Tunis counts on its 'dream factory' vistas

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TUNIS, Tunisia -- As Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage."

Travelers will surely be inspired to head for Tunisia after getting a peek at the North African country that provided scenic settings for the just-released "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," as well as for the first "Star Wars" movie, which made its debut in 1977.

The country's southern mountain oases and desertscapes also were splashed across the big screen in the film "The English Patient" and in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

As solid proof that movies provide a destination push for travel, I gave my filmmaker daughter a trip to Tunisia as a Christmas gift. This spring, we headed out on TunisUSA's two-week tour, Tunisia: History, Culture & People. Believe me, this country is one to see "on location."

Its attractions range from a treasury of ruins from the Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman civilizations to Mediterranean resorts, elegant mosques, bustling bazaars, rugged mountains and Saharan dunes. A foreign correspondent friend once said to me, "If you're looking to visit the safest country in the Arab world, chose Tunisia."

Tunis is the main gatewayto the country, a capital whose heart is the medina, a medieval marketplace concentrated in about 10 square blocks. The medina pulses with life, filled with Islamic monuments and tiny shops in which to haggle for rugs, puppets, copper trays, tiles and pottery -- over mint tea, of course.

Of primary interest in Tunis is the Bardo Museum, home to a collection of Punic, Roman and early-Christian art.

The most smashing exhibits are the Roman mosaics, preserved from the ancient cities that rise above the plains of the northern half of the country.

From Tunis on, one of the nicest things about this tour was the variety of fine restaurants, starting with the first night's feast at the elegant Dar el Jeld, located in an 18th century town house in the heart of the medina.

The TunisUSA tour was led by Nejib Ben Lazreg, an archaeologist and professor affiliated with the National Institute of Heritage in Tunis.

Among the superstars were the city of Carthage, 11 miles outside Tunis. Carthage's ruins include Hadrian's Theater and the Baths of Antoninus; Dougga, a hilltop Phoenician city that flourished under the Romans and now is the site of well-preserved temples and an amphitheater; Sufetula, in off-the-beaten-path Sbeitla, whose forum contains a trio of Roman temples in golden-hued stone, and Bulla Regia, in Rome's day a place of prosperity based on the olive-oil trade and still marked by mosaic-lined baths, a theater and underground homes built to beat the summer heat.

Our tour arrived in El Djem just ahead of First Lady Hillary Clinton. We visited its colossal amphitheater, the largest Roman monument in Africa. Once the scene of gladiator combats held before as many as 30,000 spectators, the monument now is used for a summer music and theater festival.

El Djem is due south of the Mediterranean resort of Sousse and is lined with an imposing facade of fortifications and home to a museum with a mosaic collection rivaling that of the Bardo in Tunis.

To the east lies Kairouan, the 9th century city of the Caliphs, whose Great Mosque is a magnificent example of the richness of early-Islamic architecture.

En route to Kairouan, we visited one of my favorite places, the town of Le Kef -- a layered wonder of antiquity, not yet excavated. At the base of the town lies a small, newly restored synagogue, and at the top of the hill sits a white mosque beneath the fortress walls of a 6th century casbah.

We headed south into Berber and Bedouin country, which is strung with a chain of oasis towns such as Tozeur, near which the ""Phantom Menace" sets stand abandoned in the desert. We stayed in Tozeur at the Hotel Dar Cherait. Within the hotel complex is the Dar Cherait Museum, housing a fine collection of Tunisian costumes, silver and enameled Berber jewelry.

Here, where camels were tied up just beyond the parking lot, we switched to four-wheel-drive vehicles to travel to Douz for a taste of camel riding. Sturdy vehicles are essential for crossing the mountains to the dunes of the Sahara, a scenic drive that takes you to Matmata, a hillside village with houses carved out of the earth and into caves.

It's pure "Star Wars" stuff indeed, and in the nearby Hotel Sidi Dris, also a cavelike structure, the filming of the bar scene in the original "Star Wars" took place.

Another site in the mountain fastness is Tamerza, built out of mud brick over a former Roman fort, with a river running past it watering date palms.

Overlooking the setting is one of the finest small hotels I have seen in the Arab world, the Tamerza Palace, designed to blend with the setting and furnished with Tunisian kilims (flat-weave rugs), ceramics and other traditional crafts. Our accommodations at the deluxe ,60-tent PanSea Camp in the heart of the Ksar Ghilane oasis provided another Saharan wonder.

Guests unzip the front entrance to their enormous tents to find either twin or double beds fitted with crisp sheets and a comfy pillow; reading lights, and a corner reserved for a table, chairs and a minibar. Each tent has a separate bathroom with a shower, plus air conditioning and heating (for those cold desert nights).

An observation tower affords wide vistas of the Great Western Erg sand desert region, particularly spellbinding when, in late afternoons, the sun sets on one horizon and the moon simultaneously rises on the other.

In the final days of the tour, our group headed 125 miles northwest to the island of Djerba, connected to the mainland by road, ferry and air service from Tunis. Djerba is the island of Ulysses' lotus-eaters. Today it is lined with big, modern and predictable seaside hotels. This is a favorite resort for European sun seekers, and the beaches are indeed excellent.

In Houmt-Souk town there is a marketplace overflowing with pottery and baskets, jewelry and rug shops as well as inviting cafes.

Tunisia's rich diversity of cultures is revealed in Djerba, where one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world still exists, and its blue-tiled Ghriba synagogue is the most important shrine in North Africa.

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