I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setting to celebrate a 26th birthday in than the island of Djerba.
My trip began early Saturday morning when I met Ahmed, a friend and fellow English teacher, in downtown Sfax. We headed straight for the louage station, paid our fare and were on our way South with Tunisia’s fastest louage driver. It took 4 hours, a number of close calls, and one short ferry crossing to reach the island.
Once arrived we checked into Hotel du Lotos and made our way downtown for lunch, which ended up being a plate of escalope grillé and spaghetti fruits de mer. After lunch we wandered through the labyrinth of alleyways in downtown Houmt Souk, cooled off with some gelato then climbed the ramparts of the old fort Borj Ghazi Mustapha.
Later that night we toasted to my birthday on the terrace of Hotel du Lotos with a bottle of pinot noir, pretzels and biscuits, and a broken made-in-china singing birthday candle. Around midnight we walked to the marina and snuck onto docked tourist-attracting pirate ships (you have to do something daring on your birthday!) then found a comfortable spot on the rocks to sit in silent cotemplation. I love the stillness of the sea at night and looking out at the moon-tinted Mediterranean I thought of two things: first, that I had fallen in love with Djerba, and second, that 26 was going to be a great year for me.
The next day I woke up early and made a list of the things I wanted to see and do over breakfast. Our first destination was the city of Erriadh, 7 km south of Houmt Souk and the location of the oldest Jewish synagogue in North Africa. The interior of El-Ghriba synagogue is something extraordinary: blue arches, blocks of geometric tiling, silver plaques and a vaulted green ceiling with from which hung chandeliers. Talmudic scholars were praying in the corner and when one of them surprised us with a very loud belch and Ahmed replied, that was gross, I couldn’t contain my laughter. Luckily they thought I was crying.
We left the synagogue and visited the hidden, opulent Hotel dar Dhiafa. A one night stay would cost me half of my salary so I was content with just lounging next to the pool with a mint tea. The hotel manager caught me taking pictures and was kind enough to show us the rooms. There are 10 in all and each is decorated in the traditional style with artwork and local handicrafts. As he was explaining this to us I was busy making mental notes for my future Djerban inspired summer getaway.
Next on our list was the village of Guellala. Beginning at the top of the hill, we took in a panoramic view of the town and beyond the bright-blue sea. We toured the life-like dioramas of Musee Guellala, showcasing the customs and culture of Djerba. My favorite part, however, was the display of wedding costumes from different regions of Tunisia. You have already seen me try on a few!
Exiting the museum, we walked back down the hill and happened upon a seafood restaurant for lunch. For 15 dinars each we were treated to a green salad, fish soup, whole grilled fish cooked street-side with fries; and a juicy peach with mint tea for dessert. It was perfect.
We scoped out the main street crammed with pottery galleries in the late afternoon heat. From each shop, piles of hand-painted ceramic plates and bowls spilled out onto the street. I found what I was looking for and bartered down the price, then we were back in a taxi returning to our hotel. In between villages the landscape is dotted with olive and palm trees but otherwise desolate, I am quiet in the backseat as I find these stretches of road to be silencing and serene.
I napped through the afternoon heat in my hotel room and then it was time to check off the last thing on our list – the zone touristique for a pictoral beach. You know instantly that you are in the zone touristique when you spot a troop of camels and horses headed your way being ridden by a group of sunburned tourists. My guidebook has warned about Tunisian “casanovas” and as we are walking along the beach a nicely tanned rider with long-curly hair atop a beautiful grey Andalusian stallion with bright red tassles stops alongside us and begins practicing dressage moves at the water’s edge, indiscreetly watching for my reaction.. I couldn’t help but wonder, is this the type of man women travellers should avoid? His act was disrupted by a man trying to sell us a camel ride, which we declined but the family next to us accepted. Let me tell you, there is nothing funnier than watching a tourist try to get a camel to gallop. He is shouting “yah yah!” with his Tunisian guide running after him and the camel moaning in annoyance. After this scene we’d had enough of the artificial zone touristique and made our way back downtown for dinner. We chanced upon a pizzeria filled with locals and I gushed over the best, most authentic Italian pizza I’ve had in this country. For dessert we returned to the gellateria and our day was complete.
Monday morning I got up early to pack and eat breakfast then walked to the louage station. Along the way the bustling Libyan market was set-up on the street, it would have been an exciting shopping experience had I more time and money. After another four-hour trip I was back home and by 5 o’clock I was back in the classroom; but Djerba, with its locals wearing large straw-brimmed hats, simplistic white-washed buildings, and perfect Island sunsets stays on my mind.
Enjoy the rest of the pictures!