It’s amazing that a village with a population of only 1000 souls holds such a prominent place in Tunisia’s tourist industry. Thanks to Star Wars for putting it on the map. The Berbers, in long ago times, took advantage of the weathered landscape and dug into the soft layers of sedimentary rock to create homes below ground, instead of above. It reminded us a little of Cappadocia in Turkey, where the ancients lived below ground as well.
The wonderful things about the troglodyte homes of Matmata was that the Berber people built their homes in this fashion, not to hide from predators, but to stay warm in the winters and cool in the summers. What an environmentally-friendly solution to an age-old problem. It’s hard to spot the underground homes unless you keep a sharp eye out for what looks like a bomb crater.
There are now modern buildings in the village that obscure the entrances but a few have been turned into hotels, though they are all considered to be in the ‘budget’ category due to the fact that they don’t have attached, private bathrooms. We passed these by and headed to the Hotel Matmata; Anil insists on high bathroom standards, in fact, when we check out a room, he inspects the bathrooms and my job is to scope out the bed and the bedding. If we don’t both give a-thumbs-up, it’s on to the next hotel on our short list.
It was late in the afternoon and it had been a long day; we had driven from Djerba, toured the ksour at Tataouine and made several stops along the way. The scenery was amazing, it kept surprising us but the best surprise of all was the fact that the government has been spending a great deal of time, money, and effort to upgrade the highways in the country. Many of the roads described in the Lonely Planet as requiring a 4-wheel drive, are now modern and easily navigable.
We settled into the Hotel Matmata and promptly went down to the terrace surrounding the empty swimming pool for a ‘sundowner’ glass of wine. I was pleased that the staff made no issue of us bringing our own bottle, despite the fact that there was a small bar at the hotel. While we were relaxing, a Japanese tour arrived by bus and they entertained us with their antics as their suitcases were unloaded and they each ploughed through the pile and set off to their rooms dragging their large cases behind their tiny bodies.
As one lady passed us, I instinctively greeted her with my best ‘Konni-chi-wa’. Now where on earth did that come from, and so easily? The lady stopped and immediately asked me if I was Japanese. I laughed and she laughed too, at her own reaction to having someone outside her group, greet her as I had. She spoke English and looked me straight in the eye as we chatted for a few minutes.
What was really startling about this was the fact that we had spend two weeks in Tokyo in the spring of 2008 and not a single Japanese person had ever made eye contact with us. Not even the elderly gentleman who had sold us our daily bottle of wine. I’m sure we were his best customers, because he bowed deeply whenever he handed us our change.
But I digress, we are in Tunisia aren’t we? Back to Matmata. We were up early once again; no internet at the Hotel Matmata to keep us surfing into the evening hours. We decided to backtrack along the route we had taken into the town, and visit an interesting village we had zoomed through the evening before. Toujane is 23km east of Matmata and spills down a rocky hillside below an old kasbah and above a gorge that wends its way to the coastal plain.
The town was more or less abandoned due to a critical shortage of water, but we went to see the lovely stone homes separated by narrow walkways, with a troglodyte subterranean home here and there. As we parked our car, two young boys approached us and offered to show us around. We had read that this was likely to happen, so we agreed to follow them through the village. They took us to the edge of a crater and we peered down into the opening. The younger boy explained that this had been his grandfather’s home, but now it was used as a barn for the family’s goats.
He didn’t have to tell us, we could smell and hear them scuffling around. The boys led us to the entrance, down a steep incline covered in loose gravel. As I made my way down, with my open camera in my right hand, I slipped in the loose rocks and started to pitch forward. In order to protect my camera and not smash it against the rock wall, I bent my left knee and slid down onto it with such force that I scraped my shin and almost tore through my trouser leg.
I scared the daylights out of Anil and the two boys, but I was all right and my camera had survived with only a small jolt against the stone wall. I brushed myself off and we ducked inside to join the goats for a brief time. They didn’t seem to mind the intrusion; perhaps we didn’t smell as badly to them as they did to us. I think they’ve had foreigners ‘drop’ in to see them before, but none as clumsily as I had entered.
The boys pointed out the new school that had been built on the other side of the gorge. This seemed an odd place for the school but perhaps there was more room, as the ground was not sloping as dramatically. We wondered why the boys weren’t in school themselves but they indicated that the schools were closed for two weeks; we didn’t think to ask why. As we climbed into our car, the boys prepared to walk away and I was surprised that they didn’t ask for a tip, or seem to expect one.
We called them back and gave them some candies and a few dinars. They seemed surprised to be given anything at all. Perhaps these boys had not been encouraged to approach tourists to supplement their family’s income but had just been interested in us as a way to pass a long, monotonous day. They had entertained us, and we had entertained them. A few candies and some spending money was just a little icing on the cake.
We drove back towards Matmata but turned off to the small village of Techine in order to view homes similar to those in Matmata, but without all the tour buses to contend with. The village seemed almost deserted when we arrived, only a few elderly men sitting at a corner tea shop chatting with each other. We expected someone to appear when we got out to look at several underground homes clustered together, but no one gave us a second look.
Up to this point, the homes seemed to be set apart from each other, like rural farmhouses on the Canadian prairies. Here in Techine, there were dozens and it gave the impression of a community though there wasn’t much to see as you looked across the landscape. As we wandered around, looking down into the abandoned dwellings, we came across a small Muslim cemetery, with a koubba (small domed tomb) and some simple graves scattered around it. Anil admired the small slabs of stone that had been placed at the head and foot of the small mounds of earth. He appreciated their simplicity.
This small collection of buildings that hardly qualifies as a hamlet, has been turned upside down by the widening of the road that passes through it. We drove the 3km from Matmata to see the landscape surrounding the hutments because we had read that the crucifixion scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life Of Brian’ was filmed near here. I don’t know what we were thinking we would see, as we’ve never watched the movie. It’s one of those films that you think you’ve seen, that you know you should see, but never manage to get around to viewing. We are great fans of Faulty Towers so it seemed appropriate that we have a look and see what we were missing.
Let me tell you something, we weren’t missing much. We followed the new, wide road for several kilometers past the last home, even past the end of the electrical lines and couldn’t for the life of us, figure out why the government was investing so much money in making this gravel superhighway to nowhere. Must have been for the life of someone named Brian.
We headed back to tourist central and decided to visit the Hotel Marhala, not far from the hotel where we had spent the night. The Marhala is the best of the underground hotels, but is still in the budget category. It’s run by the Touring Club of Tunisia, and the management seemed only too happy to let us wander around and poke our noses into the vacant rooms. Almost all were indeed empty so we got a good look at most. They are small, windowless rooms with mattresses positioned on the built-in furniture.
The only one we could have even considered staying in would sleep five guests, but the communal bathrooms for the entire hotel were situated in an adjoining underground home. Our attention was drawn to a hive of activity in one of the hotel’s dining rooms. Two small tour groups of eight travellers each were chowing down on a delicious-looking lunch of soup, salad, couscous with meat and vegetables, and fresh fruit for dessert.
We suddenly realized we were hungry too, so we decided to eat. The chefs were delighted to have two additional diners and before we knew it, our table was heaped as high as those next to us. It was a great compromise; we would have been too claustrophobic to stay at the Marhala, but eating in the cave-like dining room gave us the feeling that we had done more than just breeze on through.
After lunch, we set off westward, towards the city of Douz. We were nearing the southernmost regions of the Roman Empire where the local inhabitants had been pretty much left in peace. Instead of being caught up in the activities raging along the North African coast, the tribal peoples were absorbed in the comings and goings of the trade caravans crossing the vast Sahara. It is for this reason that much of the Berber architecture and traditions have survived to this day.