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Report 1993: Tunisia - the South and the Desert

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 16 of 17: Djerba - Impressions

photo by MAW

Mosque by the sea, Guellala

The south eastern coast of Djerba is popular with holiday makers who go for the sunshine and holiday resorts. Reading the guide books we had originally dismissed Djerba. However the local tour operator used by Audley Travel who booked the holiday for us said that the rest of the island away from the tourist belt was unspoilt and peaceful and the people followed a very traditional way of life. Looking at our objectives for Tunisia they thought we would enjoy the area. They recommended a small boutique hotel in the centre of the island well away from the tourist area. We decided to add two nights to the itinerary.

Dar Diafra Hotel is a delightful small hotel in the centre of the island well away from Zone Touristique. Inside it is a rabbit warren of passageways and courtyards with rooms off. There are two swimming pools. We had a large and comfortable room with a lot of character. Breakfast was served in the courtyard and was ample with plenty of choice. Dinner is ŕ la carte and again plenty of choice. Meals were excellent but were expensive compared with elsewhere in Tunisia.

Unfortunately the information about the centre of the island being unspoilt and traditional is very out of date. Since the Jasmine Revolution, planning laws have been relaxed and new and very large houses are mushrooming all over the island. These are huge and the island is now resembling an up market housing development. Tourism is the main employer and the traditional way of life is disappearing rapidly. We were also saddened by the amount of litter left lying around the countryside. Most of this is left by the Tunisians after going for a picnic and some places are becoming squalid.

Many of the olive groves are very old and trees are not being replaced as they die giving an impression of unkemptness. Most of the island is flat and scenically not very interesting. It was a major disappointment and our initial thoughts had been right.

We avoided the Zone Touistique and Houmt Souk. Most of the towns and villages are similar to Tunisian towns and villages seen elsewhere. Midoun the second largest town is modern and forward looking with fashion shops and a large shop selling bath room accessories, much needed with all the new development. Two very big and splendid car showrooms are a sign there is a lot of money in Djerba. We were told that land sells for 350TD per sqm. It is not surprising that people are leaving farming and selling their land.

The traditional houses on Djerba were the fortified farmsteads called Menzels. Constant fear of attack meant that buildings were designed for defense. From the outside these looked like small fortresses with blank white walls with a tower at each corner, often topped with a dome. These areas were used as summer bedrooms. They are the only parts with external windows, placed high so they cannot be reached. Living rooms surround the central courtyard. The design of the menzels reflects a preoccupation with water conservation and temperature control. The rooftops and courtyards are designed to channel rainwater into underground tanks (impluviums) which provided a water supply for the house and to irrigate crops. They also helped keep the foundations cool. Thick rendered walls of mud and stone provided further insulation. They were painted white to reflect the heat of the sun.

Most of these are now in ruins as the owners have moved into new houses. A few have been restored. There are quite a few scruffy menzels on the outskirts of Ajim on the Guellala road.

We had told our driver we wanted to see Menzels. We spent an hour on the first afternoon driving round the island trying to find some without success. Next morning the driver had done his homework and took us to find a group of deserted old menzels off the road between Sedghiane and Fadloune Mosque. There had been quite a dense settlement of about four houses reached down a rough dirt track surrounded by palm trees and olive groves. There were other menzels close by. We began to understand why the new houses are built so close together. The wooden door on one of them was open so we went in for a look. There were remains of old water and olive oil jars lying around. In the corner of the ground floor rooms is a large square structure which could have been a stove providing heat in the winter. Stone steps lead up to the room in the corner tower. This was as close we would get to the traditional way of life. We began to think to see Djerba you have to get off the roads and along the rough tracks.

To be honest there isn’t a lot for tourists to see and do on Djerba. If we were doing the trip again we would skip Djerba.

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