Erriadh and its "Djerbian" architecture

Just over the wall from our little oasis at Dar Bibine (see "digs") lies the town of Erriadh, the last remaining Jewish community in mostly Muslim Tunisia.  (The town is actually the site of the oldest synagogue in Northern Africa, dating back to 586 BC, and while we were pressed for time and did not get a chance to visit El-Ghriba, we will be sure not to miss it on our next visit to Djerba.)  

Perhaps the only negative aspect to our otherwise charming stay in town was the constant construction going on all around us.  Erriadh and much of Djerba (and Tunisia for that matter) are in a state of transition.  Crumbling buildings which are seemingly left to rot butt up right next to lots with bustling construction.  Yet, one is left to wonder if all of the new buildings will ever actually get completed?  Traditional Djerbian architecture is quite unique, and one hopes that its legacy and integrity is being protected in times of "progress."

Some of the distinctive aspects of Djerbian architecture include arched or domed roofs (designed to channel rainwater into underground tanks) that are whitewashed each year in efforts to deflect heat from the sun.  The lingering impression of Djerba's smooth adobe- like fortress architecture is one that is both old world primitive, and completely  modern at the same time.  It is no accident that one of the biggest science fiction movies of all time was partially filmed in Djerba (see below).

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Erriadh - about 6km. south and slight east of Houmt Souk (accessible via the "Djerba Expo")

mo-ped tour of Djerba's "Star Wars" filming locations

Renting a motorbike or moped can be a great way to get around Djerba.  On our first day exploring the island, we did just this, covering almost 60 km worth of road before 4:00 PM.  It was the first time that either of us had ever driven bikes like this so it took us awhile to get used to them.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure your bike is in good working condition before accepting the rental.  Check the gas gauge and make sure it works!  Wear shoes and long pants and take some time to get used to the feel of your bike before heading out all day.)

After checking out the scooters from our hotel, we started out from Erriadh along the road to Guellala.  Eventually, we saw the turnout for Ajim and headed toward the port city which features the first of many Star Wars filming locations we would encounter throughout our week in Southern Tunisia.  We had a difficult time locating the exact spot and lost a good twenty minutes backtracking through the outskirts of the town.  We stopped a few times to inquire with the locals, but since neither of us speak Arabic (and barely any French), we had a hard time communicating.  Two women stopped and tried to help us out, but the building in our source photos did not stick out to them.  We couldn't blame them as many of the building look so similar to one another, and surprise, the “Mos Eisley cantina” does not really exist anymore!

We reread our directions and realized we were turned around a bit.  After only a few more minutes, there is was, the odd little building where George Lucas and his camp of visionaries filmed the exterior shots of the legendary "Mos Eisley cantina."  Three drunken Jawas once sat in this same door stoop, though it looks much different now than it did then!  The building is now in a serious state of disrepair, its yard cluttered with litter.  In fact, one thing that was very sad about Tunisia in general was its apparent reluctance to recycle!  The land is so beautiful and diverse, yet it seems no one knows how to properly dispose of the many bottles of water that are such a necessity in this climate.

While the actual interiors of the cantina were filmed in a London studio (with additional pick-up shots completed in Hollywood), the "real cantina" was most recently a bakery!  The door to the right of the dome was open so we ventured inside!  To be honest, it kind of reminded us of Jabba’s Palace a little bit, and was surprisingly much bigger from the inside than you would think.  We kept on saying how cool it would be to actually renovate the space, restore it to its original "cantina" look, and open it up as a bar.  Business might be a bit slow though since drinking alcohol is not condoned in the Muslim religion (though we saw a lot of people breaking the rule while we were in Tunisia!)

As we were trying to photograph the nearby empty parking lot that once housed the "derelict spaceship," a bunch of local school children started clamoring around us.  It was hard to tell if the smiling kids had ever even seen Star Wars, yet they certainly knew why we were there!  They asked to see our reference photos which, with their movie magic, made this unsigned, out-of-the-way street corner seem so much more glamorous than it was on that bright Wednesday morning.

At the end of the street where it junctions with a few others is the location of the "Stormtrooper interrogation checkpoint," though you would never tell thanks to the completely modern buildings that have taken over.  A dome that is recognizable in the film is falling into ruin, and thus, is hidden behind an uninspiring wall.  Another shooting location is just a block away.  We located it by walking  on the roofs of some of the barrel-vaulted ceilings.  The alley does not look like much now, but at one time the “Millennium Falcon blasted” off from this exact same location!

Eventually, it was time to leave “Mos Eisley” behind and head up the coast.  We drove through Ajim and onto the street that heads towards the mosque of Sidi Jemour.  The road was in very good shape, and after reading so many accounts of flooded out unpaved “pistes,” I was relieved to see that it was smooth sailing all the way up to our next destination – the home of Obi-wan Kenobi as seen in the original 1977 print of Star Wars.  (The 1997 “Special Edition” film eliminated this shot in favor of a more glitzy matte painting of a different building.)

Of course in the original film, Ben Kenobi’s hermitage appeared as though it was situated in the middle of the vast Tatooine desert wasteland.  Djerba is not the desert at all!   In fact, Ben's home is actually situated on a gorgeous stretch of shoreline bordering the Gulf Of Gabès!  While walking around taking photos of the fishing boats marooned in the shallow waters,  I heard gurgling noises all around us.  This was a living, breathing ecology that I felt somewhat uncomfortable disturbing so I quickly headed back up to the building.  Like the cantina in Ajim, the building is in a serious state   of disrepair, yet it appears as though the local fisherman still use it regularly to take breaks from the harsh Djerbian sun!

Even if you are not a fan of the film, this ride along the west coast of Djerba is stunning for its natural beauty; we hear the sunset ain't half bad either!  (See below for one last Star Wars shooting location, the mosque of Sidi Jemour.)  Set of Drifters tip:  An important word of warning to all who decide to rent mopeds or motorbikes while in Djerba...  attempt shortcuts on dirt or gravel roads with a motorbike.  These vehicles are not equipped to handle the rough terrain unless you are a pro.  We repeat... do not ride your motorbike on gravel roads.  This is very dangerous and we have the scars to prove it.  Okay, enough of our yakking!  Have fun!

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Ajim - located just across the ferry-crossing from ElJorf, or about 18 km. southwest       of Houmt Souk (via the "Djerba Expo"); watch for signs.  For specific directions to the "Mos Eisley Cantina" location, please email us.

Ben's Hermitage - on the left side of the road less than a km. north of Ajim (via the road to Borj Jellij)

Sidi Jemour mosque

With its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, Djerba has seen its fair share of rich history, both actual and fictional.   In fact, Djerba is known as the "Land of the Lotus Eaters" - the location where Ulysses took a pause during the course of Homer's classic "Odyssey" only to find it difficult to sway his crew to get back onto the ship and continue the journey.  (The location was just too perfect!)

Fortresses dot the perimeter of the island - better to keep pirates out one suspects!   One of the most stunning “fortresses” on the west coast is actually no fortress at all.  It is the mosque of Sidi Jemour.  If you are a hardcore fan of Star Wars, this locale might also appear familiar?   (Well, maybe if you traded the bikes and the boats out front for a Landspeeder or two?)   From the angle off the road, it is none other  than the outskirts of the "Mos Eisley" spaceport.

Besides the quick establishing shot seen as Luke, C3-PO, R2-D2 and Obi-Wan whiz by on their way to obtain passage to Alderaan, this location was also used for the filming of the "lost" scene at Anchorhead.  "Tosche Station" is mentioned in the final version of Star Wars, but the scenes filmed here ended up on the cutting room floor.  George Lucas has stated that the expository information played out here slowed down the pace of the film too much, and ultimately introduced Luke Skywalker out of context.

From certain angles, the mosque looks so compact, yet in reality, Sidi Jemour is quite a big complex, composed of a number of different buildings with specific purpose.  The small arched building near the main entrance is the marabout of Sidi Jemour. This is a shrine devoted to the local saint.  The menzel courtyard just beyond was also used in the filming of the Luke Skywalker/ Biggs Darklighter scene which takes place in the fictional town of Anchorhead.

Sidi Jemour is certainly the best preserved Star Wars filming location in Djerba, but not because locals see it as a way to attract tourists!  This is an actual functioning religious compound, and therefore an important part of daily life for nearby villagers.  The caretakers, who live in a building adjacent to the mosque, keep the place looking stunning - whitewashed so perfectly against the azure sky and sea!  As we traversed through the cliffs of Sidi Jemour, families were gathering to take part in a call to prayer.  Still, others lingered in the shade, or ran down from the mosque to take a swim!  I could not help but ponder that if every religious building in the world had this seascape as a backdrop, there would probably be a lot more faithful people out there!

Sidi Jermour mosque -    about 17 km. north from the town of Ajim (via the road to Borj Jellij)

Sidi Mahres Beach

Trust us.  You can find a camel ride pretty much anywhere you visit in Tunisia.  However, on the island of Djerba, it seems the place to go if in need of a camel (and we're not talking about the cigarette) is Sidi Mahres Beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand along Djerba's Mediterranean coast.

World-class resorts and beachside bars and restaurants are crammed next to each other, all vying for a swath of that beautiful turquoise water!   It's those same resorts, and that gorgeous water, that attracts hordes of European tourists each summer.  (For a more peaceful experience,  we recommend missing high season by a few weeks.)

Most resorts, like the Park Inn Ulysse described below (see "digs"), will feature beach bars   that offer a variety of tasty and inexpensive Tunisian delights, as well as beer and cocktails delivered direct to your thatched beach umbrella!  So, why not indulge yourselves?  Relax and read a novel, have a swim, or take a stroll down the beach on the back of single humped camel (or dromedary).  Come on, you deserve it!

Set of Drifters tip:  If you think you missed the dromedary ride the first time around, have no fear.  The "Toureg" wranglers will come back and forth down the beach throughout the day.  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Sidi Mahres Beach - located about 10 km. east of Houmt Souk along a stretch of resorts on Djerba's northwestern coast (accessible via Boulevard de l'Environment)