Southern Odyssey

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December 23rd 2010
Published: December 23rd 2010
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Hey guys !

Greetings from the south of Tunisia, and indeed a great journey so far. Am currently writing this edition of my travel blog from ‘The Land of the Lotus Eaters’, Jerba – the island in Homer’s Odyssey from where the great voyager Ulysses' men did not want to leave after tasting the delicious fruit of the locals : the ‘lotus’ – indeed they forgot the route back home to Greece, until I believe it was slapped out of them. Unfortunately have been unable to find this mythical forbidden fruit in any of the souqs or covered markets, despite trying, but still seems like a nice place to hang around. Not sure if I’ll be unable to leave to my next destination on Sunday, but we’ll see what this island has to offer.

But yeah, still having a great trip since the last time I wrote, and have managed to pack a lot into the last four days, as well as having a nice rest a planet away from the stresses of London and the world of work. A great time to think and see things from a distance, especially in this current change of job which I’m going through – going back in January to a new Geography-teaching post in South London, and have been certainly in need of a break after numerous shenanigans going on in my previous job.

Anyway, sorry, not a time to moan but to relate my adventures thus far.

I believe I last wrote from Tunis, ready to embark on a train to the south. This train I caught, and ended up in a remarkable coastal destination called Mahdia – an old fort-town built by the Fatimid dynasty in 916 AD, on an amazing peninsula sticking right out into the middle of the Mediterranean. Roomed up in the only hotel in town, in the middle of the Medina in the heart of the peninsula, and the place was really surprisingly free of tourism and remarkably intact. A great place to wander – cobblestoned streets winding between whitewashed houses and mosques, with soothing warm sea breezes coming in from all sides, bringing in the fresh air of the sea – lovely.

Next day I took a “louage” – the local form of transport, in the style of a shared taxi which seems ubiquitous in most developing countries I’ve been to – to nearby El Jem, an otherwise unremarkable town were it not for its huge colosseum, built by the Romans and the Empire’s 3rd largest: 138m x 110m x 30m, seating capacity 30,000, perhaps equivalent to Bramall Lane...? A strange site, El Jem being a mass of sprawling Arabic buildings, markets and streets, with this one massive structure in the middle, pretty hard to miss. A fantastic place to wander around, without the headache of hordes of camera-wielding tourists you may find in Rome. Spent a lovely hour or so viewing the structure from within, looking on the central arena and listening to the “Gladiator” soundtrack on my MP3, imagining what scenes this place must have seen before – atmospheric to say the least.

The next day, which I believe was Tuesday, still being based in my medina hotel in Mahdia, I took the train to also nearby Monastir – centre of one of the three main tourist strips in Tunisia (the others being Hammamet and here, Jerba), and really not a bad place either. Apart from the first tourist shops I’ve seen so far, and the regular hassle that accompanies this by being a foreigner walking past numerous carpets, trinkets and other knick-knacks for sale (‘bonjour monsieur, ca va? Italien? Francais? Anglais? You want buy carpet, gooood price pour vous…’), the town was pleasant enough with a fine Ribat (Islamic fort) overlooking a sweeping sandy stretch of water, and the mausoleum of the founding father of the modern Tunisian Republic – Habib Bourguiba – who achieved independence from the French in 1956. Although only built following his death in 2000, it was built in the grandeur of other more famous mausoleums such as the Taj Mahal, and I can imagine tourists still flocking to the spot 500 years from now, such is the beauty of the building.

After another great night in the medina, finally moved on from Mahdia yesterday by taking four separate louages (bit of a journey!) to Matmata. You may not have heard of this town, but you’ll certainly have seen its most famous hotel, the Hotel Sidi Driss, as the location of Luke Skywalker’s childhood home in Star Wars, the one that eventually gets blown up by the dodgy guys in brown cloaks and hoodies who travel in a massive caravan (the name slips my mind…!). Anyway, this place was underground, one of the many troglodyte dwellings in the area built by the locals to escape the heat of the summer, and cosy up from the cold in the winter, and I even bedded down for the night in another one - the Hotel Marhala. It was amazing!! My room was about 7 metres underground, reachable via two underground tunnels burrowed into the hillside. I literally woke up this morning to lots of scuttling sounds coming from the walls around my bed, and getting the distinct feeling I was sharing the neighbourhood with rabbits and badgers, if not this, with Hobbits – it was also not really unlike a hobbit hole! I also expected to see two suns going down as I watched the sunset the previous night, but alas there was only one...

And finally, onto today, another louage trip to include a ferry ride to here, the island of Jerba, the afore-mentioned land of the lotus eaters, also known as Tunisia’s most famous tourist destination. A desert island in the far south of the country, with hopefully warm enough weather tomorrow for a dip in the sea – great stuff! So far, it’s been a bit chilly up north, with the daytime temperature increasing the further south I go, but nighttime temperature seeming to decrease. Unfortunately Tunisian hotels (at least those in my budget) do not have much by way of central heating, so most nights involve a cosy sleep under around six blankets or so, provided courteously by the sleeping establishment. Today was actually very windy, and crossing the desert-scape environment from nearby Gabes to here was like driving through a mini-sandstorm.

Anyway, what a long description to get to where I am now – hope I haven’t bored anyone who’s read thus far, but again am really having a great time here. The people are still as friendly as my first impressions, the food great, and the hotels I’ve stayed in memorable.

Am gonna upload some pictures now, but before I do, I’d like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas back home (and also further afield for that matter). I hope the snow hasn’t affected anyone too much, though speaking of which I only found out about this a couple of days ago, and realized just how lucky I was to fly from Heathrow when I did – hoping the situation will have cleared up by the time I’m due back, but for now I can’t really imagine snow and the like as I look out the door of this internet café onto a desert island landscape, palm trees and all. At least have made it to a great place to celebrate Christmas though, as my hotel is about 100m away from one of the country’s very few Catholic churches, and certainly will be planning a midnight mass tomorrow.

So again, Merry Christmas to all, and hope to update this again soon in a few days' time (when I plan to be even further south – the Sahara!!)

All the best, and speak soon.


Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Photo Time - El JemPhoto Time - El Jem
Photo Time - El Jem

I love this picture! Taken by the husband of the Canadian lady I asked to take a picture of me, and then very kindly emailed to me.

Anyone been to the Hammersmith Broadway Shopping Centre - same design team as this Monastir shopping centre perhaps?
The Hotel Sidi Driss, MatmataThe Hotel Sidi Driss, Matmata
The Hotel Sidi Driss, Matmata

Luke Skywalker's childhood home in Star Wars
Star WarsStar Wars
Star Wars

Where they had dinner, in one of the Troglodyte Homes of Matmata
 Inside my troglodyte hotel room Inside my troglodyte hotel room
Inside my troglodyte hotel room

The Hotel Marhala, Matmata
Desert road, mini sandstormDesert road, mini sandstorm
Desert road, mini sandstorm

From Gabes to Jerba, by louage
View from my hotel roomView from my hotel room
View from my hotel room

Overlooking the town of Houmt Souq, Jerba

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