Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 1 - Houmt Souk, Djerba


Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaIt is thought that when Homer wrote about the travels of Ulysses in the "Odyssey" and described Island of the Lotus Eaters, he was describing the culture of Djerba.

While remnants of Stone Age culture have surfaced stretching human history in Tunisia back 200,000 years, it isn't until about 1100 BC when the Phoenicians began establishing trading posts along the coast of North Africa that the history of Tunisia started to get a little meat on the bones.

Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaThere are documented Punic and Roman settlements on and around Houmt Souk and Djerba Island from several century B.C.  The local Jewish community dates its arrival to the 6th century BC.  In the 13th century a wall was built around the town of Houmt Souk.  In the 16th century a fort was built Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisianext to the port to protect the citizens from pirates, and Sufi zaouias (Islamic schools) were established.  Houmt Souk was a also terminus for trans-Sahara caravans during this period.  There are number of buildings in town, that are still in use, that started life as caravansaries -- or caravan inns.

Nowadays most foreign visitor arrive on the Island of Djerba by airplane.  If it is not high season the airport seems way out of scale. The runway is large enough to land Boeing 747s and the terminal is caverous. At the time of our arrival in an off season there were a half-dozen commercial jets and a commuter-type turbo-prop parked off from the terminal on the expansive tarmac. The terminal, itself, has the typical look and feel of a "church-of-air-traveler" -- large, spacious, dedicated to moving through, very unlived in and void of any strong cultural iconography so as not to offend the diverse pilgrims of the amorphous religion of travel.

[An alternative way to get to Djerba, from Tunis, is to take the train to Gabés and then take a bus or taxi, or bicycle (two days) from there to Jorf, where you can catch a ferry boat to the island (see side bar.)]

The vista from the exit doors of  the airport doesn’t give a clue to why the pilgrims would come here: Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisiaa foreground parking lot filled with SUV's (4 x 4's), mini buses and commercial buses waiting for clients, with a background of very flat land, yellowish sandy soil, broken groups of prickly-pear cactus, fallow fields, scattered small indistinct one-story whitewashed block houses and a beige-green horizon of well spaced trees not much higher than the buildings. The closest to a hint of what draws hedonist pilgrims is 180 degrees of blue sky overhead.

As you start from the airport to cycle to Houmt Souk (10 km, 6 mi) it gets a little more interesting. Not more than a mile from the airport there is the strong smell of fresh olive oil. The smell of the oil is much more distinctive than buildings that house the oil presses. Both are probably missed by the tourists being whisked to their seaside hotels in hermetically sealed, air-conditioned taxis, vans,Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia SUV's and buses. The reason Houmt Souk has an oversize airport is it a two hour flight from parts of Europe, has beaches and has sun and warm weather most of the year. The list published by the tourism office shows several dozen package-tour hotels, and over 100 hotels, total, on the island.  The island's tranquility is no longer threatened my marauding bands of buccaneers, but by marauding bands of scantly dressed tourists on motor scooters, quad-cycles and dune buggies.

Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaHoumt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaAs we rode into Houmt Souk town the school kids were cycling out—interestingly, mostly girls it seemed.  There are street trees, gardens, taller whitewashed buildings with bright blue trim,  and sidewalk laid with geometric pavers.


Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia

Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaIn town the texture of life is more dynamic, but very leisurely just the same.  A considerable proportion of the public squares and any pavement in town seems to be the domain of one café or another -- or craft seller with tourist items.  The patrons of the cafés, rarely in groups ofHoumt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia more than three and often older men wearing traditional chechia (red felt hats - fezs) and traditional jabbellas (cotton capes). They don't see to consume any great quantity of coffee or tea (which is served in shot glasses), but they stay for hours facing in the direction that is most likely to have the heaviest foot traffic. They talk in low conversations, playHoumt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia rounds of cards, dominos orHoumt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia checkers, smoke hookah (water pipes) with flavored tobacco, or just sit and watch thier small corner of the world.  When and attractive woman walks by -- Tunisian or foreign -- it is fascinating to watch the sea of eyes track across in unison, locked on the "target." 

All the pavement and wall space near the main boulevard is Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisiaoccupied by vendors with thereHoumt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia displays of crafts spread before them to lure tourists.  Refreshingly interspersed with the material culture of tourism and the still-life's of the cafes, are a few local women still wearing the simply, distinctive and understated tradition clothes and headwear of Djerba.  Local woman don't sit in the cafes.  Unlike the café-society men and tourists, they tend to keep moving unless they stop to make a purchase.

A bit more about Tunisian dress: both men and women dress modestly. The men wear long pants and generally a long-sleeved shirt and often a coat or sweater. Some wear hats, often of the red felt “fez” variety called a chichia here.  Some older men wear the traditional burnoose, an attractive, full length and hooded, monk-like brown garment – think Jedi-wear from the Star Wars film. We suspect that Lucas and crew "creatively" appropriated the look for the film since many of the desert scenes were shot in Tunisia.

Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaTunisian women often cover their heads with a shawl called a sefsari. We have seen all levels of head covering from almost total to none. Women also keep their legs and arms covered; even those women who choose tight curve-fitting fashionably dressed seem to stick with this convention. We did see knee-length skirts, but the women who wore them also wore at least mesh stockings. We have also seen a couple instances of facial tattoos on much older women. David said this was a Berber custom.

The young school girls are usually bare-headed and some are quite cheeky, calling to us or giggling as we ride past. We saw one little girl today, who couldn’t have been more than four or five, walking along the road, carrying a long baguette, all by herself. She gave us a confident “bonjour” as we passed. That she could be kidnapped is all but unheard of here – makes me wonder about all the “progress” we have made in the "West" towards becoming more civilized.

During the day you see men sitting in small groups at the ubiquitous outside cafes sipping coffee (strong expresso with sugar) and Tunisian thé al la menthe (i.e. mint tea) in small glasses. The cafes outnumber restaurants by a bunch and rarely serve any food. They are enormously popular and although you will see men sitting there in the morning, the numbers continue to grow throughout the day and, by late afternoon, most cafes are packed.  In the course of the day they will move from one side to the street to the other, following the shade. At each table are several chairs, but the men are not seated around the table. Rather the chairs form a sort of chevron around the table with all the chairs facing towards the street because it is the street that holds the men’s interest. They sit there all day, sipping coffee or thé, and watching the world go by. When we ride through a town we inevitably pass many of these cafes and often get a hoot or a call or a wave from the men sitting there. We can’t figure out where they get so much time … and what are the women doing during this period? As evening comes the action moves inside the cafes where the men again congregate to drink coffee and thé, discuss the days events (or lack thereof), and often play board games or cards. This is a very community oriented society. Of course, what you don’t see are the interactions between the men and the women. This is not done in public.

One member of our group became so uncomfortable in his lycra bike shorts that he found the Tunisian equivalent of a St. Vinny’s (his term for a used clothing store) and bought a pair of shorts reaching below his knees to wear over his bike shorts.

One other interesting note on the men is that you will often see them wearing a sprig of jasmine behind an ear to provide a pleasant scent. Vendors in Tunis will follow you around for some time trying to sell me one. It does have delightful aroma.

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaOne of the attractions of the day is the hotel. It was a traditional style caravanserai (an inn where the ancient caravans would stop for the night). It had large door to accommodate the camels with there loads, a central courtyards were the camels could be unloaded, rested and reloaded, and rooms around the edges for travelers. These particular rooms are done in stunning tile work, for which Djerba is famous.  The building is 400 years old.

Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia


In recent years a lot of construction and modernization has been done on the port.   There are still a few, but ever dwindling number of  traditional fishing boats and
octopus traps
around (they look like small water jugs / amphora) in the port. 

To fish for octopus,  a fisherman lowers a string of baited, tethered, amphorae into the sea and later retrieves them to extract any octopus unlucky enough to have claimed one of the amphorae for its new home.
But since the turn of the century the fishing fleet has largely been supplanted by a fleet of faux pirate ships, complete with bands

of faux pirates, for tourist cruise-n-booze "cultural experiences." What started out as a few boats a few years after the millennium has, in just a couple years grown to an
 armada. I wonder if there is a relationship between this and the new Coast Guard boats.

Overland South
An alternative route to Djerba, other than by plane, is to take the train from Tunis to Gabés (6 hours) and  then bus or van-taxi or bicycle from there.  If going by bike, while in Gabés, it is nice to wonder in the  unpretentious downtown and take a spin through the oasis
before heading south.  The main point of interest between Gabes and Djerba or Medenine is Mareth and the early 30th century era Mareth Line.  

The Mareth Line defensive positions were built but the French to protect their colony from invasion by the Italians, next door in Libya.  Ironically, it was used by the Italians and Germans, to slow the advance of Allies from retaking North Africa during WWII. The development of the fortification and campaigns in the area are describe in a nice site museum.


Next dispatch



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