Hey Let Me On Djerba!

Djerba, Tunisia


I got up before the sun came up in Ksar Ghilane so that I could actually see the sun come up. I have seen the sun come up all over the world, and thought it might be fun to see it rise over the desert. (When I spent the night in Wadi Rum in Jordan, I saw the sun set, but I did not see the sun rise … I woke up a little too late.) Anyway, I climbed the tower near my tent in complete silence, uh except for the occasional bay of a donkey (who by the way must not have slept much because I could hear it throughout the night).

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Sunrise over the oasis in Ksar Ghilane

It wasn’t long before the horizon in the east became a pinky glow and then hints of yellow appeared. Before I knew it, the sun was peeking out of the sands and the top of the oasis palms. A really pretty site.

Once I grabbed some breakfast, we set out to see the huge sand dunes that populate the Ksar Ghilane area as well as the natural springs. I wandered around in the sand (which is incredibly soft to walk on), made friends with a local donkey pulling a cart and watched as some camels came into view. (Yay finally camels.)

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In the Sahara

We finally got back in the car and headed down the road in the direction we had come from the night before. We passed the now abandoned checkpoint where the dude with the AK 47 put a little bit of a scare into me (only the barricade topped by razor wire remained and it was off to the side of the road). Still not sure what that was all about.

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Sahara dunes

Anyway, after wondering if I would ever see herds of camels roaming the Sahara we ran into more herds than I could count. In fact, the herds of camels were as numerous as the endless flies that swarmed all around me in the car, out of the car and at all points in between. (I had forgotten how annoying and how many flies were in the desert. They were relentless.)

Now something I learned during the drive: the camels are branded like cattle and every camel is actually owned by someone. In other words, there are no herds of camels roaming free in the desert. When one is needed for sale, the owner sends a”finder” out to locate one or more of the camels and brings the chosen camel in to complete the sale. Who knew? So while the camels can be nomads and wander throughout the desert, someone will always find them. My guess is it will only be a matter of time before each camel is fitted with a chip tracking device making it simple to find a camel on very short notice.

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Camel sightings

So we continued the long drive through the desolate region with nothing but sand to look at to pass the time. About an hour after we left Ksar Ghilane we turned back onto the highway. The landscape changed almost immediately to hilly, dry desert. We made a quick stop in Tamerzet to have a tiny coffee (this time with whole almonds in the coffee for flavor … not sure it helped). Tamerzet sits on a hillside overlooking the Nefzaoua plains and the views were spectacular, which is more than I can say for the coffee.

Anyway, after the quick coffee break we drove a short distance to an area just north of the town of Matmata where Berber families continue to live in cavelike homes in the rocky, mountainous hillsides.

Originally, the Berbers took to living in the stone caves that already existed in the hillside to escape the Hilialian invasions of the 11th century. Eventually, the Berbers extended the caves by tunneling into the soft rock. The homes were complete when stone walls were built around the cave dwellings creating a courtyard of sorts around which the cave rooms could be accessed.

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Berber troglodyte stone (cave) house

We visited one of these troglodyte “cave” homes and it was fascinating to see. But when I got out of the car, it was like setting foot in an oven. We had suddenly hit the desert heat and damn it was hot. (The car gauge was reading 41 C.) So when I wandered into the first cave room with our hostess (and most senior member of the family living in the home), it was like walking into a lovely, cool air conditioned home, without the electricity bills). The “family” room was furnished with mats and even a TV (complete with an outdoor satellite dish). We went from one room to the next (actually one cave to the next) with each room being accessed from the central courtyard. There was a kitchen with no running water, but there was a stone mill where I learned how to grind barley and grains (a lot harder than it looks). In addition, I saw bedrooms (each a separate cave), a cave for animals with only wire for a door, and a pen for chickens and a couple guinea pigs (apparently they do not eat them so I was not entirely clear why they were being kept). In addition, the family had a separate outdoor wood fired stone oven

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Me and my new buddy at the troglodyte home

As we were leaving, our hostess motioned for us to sit down on a stone seating area and she brought over some barley bread with olive oil. I tore off a piece of the bread and dipped it in olive oil and it was incredibly tasty. We sat and chatted with the woman about the upcoming Eid feast and her family. I could have sat there for much longer, but not wanting to impose on our hostess, we ate a few more pieces of the incredible bread and said our goodbyes.

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Inside a Berber troglodyte house grinding barley

We walked back out of the compound into the searing heat and quickly got in the car. Yikes! This was clearly the hottest it has been since I arrived in Tunisia.

I wasn’t in the car more than ten minutes before Hassan asked me if I wanted to stop at the hotel in Matmata where Star Wars was filmed. He seemed so excited for me to see it, but I, having never seen Star Wars, didn’t really see the point. (Yes, you read that right. I have never seen Star Wars.) Anyway, not wanting to spoil Hassan’s excitement, I agreed.

So we stopped at the somewhat tacky Hotel Sidi Driss, which is exploiting its screen infamy to the max. There was even a Star Wars towel hung on the wall. Now I am certainly stating the obvious when I say it would have helped if I had actually seen Star Wars since the hotel simply looked like a sorry little has been instead of some impressive site made famous by the Star Wars triology. (Apparently the hotel served as Luke Skywalker’s home in the original film and then again in the two other films that followed.)

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Panorma of hotel where Star Wars was filmed

I wandered around the bar and courtyard area where some of the famous scenes were apparently filmed and looked through a couple of souvenir books on display with actual photographs from the filming. However, as the saying goes … it was all Greek to me. (I did take a couple pictures of the bar area and courtyard for my Star Wars geek friends … you know who you are.)

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Driving through the Atlas Mountains towards Toujane

So with Star Wars under my belt, we drove on through rolling countryside dotted by a number of sheep herders (with sheep that were apparently spared the Eid feast sell-off). The scenery became more dramatic as we hit a town know as Toujane, which featured old stone houses built across a hillside in the middle of a gorge that would lead us out of the mountains and towards the coastal plains.

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Toujane (Berber village)

The village was gorgeous with a beautiful mosque in the middle of all of those stone home. The alleys were typically narrow and the villagers appeared to be pretty friendly. I would have loved to have spent some time in that little town, but we were heading to the coast and were short on time. (And as is typical of these kinds of trips … you often do not know what you are missing until you actually get to the country.)

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Leaving Toujen (Berber village)

Twenty minutes later we stopped in the little town of Metameur to visit a Berber ksar. Now the Berber ksar in Tunisia was vastly different than the desert ksar I visited in Morocco (which was a fortified residential area made of stone brick homes). This ksar was actually a type of granary storage facility built by the region’s tribes. Because the tribes were nomadic, often traveling the region for up to nine months a year, the nomads needed a place to store their crops. (Think of this as the earliest form of self-storage facility.)

Each ksar held a series of ghorfas, which were long narrow semi-circular rooms made of stone, gypsum and mud and stacked three and four stories high. Each ghorfa, which was usually owned by a single family, was used to store a particular product such as grains, wheat or olive oil and was sealed with a door made of palm tree wood.

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Ghorfas in Metamur

The ksar and ghorfas were pretty interesting, however, the heat was killing me. I wandered around for far less time than I would have liked, before I waved the white flag and got back into the car and asked for the AC full blast. (I usually prefer the windows to be open in lieu of AC, but this was just oven hot and it called for extreme measures.)

I cooled off just in time to arrive in the town of Medenine. Medenine was a bustling little town with a myriad of fruit stands and vegetable markets. However, all of the action appeared to be taking place in the town square where a massive, and I mean massive, sheep sale was taking place. The townfolk appeared to be in high gear for Eid as everyone appeared to be sheep shopping (say that three times…).

We drove through the busy streets to the other side of town where we pulled over so that I could visit another ksar. This ksar, however, had been overtaken by local merchants who had set up shop in the ghorfas to sell “stuff” to the tourists. This ksar was not nearly as nice as the first ksar and I quickly wanted out of there. I did, however, find a rather unique item: a stone and brass set of scales that looked like the scales of justice. Perfect for my office.

I grabbed a couple cold bottles of water, jumped back in the car and we drove off through the outer town limits before reaching the coastal lowlands that would lead to the Mediterranean and a short ferry ride to the island of Djerba (or Jerba in English).

Djerba is one of Tunisia’s star attractions with beautiful beaches and a lovely little town capital called Houmt Souok. As we drove towards Djerba, I couldn’t help but marvel at the change in scenery. We had started out the day driving through the Sahara desert, then we transitioned to desert highlands, then into desert lowlands, now we were driving on a coastal plan with lots of olive trees and little peaks at the Mediterranean.

We finally reached the ferry station to Djerba Isalnd and … uh oh a three hour ferry wait. Hatem tried his best to get a break for the tourist from the soldiers manning the line, but no go. Hassan then made the decision that we should drive around and cross the causeway to the island so that is what we did. We retraced our drive, cut over and through some villages and then headed back in the same direction we had just come from towards the coast. As we drove, we were passed by a number of “crazy” Libyan” drivers who seemed hell bent on either crashing or coming close to crashing into oncoming vehicles, medians, carts by the side of the road and just about anything else in their way.

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The causeway to Djerba

We were in a region that was close to the Libyan border (only a couple hundred km away) and the Libyans were everywhere. I soon learned why. The private little gasoline stands were soon popping up again everywhere. I guess we were being passed on the road by the black market gasoline suppliers.

Anyway, one causeway across the Mediterranean and an hour and a half later, and we had made it to Djerba Island and the capital of Houmt Souk just in time for a very late lunch at a beautiful waterfront restaurant. I invited both Hassan and Hatem to join me. (I was certain the restaurant they took me to was far out of their price league and the look of delight on their faces when I told them I wanted to buy them lunch was confirmation of what I suspected.)

The lunch was really, really, good. We had an appetizer platter, with a variety of seafood dishes including calamari, shrimp in a spicy red sauce, harissa with bread and tuna, olives, a grilled vegetable mash and olive tappenade. The main course was grilled fish with rice and it was yummy. Desert consisted of lime sorbet and these very, very sweet cookies. (Ugh … serious diet needed!)

After lunch (which was more like early dinner since it was by now 5:00 p.m) we wandered through the Hammet Souq streets and its famous markets. Quite frankly, it was a bit of a let down. It seemed rather contrived and VERY touristy. Meh … I’ve seen much, much better.

By the time the call to prayer rang out at dusk, I was done in. We drove to my hotel for the night, the gorgeous Radisson Blu Hotel. I was given a lovely room with a view of the Mediterranean and promptly fells asleep. So much for fancy hotels.

Anyway, several hours later I was up bright and early so that Hassan and I could catch the 8:30 a.m. flight back to Tunis. I was not sure why we needed to leave so early since the only site left to see in Tunis was Sid Bou Said, a little village near my hotel on the outskirts of Tunis. However, without answers I checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport.

At the airport, I bid goodbye to my trusty driver Hattem. It was actually a sad goodbye. I think Hattem had a bit of a crush on me … he even wanted to take a picture with me on his cell phone as I was saying goodbye. Hattem was a wonderful kind soul who reaffirmed my appreciation for the kind folks in this part of the world.

So with goodbyes done, Hassan and I checked in for the flight, but before the boarding passes would issue, we had to pay a baggage overcharge fee for Hassan’s bag. You would have thought my bag would have been the problem, but apparently not. (Fortunately, they did not weigh my carry-ons). I was not sure what Hassan had purchased, but he had his duffel bag that he started with and then a huge bag full of stuff he had apparently bought along the way. Anyway, 20 dinar later we had our boarding passes in hand.

The flight was uneventful, except for the fact that when we sat down Hassan couldn’t figure out his seat belt. Seriously. He clearly had not been on many plane flights because he couldn’t figure out how to adjust the belt to make it longer. He told me he needed the flight attendant because his belt was “broken”. I quickly adjusted it for him.

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Sidi Bou Said

Once we landed, we located our new driver and then set off for the hotel to drop off my luggage and “stuff” before setting out for Sid Bou Said. Sidi Bou Said has its origins dating to the 13th century when Abou Said ibn Khalef ibn Yahia Ettamini el Beji arrived in the village of Jabal el-Menar and established a sanctuary. After his death in 1231, he was buried in the sanctuary and became known as Sidi Boud Said. (Sid means saint and I am still not clear what made him a saint.)

Anyway, in the 18th century the sanctuary established by Sid Bou Said was surrounded by residences that were built by wealthy Turkish governors to take advantage of the spectacular scenery from the sanctuary’s cliff top location. In the 1920, the French gave the area protected status applying a pretty blue and white colour scheme to the buildings that is now seen all over the tiny village.

We got out of the car and initially walked up the very hilly, narrow cobblestone alleys to the top of a lookout point where we could see across the Mediterranean and over to the lighthouse perched high above us. We then walked back down and through the little alleys and past beautiful blue and white residences with their trademark blue doors and cascading bougainvillea in purples, pinks, and yellows. The setting was beautiful. And the best part was that there were hardly any tourists around. Apparently, Sunday mornings are the perfect time to hit the area when no cruise ships are in town and tourists like to sleep in.

We spent some time wandering through the residential area to the small little commercial area that was dotted by the occasional row of tourist shops. Here and there we found little cafes and in particular a doughnut maker who gave me a gigantic warm doughnut, which was like pastry heaven in my mouth. (It was so good I went back on Monday, but he was closed because of a Tunisian holiday.)

We finally called it good about noon and we headed to the restaurant where I was going to have lunch. La Falaise was located a few km from Sidi Bou Said in the town of La Marsa and was built on a lookout point. When we arrived, we found out the restaurant did not open until 1 so Hassan had the driver take me on a little detour to some sites in the area I had not seen, including some small Roman ruins and the North Africa American Cemetery and War Memorial. Unfortunately, the sign and padlock on the gate said it all: “Due to the U.S. Government shut-down this site is closed to the public.” Good grief.

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North American Cemetary and War Memorial

By this time the restaurant was open. I had a fabulous lunch of seafood salad and a salmon risotto with local Tunisian white wine while enjoying magnificent views over the Mediterranean. All in all it was a fabulous way to end my “formal time” in Tunisia. I would have a couple days of doing nothing except laying around the beach at the hotel before taking a flight to Dubai for a couple days and then the loooooong flight home. (I actually went back to Sidi Bou Said the next day to wander around by myself and buy another doughnut, but a cruise ship was in town and it was utter chaos and a long cry from the quiet I found the day before).

I had really enjoyed my time in both Tunisia and Morocco. Wonderful sites, wonderful people and wonderful food. You can’t ask for anything more than that!

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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