Global warming appears to be in rapid reverse in London at the time of writing. So isn’t it incredible to think that a mere 2.5 hours away the sun is shining, and the sea is as warm as the welcome? Just over two years after its Jasmine Spring revolution, Tunisia is right back on the tourist map. Head south to the dramatic desert landscapes of Tataouine, instantly recognisable as the backdrop to key scenes from ‘Star Wars’.
Walk with dinosaurs
Not literally, of course; they died out millions of years ago. But footprints of herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs were discovered in the desert area around Chenini back in 1955 and, in February of this year, the vertebrae fossil of a 15-metre-long tail was found in Tataouine’s Bir Amor locality. The ‘Memory Museum of the Earth’ in Tataouine is the place to find out more and, if you’re driving around the Chenini area, the life-size dinosaur casts of the odd stegosaurus looming from a hillside are a fun reminder of their existence.
Eat like a Tunisian
Nearby Djerba is called the ‘Island of the Lotus-Eaters’, where Odysseus almost lost his men to the seductive honey-sweet fruit. You won’t find any lotuses these days, but thanks to the mild climate, Tunisia has fruits and wonderful vegetables all year round. Berber in origin, couscous is Tunisia’s national dish and the steamed semolina grains are served with meat, fish or vegetables, often accompanied by harissa, a fiery chilli sauce. Try the specialities such as brik (crispy pastry parcel with a soft egg inside). There’s a knack to eating brik that mainly involves avoiding egg on your face. Cornes du Gazelle are the delicious sweet specialities of Tataouine – pastry horns filled with chopped almonds and syrup. The blood oranges are sensational.
Celebrate the Sahara
The desert festivals are a perfect opportunity to experience Berber culture. At the ‘Festival of the Ksour Saharien’ in March and Douz’s Festival of the Sahara in December you’ll have a chance to hear music played by Saharan Berbers. The all-male troupes from Libya, Sudan, Mali and Tunisia play traditional drums, flutes, pipes, horns and stringed lutes and will likely be accompanying traditional dances that represent aspects of their lives, whether hunting or fighting, even cooking. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of the traditional ‘amphora dance’, whereby a tribesman twirls effortlessly with up to ten of clay vessels on his head.
Meet the village people
The Berbers have lived in North Africa for over 4,000 years and it’s possible to understand part of their culture by exploring the desert around Tataouine. Once nomadic, the Berbers were excellent tradespeople who built barrel-vaulted rooms, some stacked up to four storeys high, to store their grain, salt and olive oil. Villages like Douiret, with its troglodyte dwellings carved out of the sandy rock, were built strategically high on a hill so as to be easily defendable from raiding parties. Douiret is now deserted, protected from vandalism by a few sun-grizzled Berber shepherds, but nearby Chenini, where the oldest structures date back to 12th century is still inhabited, and happens to share its name with one of the moons of Luke Skywalker’s home planet.
Try souks in the city
Houmt Souk is Djerba’s main market and, on Mondays, where you can watch the fish auction, haggle over a Berber rug or their fine silverware, or just sit in a café and sip a freshly squeezed orange juice. A tip when haggling; don’t, if you’re not interested in buying. It’s considered very bad form to suggest a price and then, once it’s reached, decide against it. Set yourself a limit and enjoy. That said, the Djerbans are experienced hagglers so feel free to leave if you haven’t seen anything you like.
Sabre an opportunity
It’s no wonder George Lucas was so inspired by this landscape. The ksour, or fortified granaries, here are literally carved out of the rock and the best preserved of all is that of Ouled Soltane, instantly recognisable as the Slave Quarters of Mos Espa where Anakin Skywalker lived as a boy. Thirty miles south of Tataouine, the ksour is easy to reach by road and has been beautifully restored, offering a perfect backdrop for that photo (if you remembered the light sabre).
Admire the mosques
Unlike in many other Islamic countries, Tunisia’s mosques are not open to tourists. That’s not to say that they can’t be admired from outside, of course. Some of the most beautiful mosques can be found in Djerba on the road to Houmt Souk. Djerba is also home to a Jewish minority and you’ll find the 2,000-year-old El Ghriba Synagogue in the Jewish village of Hara Seghira, a few miles southwest of Houmt Souk.
Get the hump
It’s said that Chewbacca’s voice is a mix of animal noises but, to my mind, it’s mainly camel. Aside from this filmic claim to fame, these ‘ships of the desert’ are also useful for taking a trip into the sandlands, whether for a five-minute jaunt or over a few days. Tataouine’s Sangho Privilège hotel offers three-day two-night camel trips.
Enjoy a cuppa and a smoke
You’ll notice dozens of cafés full of men, young and old, and occasionally women, drinking strong coffee or tea and puffing on a shisha pipe containing apple-flavoured tobacco. It seems to be something of a hobby, sitting, chatting, playing dominoes and watching the world drift by. Why not do the same? Order a sweet mint tea that will usually be poured, with a flourish, from a great height. While you’re pleasantly chilled you can admire the women in traditional dress – a simple straw hat atop a draped white dress that might be trimmed with embroidery – and the odd chap wearing a ‘burnoose’, a hooded Berber cloak of coarse brown wool, which bears a striking resemblance to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s cloak...