Tour Guide: Southern Tunisia

Tour Guide: Southern Tunisia Last updated on Monday 26th April 2010

This is where the north frontier of the Sahara desert begins. The architecture and landscape change and there are not as many historical sites as there are further north. Nevertheless, there are many places of interest as well as popular tourist resorts on the coast.

Gabes

Gabes is a relatively new city which, despite long beaches with fine sand, is not very appealing to tourists. It is a good stopping point for travellers on their way to Kebli, Medenine and Djerba. An industrial city with cement and petroleum plants, and oil and gas wells drilling off its coast, Gabes is Phoenician in origin and was of strategic military importance during World War II for supply lines to Libya.

Next to Gabes Great Mosque is an interesting handicraft souk, selling an assortment of items including Gabes henna and goods made from palm fronds. Gabes' oasis, 10 sq km with more than 300,000 palm trees, is the most accessible oasis on the coast.

The Mosque of Sidi Boulbaba, on the road towards Matmata is one of the areas most important religious monuments. It is the burial place of Sidi Boulbaba, who was the Holy Prophet's companion.

The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions is next to the Sidi Boulbaba Mosque and houses a display of artefacts highlighting the way of life in Gabes throughout the centuries.

Matmata

Matmata is a troglodyte village set in the mountains. The amazing scenery is like a lunar landscape and the houses are dug into the ground. The only visible signs of habitation are television antennas.

Although some of the Berbers known as the Matmata have built themselves normal houses at Matmata Nouvelle, 15km down the road towards Gabes, many still live in the 700 underground dwellings. They were originally constructed this way as protection from an enemy attack and the harsh elements.

Kebil and Douz

This area is the gateway to the desert, where the oasis meets the sand dunes. A cluster of villages announces Kebil, the largest town in a chain of oases dotted along the road around springs surrounded by sand.

Douz is a typical desert village: its markets sell Berber jewellery, and camel skin products, its people breed solukis (desert greyhounds) and every December hold a Sahara festival.

Medenine and Tataouine

Although Medenine is an important crossroads, it has little of interest to offer the visitor. It has been extensively modernized with few traces of its past remaining. It is, however, the centre of the ksour area. A ksar (plural ksour) is a fortified village built in a distinctive style with curved white-washed houses.

Usually the Berbers built their ksour on top of a hill from mud so it would easily blend into the landscape. One of the best preserved ksour in Tunisia is at Ksar Ouled Soltane near Tataouine. Others ksour of interest are Ksar Ben Barka, and Ksar Ouled Debbab -- now abandoned and falling into ruin.

Zaris and the Island of Djerba

Linked together by a causeway, the town of Zaris on the mainland and The Island of Djerba have been associated as a single tourist destination. There are many similarities in both architecture and landscape. Both have plenty of white sandy beaches, olive and date palm groves, and all the tourist facilities typical of a Mediterranean resort.

Zaris is the venue for the annual Sponge festival from July 15th to August 15th. The festival is celebrated with traditional folk dancing, music and fishing competitions. Fishing at Biban Lake is quite spectacular, and local restaurants offer a good choice of fresh fish and shellfish dishes on their menus. Over 80 varieties of fish inhabit the sea including shark, skate and swordfish.

The Island of Djerba has 130km of white beach coastline. It still bears the scars of its violent past and has many places of interest for art and history buffs.

Along the coast fortresses were built by the Turks and the Spanish during the 16th century, their worst period of rivalry. Two villages on the island are populated by descendants from Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian.

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Djerba has its own style of architecture. Houses are scattered randomly around the countryside with no real village centre.They were built this way to protect the locations of Djerba's wells. The only town is Houmt Souk. The squat, white often singled-story houses have no external windows and resemble igloos. There are over 200 small fortified mosques (pictured) which add an attractive element to the scenery.

Houmt Souk, which means market centre, is known for its traditional handicrafts. Amphorae, traditional clothing, gold and silver jewellery and other handiwork of the island's artisans can be found everywhere. The people's market (pictured) held on Mondays and Thursdays attracts both Djerbians and tourists alike.

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The museum of Folklore and Popular Art, set in a beautiful garden, displays traditional costumes and jewellery. Other towns on the island are noted for some speciality in trade, handiwork or are places of historic importance. Adjim, is a sponge fishing town, Fatou produces hand-woven mats, Guellala is the centre for pottery, Mahboubine is known for its backyard gardens, and Sedouikech for hand-crafted camel muzzles, fishing baskets and straw hats.

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