The International Writers Magazine
Christmas in Tunisia

Christmas in Tunisia
Ann Dymond

There is a secret on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. Under three hours away it is possible to find contrasting delights of desert, sophistication and the freshest sea food, all in the middle of December.

Douz, for instance, holds its own Saharan Festival over the Christmas and New year period every year. It is based on an ancient Bedouin gathering, when Saharan tribes met to trade and, legend has it, to marry off their daughters. These days, the nearest approximation to this exercise was a visit by ‘Blind Date’ competitors to the nearby five-star Tozeur Palm Beach Hotel, while the present day Saharan Bedouins, compete in camel, horse and dog races, folklore performances and traditional plays. Their backdrop is the 150 mile-long salt lake of Chott El Jerid, which set the scene for the film, ‘The English Patient,’ and the golden sand dunes that were a setting for ‘Star Wars.’

The Tunisian Tourist Office runs tours over this period to Douz and the surrounding area. It is two hours fifty minutes to Tunis, and a further one-hour internal flight to Tozeur. This town has developed around a 2500-acre oasis of palm trees, irrigated by 200 natural springs. It has daily flights to Tunis, a collection of international standard hotels and is the nearest airport to Douz.

Drive in the shadow of the Bouhlel, a pleated offshoot of the majestic Atlas mountains, and across the shimmering salt of Chott El Jerid, known to Pliny and credited with being the source of the legendary Lake Triton. Motor on, past fossilised sand dunes, through small towns, where road police check for seat belts and children swarm in and out of compulsory schools. As the sounds of the Bedouin Festival waft over the desert air, it is obvious why Douz styles itself the ‘Gateway to the Sahara.’

Here it is possible to walk about, listening to bands from competing tribes, ride a camel called Mustapha, attend a busy market, watch the first arrivals of the endurance horse race, or the beginning of the dromedary international Marathon. There are poetry and painting competitions, with ‘Sahara’ as a theme, for children, who rate highly in Tunisia. A visit to the cultural fair at the M’hemed El Marzougui centre is worth a few minutes of anyone’s time.

The El Mouradi hotel offers a buffet lunch that must be one of the most comprehensive anywhere. Fresh fish, such as red snapper, sea bass, bream, grouper, red mullet, tuna and prawns, is served with fresh vegetables and salads of all kinds. There is couscous, the national dish, with a vegetable, lamb or poultry stew. A sweet tooth helps, as the baklava; honey-soaked flaky pastry is to die for, as is the mint tea for afters.

It is possible to race back and catch the sun setting on dunes in Star Wars country. No words can capture the peaceful silence or the colour of the desert at this time of day, particularly now that the war-like ones have departed.

There are many other excursions on offer during these tours. The Lezard Rouge, a refurbished Beylical train leaves Metlaoui, north of Tozeur, to run through the Selja Gorge, which compares favourably with anything Colorado can offer. Oases beckon from the desert, none better than that near Tamerza, where the Palace Hotel offers a luxurious and peaceful switch-off for a few days. Their barbecue, eaten on a balcony, under brilliant bouganvillea and blue skies, overlooks the ruins of an ancient Bedouin village whose houses are slowly reverting to the desert from which they came. A bottle of the local Chateau St Augustine, Graine d’Amour taken purely medicinally of course, sets the seal on a spiritual revival of spectacular proportions.

A day spent in Tunis on the way back can prepare for a return to normal life. There is a magnificent shopping centre there, with all the designer wear that one could wish for and at prices that compete favourably with other cities in Europe. There are cosmopolitan cafes in town, and also romantic Roman ruins. The Bardo museum holds the largest collection of mosaics in the world.

Tunisia is a country of contrasts with golden dunes and green oases, 700 miles of sandy beaches and Roman pools, modern hotels and Bedouin villages, golf courses, museums, mosaics, souks and the Festival of Douz, all under almost-guaranteed blue skies. These are real incentives for those who feel the need to escape the gloom of a British winter.

Fact Box
Tunisian National Tourist Office: Telephone 020 7224 5561.

© Ann Dymond April 2006

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