Before leaving Tunisia to sail off into the greater Mediterranean Sea we teamed up once again with the crews from yachts ‘Sweetie’ (USA) Tony & Shannon and ‘Caffe Latte’ (Canada) Jean & Yolène to explore the south and west of Tunisia. You may remember our previous shared adventures together in Morocco back in 2019 – so good to be exploring together again, we make quite the team!
Being 6 of us it was cheaper to hire two small cars than one large one to fit us all in, therefore the adventure was completed with the team split with the “men” in the black car (with the wobbly wheel) and the “ladies” in the silver car (unfortunately without air-conditioning).
A Berber village of underground troglodyte dwellings. Troglodyte being a person who lives in a cave. We saw many examples of disused, original, restored and modern troglodyte architecture.
The typical village structures are created by digging a large pit in the ground then around the perimeter of this pit, caves are dug in to be used as rooms, with some homes comprising of multiple pits connected by trench like passageways or tunnels. One must be careful where they walk in Matmata as these holes/craters are deep and unmarked.
In the photos of our troglodyte hotel, you can see the depth these buildings go down to, and it makes such a difference, the temperatures were perfect without the need for heating or cooling. Being the only guests we had the whole place to ourselves, however also being Ramadan the bar wasn’t open! They did however bring us some drinks to our own private courtyard (pit). We slept like locals in these underground caves.
Matmata is also famous as the setting for filming of Luke Skywalker “Star Wars”, as well as Matmata’s village being one of the maps on the very popular Call of Duty computer games.
Djerba a small island off the south east of Tunisia, historically a home base for some of the Mediterranean’s most renowned pirates. The whitewashed desert towns are influenced by Berber, Arab, Jewish and African cultures.
We caught a car & passenger ferry across to the island and there was a competition on to guess how much it was going to cost each car (car + 3 passengers), guesses came in from $2 – $20 dinar (local currency) with the final result being 600 millines (cents – which is 30c Australian). 600 cents is no typo, the Tunisian currency is measured in $0.000 (there is 1000 millines/cents in the dinar/dollar).
We attempted to visit the El Ghriba Synaogue (the largest in Africa) but it was closed for cleaning. I have never visited a synagogue – oh well another time. The island has over 200 mosques, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to navigate to the one we decided to visit!
The underground mosque, a navigators nightmare to find, and to be honest we may not have even found it as this wasn’t technically underground, anyway, we relied on google who in its wisdom took on the most direct route via some private driveways/homes and through some olive plantations. It was as advertised closed, but the door was unlocked (Phil checked).
Arriving at Chenini in the late afternoon was another adventure of its own. Looking for our accomodation and again relying on google the lead car (girls) followed the instructions given which led us up the mountain on the wrong side via a donkey track that got incredibly tight with steep drop off’s on the side, after some advice from the locals (some yelling from above and others waving wildly below) we managed to reverse out and get to the correct side of the mountain.
Once we managed to arrive safely we were pinching ourselves – is this place for real??
We couldn’t wait to explore but that would have to wait until morning, first there was a hill to climb to our rooms, then a drink to be had as well as a delicious 3 course traditional Tunisian dinner – the food in a word – delicious! Indeed we asked the chef for the recipes much to his surprise and he was a little shy in sharing. Shannon (from Sweetie) and Phil (Red Roo) have both attempted to remake one of the dishes served with limited success – keep trying both of you!!
We hired Bou Bou the Berber guide to show us around Chenini. The picturesque ruins of this 12th century ksar (grain storage) sits proud at the top of a ridge with the settlement running down and out from this point cut into the rock along a series of small terraces that lead around the steep hillside.
Visiting Chenini and spending the morning roaming the hillside and ksars was an absolute delight and a definite highlight of our trip. We learnt so much, and Bou Bou earns his money with possibly more questions being asked to him than he has ever had before!
One of the things we learnt was to do with the burial of Berbers, graves are marked with either 2 stones or 3 stones. Females have 3 with one on the head, womb (belly) and feet and the Males just the two one on the head and feet.
In regards to exploring the hillside, the ksars and every little nook and cranny I will let the pictures do the talking.
In the afternoon we drove to several nearby villages to view their ksars all a similar history yet very different to look at depending on the location.
A ksar is a structure that typifies Berber (native) architecture, it is the traditional fortified granary built by regional tribes to preserve and protect precious grain crops. Ksars were usually built on natural defensive positions and occupy some spectacular hilltop positions. The low humidity of the region combined with the cool conditions inside meant that grain could be kept for years without deteriorating. The rooms were sealed with doors made of palm trunks to ward off insects thrives and weather. Sometimes a caretaker (often a local religious figure) regulated how much grain could be taken by owners during times of drought, and prevented crop holders from squandering their resources through a system of enforced saving and stockpiling. The half sealed doors means the family that owns this store has moved away from the region or passed.
Ksar Douriet is abandoned both by residents and tourists so it was a great visit to wander around at our leisure.
Ksar Ouled Debbab – Used up until a few years ago and now partly transformed into a hotel. However it seemed abandoned and we are sure this was due to the fact there was a large dinosaur on site. Luckily we had our Aussie Wildlife warrior with us who subdued it and made the area safe for us – thanks Phil.
Ksar Soltane – Two magnificent courtyards of the best ksars we visited (restored and touched up when used in movie scenes). We played like children/monkeys and took endless photos.
Ksar Jlidet apart from Chenini it seemed the most authentic.
A 370km drive to the very west of Tunisia to where we could see the Algerian border.
We passed through Douz the doorway to the Sahara Desert then crossed “Chott el Djerid” a large 7,000 square km salt lake. The landscape was diverse from rocky hills to white sand, to red sand, to salt lake/clay pans. Some very familiar sights reminding us of home in arid South Australia.
We passed a variety of animals in this seemingly inhospitable environment.
The West is known for its vast canyons and desert oasis’s, we couldn’t wait to explore and were not disappointed as it was all there waiting on our arrival.
The Desert Oasis & Golden Canyon.
Possibly my favourite day of our 6 day adventure. We started with a tour of Chebika with Mr Friday, showing us the old village which was washed out in 1969 when it rained for 3 weeks straight.
We learnt that Tunisian doors have three knockers. One for females (LHS), one for males (RHS) and one for children (lower RHS) they all sound a different knock due to their location so the household knows who is knocking. Funnily enough we hadn’t before noticed the three knockers but after that point noticed them everywhere in every village even back in Monastir.
We then headed up the valley behind the old town climbing up to a summit with amazing views looking down on the old town, new town, canyon, oasis, palm trees and the expansive flat desert to the west. We all sincerely enjoyed this, with Mr Friday’s motto being “بشوية شوية” pronounced “shwaya – shwaya” meaning slowly slowly, well he was wearing his Sunday slippers (yet he was concerned about Phil’s double plugger thongs).
We then descended into the oasis to see the source of life – a very small spring in the rocks, leading to water pools and waterfall (cascade).
Next was the nearby village of Tamaqzah where we enjoyed a 3 course Tunisian lunch before exploring the Golden Canyon – so much fun and amazing views around every corner, the colours and contours of the rocks were mesmerising.
We then visited Midas the most Western point with yet another canyon and the outpost guarding the Algerian border which when we approached by car the armed guard came out which encouraged us to turn around and go back to the main road. A fantastic day with desert, rocky hill climbs, oasis waterfalls, canyons and of course wonderful company – so lucky to have such great friends and fantastic travelling companions.
400 km, 6+ hours to get us home but with a fantastic stop around the half way mark at the town of Sbeitla.
However before getting to Sbeitla we had the boys leading us through a large town looking for a place to buy a baguette for lunch. This little adventure led us in circles and even had us driving through the market street during which the black car (boys) managed to knock the stand out from a trestle table of one of the ladies selling clothes. Never fear the girls stopped to ensure this was corrected with the help of a man on a motor bike who assisted the lady to put her table to rights.
Arriving in Sbeitla was exiting not only for us but for the staff at the ticket counter to sell us our tickets into the ruins, they hadn’t had regular tourist visits for over a year and didn’t have any change to sell us our tickets! We managed the correct change between all of us eventually.
This Roman settlement established at the start of the 1st century is famous for its remarkably preserved Roman temples. We visited the Antonine Gate (built AD 139), the three 2nd century temples Jupiter, Juno & Minerva, the remains of the Great Baths, the Theatre and of course the Churches.
Whilst exploring the ruins the word had passed around town that tourists had arrived and one enthusiastic entrepreneur (the guy from the adjacent service station in his uniform) jumped the fence into the ruins and gave it his all to try and sell us some supposedly ancient coins and mini statues. Furthermore upon return to the cars the local police were parked behind us guarding our cars who then stopped the traffic on the main road to allow us to pull out and leave. Talk about rock star treatment.
Tunisia has shown us over the last 6 days a magnificent display of landscapes, ecological habitat, generous people, mind blowing architecture, wonderful food, a rich history and a unique culture with their own way of living. Thank You Tunisia we won’t forget our experience, and also to our wonderful travelling companions from yachts Sweetie and Caffe Latte.