From Kairouan, we returned to the the city of Sousse on the coast. The next day, we continued south and visited the impressive Amphitheater of El Jem. After refueling at an unconventional gas stop near Gabes, we entered the desert, visited Berber underground homes and a few Star Wars sights near Matmata, and drove through Tamezret before reaching Douz for the night.
We were coming to Sousse, which is of interest in its own sake, not to sightsee or enjoy its marvelous beaches, but to meet Chokri, a friend and a conference organizer, whom I met before when he came to visit our research group as a student years earlier. We booked a night at a beachfront hotel, which as it turned out shared its name Marhaba, or at least a part of it, with other properties in the area making it a bit of a puzzle to find. In the end, it seemed we found it in spite of our driver. It had a party atmosphere well into the night...
I took a brief walk on the beach in the morning. The hotel was all-inclusive if desired and it was clear that indulging is what some of its European and Russian clientele was mostly doing. We were more inclined to explore, and only met Chokri and his lovely wife briefly north of the city in the marina of Port El Kantaoui. It was interesting to hear their views of the transition after the Tunisian revolution that had toppled the long-standing military endorsed regime. It had been known as one of the most restrictive for the freedom of press by the rankings of "Reporters sans frontieres". As things go, freedom brought its share of problems too, including a rise in extremism as demonstrated by the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent secular politician earlier in the spring of 2013. A general insecurity where the country might be headed was casting a shadow over the new found liberties, and western attitudes toward women were changing in a more conservative direction. Little did we know that Port El Kantaoui would become the site of one of the most horrific extremist attacks just two years later when almost 40 people were killed on the beaches of nearby hotels.
|Beach scenery||Sousse beaches||Catching some tan||Hotel grounds||Marina||Boat|
|Chokri, his wife and us|
Some 70 kilometers south of El Sousse, the city of El Djem is home to Amphitheatre of El Jem. Built by the Romans for spectator sports around 238 AD with an estimated capacity of 35 thousand, it is still an impressive sight almost two thousand years later. A local cuisine lunch right next door from the amphitheatre made for a good break from the midday sun. The restaurant owner, who spoke good English, complained about the lack of business since the revolution and the instability of recent months in particular. Apparently, most tourist who came to visit would come on packaged trip from coast-side resorts spending little time and money in El Jem. We made up some of it, and enjoyed a delicious meal.
|Street in El Djem||Camel||Outside of Amphitheatre of El Jem||Amphitheatre of El Jem||Irina|
|Interior walkway||Mosque outside||Arena||Curves|
|Irina||Dwarfed||Entrance||Sahara roses and Kodak sign|
|Condiments and appetizers||Chicken kebab||Nearby restaurant|
It was a long drive toward Matmata, much of it on an expressway through an increasingly arid landscape away from the coast. Over two hundred kilometers south of El Jem, we made a stop near Gabes along a two lane highway busy with vendors selling gasoline, that was being smuggled across the border from Libya. The improvised stand, where we stopped, seemed dangerous by western regular gas station standards but it was clearly a great deal as our driver aimed for it on the way back a few days later too.
|Roadside grill||Filling up||Attendant||Gas station||Gasoline containers|
Having driven over parched flat plains for hundreds of kilometers, the hills approaching Matmata were a welcome change. Just north of Matmata, Mohammed made a stop for us to visit a traditional Berber underground house. These troglodyte dwellings are often made by digging a large pit in the ground, and artificial caves are then dug around its perimeter to be used as rooms. A Berber woman helped dress Irina up in festive traditional Berber clothes, and we took time to inspect the traditional life exhibits.
Our next stop was at the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata that was used for Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope as Luke Skywalker's home on the planet Tatooine. It was again featured in Episode II - Attack of the Clones.
|Road to Matmata||Entryway||Tools in a storage room||Troglodyte house bedroom||Irina Berber style|
|Irina Berber style||Silver Tunisian-themed jewelry||Getting dressed up||Getting dressed up||Traditional bread maker||Traditional bread maker|
|Decoration||Balancing a jug||Russian Berber woman||Bread making||Berber dwelling and a mosque||Shadows|
|Shadow in an entryway||Shadow in an entryway||Hilltop sign||Matmata||Hotel Sidi Driss||Alcove|
|Cat in Hotel Sidi Driss||Detail of the Star Wars decoration|
It was more than 100km from Matmata to our destination for the night, the "gateway to the Sahara" city of Douz. Along the way we passed Tamezret, a Berber village built on a hilltop glowing in the setting sun. The landscape flattened out toward Douz and sand drifted across the road as the sun set into the desert.
|Leaving Matmata||Tamezret||Tamezret||Desert encounter||Sand ripples and a camel|