For those, like myself, who wish to explore Arab culture and language without finding it totally opaque, Tunisia makes for a great stepping stone. Hospitable and humble, Tunisians speak Arabic, French and English and with 300 days of sun across the year, it's no surprise that more than 1.3 million French visited the North African country last year.
In March, Tunisair added Tozeur in the south-west as a new destination from Nice. And while this famous oasis, 400km from Tunis, is less than a two hour flight from the Coast, I couldn't grasp why someone would chose to fly here rather than to, say, the family-oriented Club Med in Djerba or the decadent Hasdrubal Thalassa & Spa in Hammamet. My question was soon answered as I saddled up my camel and started crossing the Sahara desert. Sure, I wasn't exactly living the life of a Bedouin, but for five minutes amongst the blinding sand, a kufiyya wrapped traditionally around my head, my galabeyas flowing in the wind ... I understood why people would want to come here.
Tozeur functions as a base camp for visiting the region. Adventures south to the Sahara or west to the dunes within kilometres of the Algerian border beckon 4x4s to follow their paths. And the scenic drives along easily drivable, heavily policed roads will not disappoint (although, don't ask your driver to take the bord de mer).
The Sahara and Star Wars
As the gateway to the Sahara, the town of Douz itself is uneventful (Thursday markets, mostly of poultry) but the Sahara Museum is worth a stop. (I didn't know a camel can survive fifteen days without water and then drink 80 litres in one hour!) The 120km journey between Tozeur and Douz runs along the Chott el Djerid, an enormous 7000km2 endorheic salt lake. From a combination of high temperatures (50°C) and as little rainfall as 100mm, it produces mind-blowing fata morganas - mirages. Other must-dos outside Tozeur: take the Lézard rouge - a "museum" train that runs through the otherwise inaccessible gorges of Selja where, according to legend, the red rock was split into canons by a warrior's sword to create a nuptial bed for his princess. The final stop will take you close to the dunes of Ong J'mel, where Star Wars was filmed (left). An incredibly touristy attraction but "so cool".
Tozeur town offers luxury accommodation and a place to unwind (and to wash the sand from your hair) after a long day's escapade. A colourful main street blossoms with shops selling everything from carpets to clothes, painted glassware to pottery and Berber jewellery. Bartering is a must and with one euro equalling about 1.79 dinars, a bargain is inevitable. There are plenty of coffee shops to sip mint tea and people watch, if you can find a seat amongst the locals who take conversing seriously. From here you can appreciate the details of the moorish sun-baked bricks - traditional Tozeur, as they say - of the surrounding architecture.
Ouled el-Hadef - Tozeur's Medina behind the souk - remains unchanged from its 14th century origins. It's "one of the most impressive desert quarters" and home to Tozeur's reputed decorative doors. Keep an eye out for the number of knockers: the right knocker (the deepest sound) is for men, the left for women and the lower for children. The Dar Chariet museum displays rare manuscripts, jewellery, and ceramics.
Safety and celebrations
"Safety and security are very good here," Mohamed Lamine Maherzi, Tunisian Consul General in Nice and Monaco told me. "Being close to the Algerian border, there is continuous police presence and the locals know this." This is true: gendarmes are highly visible along many of the roads in and out of cities; and while I kept my purse close at hand while roaming the town, I felt less paranoid than I do in Nice. Another inescapable observation from driving around the area (aside from the numerous satellite dishes) is the endless droves of children walking to school everywhere. "Tunisia has a 99 per cent literacy rate. In fact, it's a crime not to send children to school here. The country used to export labourers but now its skilled workers - one in twenty-five Tunisians is an engineer," M. Maherzi told me. "In the South of France, there are about 120,000 Tunisians living in the 06 region and 150,000 in the Var."
And here's a date to mark on your calendar: the Oasis Festival in November (or December), is a four day celebration of desert culture with traditional music, dancing, storytelling and ... camel wrestling. See you there!
How to get there: I flew courtesy of Tunisair (www.tunisair.com). With impeccable in-flight service, the carrier - celebrating its 60th year - flies twice weekly to Tozeur-Nafta airport, a mere three kilometres from many of the hotels.
Where to stay: With its traditional architecture and botanical lobby, the luxury Sofitel Palm Beach hotel (www.sofitel.com) makes an impression. The hotel's spa decor is one of the most attractive I've seen and the service is magical. The Tamerza Palace & Spa (www.tamerza-palace.com), about 70km from Tozeur, is spectacular if you're looking for a little R&R in between camel crossings.
From Riviera Reporter issue 127: June/July 2008