Djerba? Yes, you heard right. Where is that again? Oh, yeah – it’s in the Mediterranean, just off the coast of Tunisia. That was the extent of my knowledge about this little patch of earth in the Gulf of Gabès. That was going to change, though, because Miri and I were back on the move – this time to Djerba to pay a visit to the future TUI BLUE Palm Beach Palace. The former TUI Sensimar Hotel is located on a fine sandy beach in the northeast, and is ideal for lounging and feasting. As always, Miri and I were far more interested in the country and the people, so we didn’t stay long at the hotel. After a short and informative chat with the tour guide in the hotel, we opted for an individual island SUV tour for our first excursion.
On to the Blue Lagoon
Together with ten other guests, we were picked up at 8:00 the next morning after breakfast at the hotel. Not only was the pleasant October sun awaiting us as we entered the lobby (on Djerba, it is summery and warm even in the autumn), but so was our guide, Samir. He greeted us warmly and a few moments later we were in one of the three vehicles on the way to our first destination – the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is located in the northeast, an area flooded by sea water between Plage Sidi Mahres and Plage de la Seguia. To drive along the shore of the lagoon, we left the paved street and continued our journey off-road. Since Djerba is very flat, you can see endlessly far and enjoy a picturesque view of the landscape. The SUVs stopped for a photo opportunity, and Samir told the group what to expect during the day.
Samir is a Djerbi, as the Tunisians born there call themselves, and like most of the 160,000 islanders, he survives on the tourism industry, which experienced its first big boom with the opening of the international airport in 1948. Before tourism, the inhabitants devoted themselves mainly to agriculture. Agriculture on the apparently arid Djerba? How? Samir explained this to us at our next stop, which we reached after a short drive. We arrived at a green plantation, a so-called “menzel”, in the interior of the island near Bedouine. A menzel is the Tunisian equivalent to a European farm, which makes use of a sophisticated irrigation system. By means of small channels, the water extracted from a deep well is distributed over the arable land to grow, for example, pomegranates, figs, olives, eucalyptus, oranges, tangerines, chard, wheat, barley, lentils, and henna. The henna dye used for body painting is produced from the last item, and it’s also supposed bring good luck.
We passed through a shady palm grove on the way to the old farmhouse. It was barely ten o’clock in the morning and the sun was already at its peak. So remember on any possible trips on Djerba to always bring enough drinking water and – very important – enough sunscreen. The whitewashed buildings with blue doors reminded me of Greece, but also of the desert architecture of the Star Wars films, for which Djerba was one of many Tunisian filming locations. Despite skillful farming and cultivation techniques, life as a farmer on the island has always been tough, which is why most menzels found on Djerba today are in disrepair. The few intact farms belong mostly to wealthy families from the mainland, who use them as holiday homes.
Flamingos on the Roman Dam
Our three SUVs continued our tour southward. Once again, we left the paved motorway and drove on the broad, sandy shore of the south coast with a truly superb view of the mainland. Our convoy stopped and we spotted hundreds of flamingos in the distance. The sight of the pink migratory birds was breathtaking. We then continued our journey and reached the Roman Dam, the only road connecting Djerba to the mainland. Samir told the group that the dam – as its name implies – was used in the Roman Era and was created in the second century. Over the centuries, it was destroyed, rebuilt, and expanded, and today functions as Djerba’s main lifeline. Stretching across the dam were lines that cover the enormous power and water needs of the island.
And the journey continued … I already felt well informed and I really wanted to know more about the Djerbi and their homeland. Our guide Samir brought the history of the island to life, and the drive in the off-road vehicles gave the excursion an extra dose of adventure. Our next destination: the Berber village of Guellala in the southwest.
A Berber and his camel
In the village of Guellala, the centuries-old art of ceramic ware is still practiced in the traditional Djerba way. After our arrival, Samir introduced us to a Berber and potter named Josef. Josef told us about his work and the production process before leading us around his property. The Berber described the clay production in several steps and showed us the corresponding stations. First, the mined clay is beaten to make it easier to handle. Then, in his studio, Josef quickly and deftly crafted a cup with a handle before our very astonished eyes. Afterward, the finished product would spend a week drying in the sun before being fired in the oven. To achieve the necessary 1200° and 1300° Celsius, the potter heats the oven for two days with palm trunks and another day with palm leaves.
Finally, products are painted and then offered for sale in the family’s subterranean business. From brightly painted ashtrays to state-of-the-art designer vases, nothing was missing. Our group took the opportunity to stock up on authentic souvenirs. Upon leaving the caves, I noticed that the landscape around me was much hillier than elsewhere on Djerba. When asked, Samir explained that we were actually at the highest point on the island, 54 metres above sea level. Finally, Josef introduced us to his months-old camel, Michael, who immediately stole everyone’s hearts. Even I found myself cooing, “Oh, aren’t you sweet!” With a heavy heart, we finally said goodbye to Josef the potter and Michael the camel and continued our journey to the north. Next destination: Erriadh.
Erriadh is known to most travellers today as Djerbahood. Djerbahood was previously a street art event, where 150 artists from all over the world travelled to Djerba and turned the tranquil village into a colourful open-air museum. What remains are about 250 works of art and the undiminished interest of the locals and tourists. Before discovering Djerbahood, we took a break and tasted a local peppermint tea in the relaxed atmosphere of a café. Next to us, pensioners played dominoes and some village youths talked excitedly with cigarettes and hot drinks.
Together with the group, I then strolled through the streets of the village and discovered new motifs around each turn. Despite the blazing midday sun and beads of sweat on my forehead, I stood in amazement at the paintings. From huge mythical creatures to lavishly designed typography, you’ll find everything that the wide spectrum of street art has to offer on the walls and buildings. I could roam here for hours and indulge myself reflecting on the contrasts and interplay between architecture, art, and human beings. However, it was time for the next stop on our island tour: Sidi Jemour.
The Jedi of Sidi Jemour
We reached the small cluster of buildings in the west after a short drive with our three off-roaders. From here, I not only had an excellent view of the turquoise-blue Mediterranean, but also learned more from Samir about traditional fishing on Djerba. The adjacent beach is very popular with locals and once a year they celebrate an intoxicating party here.
As already mentioned, Djerba was the location for scenes from the first Star Wars films. Today’s mosque of Sidi Jemour was one of them. Called “Tosche Station” in the first Star Wars film, the mosque appears in two scenes, though the longer of the two wound up on the cutting room floor. However, anyone familiar with the scene, which has since appeared as bonus material, will hum – like me – an internal Star Wars melody. In the immediate vicinity of the “Tosche Station” was the house of Obi-Wan Kenobi. If you want to check out more Star Wars locations, I recommend the city of Ajim farther south on Djerba. Ajim is home to the notorious “Mos Eisley Cantina”. Instead of taking a landspeeder in the direction of Mos Eisley, I drove with the SUV towards the capital, Houmt Souk.
Island capital and shopping oasis
Houmt Souk translates as “The Market Quarter” in English. In the past, many caravans moved through the city and it became a thriving commercial centre. Today, many stalls and shops – small and large – continue to do business in the picturesque old town. A shopping paradise for those who love to haggle and who aren’t satisfied with the first offer. Samir took us on a short guided tour through beautiful flower-filled yards and picturesque lanes before releasing us upon the businessmen of the city for just under an hour. The air was full of spices. The traders offered tempting jewelry, cheap clothing, local art, and hand-woven rugs. Miri and I decided to leave our shopping bags empty this time; we preferred to watch the hustle and bustle with an ice-cold drink and pen postcards for home.
At about 2:30 pm, our caravan met for the trip home to the future TUI BLUE Palm Beach Palace. Of course, there was plenty more to discover in Houmt Souk, such as the old Spanish fortress “Borj Ghazi Mustapha” or the fish market, but for us the half-day excursion ended here. On the way home, I reflected on the past few hours again and was amazed to see how much this supposedly barren island off the coast of Tunisia had to offer. Djerba often only unfolds its beauty upon closer inspection, so I’m looking forward to returning next March when the TUI BLUE Palm Beach Palace opens its doors.