Andrea Marechal-Watson experiences olive groves, dunes, salt pans, oases and a warm welcome as she crosses the interior of the North African country
Dates. These strange, sticky fruits have for ever been part of the festive table alongside preserved ginger, chestnuts and other once exotic foodstuffs. As to their origin and indeed why they appear as if by magic at Christmas it is a mystery to most people.
This was put right for me on a recent trip to the almost wholly unknown but wonderful International Festival of Dates in Kebili, Tunisia, a two-day event with parades, competitions, music and, according to my official programme, a ‘people eating contest’ that rounds things off.
To get to Kebili we crossed the interior of Tunisia, starting out from Djerba and driving westwards through a glorious tapestry of olive groves and elegant palms rising from textured dunes. We travelled along well-made, straight roads as our guide Hassan kept up an intensive discourse on the history, topography, economy, botany and biology of this beautiful country.
This route would enable us to visit Matmata and the troglodyte caves featured in the original Star Wars. These caves are still home to about 2,500 families, descendents of Berbers who fled from the Arabic Banu Hilal raiders in the 11th century and hid in the mountains where they carved out secret compounds. Film tourism is good business. You can stay in Luke Skywalker’s desert home, now the Sidi Idriss hotel – for 40 dinar (£13.50) a night half-board. We had a grander billet, the Offra Hotel, a splendid modern Arabian Nights creation outside Douz (half-board 88 dinar/£30), which opened last year.
Douz, the so-called Gateway to the Sahara, owes its existence to a grand and extensive oasis entirely given over to palms. We were on the edge of date country, and would see many more of these palm oases which are so important to the economy, for dates today account for 70 per cent of the area’s income.
Christmas conveniently coincides with harvest – hence the appearance of dates in markets everywhere at this of year – a feat accomplished in time-honoured fashion by young men who fearlessly scale the 100-foot palms to gather the bundled up dates before surfing back to the ground on the fronds.
Before dinner at the Offra Hotel we visited the dunes to watch the sunset. It is obligatory to take a photograph, even though all sunset photos look alike, but I was glad I went for a turbaned man who passed by on a small Arab horse and let us mount and ride around. Can you imagine that ever happening in England?
Later, the quiet night was interrupted by a troupe of African drummers with a zukra pipe player who could raise the dead with his piercing desert sounds. We would meet both the young rider and musicians next day at the International Date Festival, where they formed part of the parade that gathers together people from Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania and Egypt. We visited Kebili’s ancient medina, which a tiny local association is attempting to restore. “My mother used to live here,” said Cool Burn Hatem, our guide pointing to a ruin beyond which rises the white dome of a mosque, almost the only remaining building. It is tragic that for lack of funds this ancient site, which has the earliest evidence of humans in Tunisia and was once an outpost of the Roman Empire, could disappear.
From Kebili we made for Tozeur, which is 60 kilometres from a Foreign & Commonwealth Office Red Zone. Tunisian tourism has been hit hard by the 2015 attacks at Sousse and the Bardo Museum. Horrific as they were, I believe the country has paid an overly heavy price. The FCO currently advises against all but essential travel to Tunisia (a Yellow Zone) and in some border areas (Red Zones) against all travel. Nearly half of Algeria is a Red Zone, including its entire border with Tunisia, which unfortunately shares its other border with Libya, a blanket Red Zone.
The road runs through salt pans where mirages are common. We saw what looked like a boat riding the blue water and begged Hassan to stop, but it was no illusion. A canny merchant had hauled it there to get people to pull up at his stall selling salt, mint, sand snowflakes and stuffed adders in frames.
To be honest, for a Yellow Zone town, Tozeur is really rather disappointing. The people are charming, cosmopolitan and relaxed. The city itself – famed for its decorative brickwork – is orderly, clean and affluent looking. It boasts a 9th century medina that is still inhabited and is popular with French tourists who once again this year have a direct flight from Paris. Tozeur is also home to the Date Museum where every last fact about dates is yours for a mere £3. Did you know that the palm tree is technically a grass? Neither did I.
We were taken to see a couple of oases, typical of those ‘must see’ sights, with parks full of 4x4s where you run the gauntlet of stallholders selling desperate items and can take a selfie in front of a waterfall; everyone buys a desert turban for this event. The last stop, to a place where scenes from the English Patient were shot, was best of all and we met a local family walking around the ruins. “Please come and stay in our village,” said one of the teenagers. I wish I could have. Earlier a stallholder had welcomed us effusively with a cry: “You are English. Lovely jubberley. Please come back.”
The Tunisian government, however, is looking elsewhere. Russian tourists are a growing source of income. “They still come here because they are not frightened by anything,” joked Hassan. The bigger hope is probably China, whose citizens do not want the usual tourist package. They eschew sun and are not gastronomically fixated like the French and English. They are also a tour operator’s dream as they like organised coach trips to important cultural sites and are happy to be regimented.
An economic forum was underway the day we departed and these new tourist markets were on the agenda. We met a small party of Chinese delegates in the ruins of old Carthage. They were taking selfies at the Roman baths of Antoninus. So be it. Dates alone are not enough to support Tunisia, even though I for one will be serving quite a lot at Christmas.
For information on holidays in Tunisia, visit http://www.antor.com/members/tunisia