The indigenous culture of Tunisia is having a Renaissance. Stepping out of obscurity, Berber architecture, cuisine and crafts are determined to claim their place in the sun – and in our travel guides.
The oasis city of Tozeur, with its shadowy palm trees laden with dates and old quarter echoing with the trots of horse drawn carriages, feels like stepping back to a bygone time.
Once a pit-stop for the caravans crisscrossing the Sahara, Tozeur hasn’t lost its allure as a gateway to the world’s largest desert. It makes for an excellent base for longer forays into the surrounding area, including the mesmerising Chott El Jerid, Tunisia's largest Salt Lake, and the mountain oases to the north.
Start your introduction to Berber culture with an amble through Tozeur’s labyrinthine medina (old town). Stroll through the narrow streets taking in the architectural masterpieces on either side. Pale-coloured, kiln-baked bricks adorning the façades are intricately decorated with complex geometric patterns – a traditional brickwork craft that is still alive today. Pop in and out of souvenir stores and sip on strong, lightly sweetened black tea with fresh mint and gaze across terracotta rooftops.
It was all a mirage
The largest salt lake in the Sahara, Chott El Jerid is an enormous desert plain which sparkles like a mirage beyond the private pools of the Anantara Tozeur villas. In the summer, unexpectedly rich colours of the salt deposits, ranging from light green to gentle pink to vibrant orange, blur into a rainbow-like pattern.
Dunes for days
Then, of course, there are the breathtaking Sahara plains. For those staying at Anantara Tozeur Resort, answering the call of the desert can be as simple as drawing the curtain in the morning (or calling room service for a tray of mint tea and dates). The resort is a desert sanctuary that blends seamlessly with the desert terrain.
Gratifying as watching the dunes shift is, nothing beats the good old camel back adventure. Once safely perched atop a dromedary, you start a 90-minute track (sunrise experience for the early birds, sunset for the rest) that lets you navigate the shimmering dunes and capture the Saharan landscape from every vantage point. At the leisurely speed of 5kph, you can snap away without the fear of blurry frames.
Not thrilling enough? Dune bashing with a professional driver in a 4x4 should do it for you. The desert safari includes stops for photo opportunities (and for you to catch your breath), and it’s the closest you will get to a roller coaster here.
Gathering all the cultural hallmarks under one roof, the Arabian Nights Cultural Village is an all-encompassing sensory celebration of Tozeur people and their heritage.
The village’s souk is a shopper’s delight, bustling with artisans displaying their ceramics, jewellery, clothing, carpets and woven sun hats and baskets.
Flying the flag for traditional cuisine are spicy couscous dishes, delectable tajines and complex dips. Try the sharp orange-red harissa made with sweet and spicy red peppers, olive oil and spices; and zaalouk – a smoky, caramelized onion dip cooked with garlic, tomatoes, eggplant and cumin.
As you work your way through the menu, the heady fruity scent of shisha fills the air and the night’s entertainment programme begins. Qanun musicians, belly dancers and poets take to the stage to honour the past, celebrate the present and dare to dream of a better future.