Where is Djerba?
Djerba – a small island off the eastern coast of Tunisia – is also known as the ‘Island of Dreams’. This palm-lined desert island is perhaps best described as a blend between a Greek fishing village, a Middle Eastern souq, and an Italian piazza. According to Greek mythology, it’s the home of the legendary Lotus-Eaters and where Ulysses and his seamen were driven by adverse wind during the course of the Odyssey.
The pace of life here is glacial. The sound of the sea is never far. And the warmth of the people is unforgettable. I stayed with the most welcoming family here. They treated me like one of their own children. While their daughters still remained on the island, their only son had moved to Paris after getting married. So I sort of became their adopted son while I stayed on the island. And I had no idea how lucky I was.
It is true that after a while, as memories slowly become hazy, you mostly remember how a place or people made you feel. The warmth I felt in Djerba is something I’ll remember forever.
As soon as I stepped into my host family’s house, left my things and settled in, they insisted I join them for Saturday afternoon coffee and snacks on the terrace, while watching sunset. After apologising for my terrible French, I got to know all about what their daughters did. From designing kitchens, to being teachers, to running a delicious seafood restaurant in the souq, they had very interesting and varied careers. What I thought would be a 10 minute coffee, ended up being a 2 hour chat on the terrace, drinking lots of coffee and eating delicious homemade cake with the whole family – including the little sons of the eldest two daughters.
When I thanked them and got up to leave, almost immediately Monsieur Zu (the father) asked what I was doing for dinner. When I said I hadn’t any plans and was going to wander around to find somewhere to eat, all of them almost unanimously cried out that I should join them. They’d cook plenty of food and it was no trouble at all, they said. I tried in vain to say I felt bad for imposing, especially on their precious family time together and that they should carry on – but they were having none of it.
When I returned an hour later, they had cooked a feast. ‘This is just simple food – nothing lavish,’ they warned me. But I told them that my mum always said food made with love is the best food of all. Plus it had my Tunisian favourite – brik: a deep fried pastry envelope with egg, potato and tuna inside. We enjoyed cracking more jokes, learning about life on the island, and their daughters patiently taught me phrases in Tunisian Arabic. Their son-in-law, Raouf, owned a seafood restaurant in the souq which they insisted I dine at. Delicious times awaited.
Voted the best spot on the island to see the sunset by my Djerbian host family
On the island’s western coast, about 15 minutes from Houmt Souq by car, with a small mosque and little else, Sidi Jmour is one of Djerba’s gems. Frequented by a few locals with their dogs, it’s a long, tranquil stretch of coastline with barely any establishments or tourists. I actively chose to stay away from the touristy part of Djerba with its big hotels along the north-eastern strip (aka Sidi Mahres Beach). The western, more rural, wilder coast is far more interesting.
Voted the best spot on the island to see the sunset by my Djerbian host family, it’s an amazing place to come to listen to the sounds of the sea, watch the golden rays of the sun bouncing off the dunes and make friends with extremely well-behaved dogs. Best part? You see aircraft on final approach to Djerba Airport.
Be prepared to walk 1.5hr to the airport afterwards though to find a taxi to return home if you’re on your own as this place is pretty remote!
You can find almost everything under the sun in the souq in Djerba’s relaxed capital – Houmt Souq (Houmt Souk). It’s the capital’s centre of activity. For some reason, after 3 months of being on the road, several of my shorts and trousers had rips/holes and needed mending. My host family took pity on me (or thought I was totally bonkers) and one of their daughters, Rihab, took me to her tailor friend to have all my clothes darned. She even managed to find someone who could repair the broken zip on my backpack, when she saw I was holding it together with safety pins!
From carpets to ceramics, jewels to gems, birds to crafts, anything can be found here – all concentrated in a picturesque maze of alleyways with unexpected street art in Rue Mostapha Ghazi. And a coffee shop with a Tunisian ‘capucin’ (espresso macchiato) or a fresh orange juice is only ever a stone’s throw away.
Particularly interesting are the funduqs (inns) – former lodging houses for travelling traders of the camel caravans. They made a pitstop here in Ottoman times when Houmt Souq was the island’s most important trade hub. These inns are two storeys tall around a central courtyard. The top floor was for the merchants and the ground floor for their camels.
#TopTip: Cafe Ben Yedder is a great people watching spot in the Souq
There’s a fairly large Libyan community on the island seeking refuge from the volatile situation in nearby Libya (post-2011 after Arab Spring, where Libya took the world by surprise by revolting against Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime). A lot of them can be seen at the colourful Libyan Market very close to the Souq – open a few mornings each week. Whether its a traditional kaftan, fabric, electronics, household items or a wide range of cheap toys, the Libyan market is full of interesting and cheap items supposedly smuggled across the border. I went exploring with Rihab and we received a warm welcome everywhere we went – Rihab seemed to know most of the vendors!
With Raouf (son-in-law of my host family), who also runs his own seafood restaurant, I went into Houmt Souq’s Fish Market. When we arrived, the big morning rush was over. Most of the auctioning and bargaining had finished and activity had calmed down to a gentle murmur of negotiations between buyers and vendors. Raouf took me to a vendor who had caught a baby shark and to my alarm he insisted I carry the dead fish and hold it up. He beamed, I squirmed.
Some fishing methods have remained the same over thousands of years, being passed from generation to generation – like catching octopus for example. Fishermen still use terracotta pots which are tied together and cast out to sea. They sink to the bottom, waiting to be discovered by the gullible octopus which then crawls into it. Lo and behold the octopus must get the shock of its life when what seemed to be a rocky nook was actually a terracotta pot being hauled up to the surface, sealing its fate!
Restaurant Chez Raouf in Houmt Souq
Rihab (one of the daughters of my host family) and myself went to Raouf’s restaurant for lunch while we were getting my clothes and backpack mended in the souq. Raouf’s lunch special was one of the best meals I had in Tunisia. We were so hungry that we devoured the food – no time for photographs 😉
In typical Tunisian fashion, we nibbled on freshly baked baguette with homemade harissa and olive oil while Raouf was cooking. Our starter was chorba – a traditional flavourful broth eaten all over the Maghreb region. There are many variants to this, but Raouf made a fish chorba for us with tomato and vegetables. This was followed by freshly grilled sea bass, salad, fries, grilled octopus, slata Mechouia (a Tunisian grilled pepper / aubergine salad) and tastira (fried potatoes, cucumber and eggs).
Borj Ghazi Mustapha (Djerba’s Fort)
This old fort on the coast was built by the Aragonese (from northeastern Spain) in the 13th century. A gruesome massacre happened here in 1560. A Turkish fleet under renowned pirate Dragut massacred 6000 men from the Spanish forces after capturing the fort. The victims’ skulls were stacked up in a tower as a terrifying reminder to others not to mess with Dragut. While this site was once the scene of might and power, today’s remains are far from it. The skeletal structure remains, but much of the fort has crumbled. It’s still an exciting maze to walk through and the towers in the corners are great view points.
Just down the coast from the Fort is Djerba Marina – which makes for a nice walk on a sunny day. The Marina has a very touristy area with lots of old boats together with a more commercial area.
The oldest synagogue in North Africa, this site dates all the way back to 586BC and is quite a trek from Houmt Souq (the capital). Most people drive or cycle, but I chose to walk instead – a solid 1.5hr mission in the heat. The intense security screening to enter the synagogue’s grounds took me by surprise – but in 2002 the site was the target of an Al-Qaeda bombing, with 21 people killed. Most of them were innocent tourists. I was slowly beginning to understand why Tunisia has almost been wiped off the package holiday map.
I would never have guessed this, but Djerba is home to one of the biggest Jewish communities in North Africa. And apparently several thousand visit annually on pilgrimage. Despite differences in beliefs, religion and tradition, the two communities – Muslim and Jewish – have been living and trading peacefully with each other for centuries in Djerba.
This was my first time in a synagogue; like in a gurudwara, both men and women need to cover their heads before entering. The inner sanctum is said to have one of the oldest Torahs (Holy Book in Judaism) in the world. The original synagogue is believed to have been founded after a holy stone fell here from heaven and a mysterious lady appeared to lead its construction. It’s also said that when the last Jew of Djerba leaves, the keys of the synagogue will return to heaven.
I got to and from Djerba by louage (shared taxi). Gabès is the transport hub and gateway to southern and eastern Tunisia, so depending on where you’re coming from, this is probably the best place to get a louage from/to. I was coming in from Kairouan, and according to the man at the station, it was better to take a louage to Medinine and change there for another louage to Houmt Souq in Djerba (approx 1.5-2hr). On this route we crossed the long Roman causeway that links Djerba to mainland Tunisia. On my return, I jumped in a louage from Houmt Souq to Gabès (approx 2.5hr) which came with a free gift: this route took the ferry crossing to the mainland!
Also check out my other Tunisia posts on Tunis, Carthage & Sidi Bou Saïd and the coastal city of Sousse & the holy city of Kairouan. Next post will be on Matmata, Douz and camping in the Sahara!