Off the beaten path: Chenini’s rare maritime oases in southern Tunisia

A stroll through the oasis is an opportunity to admire its ecosystem, which relies on palm orchards and ingenious irrigation networks.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Berber village of Chenini (Tourism Ministry)
Berber village of Chenini (Tourism Ministry)

CHENINI, Tunisia - A stone’s throw from the busy, industrial port city of Gabes in southern Tunisia, Chenini is a luscious oasis that is practically unknown to tourists. Those who venture off the beaten paths of Tunisia’s sandy beaches or archaeological sites will be richly rewarded with a serene and leisurely stay in the shade of abundant greenery of the oasis.

Tall palm trees dominate the landscape in Chenini, walling off the oasis and forming date-laden colonnades that delineate agricultural lands. The oasis in the heart of the town is its star attraction. Pathways allow passage to palm frond-fringed small garden plots where a wide variety of crops, vegetables and fruit trees are planted.

Recently habilitated into mapped trails thanks to an EU-funded project, the network of dirt roads provides a charming setting for leisurely bicycle rides or promenades among a variegated tapestry of yellow palm fronds and red pomegranate groves. Horse-drawn carriage rides are available for an even more memorable experience.

A stroll through the oasis is an opportunity to admire its ecosystem, which relies on palm orchards and ingenious irrigation networks.

One would assume that dates are aplenty amid such an abundance of palm trees. Degla, the prized variety of dates particular to southern Tunisia, does not, however, grow in Chenini.

Chenini is one of the few maritime oases in the world. While depending on palm trees as the cornerstone of their ecosystem, coastal oases are unable to produce degla dates.

Palm trees create the microclimate necessary for the oasis to thrive. They provide the basis for the floor agriculture system necessary for cultivating plants. The three-floor culture system is composed of palm trees on top, fruit trees as an intermediate layer and a lower level where fodder crops and low-lying plants and vegetables are grown.

In Chenini, pomegranate chiefly but also plum and fig trees are grown on the intermediate level, while mallow, radishes or onions are commonly cultivated at the third. Henna is cultivated during years when water is particularly scarce, because mignonette trees need very little water.

Along with the wider Gabes region, Chenini is renowned for the quality of its agricultural products, especially pomegranates, dates, mallow leaves and henna. A speciality of the area is legmi — palm juice and wine. The non-alcoholic variety can be often found inexpensively sold along the side of the road in bottles or served in glasses. Cold palm juice is particularly effective for quenching thirst during the hot summer months.

On the southern outskirts of the oasis, the Natural Museum of Chenini recently reopened after an extensive renovation. The museum has a peculiar history. In the 1970s, a German citizen started a crocodile farm on the museum’s current premises. Years later, the Chenini municipality had the idea of keeping the reptiles and transforming the farm into a zoological park and museum.

With the exception of Nile crocodiles, the animals on display are endemic to the region and include raptors, birds, camels, ducks and goats. The museum also houses an exhibition dedicated to oases.

Accommodation in Chenini can be tricky to find but the lack of touristic infrastructure is offset by the hotels and restaurants in nearby Gabes.

The oasis is easily accessible because of its proximity to Gabes, which is serviced by trains, buses and long-distance taxis. Chenini is a 10-minute taxi ride from the Gabes train station.

The small number of visitors make Chenini a boon for those seeking an unadulterated experience in one of Tunisia’s hidden gems.

A view of palm trees in Chenini.(Yassine Halila)
Berber village of Chenini with its prominent mosque. (Antoine Lorgnier)
Visitors go on a hike through the breath-taking landscape in Chenini. (Tourism Ministry)