An ancient agricultural city, flanked by both deserts and lakes, Fayoum and the surrounding oasis is becoming a popular getaway for Cairenes thanks to its tranquillity and its proximity to the capital. Less than two hours by car from Downtown Cairo, the countryside destination is a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
If you’re heading out of Cairo in the direction of Fayoum, Tunis Village is most visitors’ destination of choice, as it’s easy to reach and has been quietly upping its capacity to welcome tourists. This colourful little enclave is the perfect introduction to Fayoum, and with that as your base, you’ll be able to explore the natural surroundings, arts and culture and even fine dining.
First thing’s first – getting to Fayoum. Between an hour and two away from Cairo, depending on where you’re staying, Fayoum is best reached by road. Usually, your hotel will be able to organise a private car with a driver who can stay with you until your return – but that can be a little pricey. Renting a car is another option, and you’ll find all the well-known car rental services will have offices in Cairo. You can also try your luck with Uber – enter Tunis Village, Fayoum, as your destination then use the app to call the driver you’ve been connected to and let them know where you’re going. Sometimes they’ll be okay with the longer-than-average drive, other times they’ll cancel the ride as they’re not certain they’ll find any rides once they get there.
The most fail-safe way to get there, however, is to visit the big transport hub at Remaya Square (Medan Al-Remaya), near the pyramids. There you’ll find microbus drivers yelling their destination so listen out for ‘Fayoum’ and tell the driver you’re headed for Tunis. Grab a seat, and ask the fare – it shouldn’t be more than 25 Egyptian Pounds (£1.36), which you’ll hand over to the driver. If the overwhelming experience of Egyptian pubic transport is too much to handle, you’ll find plenty of seven-seater station wagon cars in the same square. Approach a driver and tell them your destination before negotiating a fare. Around 300-400 Egyptian Pounds (£16-£22) is fair.
Right opposite the glistening Lake Qarun, Tunis Village is the perfect starting point for your country-side adventure. A walk around the village reveals a slice of Egyptian agricultural life, the town’s famous pottery schools and workshops and a handful of desert safari agencies ready to take you to the area’s gorgeous sights.
Tunis Village is so well known for its pottery it holds an annual festival where every nook and cranny of the village is filled with paints, clay and perfect pieces to take back home. If you’re not there in November, when the event usually takes place, fret not – there are plenty of year-round places to both make and buy pottery. The Fayoum Pottery School is perhaps the best-known; established in the 1980s by Swiss expat Evelyne Porret, the quaint little workshop has become part of the Tunis community (call or knock on the door ahead of time to make sure they’re ready for you if you want to make something yourself). Alternatively, Mahmoud Youssef Pottery also offers you a chance to take on the clay wheel and make some basic pots and cups, and has an extensive collection of pre-made homeware. A walk around the village will reveal plenty more pottery schools and stores, so exploring the different offerings is always an option, too.
Opposite Tunis Village, and stretching for miles down the main road, the sparkling Lake Qarun is a must-see in Fayoum. Wherever you see boats, you’ll be sure that someone will offer you a ride. For about 150 Egyptian Pounds (£8.13) for an hour on the water (make sure to negotiate before you hop onboard), you’ll be guaranteed a serene experience as the gentle waves bob you up and down.
Pop into any of the handful of safari agencies dotted around Tunis Village and ask to go to Magic Lake. This gorgeous lake is truly magical; it’s hidden between giant sand dunes and changes colours depending on the time of day and year you make it there. The tour agent will pack you into a growling 4×4 and drive around 45 minutes into the desert to get there, and the off-roading experience is definitely part of the fun. Once you’re at the lake, they’ll unpack some rugs and Bedouin tea for you, before strapping you into the sandboard and helping you glide down the dune where you can dip your toes in this sparkling natural wonder.
While you’re at it, let your tour agent take you into Wadi El Hitan; quite literally translated into ‘Valley of the Whales’, the mesmerising UNESCO World Heritage site is home to millions of years of costal marine life in what used to be a lake. Here you’ll find perfectly preserved whale fossils that provide evidence in the evolution of the mammal from land creature to sea creature. This awe-inspiring location is definitely a must-see.
Thanks to recent tourist interest and a spattering of expats who left Cairo behind for the rural life, Fayoum’s culinary scene is on the rise. Whether you’re after a gourmet, five-star meal made with local ingredients, or want to try Fayoum’s famous duck dishes with the locals, your appetite is bound to be inspired by the offerings. Kom El Dikka Agrilodge in Tunis Village is a sprawling hotel with traditional architecture with an outdoor-indoor restaurant that uses ingredients from on-site fields for a true farm-to-table experience. There are great views of Lake Qarun and greenery all around, while highlights on the menu include traditional feteer meshaltet (buttery, flaky flat pastry), organic duck or pigeon and wholesome mesakaa (moussaka).
Located on the same elevated spot overlooking fields and lakes as Mahmoud Youssef Pottery School, Ibis Restaurant & Cooking School is the brainchild of a Swiss-expat couple who, in semi-retirement, decided to open this farm-to-table concept which not only feeds hungry tourists, but trains local youngsters in the art of cooking. Finally, Blue Donkey is nestled inside the award-winning Lazin Inn Resort & Spa. It’s one of the few places that serves alcohol in the mostly conservative Fayoum, so take this opportunity to order a tipple. Whatever you order, don’t forget to look up at the ceiling where a statue of its namesake blue donkey hangs upside down.