What to do in Southern Tunisia
Forget the Arab Spring; Tunisia is still one of the richest and most awe-inspiring cultures in the world, with lots of fascinating history to offer. Combine those features with exquisite natural scenery and spectacular hospitality and Tunisia should definitely be on your must-visit list for 2013.
1. Explore Tunisia's palm tree and date heritage
With vast desert landscapes, the regions that make up Southern Tunisia are considered some of the most beautiful natural oases in the world. Just a kilometre away from downtown Tozeur is the Eden Palm; a museum, farm and boutique shop celebrating Tunisia's historic ties with date palms. Guided tours around the site offer the opportunity to see date palm farmers in action, learn about traditional artisan crafting techniques, discover the importance of the palm in Tunisian history, and try a range of natural gourmet food products made from dates. An experience not to be missed!
2. Take a ride on the Red Lizard train
The Red Lizard - or Lézard Rouge - is a historic train that used to belong to the Bey of Tunis. The 45-minute route takes you on a journey through the heart of the desert oasis and into a quarry that still operates today. A few well-placed photo stops give you a taste of real Tunisia in the unchanged desert landscapes of the past, and during the ride, you can enjoy a glimpse at rural Tunisian life in action through the windows. It runs from Metlaoui to Redeyef and back again, on tracks originally used by mining trains carrying phosphates. This will be a real highlight of an addition to any trip.
3. See where Star Wars was filmed
The mountain oasis between Chebika and Mides is an untouched area of desert that stretches across the two villages. It's a place of surprising diversity; beyond the sandy canyon area lies mudbrick dwellings and a stunning waterfall. The whole expanse is filled with a variety of wildlife too, including tiny frogs, lizards, salamanders, and, at the souvenir shop, even a gang of friendly cat residents! Years ago, this mesmerising point served as the location for scenes in Hollywood blockbusters Star Wars: A New Hope and The English Patient. Even putting aside this claim to fame, the scenes of this incredible terrain will stay with you long after you've left.
4. Experience a traditional hammam treatment
Hammams are on offer throughout North Africa, and the Tunisian variation is a real treat. Pay just a fraction of the price you'd pay for any spa treatment back home and gain access to the ultimate detox and relaxation experience, suitable for both men and women. Beginning with a swim and a sit down in the steam room, then be scrubbed free of all your dead skin using an all-natural mix of salt and olive oil, before enjoying a full-body massage. Then it's into the shower before another steam room session. You'll leave feeling silky smooth, and the physical and mental harmony lasts for days afterwards. The Golden Tulip Hotel in the Gammarth part of Tunis has excellent facilities and comes highly recommended by locals and tourists alike.
5. Visit El-Djem's breathtaking amphitheatre
The amphitheatre at El-Djem is only a fraction smaller than its infamous counterpart in Rome, and actually far more impressive. It boasts the status of being one of the most impressive Roman remains in all of Africa. Visit on a clear day (and most of them are in Tunisia, whatever the season) and you'll be blown away by the gorgeous sandy colours of the monument against the backdrop of a perfectly blue sky. Outside the amphitheatre, take the opportunity to stock up on fragrant spices, buy some pretty homemade souvenirs, or take a camel ride around town.
For more information on Tunisia, get in touch with the Tunisian National Tourist Office.