Retro – Tunisia: Matmata and Toujane

So today is the “Original Trilogy” day.  Matmata is the home to Hotel Sidi Driss, which was used as the “pit house” for the Lars Homestead in Star Wars.  To get there, it was time to get back to the louages for the short drive.

Matmata is home to the “troglodyte” houses.  We’re talking about giant pits dug into the ground, where the bottom of the pit serves as a “courtyard” of sorts, with rooms dug into the walls that surround the courtyard.  It’s actually an ingenious bit of desert design, as your living quarters stay cool and shaded when the heat goes up.  The courtyards can be connected by tunnels to create a whole underground web, and some of the pits have become relatively functional hotels.  Nobody knows for sure how long people have been living in the pits, as they were “rediscovered” (with people living in them) in 1967 when massive rains caused flooding so bad that the locals traveled to Gabes to ask the government to help them out.  So, apart from the Star Wars connection, there’s some neat history to the area as well.
 The population of Matmata is about 2000 people and the main industry is, without a doubt, tourism.  People will drive up to you on scooters or wander up to you in the streets, asking if you’d like to come and visit their house, or if they can take you on a tour of the city.  I actually got one of these guides to show me around for a bit, and it ended up being a reasonably good investment.  Even though the major sights in Matmata are signposted, the fact that the hotels are all underground do make them a bit harder to see.

I did manage to find Sidi Driss and get a shot from the top and wandered around a few other pits before accepting a guide… who was also showing the Germans around!  Apparently, they had left for Gabes later the day before and caught a different louage over.  So, once again, we were part of the same “tour group”.    As for the guide, I never did get his name, but he managed to show me a couple of the homes from the top before leading me to the Berber Museum, which shows how the local Berbers live in the pits, how they make carpets, how a wedding works, etc.  This cost a couple extra dinar, which infuriated the Germans, who felt it should have been included in the price of guiding, but they went in anyway.  The museum was neat, nothing spectacular, but a worthwhile addition to the day.

We made our way back to Sidi Driss and I snagged a few more good shots from the top before heading in to the hotel.  Yes, you could sleep “where Luke Skywalker grew up”, although if you take a look at the Trip Advisor reviews, you’ll probably just take it in as a tour stop.  Apart from the courtyard, which has retained some of the wall decorations and apparently gets a paint job every once in a while, the only real hint that this site is famous is a Darth Vader towel from the eighties.  The hotel owners are obviously sitting on something special, but don’t really have much of a clue as to how to capitalize on it, though since people come in regardless, I guess there isn’t really a need.  The kitch does add some charm, though, and I did get a little giddy while I was getting my picture taken in the courtyard, even if it doesn’t look like it, so expectations met.

After wandering back topside and wandering away from the Germans with a quick goodbye (they were grumpy again, though this time I didn’t know why), I’m approached by a teenager on a dirt bike who offers to take me on a tour of the town.  Too late, I tell him, I’ve already seen it.  Then he asks me if I want to see a nearby Berber village.  With my “Stranger Danger” sense tingling, I ask him the name of the town, and he mentions Toujane, which is in the Lonely Planet.  From reading up ahead of time, I knew that there would be locals willing to drive you around, and Toujane seemed like a cool place from the write-up.   One issue – I wasn’t going there on a dirt bike without a helmet.  I mention that to the kid and he tells me that he’s not driving me, his uncle has a station wagon and he’ll drive. 

Sure, why not. 

I negotiate a price, hop on the back of the dirtbike and get a ride to “downtown” Matmata, meet my driver and hop into the station wagon.

Definitely worth the drive.  It’s a slow 20 km outside of Matmata, but you get some breathtaking views over the various hills and stop off at a tea shop above the village before going into Toujane proper.  The top section of the village is an old kasbah, and the lower section is still inhabited, though a lot of it is also completely ruined.  Within minutes of getting there, a couple of local kids had found me and were trying to sell me… something.  Basically, one of them had invented a toy that was a cup on a string tied to a stick, which you wound to move the cup, while the other had a sardine can with a rock in it.  They showed me where they lived and let me take a picture, so I gave them each a dinar and thanked them and went on my way.

After a few minutes of quiet, they came back.  This time, they were done trying to sell stuff, they were just asking for another dinar.  Nothing about being hungry, or poor, or needing money, just following and asking for a dinar.  I was polite for as long as I could be but eventually got our my “stern teacher voice” and asked them to leave me alone, which they grudgingly did.  It was then that I had one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had while traveling.

I’m down a deserted alleyway when I hear the call to prayer from the local mosque.  I’m completely alone in a run down, near deserted village, wandering through the streets, looking for anybody who might be going to the mosque…. nothing.  The place remains completely empty for the whole thing.  I take out my camera and start recording and get one of the coolest videos ever, a steadycam-style shot as I wander around the rubble with Arabic prayer blaring in the background.  I would later mistakenly delete this video, which made me feel like a right idiot, so I’m left with the memory in my mind, which was pretty amazing.

I figured the call would be a good time to turn and leave, so I slowly make my way back to the village entrance after probably an hour inside.  My driver is patiently waiting, I hop back in and we make our way back to the louage station.  I catch the next louage to Gabes in short order and head back into town.

So long from Matmata!

The rest of the day in Gabes was fairly uneventful.  I picked up a night bus ticket for El Jem, got into a local bakery and had some sweets, wandered around the Petit Jara district near Gabes’ palmaraie, had seafood at a half decent restaurant and crashed for a while at the Hotel (where I had booked for two nights) before hoping another night bus. 

Even though the word on tourism is “out” in Tunisia, people don’t seem to want to see the interior unless they’re part of some sort of organized tour.  I’ll tell you, I’m not going to complain about that.  I ended up seeing something that was a major part of my childhood and found a pleasant surprise along the way.  Sometimes, when tourism is too built up, you can get the former, but not the latter.

Less than twenty-four hours away is third-largest, and one of the best preserved, Roman colosseum in the world at El Jem.  Then, onward to Tunis, which will be my base for the rest of this amazing trip.

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