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