Tunisia: The Ksour District

November 1999


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Our first louage the next morning took us all the way to Gabes, a modern industrial town set on the coast by an oasis and palmerie. We chose not to stay as we had had our fill of palmeries over the last few days. It was here that we said goodbye to Shaun. He took a louage north to Sfax, as he had to be back in Tunis in a couple of days to catch the return ferry to Sicily. Manfred and I had settled on travelling together for the rest of this trip and waited for a louage to take us to the southern town of Tataouine in the heart of the Ksour district. In one corner of the louage station were a small group of rather battered looking taxis, their bodywork scarred and covered in a thick layer of dust. These were the Libyan taxis plying the route to Tripoli. Passengers looked few and far between and the drivers were huddled together sitting on boxes boiling a kettle to make tea. They looked as though they could be waiting a while in their corner of the parking lot.

A Ksar is a Berber fortress. The Berbers are the indigenous people of this land, whose culture has survived the many invasions through history from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Ottomans and French. The Ksour were originally designed as grain stores with many rooms, called ghorfas built in a distinctive arched style, sometimes as many as four storeys high with precariously narrow and steep stairs leading up the outside of the building. They were usually built on the highest point in a village and each family had a room where they stored their grain. The low humidity of this arid region, together with the insulating effect of the stonewalls, meant that the grain could be stored for years without spoiling. During the Arab invasion these grain stores were modified and used as defensive positions as they occupied some very strategic sites overlooking the surrounding villages and land.

We arrived in the small modern town of Tataouine in the mid-afternoon and checked into the Hotel Medina, an ugly concrete structure on Avenue Habib Mestaoui. The Ksour are dotted around the villages in the region. Our main problem would be getting to them, as we did not have our own transport, which is the recommended way to get to see these places. We were left with a couple of main choices. Firstly we could go to the Ksour at Chenini, which had a fairly regular early morning camionette service. We eventually decided against Chenini as it was also the top Ksour on the package tour trail and we wanted to get away from the crowds and hawkers. So, we opted to go to Douiret the next day where the transport was described in our guidebook as, 'a hit and miss affair' and where there was a camping ground listed, which also had a dorm room.

We were feeling disappointed that some of the countries most interesting sites and towns had been hijacked by the mass tourism market and turned into nothing more than a theme park, with all the paraphernalia that goes with it. It was this reason that we bypassed Matmata on our journey down here from Douz. Matmata is a settlement of about 1000 troglodytes whose pit houses featured in Star Wars. We heard of hostilities there between the tourists and local youths. Some residents are so fed up with having people peering into their lives, literally, that they have put barbed wire up around the pits of their underground homes. We chose not to be a part of it and came straight here to Tataouine.

In the late afternoon we went for a walk to Ksar Megabla, which is situated a couple of kilometres from the town centre, on a hillside overlooking the town. The Ksar is now deserted and in a serious state of disrepair, so we had to be careful while looking around. It was very tranquil, sitting on top of the Ksar in the late afternoon sun, away from the hustle of the town, watching the sun slowly set behind the mountains. The peace was only broken by a herd of goats walking by, followed by some children from the local village. On our walk back to the hotel we stopped to talk to some men who were sitting outside a government building covered in election posters of President Ben Ali. Manfred asked them who they thought would win the presidential election. Ben Ali of course, was the reply. We asked why everyone seemed to be backing Ben Ali; one of the stranger answers was that people would vote for him because he is the president. We also heard rumours that, of the other presidential candidates, one was Ben Ali's cousin and the other was already a government minister who was asked to stand for the election by Ben Ali. I don't think these rumours were true though.

The following morning we checked out of the hotel and went in search of some transport to Douiret. It was market day today and the town was bustling with people who had come into town from the surrounding villages. Down a crowded street from the main market square, many mini-buses and trucks were waiting to take their shoppers home. We found one going to Douiret and climbed aboard with the villagers and their weekly shopping from the market. Douiret is 22km from Tataouine. We were dropped off at the turn off to Nouvelle Douiret and walked the remaining 1.5km to the site of the old village. The first thing to catch your eye as you approach Douiret is the whitewashed mosque sitting on the hillside, standing out like a beacon from the other stone buildings. The village was abandoned in the 1960's after the government built the settlement of Nouvelle Douiret, just down the road, equipped with electricity and running water. The old village wraps itself around a steep hillside with the Ksar perched perilously on top. Many of the buildings are now dilapidated, including the impressive Ksar. We climbed our way up to the Ksar, which, at the time of our visit, was undergoing some much-needed renovation. I think the work was a case of making the building safe, rather than restoring it to its former glory. We couldn't find a way into the building because of collapsed walls blocking our way, so we climbed outside to a position where we could sit down and look at the village directly below us with the valley snaking off into the distance.

Our plan to stay in the dorm room at the campsite had backfired. The campsite was deserted and all locked up. One of the locals working on the Ksar told us that it had been closed for many months now. We asked if he knew of any alternative places to stay in the nearby new village. He said there was no hotel there, but we could always go and speak to one of the village elders to ask permission to stay at some ones house. We decided that if we could find some transport, we would try to get back to Tataouine that afternoon and if there was enough time, take a bus or louage from there to the island of Jerba, 90km to the north. In the car park at the bottom of the village we met two retired French couples, who were touring around the country in their RV's. Manfred explained to them our predicament and they kindly offered us a lift back into Tataouine, but not until we had sat down for lunch with them. Thanks to the lift we arrived back in town far earlier than we had anticipated and had plenty of time to find a louage to take us north to the island of Jerba. We felt it was time we stopped in a town for a few days to relax and unwind after our journey around the east and south of the country.

Our journey took us across the 7km causeway, originally built by the Romans, linking the 500sq km island with the mainland. We continued north, passing endless olive groves on the way, to the main island town of Houmt Souq, on the northern shore. The youth hostel in this town had been recommended to us as the best hostel in the country, so we decided to stay. We found the hostel, an old converted funduq, in the centre of the town, a compact maze of narrow roads and alleyways. A funduq is an old lodging house used during the Ottoman period to house merchants and their camels while they were travelling in the camel caravans. They are built on two floors around an open courtyard. On the ground floor the animals were stabled and the merchants rested in the rooms on the first floor. We had a room on the first floor with an arched ceiling and a small window at the back of the room under which was a ledge with two mattresses on it. The room was very basic, but comfortable. The courtyard downstairs, which still had a working well, was a very relaxing place to sit and relax under one of the shady trees. It was the best place I found to stay in Tunisia and was glad that we would be spending the next few days here doing nothing.

On one day we went along to the zone touristique, a strip of hotels that line the east coast of the island, where all the good beaches are. This is where you'll find your Club Med. We spent the day lounging on the beach, which is not something I find myself doing that often while on holiday. It couldn't have been too different from sitting on Weymouth beach; except it wasn't raining and instead of donkey rides for the kids you had camel rides. By mid-afternoon the novelty began to wear off so we went to a café alongside a hotel to have a couple of beers, the first beer of this trip, before hitchhiking back to Hount Souq in the evening. Another day we went to look around the 13th century fort on the coast just outside of the town centre. There used to be a macabre monument, The Tower of Skulls, alongside the fort. The victims were the Spaniards who were massacred when the Turks invaded in 1560 and placed their skulls in a monument as a warning to others. The tower stood until 1848 when it was dismantled and replaced with a far more politically correct monument. One place on the island we didn't visit, which I now wished I had, was the El-Ghriba Synagogue. There used to be a large Jewish population on the island, until the formation of the state of Israel when the majority of them emigrated during the 1950's and 1960's, so that today only a few hundred remain. Since my return from Tunisia I have seen photos of the synagogue and wish now that I hadn't spent that afternoon sitting in a café by the fishing port drinking tea and had motivated myself instead to get on a bus. While staying in Houmt Souq I reviewed my travel itinerary and decided to alter my flight from Tunis to Casablanca so that I would be leaving a couple of days earlier than originally planned. I felt that I had seen enough of this country and was eager to get to Morocco.

Continue reading this journey: The East Coast