Adventure in Tunisia  
 

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

 
 

Dispatch 6 - Matmata

 
 

Click to enlargeThe most interesting element of the day was traditional local housing which is subterranean. Our hotel was as well. This architectural style creates a some what surrealistic atmosphere as you bicycle through the area. There are miles and miles or eroded, knobby hills, with no apparent housing, but people wondering around, clearly not far from home. On some of the knobby hills you’ll see a car parked, or a television antenna, or solar panel, alone sticking out of the hard sandstone earth. Look a little harder and you see cave opening into the hills and not far away, above them large "sink-holes" in the earth. The caves are actually entrances into the housing complexes and the "sink holes" are the central court yards. Into the side of the court yard a number of rooms are dug out for bedrooms, storage and small animals. Large animals (i.e. camels and donkeys) spend the night in the court yards. The most elaborate "villa-versions" of these domiciles can have several interconnected courtyards and a multiple number of additional rooms. Our hotel was one of these such warrens. It was in one of the large houses, now converted to a hotel, that part of Star Wars was filmed. The Hotel Sidi Driss, around the corner, was used for extensively for the interior shot of Lars family homestead.  After the filming the architecture was returned to normal, but in 2002, the owners redecorated part of the hotel to look like the Star Wars set -- presumably to attract Trekkies and other tourists.  The goal has at least been partially achieved because now a days a stream big busses and SUV stop in front and spill out their loads.  A large numbers of tourist are passing through the hotel, but sightseeing seem to average less than five minutes and few stay overnight so it is difficult to identify a large economic benefit.  The volume probably increase the sales a few soft drinks and curious, which are readily available.

Click to enlargeComing from Medenine it isn’t half bad either – or was only half bad. This approach starts with an awful rocky road. [Ed. note: the road has since been paved.]  After twenty or so kilometers the road was paved but there was a monstrous hill to climb. Actually, the effort was more than sufficiently rewarded. The views were great winding in and out of the hills and along the ridge tops, and looking out over the flat lands from where we had come. The pavement probably lasted for less than ten kilometer before we were back on gravel. [Ed. note: this road too has since been paved.]  But this was a much better surface than the early road had been and it was much flatter than the hills of the previous section. The last ten kilometers were again paved. It is mountainous and beautiful country. [Ed. note: So it has now all been paved, since this was originally written.]

Click to enlargeDespite the fact that I haven't figured out how to photograph it, we stop for snacks in the somewhat picturesque and crumbling mountain mountainside town of Toujane. From the number of houses in disrepair it doesn’t seem like the economy has been healthy for a while. We learned that things are particularly bad this year. Winter is the normal rainy season, but it has only rained twice so far this year.  [Ed. note: Other years have had better rains and with the paving of the road, at least the economy of the main street, based on the number of curio shops, is much improved.  There are still many castle-like houses that are abandoned and need of major repair.]

While the majority of the kids were sweet, we got our first taste of "tourism culture" from a few kids, today. Children start to ask for money, sweets, pens and other things, and a few were bold enough to be verbally harassing, chase the bikes and even sent a couple of rocks skidding our direction. Ignoring the proverb of "one bad apple can spoil the barrel" we have to remind our self about all the kids who greet us and encourage us on. [Ed. note: These issues have disappeared or been greatly diminished in recent years.]

Addendum

While, in the name of progress, they keep paving my favorite dirt tracks around the country, there are still a
few left.  The one from Zammour to Matmata is a lot of people favorite ride of the tour.  Comments include: "the cacophony of birds," "flash backs to New Mexico," "riot of wildflowers; many varieties of yellow, purple and a red-orange," "wonderful," "gorgeous," and "overall it is the most consistently spectacular ride we've had so far."
  In this region it is advisable to start early because there is not a lot of shade.  Even  the almost omnipresent olive tree is rare on this route.  Don't pass up the opportunity to rest when it presents itself. 

     
 

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