I have been intending to go to El Jem for quite some time but being up…
Gafsa is the main city of its region, and the centre of the profitable phosphate industry. Unlike the towns closer to the mines, Metlaoui and Moulares, it has not been turned into a dust hell. Gafsa is a modern town, busy and friendly, but without many tourists. Those coming here, most often stay only for the night before they head in direction of the mountain oases of Mides and Tamerza, or travel down to the region around Tozeur.
But Gafsa certainly warrants a stop in itself. The Roman pools, the kasbah and traditional quarters are all interesting and visually appealing. The Roman pools is the only sight of its kind in all of Tunisia. Gafsa has a long history, going back to at least Numidian times. It was destroyed in 107 BCE by the Romans in their campaign against Jugurtha, but would become an important Roman city, reflected in the beauty and size of the pools. The Roman influence was so strong that there are reports of Latin being spoken here as late as the 12th century.
The Great Mosque, which is the most common backdrop of the Roman pools on most photos.
Oasis gardens with the rock in the back, from where there are great views over the town and the oasis.
From the modern quarters of Gafsa
The Roman Pools
Lower pool, with the Great Mosque in the background
Dar el Bey
Your first stop on a tour of Gafsa will probably be the 5 metre deep roman pools, which are surprisingly well preserved. The water comes from hot water springs, and offer some friendly 30?C (85?F). They were constructed for the use of normal people, and this still is the rule. Tourists are charmed by the boys jumping into the water from a roof, diving for coins thrown into one of the pools. If you like to, you can jump in too!
Upper pool. The distance between the pools is only 6-7 metres
The kasbah is now open to tourists, after considerable rebuilding, as it was heavily destroyed during World War 2. It was built by the Hafsids in the 13th century on the foundations of a Byzantine fortress. Later, many additions came. It is mainly enjoyed from the outside. It continues along 3 sides, and appears in near perfect condition, and is as fine in it’s details as many more famous kasbah. Most of the interior is used for modern purposes, and therefore inaccessible. The only nice part is the corner on the picture below.
Looking up to the Kasbah
The traditional quarters of Gafsa are suprisingly beautiful, and they are even inhabited. There are a couple of streets meandering off the Roman pools, and this area should not be missed. Clearly one of the finest of its kind in all of Tunisia!
A third attraction is the Dar Loungo, a residence of the 18th century. Like other rich man’s houses in Tunisia, it’s arranged around an inner courtyard, and there are several grand apartments to explore. From a roof terrace, you will be able to see large parts of the town of Gafsa.
Interior of the Dar Loungo, which is not really worth a visit, as everything of the decoration has been removed (September 2005).
The oasis of Gafsa is about as good as any, although there are few roads leading into. So you will have to swallow a deep breath of courage, and walk into someone’s gardens. But as long as you walk on the paths and there aren’t too many in the group, nobody will really mind. The whole oasis is fairly big, and has more than 100,000 palm trees, plus a wide variety of other plants.
The Jewish bath at the southern corner of the Kasbah is quite appealing from a distance, but it is being used today as a public lavatory. It dates back to ancient times, even to Roman, although the structure here now is far from that old.
Hotels and Alternatives
OK on hotels, all price ranges. Normally Gafsa is a town where you will never face any problems with finding hotel rooms. There is even a youth hostel for real budget travellers.
Restaurants and Alternatives
Gafsa has several restaurants, some basic and others with menus. From my own personal experience, the quality was just so-so, and about the double of what you would pay in oases like Nefta and Tozeur! I did not tip at the restaurant where I was, and I did not feel the least cheap!
Little, except from the seedy bars. These are completely male-dominated, and the interior decoration resembles more a prison cell than a place to have fun.
All necessary banks, as well as slightly unreliable ATMs (they do not always accept foreign VISA-cards or Mastercards).
All types of transport: Buses, shared taxis, car rentals, train and airplane. Gafsa is a major travelling hub, and getting here, as well as getting away, is no big problem.