The Jerid comes to an abrupt end at the edge of another large palmeraie and then, it was just a short drive southwest into Tozeur. We entered the city and I was immediately struck by the unique building style and by the busy streets filled with obvious outsiders. There seemed to be lots of people dressed in modern dress (ie. Blue jeans and T-shirts), looking at the souvenirs for sale on either side of the narrow streets in the souq area.
We stopped at a hotel we had selected from the Lonely Planet and were surprised to find it fully booked. When we asked the friendly man at the desk to suggest a similar hotel in the city, he told us that they were all booked; it was a major national holiday after all. Suddenly the light went on. It was March 20th, and we had passed a hotel in Kebili that was called March 20th. This was a major holiday all right, it was Independence Day and all Tunisians were celebrating, many of them by coming to Tozeur.
My heart sank; here we had pulled into a remote city on the edge of the Sahara, in the late afternoon, on a national holiday, without a hotel reservation. It might be possible that we would be sleeping in our rental car, with no warm blankets in the desert night air. It was then that we relied on Anil’s newly-crafted adage. He has been saying for some time that we shouldn’t worry about making hotel reservations in advance, we could always move up in the ‘star’ rating, and if we were willing to overshoot our budget, we would probably never be stuck for a decent place to sleep.
We headed to the zone touristique, where the large 4 and 5 star hotels have been built and stopped at the first one we liked the looks of. It too was fully-booked. Gulp. The next hotel, The El Mouradi had a room but it was more that double what we had been paying in Djerba so I encouraged Anil to try one more hotel. We wanted to stay two nights, but the next hotel, a lovely place for sure, was three times the Dar Ali and they only had a room for one night.
We hurried back to the El Mouradi and grabbed the room, which turned out to be a large bungalow with a large bed for two and a single bed for another person in an alcove off the main bedroom. We wished that Adia was travelling with us here, there was certainly room for her and it would have softened the blow of the higher room charge. Breakfast and dinner were included, as they were in Djerba, so we freshened up and set off to find the dining room before the hoards arrived.
As much as we don’t like large tourist zone hotels, this one was quite comfortable and the clientele was largely Tunisian so we were able to observe the parents interacting with their children. Tunisians dote on their children, but in spite of this, the young are surprisingly well-behaved. It was great to see the little ones eating their meals quietly, with perfect table manners. There were none of the antics you see at McDonald’s or a family restaurant at home.
Most of the activities in Tozeur itself focus on all the theme-park style activities you might expect at the edge of a desert. Tourists were lining up to ride camels and to hire a dune buggy for a thrill ride. The only problem was that the camels plodded down the litter strewn streets at the edge of town and the dune-buggies were limited to climbing one large pile of sand that wasn’t even taller than the nearby trees or electric poles.
Hundreds of 4WD vehicles were on stand-by to take visitors out into the Sahara and to nearby villages, but we decided to do things on our own and spend our one full day in the region touring three remote abandoned villages near the Algerian border. I had never heard about these villages before, but our guidebook described them and the amazing scenery where they were situated. We learned that scenes from The English Patient had been filmed near one of the villages and that was all I needed to know, to want to make them our destination for the day.
I’ve done a separate journal entry on the villages of Chebika, Midès and Tamerza so I won’t say much about them here. Our first evening in Tozeur, we went to bed early after the long drive from Matmata, wishing that we had another day to spend now that we were this far south and west. We had only rented the car for ten days and knew that we could extend the rental for a couple of days, but there was still a lot to see on the way north as we worked our way back to Tunis. So much to see, so little time.
While I was looking at the photos I had taken of the abandoned villages and loading them on to my computer, I was startled to see that my camera had recorded them as having been taken on March 20th. That seemed wrong, because the previous day was March 20th, or so we thought. It took us ages to figure out, and then only by consulting all the clocks on our two computers, two iPods, mobile phone and alarm clock, that we had somehow managed to ‘lose’ a day in our minds, and had the date wrong in our travel calculations. Whooppee!
We had the extra day that we figured we needed to have, before we arrived back in Tunis. It was like finding a pot of gold. You wouldn’t think that two people, who have been retired for almost four years, would get so excited about finding they had an extra day they didn’t think they had. Time remains as precious as ever. As Bonnie Raitt sings in one of her songs, ‘Life gets mighty precious, when there’s less of it to waste’.
Our second night at the El Mouradi did not go well at all. As we were walking to our bungalow, a large group of young people arrived by bus and was making their noisy way to the other bungalows near ours. I noticed that they were all speaking Spanish, so figured they must be university students on a spring break. To make a long story short, they made a horrendous racket all night by partying in the central courtyard until I made a fuss and had the hotel staff come and pressure them into going into their rooms.
They spent the next two hours pounding on each other’s doors taking the party from room to room until after 5:00am. As I was showering the next morning, I was surprised to see them make their way quietly towards their waiting tour buses. They all looked pretty hung over, with dark circles under their eyes from lack of sleep. When I looked in the mirror, I looked just as tired, but it wasn’t from too much drinking or partying.
Before leaving Tozeur I wanted to take some photos of the distinctive brickwork used on the homes in the old quarter of the city. Most of the buildings are built of brick, and to create a design on the exterior, the some bricks were left sticking out a few inches so that patterns were formed. The residents were very skillful and the resulting effect is enchanting. I noticed that many of the modern buildings continue to use this construction style, if not for the entire building, at least for accents around the doors, windows and rooflines.
We also took a drive through the palmeraie, the second largest in Tunisia, with over 200,000 palms spread over more than 10 sq km. The oasis is irrigated by more than 200 springs that produce 60 million liters of water per day. That’s a stunning amount of water in a region that appears as dry as it does. The water is distributed over the vast holdings using an elaborate system devised in the 13th century AD by a clever mathematician, Ibn Chabbat.
We turned our car northwards, and headed to the Mediterranean once again. With the extra day at our disposal, we decided to hug the Algeria border and stay along the western edge of Tunisia, instead of driving diagonally across the country towards the capital. This is the route that I had wanted to take all along, so it was like getting a gift. I couldn’t have been happier. Anil wasn’t so sure. Judging from the map, we would be passing through a large part of the country with few towns and most likely, endless kilometers of dreary scenery.
Still, the north coast beckoned, and our guidebook described it as beautiful, with mountains, and a region of fertile plains between the mountains and the sea that was once the breadbasket of ancient Rome. It made more sense to make a full circular visit of Tunisia, rather that shortcut across to Tunis and then set off across the top of the country from east to west, only having to backtrack once we had explored the region.