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Trip Report to Tunisia 2012 - The South

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
This is a trip report previously published on Slow Travel for a trip to Tunisia in Spring 2012, just after the Jasmine Revolution. Because it is so long, I have written it in three parts. This covers the south of Tunisia. The North and the Roman remains in the north are covered in separate reports.

Introduction


We’ve visited all the continents except Africa. We felt we needed to address this but we didn’t want to go to South Africa. Equatorial Africa is too hot for us and we weren’t wanting to watch big game. This left the north coast. We discounted Algeria, Egypt and Libya which left Morocco or Tunisia. Of the two, Tunisia seemed to have the most to offer to us with the Roman sites in the north. We borrowed or bought guide books and started to read. Having drawn up a list of ideas we went to see Audley Travel who we use for all our long trips.

They came up with a month long itinerary beginning in the north and taking us into the desert in the south. We had said we wanted to travel slowly with at least two nights in each place and time to explore by ourselves. We wanted to avoid the tourist resorts and said ‘No Star War sites’. We would have a car and driver but no guide. This suited us as I always research trips thoroughly and go prepared with maps of places we are visiting and notes. Some guides can have very fixed ideas of what they want you to see, which may not be what we want to do.

We would fly British Airways from Gatwick. They have an early morning flight from Gatwick which would give us an afternoon to ourselves in Tunis. The flight back is an evening one which gave us a full day before flying home. As we always have a night near the airport before and after a trip this suited us. Air Tunisia flies from Heathrow but it is an afternoon flight out and day flight back.

The final itinerary looked like this:

Tunis - 4 nights
El Kef - 3 nights
Kairouan - 3 nights
Tamerza - 4 nights
Ksar Ghilane - 2 nights
Tataouine - 2 nights
Djerba - 2 nights
Sfax - 2 nights
Ksar Ezzit - 3 nights


We were lucky with out driver who spoke good English and had a wide knowledge of Tunisia. He soon learnt what we liked doing and took us to many places not in our itinerary, the guide books or internet.

The itinerary worked well and we enjoyed out trip. In retrospect we could have trimmed back on it.

We had allowed a day to see El Kef which we could probably have cut out. Hamman Melligue was interesting but we felt El Kef itself didn’t have a lot to offer.

We also felt we could take a night out of Tamerza by visiting Mides and Chebika after the ride on the Red Lizard train. The jury is out on Tozeur and Nefta too, which would have saved another night. The Tamerza Palace Hotel is the only tourist accommodation in Tamerza and is expensive.

The jury is very much out of Ksar Ghilane too. It did not live up to the hype. Naively perhaps, we had expected the description of “on every side there are sweeping desert dunes accentuating the impression of a remote outpost” to be accurate. It is a rather scruffy oasis full of camp resorts and tourists. The desert is beyond a hedge and fence. I think we might have regretted not spending one night in the desert but didn’t need the two nights we had asked for as there is little to do unless you want to ride a camel, go for a quod bike ride or lie by the pool.

Originally we had discounted Djerba as being too touristy for us. Information coming back from Tunisia Direct who Audley work with said away from the east coast tourist belt the island was very peaceful and people followed a very traditional way of life. Knowing our objectives for the trip, they recommended we spend a couple of nights there. Unfortunately this information is now out of date as there is a lot of new development in Djerba and the traditional way of life is disappearing fast. It was a major disappointment and we felt our original decision had been the right one. Doing the trip again we would omit Djerba.

Ksar Ezzit had been highly recommended to us as a new style venture being an organic olive farm providing a very wide range of inclusive activities such as visits to various historical sites, guided walks, horse riding, talks on farming methods and so on. We had therefore expected to be given a list of activities to choose from. It appears the farm no longer provides those activities. Perhaps because most visitors are Tunisians and are not interested in these activities. It is a delightful place to drop out at the end of a long trip but anyone planning to visit needs to be very sure what is available. Access to a 4x4 car is advisable as the restaurant is about 2 miles from the accommodation. One or two nights could have been cut from this.

Highlights of the trip included
• the many Roman sites especially Ain Tounga and Gightis which get few visitors
• Roman mosaics in Bardo and El Jem Museums
• El Jem amphitheatre towering above the countryside
• the wild flowers which were at their best when we visited
• the Berber hill towns and Ksour around Tataouine
• the oasis at Chebika (once the tourists have gone home)
• the fruit and vegetable markets

Above all we will remember the warmth and welcome of the Tunisian people, their great sense of optimism after the Revolution and will for the changes to succeed and make life better.


As the report is so long, the different places we visited can be found below:

#2 Impressions of the south
#3 Star Wars and Tunisia
#4 Tamerza
#5 Tamerza Old Town
#6 Chebika
#7 Mides
#8 Tozeur
#9 The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, Tozeur
#10 Nefta
#13 Traditional Brick makers, Nefta
#14 Lézard Rouge
#15 Chott el Jerid
#16 Camp Yadis, Ksar Ghilane
#17 Ksar Ghilkane and the desert
#18 Matmata
#19 Tatouine
#20 Douiret
#21 Douiret
#22 Chenini
#23 Ksour - Ksar Maztouria
#24 Ksar Daghara
#25 Ksar Ouled Soltane
#26 Ksar Ezzahra
#27 Ksour at Beni Behal and Mhira
#28 Ksar el Ferech
#29 Djerba
#30 Djerba - Menzels
#31 Djerba - Fortified Mosques
#32 Djerba - Er Riadh
#33 Guellala Pottery
#34 Meninx Roman site
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Impressions of the south

Most people visit Tunisia for the sun and flock to the holiday resorts like Djerba. A few may have day trips into the desert or search out the Star Wars film sets, but many venture no further than the pool or Houmt Souk, the main town on Djerba. This is a shame as Tunisia has a lot more to offer than this.

The south is desert country and very different to the fertile north. Many people are giving up farming and now work in tourism. In 2012, land in Djerba was selling at at 350 dinars per square meter so there was little incentive to farm. Olive groves were becoming neglected. Traditional houses were falling into disrepair. Since planning regulations had been lifted since the Revolution, new houses were mushrooming everywhere. It was more like an upmarket housing estate than a traditional farming community.

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As you drive south the wheat fields disappear and vegetation changes becoming low and scrubby.

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There are fewer wild flowers. The land changes to stony desert and wild camels can be seen.

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The only settlements are based around springs and water sources. Stone or earth banks are built to hold back water so some wheat and a few olive trees or dates can be grown.

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The oases near the Algerian Border stand out as splashes of green against the pale brown landscape.

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Water is used to irrigate the palmeraies. Dates need 500l a day, brought by a series of channels designed to take water to all of the palmeraie and avoid wastage.

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Palms are very versatile and all of the tree can be used. The branches are used for roofs and fences. The leaves are used on fires especially kilns for brick or pottery manufacture. The tough leaf fibres can be woven into mats, bags or ropes. Woody fruiting stems make good brooms. Date pips can be roasted and ground to make ersatz coffee. Today they are usually ground up as animal fodder.

The trees are productive for 30-40 years. Then the tops are cut off and a tube inserted in the top of the trunk to collect the palm juice which runs for about a month. This is used as a drink. The tree then dies. The trunk is used for wood or hollowed out to make water channels.

The palms provide shape for plants underneath them and temperatures are typically 5˚ lower than outside. Pomegranates, figs, bananas, apricots and oranges are grown under the palms. Roads run through the palmeraies with tracks to the individual plots which are surrounded by palm leaf fences.

Many palms are owned by wealthy (often absentee) landlords who employ local labourers (sharecroppers) who receive a share of the harvest rather than payment. Without money have to borrow from their employers so are permanently in debt.

As can be seen in places like Tozeur, problems with water supply, neglect and less interest in farming have resulted in the loss of some palm trees. Tapping of deep aquifers by water pumps (funded with government money) to provide water for the increasing demands of tourism has led to the depletion of most natural springs. The effects of this are obvious in the Corbeille in Nefta. With productivity plummeting, the health and future of these palmeraies is in doubt.

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Those in smaller villages like Tamerza, Chebika and Mides look a lot more healthy.
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South of Tozeur is the largest salt lake in Tunisia, Chott el Jerid.

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To the south is the Sahara desert. Ksar Ghilane is an oasis where the hamada (stoney desert) meets the erg (sandy desert).

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The palm trees are still there but tourism has replaced agriculture and in 2012, the oasis is now home to four or five large resort camps. Tourists spend a night here to enjoy a desert experience with sand dunes and camel rides. South of Ksar Ghilane was a military zone and you needed a permit to enter.

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The east of Ksar Ghilane between Matmata and Tataouine is more settled. The architecture is very different to the rest of Tunisia, with old Berber villages built on the top of the hills.

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Troglodyte houses were a response to the summer heat and some are still lived in around Matmata.

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Ksour, fortified granaries, were built by the Berbers to store their grain. This is Star Wars country and Tataouine gave its name to Tatooine. Star Wars is big business and fans come to visit the Star Wars sites with Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata and Ksar Ouled Soltane top of the list.

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Roads vary from good to potholed tracks. In 2012, there was a high police presence along the roads and drivers are often stopped to show their papers. Near the borders, there is extra security as there was a fair bit of sheep smuggling from Tunisia into Libya and vehicles carrying sheep were stopped and police checked they have the correct paperwork allowing them to move sheep. Anyone without authorisation was stopped, fined and the sheep confiscated.

Petrol prices in Libya were lower than in Tunisia so there was a lot of illegal movement of petrol across the border. Trucks and lorries come back loaded with jerry cans full of petrol or diesel which were them sold from the roadside. Everywhere we went in Tunisia, we saw shelters with a pile of jerry cans containing petrol for sale. It was poured into the car using a long pipe and the sand around was saturated with petrol. It surprised us there weren't accidents. There was so much traffic, the police turned a blind eye to it as there would have been major trouble if they tried to clamp down.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Star Wars and Tunisia

I’ll come clean, I am not a Star Wars fan and haven’t seen any of the films. We had said when planning the trip “No Star Wars” but it is impossible to visit Tataouine and escape Star Wars. 'Tatooine' is a corruption of Tataouine. It is big business and fans come to visit the Star Wars sites.


The following covers some of the places we did see and comments about one we didn’t. Apologies for any errors as I’ve used google to check what some of the places were used for.


Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata was our first taste of Star Wars. I believe this was the set for Luke Skywalker’s homestead. Huge signs inside the hotel point to “Star Wars set” and lead down a passageway past dubious toilets and a communal washing area. It took us to a courtyard with rooms off with metal doors. There was a ‘Control Panel’ on one wall and various big pipes. It looked and felt tacky. Apparently Aunt Beru’s kitchen is still there and the dining room that Lars used but we didn’t know about or find these. Tourist tat outside with a baby camel didn’t improve our impressions. It confirmed my worst fears.


Our driver was determined to take us to Ksar Ouled Soltane and I gave up saying ‘no’. Some of the slave-quarters scenes, including the home of Anakin, in The Phantom Menace were shot here. I’m glad we visited. I had expected it to be busy but to our surprise we were the only tourists around. It is a big four storey building with two courtyards. The inside surface has been restored but instead of using the traditional plaster, it was smoothed over with concrete which is beginning to show its age. The walls are covered with the wooden doorways of the ghorfas. These are reached by big staircases and there are stones set in the wall to reach doorways without staircase.

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When we visited, there were two small art galleries in the inner courtyard and we were approached by the owners trying to sell us water colour paintings. One was very pushy and we didn’t like his pictures. He then tried to flog us a painting on a stone but we told him it would exceed our baggage allowance. The second person was less pushy and we liked his pictures. We were allowed to look and choose at our leisure. It solved the present for Star Wars mad son-in-law. (Small pictures were 10TD, large ones 20TD and he wouldn’t haggle)


We did not visit Ksar Hadada which features in The Phanthom Menace in the scene where Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan Kenobi discuss the upcoming pod-race. It also doubled as the rear of the slave quarters, and features in the scenes where Anakin’s mother hints about a virgin birth and when Anakin works on his pod-racer. Rough Guide had dismissed this as a “slapdash” restoration and the ground agent agreed with this.


A site we did visit but hadn’t realised at the time were the Yardangs in Debebcha on the western edge of Chott el Jerid. The causeway across the Chott has left the salt flats and sand dunes appear. Yardangs are eroded bits of sandstone standing above the surface which have been left as the sand dunes move. They were the backdrop for several memorable Star Wars scenes, including the famous Jedi duel between Qui-Gonn and Darth Maul in Episode I. It’s a lovely site and worth visiting for the geology!
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Tamerza - one of the best known desert oases

Tamerza , Chebika and Mides are part of a string of mountain oases close to border with Algeria. They were major stopping off points on the main caravan routes which linked the east and west coasts of Africa. During the Roman Empire they were part of Limes Tripolitanus line which was designed to keep out marauding Saharan tribes.

For centuries, the villages produced only what was needed to feed their population. This balance was upset when phosphate deposits discovered around Metlaoui. Many people left to work in the mines and agriculture diminished. However the phosphate mines are no longer as productive and in 2012, there was unrest among the workers who were demanding better wages and working conditions since the Jasmine Revolution. Some were returning to their native villages, which was causing high unemployment in places like Tozeur. Tourism is also causing change.

Tamerza is one of the largest of the oases villages and least spoilt. We spent 4 nights in Tamerza Palace Hotel, on the edge of the new town with views across the oued to the palmeraie and ruins of the old town.

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We had been expecting great things as Audley Travel had described it as their ‘favourite hotel in Tunisia’. The rooms were large and comfortable with a minimalist look and effective air conditioning kept them at a reasonable temperature. We were very disappointed by the restaurant. Breakfast was poor for a hotel of this standard and staff were slow to replenish food. Dinner was served by candlelight. It was atmospheric but difficult to see what you were eating. The menu was a bit esoteric for us and a couple of nights we were scratching around to find something we wanted to eat. Service was very slow. The candle burnt out and we had to ask for another one. It was touch and go whether that would last until we finished our meal. Meals were served to an accompaniment of canned music, usually modern jazz which is not to my taste. Overall we were disappointed and felt it didn’t live up to the hype.

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Tamerza is surrounded by a huge ravine with steep curved rock faces and two waterfalls. The best of these is reached off the main road beyond the town. An old road crosses a ford to a large parking area surrounded by tourist stalls all touting for trade. Prices are high so there is a need to haggle.

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It is a short walk to the cascade, three small streams dropping about 5m into a pool at bottom of wide canyon. In summer this is dug out and is a popular swimming pool. The stream running from it is neatly lined with small stones. The valley bottom is very wet with huge reeds growing. We walked along it until we couldn’t get any further. It is surrounded by huge cliffs with deep cracks where rocks were about to fall off.

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The second waterfall gets few visitors now. It is on the edge of the new town and down the track past Hotel les Cascades, which was shut in 2012 shut and looking very sad. This was the first hotel built in Tamerza 25 years ago and the rooms were in small huts made of palm leaves. In 2012, it still has a tented cafe with low seats in a tent or white plastic chairs and tables. There was no-one around and it didn’t look as if it did much business.

The path dropping down to the cascade used to be lined with tourist shops but now only one is left selling the usual selection of desert roses and stones as well as dresses, a few carpets, scarves, woven bags and tiny model bedouin tents. All were beginning to look very dusty as if they had been there a long time.

A 5m waterfall drops into plunge pool with more water trickling down the sides of the rock from the palmeraie above and down the walls of the canyon. The water looked dirtier and there was a general feeling of being run down and unkempt. There was a sort of track along the bottom of chalky cliffs with lots of flint and a few round nodules which may have crystals when split open.

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Overall verdict was that both of these could be missed another time.

Water comes from springs in the mountains to the south. It supplied water to the old town and its extensive palmeraie before flowing to the smaller palmeraie in the new town.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Tamerza Old Town

The Old Town was destroyed by floods in 1969 after 22 days torrential rain. It was built on the side of a ridge with a steep drop on the far side. The layout of the streets can still be seen with the main street running east-west with a labyrinth of narrow alleys off it. Most houses were reduced to rubble in the rain but a few walls survive.

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In the centre of the village is a white painted mosque with blue doors and windows, all locked.

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Further along the street is the Marabout of Sidi Tuati, which is set in a courtyard with wall around it. A door leads into an oblong room with smaller one at far end. A few streets above it is the Mausoleum of Sidi Dar Ben Dhahara which has been replastered outside. It has a colonnaded entry and two rows of pillars leading to the end with a beautiful brick lined cupola made with Tozeur bricks. No contents are left in it.

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The New Town built after the floods is a typical small Tunisian settlement with low flat roofed houses and a few shops selling mainly dry goods and tins.

The oasis spreads along the side of the wide oeud. There is an abundant water supply for the date palms which need about 550l water per day. The palms are often underplanted with apricots, oranges, figs, pomegranates as well as vegetables.

The palms are very versatile and all of the tree can be use. The branches are used for roofs and fences. The leaves are used on fires especially kilns for brick or pottery manufacture. The tough leaf fibres can be woven into mats, bags or ropes. The trees are productive for 30-40 years. Then the tops are cut off and a tube inserted in the top of the trunk to collect the palm juice which runs for about a month. This is used as a drink. The tree then dies. The trunk is used for wood or hollowed out to make water channels.

Areas which are not irrigated are dry stony desert with a few low scrubby plants.

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There is a super ridge walk along the ridge above the hotel which is reached off the Mides road. There is a rough track up to the radio masts on top of the ridge. It is possible to drive up here in a 4x4 and park near the masts. Up here the rocks are baked black from the heat of the summer sun. It is an easy walk along the ridge for about 1km to the far end with the jumble of rocks and steep drop into the canyon. There are 360˚ views down onto Tamerza Palace Hotel with the Palmeraie and old town beyond.

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On the other side is a lake and the tiny oasis of Ain El Ouchika with Algeria stretching into the distance.

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We enjoyed Tamerza and the desert oases. It is a very different experience to the green and fertile north.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chebika - a popular oasis, very much on the tourist trail

Chebika is a few miles from Tamerza along the Tozeur road. It is a popular tourist spot and can get hundreds of visitors during the day. We were taken to visit late in the afternoon as the last of the tourists were leaving.

Chebika is set back from the main road and we enjoyed the drive through the palmeraie which is well maintained with concrete irrigation channels and past the remains of old town destroyed in the 1969 storms.

The new town is a collection of stone and clay buildings clinging to the side of the mountain. It is a beautiful location overlooking arid plain to west and Chott el Gharsa to south.

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It is possibly the most dramatic of the oases town with rugged rocks and steep sided ravine.

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We parked by the tourist shops and cafes and were immediately accosted by people trying to sell us minerals. I was offered an ‘amethyst’ for 1TD which was a badly dyed piece of desert rose and I could see where the dye had been applied. The shops were closing as the last of the day tourists had gone.

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It is a lovely walk on a well made path through the palmeraie into the canyon.

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A sophisticated irrigation system distributes water to all plots along concrete channels.

The path is lined with stalls selling rocks and crystals, fortunately most shut, leaving their wooden chests used to store goods beside the path.

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There were several very persistent children around trying to sell us some not very good rock samples for 1TD.

Bare eroded rocks rise out of the canyon complete with a carved ibex at the top.

Water channel runs along the path and we could hear the frogs croaking. The canyon gradually narrows to reach a small waterfall.

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Steps up beside the waterfall lead into narrow path along the upper canyon taking us to the spring where water appears through crack in the rock. There are a few scattered palm trees, some with tufts of yellow flowers. It is a delightful place which we had to ourselves.

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If you have the choice do this either very early in the morning before the tourists arrive or late afternoon once they have gone. The path is narrow and wouldn’t be much fun if busy. The tourist stalls will also be shut.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Mides - a palmeraie and an old town

Mides is close to the Algerian border with a splendid Border Control Point. The guide books warned that it was full of plain clothes policemen. If so, they weren’t around when we visited and the village was deserted.

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Mides is the smallest oasis in the area with scattered white houses perched on the edge of a deep 3km long gorge which flanks it on three sides.

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The village is surrounded by a well looked after Palmeraie. We went for a short walk along the road into it. The temperature was noticeably cooler. The Palmeraie is well cared for and the individual plots are fenced off with fences made from palm leaves. Pomegranates, figs, almonds, oranges and nectarines grow beneath the palms.

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The palms are so densely planted there is no space to grow vegetables. These are grown in separate plots outside the Palmeraie

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The road beyond the Palmeraie passes the ruins of the old village situated high above the canyon and destroyed by the storms in 1969.

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The village is in better condition than Tamerza with the main street lined with the blank walls of houses standing nearly to their original height. Inside some of the roofs survive with palm tree rafters. The road follows the canyon to its head.

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There are superb views down into the canyon which is deep with very steep sandstone walls made up of layers of different strata. It is very narrow at the bottom. The canyon narrows and becomes shallower to its head where water flows across a flat wet plateau and a small, rather pathetic cascade into the canyon.

The road is lined with tourist stalls with hand painted signs to ‘panoramic view’. They are piled high with desert roses, crystals, fossilised palm wood and varnished boulders described as ‘meteorites’.

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This was another well worth while visit. We were there early in the day and missed the worst of the tourists who seem to head for Chebika first.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Tozeur - An unattractive town but a popular base for many tourists

Tozeur is about an hours drive from Tamerza. The road climbs up a ridge of the Atlas Mountains with views into the deeply eroded canyon to a viewpoint at the top with stalls selling carpets, plates, wooden doors which open with a mirror behind, stuffed camels, shawls and other stalls piled high with desert roses. This is bare eroded rock with little vegetation with good views across the flat expanse of the Chott el Gharsa.

The road drops down to the Chott, a vast expanse of nothing with a few scattered oases. There is very little vegetation apart from bushes of what the Tunisians call ‘boogriba’ which has tiny fleshy leaves which contain a lot of water and are loved by the camels. There are plenty of signs warning about camels crossing and we saw a few camels grazing by the side of the road.

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In places sandy desert is beginning to encroach and small fences of palm leaves are used to stop sand blowing. In other places there are a series of small boxes made of palm leaves covering the dunes. Some of the larger squares are planted with tamarisk trees.

Tozeur was busy on a Saturday as it was market day with lots of second hand clothes stalls and fruit stalls lining the streets. We asked about the animal market but were told it was on Sunday.

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We went for short walk through the old quarter, Ouled el Hadef dates from the C14th and is a maze of narrow covered alleyways with palm trunk ceilings and small squares. Most houses are two storeys, and few have windows on the street. Most rely on light from the courtyard. The houses are constructed of small yellowish hand made bricks which protrude in elaborate geometric patterns on the walls. These are only found in Tozeur and Nefta. The technique was first used in Syria and Iraq in the C8th and was carried west by Arab traders in C10th.

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All new houses follow the same style. Load-bearing walls are made of concrete and yellow bricks form a patterned layer. They are popular as they provide better insulation against the extremes of climate than breeze block and create small patches of shade on walls which generate cooling currents.

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We went to find the statue of Ibn Chabbat a C13th Arabian mathematician who was responsible for designing an effective irrigation system for the Palmeraie.

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Water was distributed to all plots along a complex system of dykes and sluices designed to avoid wastage of water. Water was channeled along hollowed out palm trunks with a series of holes which were blocked when the allocated time was over. Time was calculated by means of Kadouss, a water container with a hole in it which took just over an hour to empty. Each landowner was allocated a set number of kadouss units.

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Tracks through the Palmeraie and individual plots plots are fenced off with tall palm hedges.

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Apricots, pomegranates, bananas and figs grow beneath the palms. Some still had dates hanging from them. We drove along one of the main roads through the palmeraie but declined a visit to the zoo, having read that animals are kept in small cages. The star turn is a coca cola drinking camel...

In places the palmeraie is beginning to look very unkempt and palms neglected and beginning to die.

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The road took us past the ‘venerable’ Jujube tree allegedly planted by Sidi Bou Lifai buried in the white marabout of behind it.

The village of Bled el-Hadder in the Palmeraie is a collection of small houses around the mosque. Some big new houses are being built on the edge of the settlement surrounded by tall walls with very splendid gateways.

We were dropped off at the Belvedere and left while our driver went to the mosque for midday prayers. This was a BIG mistake as it is a dump. Naff faces painted white are carved in the rocks as a tourist attraction. It might work at Mount Rushmore but it doesn’t here. There are big models of eagle, lute, violin and drum. There is a kids play area with swings, bouncy castle, slides and a roundabout. Music was blaring out but the fast food stall didn’t seem to be doing much trade. Neither did the horses and camels. We were the only Europeans there, everyone else was Tunisian. We climbed the steps up to viewpoint on rocks which overlooked the golf club and big hotels of tourist zone. Although there were plenty of seats there was no shade. There was litter everywhere. Avoid it.

Afterwards we drove through the tourist area. There are a lot of hotels but many of them were shut in 2012, either because there isn’t enough business to keep them open or because the owners have not been paying the staff.

Many tourists to the area choose to stop in Tozeur as it has more choice of hotels than Tamerza and is a lot cheaper. It isn’t such an attractive place though. Even though we felt the Tamerza Palace Hotel was expensive we were glad we had stopped there.
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, Tozeur

The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions is in one of traditional C14th houses in Oueld el Hadef. The guide books were very complementary about this.

A passageway lead from the door into a courtyard with rooms off containing different exhibits.

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The kitchen has a small wood fired oven with storage area next to it. There are copper steamers for couscous, large glazed serving plates with traditional green (dates) and yellow (sand) decoration and examples of small cups used for drinking palm juice, wooden olive bowls, quern, pestle and mortar made from apricot wood. Pottery made by the household was fired in bread oven.

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The next room has a Koran and a copy of the book explaining Ibn Chabbat’s system of irrigating the oasis and a kadouss. He was a C13th mathematician who devised a system of using water from over 200 different sources which were distributed to all plots along a complex system of dykes and sluices designed to avoid wastage of water. Water was channeled along hollowed out palm trunks with a series of holes which were blocked when the allocated time was over. Time was calculated by means of Kadouss, a water container with a hole in it which took just over an hour to empty. Each landowner was allocated a set number of kadouss units.

There is a display of old money. Hanging on the wall are boards of apricot wood which were used in school. Ink was made from burnt sheep’s blood and could be cleaned off using white clay.

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The next room is a bedroom with a chest containing examples of wedding dresses. Souad, the curator, dressed Michael up in a long white robe and a turban. I was given a red dress with golden head dress. There was much hilarity as we had our pictures taken.

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Upstairs is room for weaving blankets. Souad demonstrated carding, spinning and weaving. Wool is threaded through by hand and then pushed down using a wooden comb. It could take one person 2-3 months to make a blanket. Larger blankets were usually made by three women sitting side by side working together.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Nefta - off the tourist route

Nefta is about 40min drive from Tozeur across flat stoney desert with little vegetation. It is close to the Algerian border. Architecturally it is similar to Tozeur but receives far fewer tourists.

First stop was the viewpoint above the Corbeille which is a huge depression about 40m deep. It originally had springs flowing from its sides but these have dried up as the water table has fallen. Many of the trees on its sides are beginning to die. At the north end is a large bathing pool fed by hot springs which was built as a reservoir to irrigate the crops in the Corbeille.

It was empty when we visited and looking dirty. Water was running into it but then ran straight through into the irrigation channel through the Palmeraie. Many trees are beginning to die and the area is becoming arid and rubbish strewn.

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We went for a walk around Ouled Ech Charif area which is the best preserved part of the old town with winding vaulted alleyways lined with house walls, some with ornate doorways. There are long drainpipes projecting off the buildings and channels collect water off the roofs. The decorative brickwork on the buildings is less ornate than in Tozeur.

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We visited Nefta after Tozeur. It was a long drive from Tamerza. Nefta is less attractive than Tozeur and gets fewer visitors. The area around Ouled Ech Charif was interesting but the Corbeille area was looking very sad. The main reason to visit is for the traditional brick makers, which made the trip worthwhile.
 

joe

500+ Posts
Thanks very much for the post, the description and photos of the various desert oases are really interesting. Too bad indeed that tourism has had a negative effect here and there. Beautiful desert oases such as these should be kept as natural as possible.
It seems to me that some of the photos are not uploading, maybe this has something to do with the content being transferred. A pity, because all the photos really add to the content.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Nefta - a traditional brick makers

The main reason to visit neat was to visit a small traditional brick maker on the edge of the town above the Palmeraie. Two men work here and their living quarters are in a shelter nearby.

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Clay comes from the mountains. It is mixed every day in a trough with water and then stored under polythene until used.

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Lumps are taken from the store and used to fill wooden moulds with a handle which make two bricks at a time. They make about 1000 bricks a day. Ash is sprinkled on top of the damp clay to make the bricks stronger and to help drying.

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They are left in the sun to dry for one day in summer and three days in winter before being stacked up for another two days.

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The are then packed into a kiln, which will hold between 10,000 to 11,000 bricks. The top is covered with a layer of old bricks and the entrance sealed.

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A fire is lit below the kiln and bricks are fired at a temperature of 3000˚C for 24 hours, using dried palm leaves. The kiln takes 2-3 days to cool down.

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On display were examples of the different bricks produced

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This was a fascinating and well worthwhile visit.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Lézard Rouge - a great run through the Seldja gorges

The Red Lizard is a wonderful train journey which carves a sometimes seemingly impossible path through the gorges and phosphate mountains of southwest Tunisia.

The line was originally built by the French at the end of the C19th to transport the rich phosphate deposits from Metlaoui to Redeyef, from where they were taken to Sfax before being processed and exported.

Later the line was used by the Bey of Tunis when travelling between Tunis and his summer palace at Hammam Lif. He had his own private coach. In 1995, the original C19th carriages including Bey’s private car, were restored to their former glory and now runs as a tourist train.

There is a large station at Metaloui with booking hall and a basic toilets at the far end of the platform which aren’t capable of dealing with large numbers of visitors. There is parking outside the station. Our driver sat in the cafe watching the car as in 2012, there had been outbreaks of trouble in the town.

When we arrived there was a manky orange diesel at one end of the train. Later a big butch black diesel appeared and was attached to opposite end.

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The Bey’s private coach is splendid with a carpet and half a dozen arm chairs arranged down sides. It had its own washroom and toilet. You need to arrive early to secure a seat in here.

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On either side were coaches with white plastic seats

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At either end was a small guards van with wooden seats. We decided to sit in there working on principle that wooden seats were likely to put off people. They did.

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There is a high guard’s seat at one end with hand brake which was popular with people taking photos of each other. There are a few opening windows so we established ourselves on either side of the coach.

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Entry to the coaches is up steps at either end with a small platform area outside coach. Metal gates are closed before departure.

The train was away promptly. We were accompanied by a police car and police motor cyclist as we went through town to stop potential trouble, as the area has been affected by discontent of phosphate workers protesting about poor wages and working conditions. There have been cases of stones thrown and cars being burnt.

It takes about 10min before to leave the town and another 10min to reach the mountains.

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The train now begins to climb up through the valleys. We went through a tunnel and emerged by the Seidja river in a deep valley for the first photo stop.

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The train continues to climb and Michael and I kept changing sides so he could get the best views for photos. The river valley gets narrower becoming a canyon with dry side valleys on either side before emerging into a large amphitheatre area surrounded by sheer, high cliffs and the second photostop. It was quite difficult to get down from train as it was a long drop from bottom step. We viewed from inside. Michael found if he was quick he could take photo before the hordes descended. The guard blew his whistle but this was ignored by people continuing to take photos of themselves. He eventually got everyone back on board.

The train now runs through series of tunnels cut through the spurs of the canyon. We had brief glimpses of the increasingly steep sided and narrowing canyon between tunnels.

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We finally left the canyon and arrived at Seija station in middle of nowhere with huge piles of black phosphate being loaded into wagons by a digger. There are assorted small buildings associated with phosphate workings and bits of track lying around. The river meanders across a flat sandy valley bottom leaving black deposits of phosphate against the pale sand. Few plants grow here.

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After about 15min, the train returned to Metaloui. The outward journey took 75minutes. Back to Metlaoui with no stops was 30min.

This is an excellent and most enjoyable run, although the wooden seats werre quite hard!.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Chott el Jerid - The largest salt lake in Tunisia

The Chott el Jerid is the largest salt pan in the Sahara and anyone travelling from Tozeur or Tamerza in the west of Tunisia to Douz and the south east will have to cross it.

‘Chott' is the Tunisian word for lakes that stay dry through the hot season, but have some water in the winter. Wikipedia describes it as ‘a large endoheic salt lake’. It is a closed drainage basin and water does not flow out and only escapes by evaporation or seepage. The bottom of such a basin is typically occupied by a salt lake or salt pan.

It is a vast area of salt that glints in the sunshine. An elevated causeway has been built across it as the area floods during the winter rains.This is lined with cafes and stalls selling desert roses often dyed lurid shades.

Drivers are advised not to leave the road as in places the salty crust is very thin. Channels are dug out on either side of road. Water drains into them and changes colour from pink to green depending on the light and side of the road. When we crossed the water in the left hand channel was bright pink. We could see salt crystallising out. The right hand channel was covered in a thin layer of salt but where there was standing water it was green.

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We drove past a large salt processing plant with salt pans producing road salt.

Take sun glasses as the glare from the salt can be dazzling. Mirages are common along this stretch of road.

As we drove south east we gradually lost the salt and were back in the desert, stoney at first and later becoming sandy. It is the start of the Sahara.

There are a few isolated settlements. Debebcha is the first. The old Berber settlement was abandoned as the houses kept filling with sand as the dunes moved. Yardangs are eroded bits of sandstone standing above the surface which have been left as the sand dunes move. They are made of very soft sand which brushes off easily. As always some people find it necessary to scratch their names in them. There were a few tourist stalls selling desert roses and also a cafe. We didn’t realise it at the time but apparently the yardangs were used as a backdrop in some of the Star Wars films.

A few miles further is Souk Lahad. There are hot springs here. The main attraction here is the cooling system for hot water taken from the 2800m deep well. This comes out at 85˚ and runs down through bamboo filters and then maze of concrete drains before being cool enough to irrigate the oasis. The water is supposed to be good for rheumatism and people go and soak in it.

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We also made a brief stop in Telmine as I had read that it had been a Roman Outpost and a couple of the Roman reservoir pools still survive. Our driver stopped several people to ask for directions.There were many blank looks before we were directed to the remains of a Roman wall with drains into a pool. Apparently the Mosque (shut) has a deep Roman well and stones with Roman writing on them.

Kebili had been an important slave market until the C19th and is now the main administrative centre for the area. It is a pleasant modern town missed by the tourists.

Douz had been an important stop on the trans Saharan camel trains. It is the largest oasis in Western Tunisia and is a popular stop for lunch for people travelling between Tozeur to either Djerba or Ksar Ghilane. The Zone Touristique is on the edge of the town. It has a pleasant market square with a good range of nice tourist shops. Most prices are reasonable and it is possible to haggle and bring down prices which seem too high.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Camp Yadis, Ksar Ghilane


Ksar Ghilane is an oasis in the middle of nowhere where the stony desert meets the sandy desert. It is surrounded by sand dunes of the Great Eastern Erg. It is a long drive and you have to want to come here and tourists do in their droves to experience the Sahara Desert. We were no exception.

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There is a small oasis with a Berber village housing people working in the oasis and those servicing the tourist industry. There are a few stone built houses with barrel roofs with animals and chickens running around.

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There are pens for the animals and shelters providing shade.

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Water is brought through underground pipes to water troughs for the animals

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Donkeys are used for transport. The camels are solely for the use of tourists as a camel ride in the desert is a popular activity. No we didn’t try it - you can fall off a camel… There are no services in the village. There is a very basic shop selling dry and tinned foods but not bread or water. This has to be bought from the camps at a premium, so come well stocked up. The water is sandy and even using sterilising tablets it is unsuitable for drinking.

We were stopping in Camp Yadis Ksar Ghilane at the end of the road through the oasis. In my ignorance I’d assumed it was the only accommodation in the oasis so was surprised when we drove past several other camps on our way. In fact the oasis is full of tents and tourists. Another illusion shattered.

Through the gate is a large white reception building with bar and the restaurant opposite. Near the bar is a Berber tent. Beyond is the swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. The ensuite tents are arranged in groups of 8-12 in rather uninspiring surroundings. Breakfast and dinner are self service buffets with a reasonable selection of food.

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The tents were made of two layers of material and had a covered area outside the entrance. There was reasonable space inside tent with a very comfortable double bed and single bed which we used to put suitcases on to keep them off the floor. There were two chairs, small table and a small hanging area. Pillows were thin and there was a fleecy blanket on the bed which was surprisingly warm. Behind is small area with toilet, basin and shower. Three bottles of unidentified gloop were provided with a dispenser by shower, but no plug or soap. There were two bath towels and one hand towel provided which were not very good at drying and smelt when damp. The tent had air conditioning and reasonable light, but was a bit noisy with sound from generator.

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During the evening the crickets sing, beginning about 6.30 and then suddenly stopping about 9pm. In the morning the quad bikes start up about 7am and there is a lot of noise as they drive along the road outside the camp.

On our second night we were told we were being cooked a traditional Berber meal. We were sat at low tables and bowls of soup arrived with a basket of round doughy bread, followed by deep fried filo pastry filled with mash potato.

A sealed china pot was cooking on a fire of palm leaves.

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The waiter collected bread dough from the kitchen which he kneaded and then flattened into a very large round about 15” diameter. This was baked for 30-40 minutes in the fire covered with hot ashes, being turned once. The bread was taken out and beaten well to get rid of all the ash. Burnt bits round the edge were trimmed and it was cut into hunks and served with olive oil, olives, harissa etc. It was very good.

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The cooking jar was removed from the fire, tapped round top with a small axe, the whole of the top removed and contents poured into large serving dish. We were given a plate with a large chunk of lamb, potato, half tomato and large green chilli.

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We finished the meal with an orange and apple and a plate of small, sweet and rather uninspiring nibbles. It was a very good meal and interesting experience but took two hours.

Most people just spend one night at Ksar Ghilane. We decided to spend two nights there as we thought we would be grateful of a rest after the long drive the previous day. Apart from the quad bikes or camel rides there is little to do unless you enjoy lying by the pool.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Ksar Ghilane and the desert

Next morning, we arranged to be driven to the remains of a Roman fort, 3km across the sand dunes. There is a road to it but it often becomes impassable with blown sand. It was a bumpy ride over the sand dunes which stand 4-5’ high and sand is continually being blown off them. Most people visit on camel from the village. A few walk.

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The fort was built in a strategic position on top of slight rise to control the important watering point and to provide intelligence on nomad movements. The rough stone walls stand 10’ high and form a square with rounded corners. The blocks are not particularly well shaped, unlike most Roman buildings. A single arched doorway leads an open space which has a square building inside.

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The fort used later used by Berbers and we could see the remains of their houses built round the walls. Steps to the top of the walls gave views across the dunes.

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We were then taken for a drive across rocky desert to two other camps in the middle of the desert several kilometers south of Ksar Ghilane.

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We were surprised by amount of vegetation around even on the sand. There was jasmine, esparto grass, a shrub with small blue flowers loved by camelsIn a few places there were a few yellow, white and blue flowers adding a touch of colour to the desert. In a few weeks as the temperatures continue to rise these will have died.

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We saw a Berber shepherd out with a big flock of sheep and were told that he would collect all the sheep from village and be paid to look after them during the day. There were a few nomad tents scattered around and we could see across to the army control station at start of Military zone.

In retrospect we didn’t need to spend two nights at Ksar Ghilane. We could have done the Roman fort in the morning and later in the day driven to our next destination of Tataouine. The jury is out whether it was worth the long trip. We don’t particularly like sleeping in tents although we did appreciate the en suite facilities. Having seen some of the other camp sites we now know why Camp Yadis Ksar Ghilane is described as 'luxury tents'. It probably wasn’t worth the trip, although I think if we had taken the decision not to visit we might have regretted it afterwards.

Anyone else intending to stop two nights needs to plan in advance and take a snack for lunch, unless they intend to buy lunch. The only other option is a small boulangerie near one of the other camps selling very small loaves of Berber bread at an exorbitant price.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Matmata - the underground houses and Star Wars….


Matmata is beloved by Star War fans for the troglodyte houses. It receives a lot of visitors and has become very commercialised. We saw many parked cars and tourists swarming about taking photographs. We had read in the guide books that many of the troglodyte house in Matmata itself are now tourist attractions. You are encouraged to go in and have a look and then a donation is demanded.

Our driver took us to a house at the bottom of a steep rough track which is still lived in. The road is too bad for coaches and missed by the tourists. A woman was sitting embroidering a sheet in the street outside house with a small child.

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Rooms for the animals are carved into cliff face. Facing us was a wooden gateway with a blue painted eye, hands and fish above for protection.

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We climbed over the high door sill and went along a long corridor with rooms off which led into a big courtyard with more rooms around it. A young girl came out of the kitchen and invited us to look in all the rooms and take pictures.

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The bedrooms were off the courtyard, with beds on the floor for the children.

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There is a special wedding bedroom with a display of wedding clothes and a large dowry chest.

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The living area had long low cushions round the walls with a low table.

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There was a storage room with a hand plough, harrow and other equipment. There was another storage area for food in a first floor room reached by wooden ladder.

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Another room had a loom.

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There was a small bread making kitchen with large metal pans used to make Berber bread over an open fire. Some bread was brought out for us with a bowl of olive oil and a kettle of mint tea. This is the traditional Berber Breakfast.


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We looked into the modern kitchen with 2 small gas rings for cooking and storage area at back. There was no electricity and no fridge. Water is brought to the house in large cans. It was a well worth while visit.

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We drove into Matmata and although we had said ‘NO STAR WAR SITES’, we were taken into Hotel Sidi Driss which was used as a location for one of the movies. Huge signs inside point to the Star Wars set and lead down a passageway past dubious toilets and a communal washing area. It took us to a courtyard with rooms off and metal doors. There was a ‘Control Panel’ on one wall and various big pipes. It looked and felt tacky. Tourist tat outside with a baby camel didn’t improve our impressions. It was a waste of time.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Tataouine - a good base for the Ksour and Jerber villages

We spent two nights in Tataouine as we wanted to visit the ksour and Berber villages in the area. We were booked into Sangho Privilege Hotel on the outskirts of the town. It is an attractive setting below the mountains and built round a central pool.

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Accommodation is in small houses scattered round the grounds reached by narrow paths with shrubs, trees and flowers.

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We were given a huge suite with sitting room with log fire, bathroom and very comfortable bedroom. We were presented with a huge basket of fruit when we arrived.

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Breakfast and dinner were self service buffets with plenty of choice. Staff were excellent. We reported a problem with an outside light and dodgy lock at breakfast. They were both repaired by lunchtime.

Tataouine is a large town with little to attract the tourists.

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Shops are geared to serving the locals rather than tourists. Several were selling big bales of animal fodder. It is near Libya and many Libyans settled here during the revolution. In 2012, there were blue currency exchange tables in the streets and stalls selling cheap Libyan petrol.

Tataouine is a good base for exploring the Berber villages of Douiret and Chenini as well as the Ksours. There is a nice drive up the hill behind the hotel for views of the town and local area.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Douiret - one of the less visited Berber hill villages

The original Berber villages in the area around Tataouine were hill top settlements built around a stone fort called a kala’a. Chenini is on all the tourist itineraries. Douriret is only a few miles away but receives far fewer visitors.

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A new village was built on the plain in the 1960s with running water and electricity and most families moved down here. It is an attractive village with white houses with domed roofs. The road to the old town climbs up past the cemetery with white washed tombs and a small marabout.

Ahead on the hill is a big white mosque with a restaurant below the remains of the fortress. We could see many cars parked. Most visitors only get as far as here, spending a few minutes to admire the view and take photographs.

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Our driver ignored the road to this and drove us round to the opposite side of the hill. There was not a tourist in sight. The road ran along the side of the mountain giving access to the ghars (dwelling caves) carved out of the hillside with round topped storage sheds in front. Many still have palm trunk doors.

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There is some parking by the Mosque which is surrounded by ruined houses. Next to it is the school.

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We went into one of the old houses. At the front was the small living area with a stone stove in one corner which was used for cooking and heat in winter. An oil lamp in a small alcove provided the only light. Behind was the sleeping area. The toilet was in separate shed in front of the house and drained into a pit.

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Cont….
 

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