaddling bands, tattoos and the camel hair burnous or cloak. Bedouin brides wear black embroidered robes, and ride a camel pulled by a man nike cr7 enfant who must be called Ali or Mohammed, and accompanied by a child to ensure fertility. The bride is concealed by a palanquin, with only her right hand showing the hand of Fatima. nike cr7 enfant Strict rules once governed nomadic life a curtain in the tent separated men and visitors from women and children, and the wife communicated with her husband by banging a spoon on a wooden bowl, so mercurialx proximo ii tf that her voice would not be heard. Our guide said that he now lives in the town, but, like everyone he knows, he and his family return to the desert every year to spend several weeks in a traditional Bedouin tent.
Passing Kebili, where black faces are a legacy of a 1,000 year slave trade with Sudan, we reached the mesmerising Chott el Jerid salt flats, a vast, blinding landscape, dazzlingly white with glints of pink, purple, grey and blue. In the middle of this glistening moonscape, we stopped at a shack selling wind eroded quartz sand roses, and drank sweet mint tea from grimy glasses.
Beyond lies the oasis town of Tozeur, with its matchless 14th century medina narrow alleys of yellowish brick, doors decorated with studded nails, women veiled in black with a blue stripe denoting their marital status. The lush oasis has irrigation channels designed in the 13th century. Here on a carpet of fallen pomegranates, we enjoyed plump, sweet dates, from some of Tozeur’s 200,000 palms.
We drove on towards red mountains with knife edge peaks and corrugated ridges. The remote oasis town of Tamerza is ringed by knobbly hills of pale terracotta, with wind gouged hollows and gunnels, scrunched, crumpled, pleated and gathered. Almost on the border with Algeria, the tiny village of Mids is spectacularly perched on a precipitous outcrop, surrounded by narrow crumbling canyons. As the sun set, each fold in the mountain range turned a darker grey, and the strata in the gorge below glowed red and gold.
Heading back towards Djerba, we remembered arid hamada, windswept erg, glistening Chott and Jebel peaks. We remembered delicious meals and felt pleased to have learnt the local words for the unfamiliar and magical delights of southern Tunisia. Based on two sharing.
Hotel Marhala, Matmata
A troglodyte maze of rooms and cave corridors 20ft below Matmata. Unusual but quite basic, with shared shower facilities. Featured as an alien disco in the original Star Wars. Perched above a dry oued, with stucco walls exactly matching the russet hills all around. The Zone Touristique in Douz has a plethora of indistinguishable Berber style places catering for tourist groups. Elsewhere on this trip, the most memorable way to enjoy local cooking is at roadside shacks and tiny family run cafs.
Le Petit Prince
Good French and Tunisian food in a pretty courtyard garden. Serves wine (Ave Abdulkacem Chebbi, Tozeur; 00216 7645 2518).
French owned, with stylish dcor and a pretty courtyard. No alcohol (Ave Habib Bourghiba, Tozeur; 2352 4203) mercurialx proximo ii tf.