Djerba – Jedis, Jews and Jodhpurs!

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Africa » Tunisia » Djerba
March 15th 2010
Published: March 17th 2010
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We had a stroke of luck in Tataouine. As we were searching for a taxi to take us to the bus station, we met a taxi driver from the island of Djerba, our next destination, and he agreed to take us there for the same price as the bus or louage. That meant a three hour journey in a luxurious 9 seat taxi with no fellow passengers save the waifs and strays he picked up along the way for a few kilometres here and there.

Djerba is an island off the South East coast of Tunisia. To get there you have two options: one is to take a short ferry over the water, the other is to go many miles out of your way to drive over a causeway left over from Roman days. Needless to say our driver chose the shorter route so Trish had to travel by boat yet again! So many others chose the boat that we had to queue for about 40 minutes just to make the 15 minute crossing. Maybe the long way would have been quicker.

The major town on the island is Houmt Souq so we headed there and were dropped off at the Hotel Marhala, sister hotel of the one where we stayed in Matmata. This time the hotel was a converted fondouk, Tunisia’s version of a caravanserai, where we slept in a converted store room on the ground floor. Those rooms are en-suite whilst the former merchants’ quarters upstairs are not! It was cheap and comfortable, and but for the camera snapping tourists poking their noses around our courtyard all afternoon, it would have been peaceful too!!

We were both still feeling a little rough after our bout with a stomach bug so we took it easy and had a wander through the centre of town. “Madame, you want handbag? Monsieur, what you look for?” It was incessant. This must be the most hassle we’ve had anywhere in Tunisia! It’s a shame because it was quite a pretty town centre but we were always keen to move swiftly through.

After an afternoon’s rest we walked out to the Borj El Kebir, the local fort. We knew it would be closed as we had left it too late in the day to visit and it would be a much nicer area if only they would tidy up the surroundings. Still, the sun finally broke through the afternoon clouds so we were happy. Our walk took us past the monument to the Tower of Skulls. Quite why there is only a monument and not a tower we don’t know as the freakish display of 600 Spanish skulls, victims of the occupying Turks, would surely be a major ghoulish attraction! A little beyond there we meandered around the marina where countless pirate galleons await the summer and mass tourism.

That night we ate in the cheapest place around, the Carthage, which was packed with diners feasting on 4 Dinar (£1.80) meals. Trish was impressed with the Djerban Rice, a spicy plate of rice and meat and the signature dish of the island. Russ went for haricots au poulet which was like half a chicken in a dish of baked beans - delicious!!!!

The following day the weather was pretty grim. Whilst it wasn’t raining the wind was unbelievably strong whipping up sand everywhere and threatening the safety of the island’s many palm trees. We decided to rent a car for 24 hours and explore some of the island as there wasn’t much more to do. It was kind of our plan anyway. First things first and we needed fuel. Now when we collected the car it was running on petrol fumes so our aim was to return it in the same condition. We decided to put only 10 Dinars (£4.50) into the tank and that didn’t even take the needle out of the red. The warning light remained on but we were steadfast in our belief that it was enough.

The coastal road to the North West takes you beyond the airport to Borj El Djillij but we couldn’t get to the peninsula as it is military land. Instead we drove along the bleak windswept West coast road watching the Mediterranean Sea at its roughest. Just before we reached Ajim, the ferry port, Russ spotted what he was looking for. Considering the importance of the Star Wars films for so many people around the world, you would think that Tunisia would be making more of its tinsel town heritage. Instead Obiwan Kinobe’s house (an old squat mosque) is in desperate need of a bit of TLC and a make-over. Nobody was home, not even a stray dog or a tramp. We didn’t manage to find either of the other Star Wars sites around Ajim but they are not exactly well-known places in the films either.

Our circumnavigation of the island continued with a short drive over to the small town of Guellala, home of the local pottery industry. The strong wind didn’t encourage us to get out of the car though, so we missed out on the opportunity to buy the strange local jugs in the shape of camels which are, apparently, filled from underneath. Sounds confusing so maybe we should have had a closer look! Next up was El Kantara and a view of the 7km Roman causeway connecting the island to the mainland. Fortunately this HAS been upgraded since Roman times! In the distance we could see the old Spanish Fort, Borj Kastil, but the track mentioned in the guidebooks to get to it eluded us. 7km along a sandy peninsula just to see yet another old fort was probably not something we will regret missing!!

Finally we reached the beaches and Zone Touristique but beach weather it was not! We drove along rather unimpressed but hopefully in the summer sun it looks very different. Otherwise we just cannot see the attraction. The extensive road works don’t do much for the eye either. We grabbed a bite to eat from one of the small (expensive) touristy supermarkets and found a track near the Radisson Hotel out onto Flamingo Point. There we sat and ate our lunch watching a few brave kite surfers, the huge waves crashing against the shore, and the lack of flamingos who it seems disappear in these weather conditions.

Before making our way back to Houmt Souk we called in at the Royal Carriage Club where Jacqui, an ex-pat from the UK, was awaiting our visit. It was great to meet her and we chatted over coffee for a few hours. If you want to do some serious horse riding in Tunisia, or learn from scratch, then look her up. If we get the chance, we will return one day, as proper instruction and quality equipment, such as safety helmets, await the nervous novice!! Back in Houmt Souk we chilled out. Later on we ate some delicious couscous, again for next to no money, this time at the Palmiers.

We awoke the next morning to the weather we had hoped for. The sun shone strongly but there was still a chilly breeze blowing across the island. Trusting the remaining petrol fumes we had in the tank, we drove out to the town of Erriadh. It was only 7km away but we still looked nervously on as the needle sank towards empty. The reason for this trip was to visit the Jewish synagogue of El Ghriba. It is the oldest synagogue in North Africa which came to notoriety in 2002 when it was attacked by a truck bomb. Aimed at the town’s Jewish population its victims were two locals and 17 German and French tourists so not exactly an A-Q success when it comes to anti-Semitic attacks but a huge terrorism strike to Tunisia’s tourism industry. The synagogue is well worth a visit. First of all you have to go through a security check and metal detector. Once inside the synagogue you must then pay to visit the inner sanctuary. It is a donation but you MUST give at least 1 Dinar! It is quite beautiful inside and they have a huge supply of headscarves and skull caps for inappropriately dressed tourists. On our way back to Houmt Souk we found our way to Hara Kebira, once home to a large Jewish
Tower of SkullsTower of SkullsTower of Skulls

Hardly ghoulish, is it?!
community which has now shrunk considerably. Some houses are neatly decorated with emblems to ward off evil spirits. Symbols include fish, eyes and menorahs.

Our calculation of 10 Dinars worth of fuel turned out to be perfect and we breathed a sigh of relief as we made it back to the car park and handed the car back! Then we returned to the hotel, collected our bags and walked to the louage station. Even with full rucksacks on our back we were still invited into EVERY shop in the souk!

We took a louage to Gabes but on a Sunday the queue for the ferry is huge and we waited over an hour to get across. That got us to Gabes louage station at 1.30 and we wanted to find another ride to wither Kebili or Tozeur. Unfortunately there were more passengers than louages and after 2 hours we gave up! We spent the night in Gabes and found a louage pretty quickly the next morning. Initially our plan had been to stay in Kebili but we had to abandon that to get to Tozeur in reasonable time. The ride from Kebili to Tozeur takes you straight across the giant salt lake Chott El-Jerid from where Luke Skywalker contemplated the setting suns and rising moons of Tatooine many years ago! Not a bad journey but a tiring one.

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