Monday, 21 June 2010 12:00 AM
The southern Tunisian island province of Djerba offers access to a unique Sahara desert landscape that has played host to iconic films such as Star Wars - the village of Tatouine actually inspired George Lucas's town of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's home, in the film series.
Tunisair recently launched a new twice-weekly flight service from London Gatwick to this island in the Gulf of Gabes off Tunisia's east coast. Simon Willmore shares his first impressions of the region with Travelbite.co.uk:
I look out of the window of our 4x4 as it races through the suburbs of Midoun. The heat from the hazy sun blazes down from a patchy blue sky onto the road of recently-laid tarmac, which we share with walking school children, camels, tractors and old men on even older motorbikes.
The road seems to be the most up to date construction anywhere in sight. That is, the most up to date completed construction; all around us are empty grey shells of a holiday-homes-to-be, occasionally interrupting our usually yellow-brown surroundings - a sure hint at the exploding tourist industry this island has seen recently.
The panorama itself is, at times, like something straight out of the Kenyan wildebeest plains - barren, non-descript desert shrub land - and at others it makes me feel like I am in a high-end white-washed Spanish holiday resort, with the occasional palm tree seeming to gesture at luxury and lushness.
A run-down, open-fronted Parthenon-style structure masquerading as a shop has various items laid out for sale, including marble pillars. The bizarre combination of dereliction and decadence, although counter-intuitive and seemingly over-optimistic, is somehow totally normal.
This is because the island is a vibrant mix of juxtaposed opposites: five-star deluxe hotels, bordered by manicured, blossoming greenery (including the air-conditioned, a la carte, 14-acre paradise I am staying in) are just down the road from no-star ramshackle refuges, surrounded by nothing but old men playing chess or smoking or putting the world to rights.
There is a real feeling that 'a little of everything' has been included in the history and development of this place. This is perfectly mirrored in the language, which is really just a combination of the words from the cultures that have dominated the region; French, Arabic and English, and to watch the locals converse in their native tongue is impressively baffling. A question in Arabic could quite regularly be answered in French, with a few English words thrown in for good measure.
As someone with two of these languages just about mastered, it is doubly annoying when I understand two thirds of the conversation only for the context of the dialogue to be lost on me because I have missed a few crucial phrases. The locals seem to be able to communicate entirely in just French or just Arabic, and most of them are fairly proficient in English thanks to the tourists, but they seem to enjoy keeping us visitors guessing just to have a little laugh at the expense at our ignorance.
Then again, its probably nothing to do with a quick dig at the tourists, and probably simply because of the hugely varied cultural history of the country. First Phoenician, then the 'bread basket' of the Roman Empire, the country was consequently occupied by Vandals in the 5th century AD, Byzantines in the 6th and Arabs in the 8th. After a stint as the Regency of Tunis under the Ottoman Empire, it passed under French protectorate in 1881. After obtaining independence in 1956, and then the proclamation of the Tunisian republic in 1957, this place reads like a who's who of invasion and occupation.
The resulting verbal mishmash that is 'Tunisian' gives rise to the necessity for each sign to have three components, to cater for any language. Each shop, cafe and restaurant has a three-tiered title or a label that spans across the entire building just so it can fit all the words in.
The market place at Midoun (photo: Simon Willmore)
Wandering around the market place produces a similar effect. Our driver pulls up in the Midoun town centre, and we all pile out of the vehicle to have a look around. As we - a group of highly conspicuous white people - pass the troves of trinkets and shelves of souvenirs, the sellers shout at us, first "Hello mate... okay see you later alligator", then "Salut mon gar, tu cherches un cadeau pour ta gazelle?" or at a last resort "Asslema" as they try to gauge our vocabulary and our nationality.
More often than not, the alligator line provokes a smile from at least one of the group and so the peddler has no need to continue with his list of pre-ordained greetings. He latches onto the smiling individual and continues his patter in the necessary language: "Here you go, good price for you my friend."
The market is possibly the most colourful area on the whole island. Vibrantly decorated pottery, beautifully crafted paintings and rolls upon rolls of plush carpet make a stark contrast to the off-white buildings or the dusty brown pathways in which they are displayed. The contrasting colours and complex patterns jump out from the plainness of the backdrop, providing an instant 'look at me' effect for the products on offer - perhaps some sort of ridiculously clever, ancient marketing technique.
The pottery-crafting itself is much more of an event - and much more exciting - than I could have imagined. In the village of Guellala, famed for such practices, we had met an old man who was less of a manufacturer of cheap tourist tat and more of a master artist.
Spinning the work table with a simple concrete footplate crudely connected with a rusty pole, he had shaped a coffee cup, saucer and vase in just a matter of minutes. In true 'rags to riches' style, fantastic pieces of pottery appear from simple, under-stated beginnings, crafted by a mild-mannered yet hugely entertaining character. Yet another example of conflicting characteristics somehow succeeding together: the worker, softly-spoken, nimble-fingered and meticulous during his time at his wheel, becomes vociferous, knowledgeable and even humorous when he talks to his audience.
Pottery in the village of Guellala (photo: Simon Willmore)
This is a country dominated by combination of unconventional bedfellows; simplicity and flamboyance, rich and poor, non-descript dullness and ostentatious colour. The contrasts here are unusual, surprising, but moreover effective. This place is fascinating. Even English and French (albeit just the languages) seem to survive in harmony. Fancy that.
More information about holidays in Tunisia:
Tunisair flies from London Gatwick to Djerba (via Monastir) twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays and returning the same days. Return flight to Djerba start from Â£220. Tunisair also flies to Tunis and Monastir from Gatwick or Heathrow.
Simon stayed at the 5* Yadis Hotel, Djerba. Rooms start from 130 dinars per person per night (approx. Â£60) on bed and breakfast basis.
For more about holidays in Tunisia visit the official Tunisian tourism website.
Follow us @travelbite