Nefta, a quiet town in the south of Tunisia, is a desert oasis nestled between dunes and lush palm groves. Here you can walk on the same land as civilizations thousands of years ago did or rest in the shade of a swaying palm tree. Taste the sweet splendours of dates or feel the refreshing splash of water under a desert waterfall. These are all the best things to do in Nefta, from where to eat or lay your head down to what to do and explore. The connoisseurs will tell you Nefta is home to two gems. The first is the magnificent Corbeille, the sunken palm oasis at the centre of town. And the second is the Medina, the peaceful and quiet old town.
Nefta’s palm oasis is at the centre of town. Corbeille means basket in French, alluding to the shape of the gully. Nefta’s Corbeille is the huge cirque in the northern part of the oasis, fed by numerous springs. Experience the majesty of this natural wonder by uncovering the hidden pools and waterfalls tucked away among the ragged rocks and swimming in the sparkling blue waters.
The Corbeille is a protected ecological space and became part of a rehabilitation project after aggressive irrigation caused it to almost dry up. An immense pool, waterfalls and streams were introduced systematically into the area to allow it to return to its former abundance. You will be inundated with shades of blue and green against the desert backdrop. A true spectacle to behold.
Nefta’s second unmissable attraction is the Medina, the old town. Once the heat of the day has passed, it is a joy to wander the mysterious and ancient streets. Many women make a living from weaving Kilims, a traditional wool rug, and a peek inside one of the old houses will reveal the looms with which they are made. The architecture of Nefta is characterized by distinctive brick façades that are the colour of golden sands, bringing the desert landscape from beyond the city borders into the streets. Throughout the town, you will find many magnificent mosques, one of the most beautiful being the Sidi M’Khareg. The town is considered a sacred religious territory and out of respect for the religion, many mosques can only be admired from the outside. Some Islamic sites can however be explored with a local guide.
Cinephiles flock to the arid landscape to step into what seems to be a galaxy far, far away. The original Star Wars film set is still on display where fans can step into the fictional village of Mos Espa. The village might be fictional but the inspiration for the style is taken directly from traditional Berber buildings where the structure is cover in a smooth sand plaster and edges are rounded.
Explore the Sahara scenery in a small road trip starting from Nefta. You can leave the town very early and head the Chott Djerid to witness an amazing sunrise, over the largest salt lake in northern Africa.
Tozeur, a larger city located just 25km away on the other side of the immense stretch of palm trees. Just out of town you should also pay a visit to the Marabout of Sidi Merzoug, a shrine dedicated to one of the Sufi saints. Followers often play gnaoua music in honour of the saint and if you are lucky you can witness a traditional parade in the area.
Head to mountainous Chebika, a Berber rocky village with a Roman past. Drive through the desert towards Tamerza, a picturesque oasis nestled along a canyon. There, you can walk around the old ruined village, take a dip in the cascade waters.
The aromas and flavours of Tunisian cuisine are unmatched and no day is complete without a tantalizing tagine full of couscous. Start your day off right with the helping of Ojja, also known as Shakshuka, which is rumoured to have had its origins on Tunisian soil. Prepare your pallet to indulge in a gastronomical affair of note.
Enjoy a picnic under the rhythmic shadow of the date palms, and appreciate the magic of feasting on the succulent fruits under the very trees on which they were grown. The local dates are called Deglet Nour, which translates to “dates of light” and they have a distinctively bright, juicy sweetness. The harvesting takes place in November, during which time they are sold on every corner of the small town.
The weekly market takes place on Thursdays in the open area opposite the Mosque of Sidi Ben Abbes. Soak in all the colours and sounds of a traditional Tunisian market with vendors offering fresh produce and an abundance of vibrant spices. Souvenirs are also up for grabs and a rose des sables (desert rose) will be the perfect reminder of your time in this marvellous corner of the Mediterranean. Take a walk through the rows of informal traders to see the true essence of Tunisia.
For eating and drinking, the options are rather limited but the Café de la Corbeille is a fabulous spot to drink a coffee with a spectacular view over the oasis. The Restaurant Les Sources is a charming spot, where the chef serves simple meals at lunchtime and in the evening rustles up a Tunisian feast complete with mouth-watering pastries and even a carafe of wine if you ask nicely and, of course, practise discretion. Chapattis and grilled meats or flavourful couscous are often on the menu and traditional grilled chicken is the kind of delectable dish one would expect from Saharan Cuisine.
Nefta is a charming small village with traditional one-story brick buildings. Higher buildings with their overhanging arches cast shadows over the winding streets below, offering an escape from the desert sun. Boutique hotels are limited but what they lack in numbers, they more than make up for in style and charm. Stay in luxury overlooking the tranquil palm oasis while soaking up the majesty of the desert surroundings. The small city of Tozeur is not far from Nefta and offers equally attractive boutique hotel stays and walking trips through canyons to hidden waterfalls.