Al Fayoum: one of Egypt’s oldest cities and home to a large fertile basin in the middle of the desert. Often (erroneously) referred to as an oasis, the area is a charming amalgamation of lush farmlands, powder perfect dunes, glasslike saltwater lakes, and awe-inspiring archaeological sites.
Our view on the drive over was littered with thriving plots of sugarcane and wheat crops guarded by galabeya-wearing scarecrows (much to my ausement). Proud white herons elegantly loiter in the marshes while burly buffalo laze in the shade of lanky date palms. Watching these idyllic scenes whir past, it’s hard to believe that it’s a mere two hours south of Cairo.
My parents and I decided to make a (very) impromptu trip to Fayoum at the end of last month. The whole plan came together within about 45 minutes and before I knew it I had scouted a pet-friendly villa on booking.com and packed a bag for a two-night stay. We headed out early the next morning and made it to Tunis Village just in time for brunch.
At first glance, you might say that Tunis Village looks like your average small Egyptian neighbourhood, but it is in my opinion the antithesis of average. The air is clean, the people incredibly warm, and the streets are positively teeming with character at every twist and turn. Historically a little-known fishing community on the shore of Lake Qaroun, Tunis Village is now regarded as a hub for art, culture and most importantly, handmade pottery.
It all started in the 1980s when swiss potter Evelyne Porret became enamored with Tunis’s rural charm and decided open the village’s first pottery studio there. She went on to train countless local children in the craft, effectively giving birth to a whole new wave of potters and artisans, many of whom have now opened their own pottery studios. Each winter, Tunis hosts the country’s biggest pottery festival which draws in vendors and visitors from far and wide.
Before I proceed, I need to make one thing very clear: this is not a vegan travel guide. I know, you’re shocked and appalled – but before you click away allow me to explain what I mean by that. Fayoum, while breathtakingly beautiful and filled with all sorts of surprises, isn’t exactly a vegan foodie haven. I was of course able to find and feast on vegan fare (more on that later), but I need to be honest and say that it wasn’t anything overtly special. Truth be told however, there is so much to see and enjoy in Fayoum, I didn’t terribly mind that food didn’t take center-stage for once.
As far as accommodation goes in Tunis Village, there really is something to suit every budget. You can choose from a few eco-lodges, a handful of privately owned villas and chalets, as well as a very upscale boutique hotel. Because we were travelling with a dog, we opted for a pet-friendly 2-bedroom villa just off of the main strip in the village which fit the bill perfectly. It was quite spacious, eclectically decorated, and featured a fully functional kitchen (which definitely came in handy, given the dearth of dining options). It also had a lovely little terrace and garden where we spent a considerable amount of time soaking up the peaceful outdoors.
Had we been travelling sans pup, I would’ve definitely opted for Kom El Dikka. It’s a beautiful property built on a 30-year old olive farm and repurposed into an agritourism lodge overlooking Lake Qarun. We dined there twice during our short trip and took a short gander through the grounds where they grow a lot of of their own fresh produce. If you’re partial to the private route, other villa options include the Zaytouna Lake View, Coco Villa and Tunis Village Chalet. I should mention that the ideal time to visit Fayoum is during the cooler months – so anytime between October and April.
Tunis Village is ideally located if you’re keen on making day trips to nearby sites in Fayoum. My mom and I braved our first 4×4 desert driving experience (yes, I live in the UAE and have never done a desert “safari”) to see some of the area’s most popular attractions.
Literally translated to “valley of the whales” this national park located in the heart of the Western Desert of Egypt is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to some of the world’s best preserved fossilized remains of a now-extinct whale sub-species. In the paleontology world (thank you, Ross from Friends), the site is considered one of the world’s most important, not only because of the number and quality of the fossils, but because they so vividly demonstrated a very finite stage of evolution. I was utterly overwhelmed by the expanse and scale of the entire valley – it looks like something out of an end-of-days movie set. We also paid a visit to the Fossil and Climate Change museum nearby which helped shed light on the significance of the site through a short film and a succinct but well curated exhibit.
Wadi Al Rayan
This nature reserve technically encompasses Wadi Al Hitan, but also includes the Al Rayan upper and lower lakes, springs, Al Rayan falls (Egypt’s largest waterfall) and Modawara mountain. A popular spot for eco-camping, the reserve is a natural sanctuary for several species on the brink of extinction including the Egyptian deer, sand fox and rare migrating birds. Our guide expertly drove us through Wadi Al Rayan without even a cursory glance at a map or GPS, taking took us to several of the area’s breathtakingly beautiful desert landscapes, lakes, oases and mountains.
Other sites of note nearby include the Magic Lake, Meidum Pyramid, Lisht Pyramid, Lake Qaroun, Karanis Kom Aushim and the Petrified Forest. Our desert safari experience was arranged through our accommodation, but there’s no shortage of excursions that you can book online including this one from Real Fayoum Tours.
Shop for local wares
When staying in Tunis, it’s almost mandatory to spend an afternoon meandering from workshop to workshop to admire (and shop) the diverse selection of handmade pottery that has become a trademark of the area. The pieces are all incredibly unique, well-made and very reasonably priced. I exercised discipline and managed to pick up just a few bowls and an oversized mug, which for the record are my favourite kind. Rawia’s Workshop and Ibrahim Samir were two of my favourites, but there are gems to be found in every atelier.
Try your hand (and feet) at pottery
I’ve always had a thing for arts and crafts, as evidenced by the countless peculiar paintings, drawings and homemade greeting cards that filled our family home. So when we popped into Evelyn’s pottery school, I jumped at the chance to make my own earthenware.
A bright and immensely talented young lady by the name of Sarah was my mentor, as she effortlessly showed me how to mould the dense clay on pottery kick wheel. It was quite the leg workout, but incredibly therapeutic all the same. With Sarah’s help, I made a small bowl with a spout (that I hope will be used to brew many a matcha latte) and a little mug. Typically, there isn’t enough time to make, paint, glaze and fire pieces at the pottery school but I was determined to go the whole nine yards. We dropped into the pottery school after breakfast on the day we were slated to leave, which gave me just enough time to paint my pieces and arrange for a friend of my father’s to pick them up for us on his next visit to Fayoum.
Go graffiti hunting
In keeping with its standing as bustling center for the arts, Tunis Village looks the part too. Beautiful graffiti murals (many of which are evocative of the infamous Fayoum mummy portraits) adorn every nook and cranny of the village’s walls.
For fans of the outdoors, other popular activities in the area are sand duning, desert camping and bike riding.
As mentioned, if you’re at all of the plant-based persuasion, please remember to temper your expectations on food and bring snacks. While not the least vegan-friendly place I’ve ever visited by any stretch of the imagination. the selection is unfortunately quite limited.
For breakfast, opt for the ful mudammas (breakfast fava beans), bread, tahini and sugarcane molasses at Kom El Dikka’s restaurant. The ful was unlike any other that’s usually served in Egypt, in that it had stir-fried onions, bell peppers mixed into it with a fragrant tomato-based sauce – but was actually surprisingly delicious. I also enjoyed their fresh lemon and mint juice (without the copious amounts of sugar syrup, of course).The same restaurant also had a few salads, some grilled veggies and a couple of vegan pastas on offer for lunch and dinner.
For dinner, my parents (who, if you hadn’t guessed yet are not vegan) enjoyed the seafood at Tunisia restaurant which was a stone’s throw away from our villa, while I munched on several servings of salad, tahini dip, eggplant salad, and french fries. On our second night dining there they kindly agreed to whip up a vegan spaghetti for me made with plain tomato sauce.
I relied heavily on snacks like dates, nuts and bananas to keep full during the day. On our second day there, my dear father took pity on me and cooked me a hearty vegetable stew made using fresh produce from the village while my mom and I were out on our desert adventure. Needless to say, it was delicious and I inhaled several servings in one sitting.
Another nearby restaurant which had a few vegan items on their menu was The Blue Donkey at Lazib Inn – but to say that it is overpriced would be an understatement. That said, it is situated in a very upscale establishment, so if you’re in the mood for that kind of atmosphere, it could be your cup of tea.
Above all, the peace and calm of Fayoum is what sold it for me. I managed to completely disconnect from the outside world, devoured two books, and ended up sleeping better than I have in weeks. Being immersed in so much raw and untouched nature was quite literally, a breath of fresh air. I would undoubtedly recommend a visit, or even a day-trip if you find yourself in Cairo.
Until next time, dear readers.