Tunisia unlocked: Another dimension to the Mediterranean

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New flights are opening up an eastern outpost of Tunisia, where travellers have long been welcomed on their way to or from the Sahara

Silhouettes flickered in the howling orange haze of a desert dust storm. Trotting across the road ahead, their quiffs jerking in the wind, dozens of camels sailed past in the gloom. Beneath a watery blob of a sun, these one-humped ships of the Sahara brought us to a halt.

We hopped down from our 4x4, heads swathed, and knelt on the leeward side with cameras lifted – the last time they would function, as their insides were soon choked with grit. A Berber herder plodded by waving his stick excitably: a token gesture. It was a thrilling and unexpected interruption to our road trip across the south of Tunisia.

Still chewing dirt, we clattered on for an hour past troglodyte dwellings cut in the rockface to Ksar Ghilane, a desert encampment of tents clustered around an oasis.

This speck of green in the north-eastern Sahara is surrounded for hundreds of miles by apricot dunes as fine as flour. Man has fought to survive at this outpost for thousands of years – the camp stands on the site of an old Berber fortress. The former inhabitants clung to the spring because their lives depended on it. The area around it felt isolated, desolate.

But it is not as remote as it once was. Odd though it may sound, one can now visit this corner of the Sahara over a long weekend. Tunisair has just begun twice-weekly flights from Gatwick to Djerba, the enchanting island off Tunisia's southern coast, which is less than three hours' drive from the dunes via a Roman causeway linking it to the mainland.

Djerba, 18 miles across and 17 miles long, is low, flat and scattered with thirsty olive trees. Its sea breezes, wild beaches and laidback welcome are reminiscent of Mediterranean neighbours Malta and Sicily. The "Isle of Forgetfulness" has intoxicated visitors since entering the European literary canon courtesy of Homer. According to Greek mythology, Ulysses and his warriors were stranded here and fed the narcotic fruits of the lotus flower by local girls.

Djerba's intricate historical tapestry has been woven by conquerors from Carthage, Rome, Genoa, Spain and Constantinople; by Berber, Phoenician and Arabian settlers and also the piratical 16th-century Barbarossa brothers. There were also Middle Ages refugees from the unorthodox Ibadi Islamic sect and pilgrims who formed one of Africa's oldest Jewish communities. (Djerba's El Ghriba synagogue dates back 2,500 years, although the existing building is a more gaudy 1920s construction.)

The result is both a relaxed tolerance of the outsider and a rich sense of Djerba's past as a Mediterranean fortress island, most obviously expressed through its architecture. Mosque builders here eschewed Ottoman adornment for a garrison approach – fewer fancy minarets, more ramparts and heavy buttresses. A similar utilitarian aesthetic applies to the foundouks of the capital town, Houmt Souk – travellers' inns built around fortified courtyards, where small swimming pools and untamed towers of bougainvillaea now fill the space formerly taken by livestock. As for the island's rural reaches, they are peppered with minimalist whitewashed box-buildings called menzels that glare brightly in the heat, their occupants cool inside.

I headed for the souks of Midoun, a market town towards the north-east of the island. It's a jumble of spice stalls, piles of cheap sunglasses and little cafés serving powerful Tunisian espresso. The young traders were optimistic rather than forceful in their sell: "English speak Deutsch? Genuine fake!" cried the man with the Louis Vuitton replica handbag.

A young pottery vendor tried to unload a five-part set of ceramic serving dishes in the shape of a hand. They were supposed to represent the pillars of Islam, he explained, offering a profane twist for his Western audience: "See: Zakat, Mecca, prayer, couscous and beer!"

Amid the olivewood chess sets and straw hats, the blankets and the ubiquitous stuffed camels, there were more problematic offerings: tiny grey chameleons, and baby tortoises struggling to escape from a vegetable box. Down a back alley, a portly bearded trader called after my female companion, "How much? Ten camel?" A respectable opening offer, apparently; she seemed quite pleased.

At Djerba's other main market, in tidy Houmt Souk, a gap-toothed fish auctioneer perched on a throne, selling sea bass, grouper and red mullet of varying vintage to the highest bidder. Djerban men and women sat together at bustling pavement cafés – Tunisia is a relatively liberal Muslim country, and this tourist island particularly so – and the old-timers clatter away at dominoes and smoke water pipes.

It's a good place to sample the Tunisian snack, the bric – a thin filo pastry parcel filled with runny egg and spinach. For those with gory tastes, there's a plaque marking the spot where the Turks piled human skulls; when they arrived in 1560 they slaughtered every man in the Spanish garrison and carefully stacked their skulls in a pyramid.

Few visits to Djerba are likely to pass without a visit to Guellala (pronounce it with a dry cough, "Hkk-lal-la") to see the island's potteries. The master among Djerban potters is Habib Ben Mahmoud, 48 years in the trade. He welcomes visitors to his emporium with a furious act of clay-spraying theatre, pounding the potter's wheel running board with his bare feet. After 45 seconds he holds aloft a flowerpot, then a "café cup" and saucer, and finally he cracks a gag about absurdism, in which he increases the value of a vase tenfold by squashing it and declaring: "Picasso! One hundred dinar!" (You had to be there.)

Just one note of advice: don't buy pottery presents for loved ones back home and then drive through the desert. It turns out that the skeleton-shaking journey over gritty plateaux is ill-suited to the transportation of ceramics – although large pieces of pottery will fit in your suitcase much more easily after the journey.

After a day in the souks it was time to enjoy one vestige of French colonialism that Djerba has taken to its heart: thalassotherapy. This restorative treatment involves floating serenely around a seawater pool, seaweed scrubs in a hammam steam bath, having one's neck and soles tenderised by a water cannon, and then being led off by a masseur to be wrung like a sponge. The experience is more relaxing for all involved if you can avoid singeing your robe, as I did, on a meditation room tealight.

I sampled the therapy at the five-starred Yadis Thalasso Hotel (four-starred, really), one of the best of the international resorts that line Djerba's north-eastern shore. It has a private beach with clear turquoise waters, an atmospheric coffee house, three pools, charming staff and, for the masochistic, a golf course requiring liberal use of the sand wedge.

Djerba's proximity to the Sahara offers an added lustre to any visit. The Pansea Ksar Ghilane desert camp, 80 miles into the Tunisian Sahara, is too comfortable to ever be considered authentic nomad.

A buffeted thicket of tamarisk trees thins the winds that have wrought this epic landscape. The sand-heaped tents, although weathered, have air-conditioning, double beds and basic en suite bathrooms with hot showers. And as well as a natural pool filled by a hot spring, the camp has a lukewarm jade swimming pool fringed by date palms. It's a delicious dip after a sticky, dust-blasted drive, even if packing your swimming trunks for the middle of the desert doesn't come naturally.

A square watchtower in the middle of the camp, also popular with nesting birds, offers striking views from the battlements out over the Grand Erg Oriental – the great eastern sand sea – which stretches from southern Tunisia deep into Algeria. At night, barn owls glide between the treetops and lightning storms rage in the distance.

Fortunately the cuisine, while roughly Berber in concept, extends beyond the nomads' staple menu of dates, milk and dried goat meat.

At dusk, camp guests gather around the fire with a glass of Tunisian wine or a beer. Stew bubbles in terracotta pots baked in the flames and later smashed open to reveal lamb and peppers. "If you don't like lamb, there's camel meat," laughed Moncef, a fellow guest in his 50s who was named after the wartime bey (king), elevated in the Tunisian popular imagination for his short-lived belligerence towards the Vichy French government. "But I would advise the lamb."

Bread is cooked in the nomad manner: rolled flat, buried in the embers and covered directly with ash. The result is a three-foot-wide flatbread, to be broken and dipped in the Tunisians' punishing harissa chilli sauce. (Double-dip it in V C olive oil to take off the edge.) Legend has it that the spicier the fire-red condiment, the greater a woman's passion for her man.

After chasing several slices of watermelon across the knee-high dining table I abandoned dinner to take a walk. Fifty yards from camp the track ran out, depositing me in the Sahara. A near-full moon threw the dunes into black-and-white relief. The solitude of the desert at night is unforgettable: the cold sand underfoot, the chilly beauty of the star formations above, the only sounds the boom of wind and the occasional spooky groaning of camels close by. Wander out too far from the oasis and the sands behind you shift. Your footsteps, and probably your route back, no longer exist.

My return to the desert at sunrise proved disorienting; the landscape had completely changed. High peaks were blown down, ridges submerged – and 50 or so blanket-covered camels had appeared, tethered in threes. Time for me to take possession of my own dromedary.

Let there be none of the usual slander about these sputum-spraying giants. My new companion Baccouch – the name denotes someone who's mute – had unsettling body odour and an innocent, if occasionally unco-operative, temperament. I was still trying to settle behind his hump when he stood up (always back legs first), almost catapulting me over his head. But the ride was comfortable, loping, free of incident, and I would recommend the introduction of dromedaries to British cities, with the authority to use cycle lanes.

When we stopped in the Sahara to dismount and give the camels a 20-minute breather, a shifty-looking horseman appeared on a ridge. For 10 dinars (£5) this mysterious opportunist, who gave his name as Wadih, lent me his handsome Arabian mare for a brief, furious gallop through the dunes. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. At no point did I control the animal.

There was time for one final trip, a touching one, to the Musée Militaire, on the mainland close to Djerba. This modest museum commemorates the lives of the men who fought on the Mareth Line, supposedly the most difficult front in North Africa during the Second World War. General Montgomery's troops went up against the Italian First Army and the remnants of Rommel's Afrika Corps. All that remains are some well-preserved bunkers, some black-and-white photographs of mules dragging artillery, and small display cabinets of Winchester rifles and Berettas, testament to the close combat in Sahara's heat for a handful of strategically vital small hills. They were the last outsiders to fight over this land.

The ferry ride from mainland el-Jorf to Djerba offered a moment for reflection, perched in the sunshine next to two stroppy bullocks tied to a flatbed. My trip – two nights on Djerba, two in the Sahara – was nowhere near long enough. The island deserves more exploration, by bike or moped; the flamingo colonies demand to be seen; and a lot of boukha (fermented fig brandy) remains to be drunk in the company of welcoming strangers.

Travel essentials: Djerba

Getting there

* Tunisair (020-7734 7644; tunisair.com ) flies from Gatwick to Djerba (via a short stop at Monastir) on Mondays and Thursdays, returning the same days. Returns start at £220.

Staying there

* Yadis Djerba Golf Thalasso & Spa, Midoun, Djerba (00 216 7574 7410; yadis.com ). Doubles start at 179 dinars (£80), including breakfast.

* Pansea Ksar Ghilane, Douz (00 216 7562 1870). Tents sleeping two start at 190 dinars (£85), including breakfast.

Eating & drinking there

* Seabel Rym Beach Hotel, Djerba (00 216 7574 5614; seabelhotels.com ).

* The Radisson Blu Resort & Thalasso, Djerba (00 216 7575 7600; radissonblu.com/resort-djerba ).

More information

* Tunisian National Tourist Office: 020-7224 5561; cometotunisia.co.uk

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