Gabes is the only coastal oasis in the Mediterranean, surrounded by fine sand beaches. Its vast palm grove is truly enchanting, and its old city is distinguished by its authentic atmosphere. But Gabes is above all the entrance to the Sahara; the start of a journey between ridges and arid hills, Bedouin tents and old Berber villages. Here you’ll find still-living traditions and an ancestral way of life, such as the stunning underground village of mount Matmata.
What to see ?
Oases and old villages
Take a carriage ride through the oasis of Gabes, which palm trees numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In the shade of the tall trees grow several types of fruit tree: at the beginning of summer, admire the pomegranate trees whose flowers will give way in the autumn to fruits bursting with sweet juice. Explore the windy alleyways and covered passages of the Old Menzel neighbourhood. In the colourful market of Jara, buy spices and powdered henna, the plant used for dye and medicinal purposes grown in the oasis. Gabes also has beautiful beaches where herons and pink flamingos frolic in multitudes. In the backcountry, old Berber villages clinging to the hillside are camouflaged in the rocky landscape. Hidden in this region are some of the most astonishing sites in Tunisia: Matmata, where the ground is pierced with countless craters dug into the soft rock. In reality these are the interior courtyards of the ‘troglodyte’ dwellings: the inhabitants live in underground chambers, sheltered from the baking heat.
What to do ?
Bird-watching or Berber culture
The Saharan tourism adventure starts in Gabes. Its museum of art and folk traditions will introduce you to the multiple costumes, weavings, carpets and jewellery typical of the region. In the surrounding villages, you will get to know the troglodyte dwellings and the agricultural methods used in arid locations. You will see women create magnificent fabrics on rudimentary looms. You will be introduced to the Berber culture: the little museum in Tamezret will tell you of the symbols, the traditions and the history of the Berber queen Kahena. The region, full of valleys, is well suited to hiking. Fans of the Star Wars saga should be aware that certain scenes were shot in Matmata. Those who are passionate about the history of the Second World War should know that the museum in Mareth preserves the memory of the line of fortifications built by the French, then occupied by the marshal Rommel. Amateur birdwatchers, the Gulf of Gabes is one of the largest wintering grounds for waterbirds in the Mediterranean.
What to eat ?
Fish and pomegranates
A major coastal city, Gabes will offer you fish and seafood prepared in all sorts of ways: grilled red mullet, stuffed squid, dogfish stewed with salted vegetables, or the little ouzef fish in a bell pepper salad. The lamb of the nomadic herders also has a treasured place in southern cuisine. Try it roasted or in couscous. If you stay in Gabes over autumn, take advantage of the season to try the oasis pomegranates. Restaurants aimed at tourists are rare in the Gabes region, but hotels can have their own restaurants. Otherwise, go for the little local restaurants that serve a simple fare typical to the region, although generally no alcohol.
Where to sleep ?
Saharan hotel or cave dwelling
While not a major tourist destination, Gabes nevertheless has a few hotels not devoid of charm. In the region, you can find truly original forms of accommodation to fully experience the emotions of the desert: hotels in the Saharan style, guesthouses in Tamezret, lodging in a cave dwelling in Matmata...
Oases and troglodytes
Exceptional for its seaside location, the oasis of Gabes has been known since ancient times: “There is in Africa, in the middle of the desert (...) a city known as Tacapé, where the land, well irrigated, is miraculously fertile” wrote Pliny the Elder. In the 11th century, it was “Qabis, large city surrounded by a wall of large stones” according to El-Bekri. Many monuments from the 17th century can be found in Gabes: mosques, the mausoleum of Sidi Boulbaba, and a madrasah that today is transformed into a museum of folk art and traditions. In the neighbouring Saharan regions a very old Tunisian tradition still persists: the troglodyte, or cave, dwelling. The Matmata dwellings are thus set up according the typical floorplan of Tunisian houses, a central courtyard surrounded by bedrooms; but these are completely subterranean. Other villages, such as Tamazret, are nestled around a mountainous peak, their stone houses are camouflaged against the rock; a small mosque dominates the labyrinth of alleyways.
The loom holds pride of place in the houses of the southern villages. The villagers make multiple pieces from it, destined for all sorts of everyday uses. The mergoums and klims are pile carpets that insulate the floor; blankets line the walls and cover the beds; the cushions take the place of furniture. Their warm colours are taken from vegetable dyes: bright red, night blue, brown, orange… The simplest feature brightly coloured stripes; the most beautiful are entirely covered with geometric patterns: diamonds, chevrons, symbols and little stylised animals, according to a traditional repertoire rich in symbolism. The villagers also weave large pieces of wool, which become the draped clothing for both men and women, and the little veils they wear on their head when leaving their homes, the bakhnoug. These delicate pieces of wool, red for the young women, black for the older ones, are decorated with delicate motifs sewn in white.
International airports can be found in Djerba (around 100 km from Gabes) and Sfax (160 km). An excellent road links Matmata to Douz and Medenine for a round trip of the Tunisian South. Inside Gabes, chose the yellow metered taxis to get around.
The Jara Market, in Gabes, is the place where all the arts and crafts specialities of the region are sold. You will find all sorts of objects made from woven esparto grass: baskets, sun hats… You can also find embroidered shoes and magnificent mergoums (pile carpets) from southern Tunisia, with warm colours and geometric Berber motifs. To tint your hair with copper tones, henna is a Gabes speciality renowned for its excellent quality.