At the Sahara's
Edge in Tunisia
FEBRUARY 3, 1993 -- My first great drive overseas was in Tunisia. It was 1970 and I'd hopped over from Rome to Tunis, to see the ruins of Carthage and touch base with Africa.

On a whim, I decided to rent a car and cross some desert too. I promised to have the little Renault back in two days, but was so wiled by the sights down every road that I kept it for a week. That's no mean commitment for a 23-year-old living on a subsistence salary.

The name Tunisia might have an exotic and faraway ring, but to me the country has always been an extension of Europe: a favorite stop to be made every few years, usually as a side trip from Rome. And, always, as a place to drive.

Tunisia crams a critical mass of ancient ruins, walled cities and natural wonders into an area smaller than Missouri--half as big if you discount the unpopulated deep-south Sahara, where you probably won't go. Nowhere are you more than an hour from the next spectacle.

My first trip, with a few refinements, remains the best introduction to Tunisia. It takes in most of the top sights as you drift through ever-changing landscapes that echo of Hannibal and Julius Caesar, Rommel and Montgomery--and Han Solo and Luke Skywalker since sequences from the original Star Wars were filmed here.

Along the way you will visit a Roman coliseum and two religions' holiest shrines in Africa: Islam's Great Mosque of Kairouan (fourth in importance after those at Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), and Judaism's El Ghriba synagogue, thought to date from 586 B.C., the start of the Babylonian Exile.

As you proceed south in Tunisia the scene grows ever more barren, tortured and expansive; you already know what to expect if you saw The Sheltering Sky. Actually the movie adaptation of Paul Bowles's novel of Americans adrift in North Africa was filmed in Morocco, but Tunisia shares history, culture and geology with both Morocco and Algeria. The main differences: Tunisia is less expensive and less crowded than Morocco, more welcoming than Algeria. And, unlike John Malkovich and Debra Winger, who were forced to hole up in fly-infested hovels, on this Tunisian itinerary you spend the night at two first-class beach resorts: Monastir and Djerba.

Tunis is about an hour's flight south of Rome, near Africa's northernmost point. This fairly easy three-day drive begins there and winds up on the island of Djerba, 377 miles to the south, where you can drop your rental car and fly back to Europe. All major car-rental firms are in Tunisia, but the prices vary wildly. Ask your travel agent to shop around.

Tunisia is the gentlest of Islamic nations. Americans do not need visas, and at this writing the State Department has no travel advisory in effect for the country.

Health standards are among the highest in Africa--but play it safe with bottled water. French is universally spoken, and English is common at hotels and restaurants. Tunisian food is also French-accented, and local vineyards produce surprisingly good table wines.

The drive can be taken at any time. In winter the far north tends to be chillingly damp, but the south remains warm and sunny. July and August can be horrendously hot. April to June and September to November are ideal.

Well-maintained roads are signposted in Arabic and French. There are gas stations and roadside cafés all along the route.

Begging is rare in Tunisia, but wherever you stop you'll be accosted by young men offering to show you the sights. Usually you won't need a guide, but sometimes it's easier to hire one (for a dollar or two), if for no other reason than to keep the others at bay.

One caution: Tunisians think of their country as a mainstream Western democracy (notwithstanding all those jailed Islamic fundamentalists). But outside Tunis the scene grows hot, dusty and Levantine. If you are ill at ease in alien surroundings, Tunisia in a rental car might not be for you.

If you haven't been to Tunis, allow at least two days in the capital before heading south. The long-standing best hotel in town is the Hotel Africa Meridien. (Doubles cost $94.). Allot a day for Carthage and the artists' colony of Sidi Bou Said (trains leave every 15 minutes from the foot of Avenue Habib Bourguiba); a morning for the medina and souks (covered markets); and an afternoon for the Bardo Museum, with its incomparable collection of Roman mosaics. (Take a taxi; you'll never find it on your own.) For an introduction to Tunisian cuisine, have a meal at Café de Paris, Avenue Habib Bourguiba's legendary gathering place.

Tunis is a sprawling, often chaotic city, and driving out of town will seem like a daunting gantlet. Just keep telling yourself that it can be done, and that this is the last bedlam you'll face on an otherwise leisurely drive. If you pick up your car at the airport, follow signs for Hammamet/Sousse to the southern suburbs. if you leave from downtown, head south on Avenue de Carthage. Either way, you'll eventually end up on a new expressway--but not for long. Take the first exit outside town, marked El-Faha. You should now be heading south on Highway 3

Suddenly the pace settles down, traffic disperses and Africa spreads out before you, wide and breathtaking. The odd hulk of a ruin you pass shortly is La Mohammedia, built early last century as a Versailles for Tunisian beys (kings), but abandoned after its builder, Ahmed Bey, died in 1856. A few miles on, the road falls in line with the ruined Roman aqueduct that served ancient Carthage. The water came from Mount Zaghouan. That's it straight ahead: a spectacular solitary massif fabled in ancient times for its inexplicably cold gushing springs.

Just before the market town of El—Fahs, look for the marked right turn to the imposing ruins of Thuburbo Maius, once a rich and powerful Roman outpost. Thuburbo Maius was a good-size city, and its far-flung capitol, forum, temples and public baths will take a least an hour to see. The freelance guides here can show you the few mosaics that haven't been shipped off to the Bardo, and will delight in pointing out the brothel and public latrines. (Don't buy the Roman coins you'll be offered. They were minted last week.)

From Thuburbo Maius it's another hour to Kairouan. Founded in 670, Kairouan was off-limits to infidels (as Mecca still is) until the French forced it open in the 18803. You're more than welcome these days, especially by carpet merchants and eager young guides. Follow signs for "Ville Centre" to Avenue de la République. Turn left and drive three blocks to the Hotel Continental, Kairouan's somewhat threadbare hangout for foreigners. Lunch here will be a tour—group special of chicken and peas. If you're feeling more adventurous, go straight to the medina and buy a brik a l'oeuf. The passion of all Tunisians, it's a thin, deep-fried pastry stuffed with egg, parsley and some other main ingredient such as tuna or potato. Look for the street vendor with the longest line of eager patrons.

From the Hotel Continental, walk to the medina walls and enter through the gate on your right (Bab Tunis). From here wander through the spice and carpet markets. Expect to get lost (and found) a dozen times. Your ultimate goal is the Great Mosque, at the highest point in the medina. The vast prayer room, supported by a forest of Roman columns, is for Muslims only, but you're free to look around the courtyard and to inspect the world's oldest standing minaret, part of which dates from 730.

Back in the car, turn left onto Avenue de la République and follow the signs toward Sousse, then Monastir, a Punic port that's now a busy vacationers' hangout. Check in at the Hotel Club Edkhila (doubles $100, including breakfast and dinner), formerly the Jockey Club. Like most Tunisian resorts, this 205-room hotel, with four restaurants, three bars and a sandy beach, is white stucco inside and out. Large, modern rooms, with TV sets and minibars, have balconies facing the sea. You should arrive in time for a dip in the Mediterranean. Select dinner from a menu that offers Tunisian, French, French-Tunisian or even reasonably good Italian options. After a day of hot, dusty driving you'll find a well-chilled Tunisian rosé (better than the local whites) the perfect accompaniment.

Order a hearty breakfast before heading out next morning: There's no convenient place to stop for a grand lunch en route to Djerba. You will, however, pass dozens of cafés where you can pick up coffee, soft drinks, pastries or sandwiches--in other words, plan to munch.

Driving south, now down Highway 1, you soon see a tiny blob on the distant horizon, which grows ever larger until it looms before you: the colossal amphitheater of El Djem. Seating 30,000, it was the biggest thing Rome ever built in Africa. Climb to the upper galleries for your first real view of desert. The Roman city of Thysdrus, for which the arena was built, has totally disappeared, but apparently its ruins lie somewhere beneath the sand and clusters of whitewashed Arab houses. Before leaving, explore the arena's remarkably preserved subterranean chambers, where Christians, lions and gladiators awaited their turns to perform before the screaming throngs gathered above--I swear you can still sense the fear.

Now the road passes through olive groves (even the air smells extra-virgin) as the scene grows increasingly stark and thirsty. Pass right on by the sprawling port city of Sfax (follow signs for "Gabes"), and plan a refreshment stop at tiny Maharés, 24 miles down the coast, with its clutch of cafés and incongruous beachside art park. Some of the modern sculptures by young Tunisian artists are surprisingly ambitious and aware.

By the time you reach Gabes, an hour later, the cinnamon Sahara is up and running, and the only green you'll see are frequent oases. Midway along the Gabes bypass, you'll spot a right turn for Matmata, 25 miles inland. Matmata is the center of Tunisia's pit—dwelling troglodyte Berbers, and was a much—used location in Star Wars. Drive through the moonscape of a village to Hotel Marhala, the converted system of interconnected caves and pits that doubled as both Skywalker's home and the eerie disco where he first teamed up with Han Solo. You can have coffee in the same underground bar.

Back on Highway 1, the road passes through Mareth, scene of the last great battle for North Africa in World War II. If you expect to find trenches and rusting panzers you'll be disappointed: Now a busy market town, Mareth has nothing to suggest the important role it played in modern military history.

A few miles beyond the town, look for the turn to Djorf, departure point for ferries to Djerba. Ferries leave at least twice an hour for the 15-minute crossing.

On the island, make for the northeast coast. The top-rated Djerba Menzel is an oasis (literally) for independent travelers.

Groves of date palms have been left in an undisturbed state, interspersed with little "villages" of whitewashed Djerban—style houses (menzels) clustered around walled gardens. At first sight, the Djerba Menzel's scrubby, au naturel grounds can be off-putting, but soon it becomes clear that this is one of the most environmentally sensitive hotels anywhere, and Tunisia's most sensuous, satisfying resort. Select a Category A room and your upstairs bedroom--here again, white and minimalist, with TV and minibar--will be crowned with a 20-foot dome, your rooftop terrace big enough for a waltz. The Djerba Menzel has two of the 10 best hotel pools I've seen, as well as a private beach where topless bathing is more or less the norm.

The meal plan has a limited menu served in a bland room. Dine a la carte instead at the hotel's Les Fruits d'Or ($45), the best restaurant on Djerba. This is a good place to delve deeper into Tunisia's varied cuisine and to try some of the country's rarer vintages. Waiters are informed and helpful.

Djerba is pancake-flat, and you might want to make the next morning's 20-mile circuit on rented bikes. Follow the coastal road north, passing the flashiest of the resort hotels (the Ulysse Palace is the best place to stop for a drink). Just outside Houmt-Souk, Djerba's little capital, the 13th-century fort of Borj el Kebir is worth a look. Now head into Houmt-Souk, park and stroll awhile. Except for Sidi Bou Said, outside Tunis, this is the quietest, loveliest town I've found in Tunisia. Houmt—Souk's garden cafés are cool and inviting, its covered markets cheerful and overflowing with colorful carpets, ceramics and, the town's specialty, gold and silver jewelry.

Leaving Houmt-Souk, follow signs for El May and watch for the turn to Er Riadh, largest of Djerba's Jewish settlements and site of El Ghriba (The Miracle) synagogue. It is indeed something of a miracle that Jews held out here through the millennia, but the synagogue's name refers to a rock said to have fallen from heaven, and to a mysterious virgin who appeared to show the wandering tribe where it landed and where to build their temple. The echoes of Islamic and Christian traditions (a rock and a virgin) have been noted often but never explained. One thing is certain: The story was being told by Djerban Jews centuries before the two younger religions sprang up. The synagogue's Torah, sometimes displayed, is one of the oldest in existence, and the blue-tile interior is dreamlike. Donations are expected.

Now head due east back to the Djerba Menzel and the hotel's bounteous beachside barbecue.

Djerba's international airport has nonstops to Rome, Paris, London, Zurich and most other European cities. But why be in a hurry to leave?

In fact, the sedentary resort life, with a good book in hand, is this drive's hidden agenda: Think of it as the scenic route to one of the Mediterranean's most seductive lairs.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.