Discovering Tunisia: A Real Arabian Fantasy From the Sahara to the Tunis Medina
Anantara's one-bedroom and "royal" villas have private pools and views of Chott el Djerid beyond. (Courtesy of Anantara Sahara Tozeur Resorts and Villas)

Discovering Tunisia: A Real Arabian Fantasy From the Sahara to the Tunis Medina

By

When I close my eyes at night, I still dream about Tunisia.

I see the Sahara, a gold expanse like the vastest beach; the people we met there drinking mint tea and eating the local dates on brightly colored blankets in the sand. The camels lounge contented as if they’d finally found the sea.


When I open my closet door, I can smell the Medina of Tunis, whose many-flowered perfumes hitched a ride home on my skull-printed scarf, the one I had used to cover my head to the amusement of the faithful women at Ez-Zitouna mosque, the oldest and grandest in the Tunisian capital. I may have appeared strange to them in my black cat-eyed sunglasses and shock of bright blonde bangs, but the women welcomed me to sit with them in the courtyard where they laid out their prayer mats and slipped off their babouches, encouraging me to peek inside where countless crystal chandeliers cast a romantic light over elbow-to-elbow supplicants, crowded among hundreds of columns once brought from ancient Carthage.

In the mornings now when I slather myself in the smoky, Tunisian vanilla oil that had seduced me in the hotel spa, it’s overpowering, a fragrance better suited, I think, to holding its own against the warring scents of the medina than for sitting alone with my laptop at my kitchen’s breakfast counter. I wear it anyway, a visceral reminder of the most surprising discovery of my recent life.

I didn’t discover Tunisia, of course. It’s been sitting at the Mediterranean edge of North Africa since time eternal, inhabited by the indigenous Amazigh since antiquity and later ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and French. I visited Tunisia in late September and happened upon perfect weather, with temperatures in the 80s and a once-in-five-years rain over the Sahara that delighted the locals and the camels too, being the beneficiaries of the suddenly lush green scrub that sparkled against the dampened sand.

I confess that my stop in Tunisia was meant to be an add-on to a bucket list trip to Morocco that didn’t come to be. “While I’m in North Africa,” I thought. What I found, though, was an unsung destination in its own right, one that captivated me in a way I just didn’t see coming.

“Discover” is a word we heard often from our Tunisian friends, and while I think this was largely due to a formality in their translation for the more casual “see” or “find,” its charm felt significant: These Tunisians were earnest in their wish that we should drink their culture up, as if down to the grinds of their rich Arabic coffee, fall in love with it, and take it home to share.

We began our journey in the desert resort town of Tozeur, seated between the edge of the Sahara and the Chott el Djerid, one of the largest (if not the largest) salt “lakes” on the African continent, a mostly dry flat whose color shifted from white to pink according to the light, and then to a deep blue after the rain. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought our desert villa enjoyed an ocean view. We had checked in at Anantara Sahara Tozeur, a luxury resort completed just before the pandemic which now sat somewhat quietly, like a mirage in the dunes, waiting for the arrival of high tourist season in winter.

Date palms rise from the natural mountain oasis of Chebika, where an ancient Roman fortress turned now-abandoned Berber village is open to the public for hiking and exploration.(Courtesy of Anantara Sahara Tozeur Resorts and Villas)

A reductive view might liken Tozeur to the West Coast’s Baja California Sur; an easy weekend jaunt for Western Europeans and wealthy Middle Easterners seeking fun in the sun and sand plus plenty of high-end amenities. The Anantara property is truly splendid, complete with villas fit for sheiks, three swimming pools surrounded by palm trees, fledgling roses and bougainvillea, and one of the finest spas I’ve had the pleasure of being pampered in lately. Arabian-style nights filled with traditional music and hookah smoke are a primary draw along with camel and horseback rides overlooking Chott el Djerid, desert adventures like fat bikes and stargazing, and excursions to the mountain oasis Tamerza, the ancient Roman-turned-Berber village of Chebika, and the Star Wars film locations at Mides Canyon and Ong Jemel.

Though a direct flight from Paris is reportedly coming soon, Tozeur is currently only accessible through Tunis via a one-hour flight offered just three days a week. This makes it a less than obvious destination for Americans (we arrived by way of Rome), but it made our being here feel all the more special, and the people of Tozeur seemed all the more delighted to see us. It was a theme that popped up repeatedly during our visit. Tunisians actually like Americans, calling us friendlier and more curious than their frequent visitors from Europe. Having spent decades traveling in Europe and wishing I were Canadian (and sometimes saying I was depending on who was president), it was a treat to feel really welcomed for once.

There are women here with such stunning makeup it deserves the prettier French term maquillage; they smile brightly and often giggle when they speak as if humbled to have our attention. But modesty aside, they are well educated, opinionated, and posting crop-topped selfies to Instagram like everybody else. The men are genteel and mostly keep their distance until our American personalities get them going—they are skilled in repartee and rarely miss a joke regardless of the language in which it’s delivered. Most are proficient in English, all are fluent in French, and many were eager to teach us words in their native Arabic, though quick to point out that Tunisia has its own dialect. Tunisians, we learned, are proud to be distinct from the rest of the Arab world. When the country gained its independence from France in the 1950s, the French went away but left their culture behind. The result is a populace that is more modern and open-minded than other Islamic nations, essentially more European. Women are treated equally and head coverings are optional. It was the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, after all, that gave rise to the Arab Spring.

To my American ears, French is spoken here as much as Arabic, and you’ll hear some Italian, German, and a little Spanish too. Even when we are unable to communicate verbally, which is rare, we pretend to understand with the conviviality of old friends.

“They’re so free with their laughter,” said Natalie, my sister and travel companion, noticing that so many people we encountered seemed genuinely delighted by the most basic of daily exchanges. And while we found many Tunisians to have a wonderful sense of humor, their warmth is wholly sincere. Wish the young woman at the next table a happy birthday and she’ll share her hazelnut cake; crack a joke about coming over for dinner and her family will readily invite you to their home.

“We are the losers of history,” said Amar, a vendor in Tunis’ Grand Souk Chechias with a broad yellowed smile, thinking eyes, and a serious story to tell. Natalie and I would later joke that you should not make eye contact with a Tunisian unless you have half an hour to spare, but Amar was the first to wave us into his shop in the medina that day, and though he was surrounded by a hodgepodge of traditional and contemporary pottery, hand-painted ceramic tiles, leather goods, and stone pieces all beautifully made here, there was nothing he cared more to sell us than his pride for his country and his people.

Our attention was his as he recounted the history of Tunisia’s indigenous Amazigh, the ancient matriarchal society known wrongly, and rudely, the world over as Berbers. Amar was neither the first nor the last to explain the etymology of the word that has its root in ancient Greece where all non-Greek speakers were referred to as barbaros. These originally included the Romans, who later applied the term to the Goths and Vandals and Huns and any other tribe who, to their minds, lacked the civility of Greco-Roman tradition. When the Arabs conquered Kairouan and Carthage in the seventh century, they called the indigenous holdouts Berbers, though the Amazigh have never, would never, adopt the word themselves. The term, of course, eventually became the English barbarian.

Camels are everywhere in Tozeur—combing the dunes of the Sahara, on the side of the highway, and available for excursions both in the desert and on property at Anantara.(Courtesy of Anantara Sahara Tozeur Resorts and Villas)

Whether Amar—or any of the others who shared this bit of history with us—is of Amazigh descent, I do not know. Like the many Americans who are leading the movement toward better respecting and defending the cultures of our own indigenous people, Amar and his ilk are taking up the mantle to ensure their people and their heritage get seen.

It is still less than a century since the nationalist Habib Bourguiba lead the country to independence from France; less than 70 years since he, as Tunisia's first prime minister and then president (from 1957 to 1987), first pushed reform for women's rights, raising the legal age for girls to marry, expanding access to divorce, and prioritizing education for the entire population. This makes Tunisia a country with ancient history and an increasingly modern intellect, and perhaps it is only through telling their stories again and again, by handing them forward through the next generations—just as they have their traditions of religion, hospitality, and craft—that the page might turn on the narrative of Tunisia as history’s loser.

As Amar pointed out, Tunisia doesn’t enjoy the caché of nearby Italy or Greece. Nor does it compete with Morocco, its North African neighbor that so captures the global imagination and all those tourist dollars. (For comparison, tourism brought Tunisia just $2.68 billion in revenue in the year 2019 compared with Morocco's $9.9 billion, according to World Data.) But this isn’t to say that it never will. Perhaps age-old Tunisia is really just in its spring.

There is much to discover in this country, its humanity most of all. I won't soon forget the tale of scandal and intrigue my writer's mind weaved as we anxiously followed a stranger through the labyrinthine Medina of Tunis, my eyes catching those of men lingering in the doorways of the souks lest someone remember the blonde American who was never seen again. Instead, my melodrama ended with the same spectacular rooftop view of the city we'd been promised and a few coins of gratitude to our ersatz guide. "I hope you enjoyed your discovery," he said.

I see you, Tunisians, and can’t wait to discover you again.

Discover the Tunisian Sahara + More in Tozeur

Tunisian textiles in shades of spice warm an otherwise-sandy palette inside Anantara's elegant suites and villas.

(Courtesy of Anantara Sahara Tozeur Resorts and Villas)

Check in atAnantara Sahara Tozeur Resorts + Villas.

If you're flying into Tozeur from Tunis and it's a good chance you are, there is also a good chance you'll arrive at this five-star property well after nightfall. You'll see nothing but the back of your driver's head on the black ride over, which perhaps makes the opening of the hotel's double doors all the more breathtaking. The lobby is grand but sophisticated and subdued, made warm with pops of color in Tunisian textiles, copper-topped tables, and handwoven baskets brimming with local bounty—dates, rosebuds, herbs, and the red chilies used to make the addictive harissa spread you'll find in the onsite restaurant Sarab. But there's nothing so inviting as the bright smiles you'll receive from the staff who are consistently delightful here. Rose petals, candles, and playful balloons welcomed us to our villa, elegantly designed with North African influences and thoughtful books.

Sunrise reveals what midnight concealed: the veritable mirage that is the expanse of desert and the salty Chott el Djerid sprawling from the foot of our private patio. Though young, the whole property seems to have sprung up like an oasis from the sand, with lean palms bending gently over three glimmering swimming pools, all unnaturally blue against the resort's desert palette. There are 93 suites and villas here, which seems surprising given the highly intimate feel. Each has a spa-like bathroom and oversized windows for maximizing the view; we recommend reserving a one-bedroom pool villa for enjoying a private late afternoon soak after a day of exploring the Sahara.

A gym and yoga studio, tennis and basketball courts, and kids club complete the property. // Suites start at $350 per night; for more information and reservations, go to anantara.com.

Explore Tozeur, the Sahara, and its surrounds.

Staying at the luxurious Anantara is like having your own personal genie of the lamp: Your wish is their command. Whether you're more into trekking the otherworldly Chott el Djerid, wandering the intricately bricked corridors of the Tozeur Medina, or exploring ancient landmarks, the team here will arrange it. Of course, your primary objective is to meet the majesty of the Sahara, and she doesn't disappoint. Schedule a quad biking adventure or camelback excursion followed by a sunset refreshment in the dunes.

Star Wars diehards make the trek for photo ops at notable film locations, but the region is best represented in a hike through the mountain oasis of Chebika, a Roman outpost in antiquity and later an Amazigh refuge, where you can get a bit of history along with a waterfall breeze in the natural palm oasis. Buy a bag of the local Deglet Nour dates to take home, and don't miss a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice at the cafe which is pleasantly overrun by cats.

Remember, it is Tunisia's people that will make your trip, so take every opportunity to chat them up—they are eager to share their culture. Our first taste of this was through our guide, Khmaïs Ouled-Abdessayed, who punctuated our itinerary with discoveries off the beaten path—we witnessed the special art of Tozeur brick-making, then learned a bit about Tunisian politics over traditional Arabic coffee in the medina. With decades of experience and impeccable English learned at Cambridge, Khmais' deep knowledge of history, philosophy, and literature could fill a library of books—and several pages of my travel journal with his keen personality and wit. Request him personally, you won't regret it.

Relax at the Anantara spa.

Had we visited the spa—named the best in Tunisia by World Spa Awards—on the first day of our trip rather than the last, we would have booked a treatment every single day. We are greeted by two gorgeous therapists, Salwa and Hawa (have I mentioned the people here are stunning?), and a plate of the local dates which they say are terrific for your skin, especially when you eat seven of them each morning. While I wonder about their blood sugar, there is no denying their faces are flawless. Their care is equally tender as they guide us through our journey, from steam room and sauna to cold pool and, at last, to the petal-strewn and candlelit couples suite where we blissed out during a combined massage and facial. After scooping up some delicious handmade body oils to take home, we reluctantly depart in a shower of hugs and red-lipsticked kisses, wishing we could take Hawa and Salwa home as souvenirs. // anantara.com/en/sahara-tozeur/spa

Dine on global flavors.

The array of food options at Anantara is reflective both of the hotel brand's international pedigree and of Tunisia's location at the northern tip of Africa, with easy reach to Mediterranean Europe as well as the Middle East. At breakfast, Sarab serves a classic buffet including flaky croissants and fresh-squeezed orange, date, and lemon juices; at dinner, more local flavors shine in dishes such as couscous and a stunning selection of mezze. The design-rich restaurant Mekong plates a fusion of Asian flavors, and there's pizza to be had by the pool. But the shining offerings here are the ones you'll see on Instagram: Anantara's Dining by Design experience will set up your private supper in Berber fashion in the sand, and its newly opened Arabian Nights lounge ($55USD with advance reservation) mingles spicy aromas with live performances around fire pits beneath the stars.

Shop

Save some dinar (cash is preferred) and prepare to make difficult choices (unless you brought an empty suitcase): The lobby shop at Anantara brims with exquisite locally made goods. While the hammered silver tea pots and serving trays and palm-woven baskets called to us, it was the fringed silk and linen scarves, small leather bags, and handcrafted soaps that made their way into our luggage.

One Day in Tunis: Check in at Dar El Jeld + Wander the Medina

A rooftop view of Ez-Zitouna's minaret and the Medina of Tunis.

(Chloe Hennen)

We closed our week in Tunisia with one madcap day in the capital—hats off to Harry Criswell of Altour who insisted we must at least spend the night. Our only mistake: that we didn't stay an extra week.

Where to Stay + Dine in Tunis

Think of a dar as Tunisia's version of the Moroccan riad: a boutique hotel inside a converted home, usually with a central courtyard. Tucked behind a traditional studded yellow door on a narrow stone lane in the medina, Dar El Jeld(5-10 Dar El Jeld St.) feels like a well-kept secret. Like the medina itself, there are delights around every corner: intricately tiled walls and vaulted plaster ceilings; cozy European-style salons with antique furnishings and crystal chandeliers; and an extensive art collection ranging from delicate glass vessels to chunky African urns, whimsical nudes to moody oil paintings. Sixteen newly constructed suites are modern, spacious, and an excellent value—you can book the grandest of them all for under $200 a night. There is also a lovely little hammam and a rooftop restaurant serving breakfast and cocktails with a 360-degree view.

Make reservations in advance if you hope to dine at the hotel's namesake restaurant, located in another exquisite mansion just next door. A foyer and sitting room are lavishly painted scarlet and hung with art in gilded frames. The dining room is breathtaking with elaborate carvings, marble pillars, Persian rugs, and a galaxy of glittering pendants hanging from a two-story atrium ceiling. The menu is all Tunisian and exceptional, with highlights including an epic sampling of mezze and a whole grilled fish. The atmosphere feels fancy; the food is plentiful and affordable; and the mood is lively. On our visit, tables clapped and sang along to tunes from a live qanun player. // dareljeld.com

The Medina of Tunis

If you have just one day as I did to get a taste of the Tunisian capital, the Medina of Tunis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the stuff of your most aromatic North African dreams. Its ancient alleyways unfurl into an endless maze of souks, cafes where men smoke shishas, and historic palaces and mosques with architectural influences ranging from Andalusia to Arabia. The walk from Dar El Jeld to the monumental Ez-Zitouna mosque is barely five minutes if you can keep from getting distracted. Situated on over an acre, it has nine entrances, an iconic minaret, and dates to 698 CE though some of its building materials were hauled up from ancient Carthage. (The seaside archeological site, founded by the Phoenicians in the first millennium BC, is must-visit if you have an extra day).

Even a seasoned shopper could lose all sense in the Tunis medina: If buttery leather babouche slippers, dazzlingly beaded Berber wedding gowns, colorful woven poufs, amber and silver jewelry, and handmade pottery turn you into a star-eyed emoji, then this is basically your Disneyland. Orient yourself around the Rue Sidi Ben Arous where you'll find the wonderful Eddar(8 Rue Sidi Ben Arous), a merchant of true artisan handcrafts and antiques inside a cavernous converted manse. They purport to have one of the largest collections of Amazigh wedding shawls in the world as well as a can't-miss rooftop garden. Just around the corner in the Grand Souk Chechias, you can pick up a traditional red wool hat from the jewel box shop of Fathi Blaich(4 Grand Souk Chechias). The refined Fondouk El Attarineis a curated gallery of more modern Tunisian-made fashions and housewares and has a tearoom and restaurant for when you get peckish. You will also find a smaller outpost of El Attarine inside Dar El Jeld. The babouches here are a bit pricier than elsewhere in the medina but, in a rainbow of shades delicious enough to eat, they are the finest we saw and make for a perfect memento.

A cafe in the Medina of Tunis.

(Natalie Wages)

An iconic Tunisian door at Dar El Jeld.

(Chloe Hennen)

Eddar is an endless trove of Tunisian artisan treasures and antiques on Rue Sidi Ben Arous.

(Natalie Wages)

The bustle outside Ez-Zitouna, the oldest mosque in Tunis.

(Natalie Wages)

Related Articles
Most Popular
Neighborhoods
From Our Partners