A gift of nature in Fayoum

Jailan Halawi, Tuesday 11 Jan 2022

Jailan Halawi explores the many facets of Tunis Village in Fayoum and places where one can hear the horizon speak

Photos: Jailan Halawi
Photos: Jailan Halawi

We all need a place where we can let go, somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life with its distortions and other problems. The past couple of years have also been exceptionally stressful for everyone, with the sudden spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent losses it has left behind.

When life overwhelms you with storms and hurricanes, there is nothing better than to run to the wilderness for shelter and peace of mind. It is also the holiday season, and hence there is a need for a break and an adventure in a new place where one can find new horizons and learn new lessons about life.

It was our family’s choice to visit the small village of Tunis in the Fayoum Oasis on our way to the Wadi Al-Rayan Nature Reserve. Located on a hill facing a large saltwater lake, Tunis has spectacular views of the edge of the desert on the other side of the lake. It is one of the most wonderful and unique places in Egypt that is a must-visit at least once in a lifetime.

There are many advantages in visiting Tunis as it is a place where children and adults can indulge in many activities, including a desert safari, sand boarding, swimming in the magnificent Lake Qaroun, or simply enjoy a relaxing sail-boat trip while watching a spectacular sunset.

The village is a great opportunity for children to learn about new places and different lifestyles away from the city, as well as for adults to experience a different place to the more popular break-away destinations of Luxor, Aswan, or the Red Sea resorts.

All this can be done on a low budget, which adds to the attraction of the village, since many households’ incomes have been significantly affected by the pandemic that has left many people either suffering from a reduced salary or even lay-offs.

The village was for decades a community of farmers and fishermen on the southern shores of Lake Qaroun. It was not until the 1980s when Swiss potter Evelyn Porret visited the village and decided to live and work there that the village witnessed a radical change. Porret opened her first pottery school and taught the locals the secrets of a new craft that helped them better their incomes and hence their quality of life. The village then became more attractive to entrepreneurs, artists, and writers, who started to go there for inspiration.

I have always wanted to go to Tunis and enjoy the heritage of a place so rich with positive energy, simplicity, art, palatable food, fresh air, nature at its best, and most important of all, local people who will always exceed your expectations, hands down.

The trip would also be the first of its kind for our children to experience a different taste of travel, that of the Egyptian countryside with all that this entails. It would be my first time in Tunis despite my visiting Fayoum a couple of times in the late 1990s to cover various stories about the governorate. I was very excited to finally be visiting a place I had so longed to see.

 

HITTING THE ROAD: Our journey began in the early hours of Friday morning, so we stopped by a small falafel shop in Remaya Street to grab our fuul and taameya sandwiches for breakfast, the official Friday breakfast in most Egyptian homes.

In khelis al-fuul, ana mesh mes’oul, or “I am not responsible if the fuul runs out,” is the falafel shop’s motto, stated on a big side sign at the entrance. On such a humorous note we enjoyed our breakfast and were all ready to hit the road.

The more we drove away from the capital, the more serene the passing scene became. Despite the modesty of the streets, the greenery on both sides of the road provided a peaceful sense in the air. After driving for almost an hour and a half, we were greeted by a modest sign saying “welcome to Tunis Village.”

Driving through the narrow winding streets we reached our longed for ecolodge called Zad Al-Musafir, or “Traveller’s Luggage”.

Booking was simple: call, make a reservation, and no down payment. Nothing is needed — just pack your bags and drop by. The moment you step foot in the place, you will feel humbled by its simplicity and by the people whose genuine smiles will last in your memory forever.

The reception is a small room surrounded by a moderately sized garden. We were immediately given the key to our four-bed room called suite 11. The ecolodge has traditionally decorated rooms with stone floors, mudbrick walls, and colourful rugs and a closet made of straw. The rooms are bright and well ventilated, thanks to their many windows.

On checking in, Omar, the multi-tasking, multi-talented young man at the ecolodge, explained that should we need any housekeeping services Um Talal would help us during our weekend stay.

 In her early 40s, Um Talal is a sweet-natured villager from Tunis and the mother of five boys who all help guests at the ecolodge. Um Talal’s family is always ready to do any chores for the guests and help them with anything they might need. They are available from eight in the morning and leave at dusk.

Food is served at the Al-Mendada restaurant, which literally means “The Table”. The menu offers traditional Egyptian country food, and Al-Mendada is the best place to treat your palates with unforgettable tastes. Any order takes approximately an hour or so to prepare, or you can order and choose what time you would like to be served.  

There is an indoor swimming pool and a couple of swings in the garden surrounding the rooms where you can chill and enjoy the singing of the birds, swing, or read a book.

INSPIRATIONAL LAKE: Our adventure began with a five-minute walk to Lake Qaroun to enjoy a sailing boat and liberate ourselves from the stress of the city. Other people chose to reach the lake on horseback.

Lake Qaroun is the third-largest lake in Egypt and the second most famous after Lake Nasser in Upper Egypt. It is one of Egypt’s most treasured natural landmarks.

 It lies some 45 m below sea level and occupies the lowest northern section of the Fayoum depression. People in Fayoum believe that if one has not visited the lake, then one has not visited Fayoum. The lake is rich in both natural and archaeological resources. It also plays host to thousands of migrant birds fleeing the cold of Europe.

The lake can also be considered to be a wetland of international importance because of the presence of the water birds. In 1989, it was declared a nature reserve.

By the lake were a handful of camels ready to give entertaining rides, a grilled sweet potato vendor, and a tent serving Bedouin tea. To reach our boat we had to walk on a narrow walkway made of clay and covered with cement sacking. We were greeted by our sailor, Haggag, and his assistant Mahmoud, who told us very interesting stories about the lake and its importance.

After half an hour of a spectacular boat trip, we went back to the shore and enjoyed the last moments of dusk watching the birds and sipping Bedouin tea.

We went back to our haven, feasted on a palate-pleasing dinner of fish, stuffed pigeons, and the standard vegetable plates Al-Mendada serves with each lunch and dinner plus soup and salad.

With all this done, it was eight in the evening. We went for a walk, and then the kids enjoyed some grilled marshmallows by the bonfire made by Hassan, the ecolodge’s night guard. By 10pm, we were in bed looking forward to the coming dawn and a day on which a desert safari was planned.