Driving up the lonely highway towards Le Kef from Tunis, we were treated to the pleasant smells of mountain pines and fresh spring growth. The Kasbah looms large from this hilltop town watching visitors approach as it has for centuries. I have to admit, driving this close to the Algerian border caused a little nagging doubt deep in my belly. There had been recent kidnappings, and worse, just across the border. However, we had been driving around Tunisia for a week now and had met nothing but friendliness and smiling faces. As with most other “dangerous” places we have traveled to, Tunisia did not match the picture painted by the media.
Finding lodging in Le Kef had been difficult. In the end, we just went with the recommended hotel in our Lonely Planet guide. The Hotel Venus was a comfortable, if somewhat dilapidated, establishment with the real benefits of nearby parking and proximity to the medina and the main sights of the city. We had learned earlier on our road trip that finding addresses can be challenging, but with the help of the Lonely Planet map, our GPS, and a few directions from helpful locals, we eventually found the hotel and checked in for the night.
Later that evening, we found ourselves sitting in a smoke-filled restaurant overflowing with middle aged men in djellabas. Everyone was drinking rosé wine and smoking and talking politics. I had to admit, the rosé tasted pretty good, and since it was that or Fanta, we figured when in Le Kef, drink rosé. During conversations with the waiter and owner of the establishment we learned that this was the thing to do on a winter evening. When we asked him about the Roman baths at Hammam Mellegue (the main reason we had driven all the way out to this border kasbah town), he didn’t really know much about them. He seemed a little surprised to hear about it and was very interested in the details we could offer. One of our neighboring tables had been following the conversation.
They were amazed to see Americans so far from Tunis and felt this an excellent opportunity for one of their party to practice his English. It didn’t really take that much goading or teasing on their part to get him talking. They were farmers and construction workers from the city and surrounding areas in for a night of conversation and relaxation. Our ears perked up at the “farmer” news; we really wanted to get inside an olive mill to follow the olive oil process through to its end (we’d already spent an afternoon helping a family harvest olives in their small grove.) A plan was hatched for a visit the following afternoon and we all turned back to our own conversations. We never did find out what all the political discussion was about, but I’m sure many packs of cigarettes were smoked and several bottles of wine were drank well into the night.
The next morning we went out and explored the city of Le Kef. The imposing kasbah sits high on the top of the mountain with its stone ramparts, massive walls, and crenelated towers overlooking the approaches to the city. The structure has been well maintained throughout the years and there are some impressive views of the city from atop the battlements. If the gate is open, you can enter and wander around this Byzantine and Ottoman fortress for no more than a small tip to the gatekeeper.
Afterwards we walked back into the medina and explored the old town and the old Jewish synagogue. Again, we found the synagogue opened and were able to go in and explore, leaving a small tip for the guardian. The Synagogue of Ghriba was restored a few years back and has several interesting artifacts on display: a handwritten Torah, a circumcision chair, wedding certificates, and memorial plaques. If the synagogue is closed you can knock on the door and, if he’s around, the caretaker will open up for you. Le Kef’s medina is small and easy to walk around with enough to see and do to while away a winter’s day. I’m not sure about the heat of summer, but I suspect its location higher up in the mountains keeps it relatively cool.
It’s always fascinating to just get lost in a medina and follow the twisting, turning alleys and walkways discovering some new secret location behind every turn. We visited a few small shops, a bakery, the mosque, and the Roman ruins. By the end of the walk we had built up a pretty good appetite, so we were easily tempted into a leblebi restaurant for a hot, steamy bowl of chickpea stew–delicious!
Top Five Attractions of Le Kef
5. Get lost exploring the sights, sounds, and smells of the medina.
4. Enjoy a cool glass of rosé while making some new friends in a local cafe or restaurant.
3. Brush away the cobwebs of the past in the Synagogue of Griba.
2. Defend the city from high above on the walls and battlements of the kasbah.
1. Soak in the hot mineral spring waters in one of the world’s oldest, functioning Roman baths at Hammam Mellegue.
Practical information: Le Kef’s top five can easily take up a day and a night with a little time on either side before heading on to your next destination.
Driving to Le Kef takes about 3 hours from Tunis but there are some interesting archaeological sites in Dougga or Bulla Regia along the way. Pack a lunch and take a break at either of those two locales depending on which road you take out of Tunis. You can also travel via a three hour train, leaving Tunis in the afternoon and arriving in Le Kef in the early evening. If you are interested in visiting the Roman bath, Hammam Mellegue, you should be able to find a taxi but I’m not sure how much it will cost as it is about twenty kilometers outside of town.