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Review: Djerba (Jerba)


Djerba (Jerba), Tunisia

Beloved by the sun seekers and spoilt by uncontrolled development of new houses

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2320 reviews

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  • Apr 2012
  • Husband

55 people found this review helpful

The south eastern coast of Djerba is popular with holiday makers who go for the sunshine and holiday resorts. Reading the guide books we had originally dismissed Djerba. However the local tour operator used by Audley Travel who booked the holiday for us said that the rest of the island away from the tourist belt was unspoilt and peaceful and the people followed a very traditional way of life. Looking at our objectives for Tunisia they thought we would enjoy the area. They recommended a small boutique hotel in the centre of the island well away from the tourist area. We decided to add two nights to the itinerary.

Dar Diafra Hotel (see separate review) was delightful but the information about the centre of the island being unspoilt and traditional was very out of date. Since the Jasmine Revolution, planning laws have been relaxed and new and very large houses are mushrooming all over the island. These are huge and the island is now resembling an up market housing development. Tourism is the main employer and the traditional way of life is disappearing rapidly. Many of the olive groves are very old and trees are not being replaced as they die. Most of the island is flat and scenically not very interesting. It was a major disappointment and our initial thoughts had been right. If planning the trip again we would miss Djerba.

We avoided the Zone Touistique and Houmt Souk. Most of the towns and villages are similar to Tunisian towns and villages seen elsewhere. Midoun the second largest town is modern and forward looking with fashion shops and a large shop selling bath room accessories, much needed with all the new development). Two very big and splendid car show rooms are a sign there is a lot of money in Djerba. We were told that land sells for 350TD per sqm. It is not surprising that people are leaving farming and selling their land.

The traditional houses on Djerba were the fortified farmsteads called Menzels. Constant fear of attack meant that buildings were designed for defence. From the outside these looked like small fortresses with blank white walls with a tower at each corner, often topped with a dome. These areas were used as summer bedrooms. They are the only parts with external windows, placed high so they cannot be reached. Living rooms surround the central courtyard. The design of the menzels reflects a preoccupation with water conservation and temperature control. The rooftops and courtyards are designed to channel rainwater into underground tanks (impluviums) which provided a water supply for the house and to irrigate crops. They also helped keep the foundations cool. Thick rendered walls of mud and stone provided further insulation. They were painted white to reflect heat of sun.

Most of these are now in ruins as the owners have moved into newer more modern houses. A few have been loving restored. There are quite a few scruffy menzels on the outskirts of Ajim on the Guellal road.

We had told our driver we wanted to see Menzels. We spent an hour on the first afternoon driving round the island trying to find some without success. Next morning the driver had done his homework and took us to find a group of deserted old menzels off the road between Sedghiane and Fadloune Mosque. There had been quite a dense settlement of about four houses reached down a rough dirt track surrounded by palm trees and olive groves. There were other menzels close by. We began to understand why the new houses are built so close together. The wooden door on one of them was open so we went in for a look. There were remains of old water and olive oil jars lying around. In the corner of the ground floor rooms is a large square structure which could have been a stove providing heat in the winter. Stone steps lead up to the room in the corner tower. This was as close we would get to the traditional way of life. We began to think to see Djerba you have to get off the roads and along the rough tracks.

To be honest there isn’t a lot of tourists to see and do on Djerba. Fadloune Mosque listed in guide books as open for tourists is no longer. There are the usual signs outside saying’ not open to non Muslims’ and the doors were locked. There are several interesting fortified Mosques scattered around the island, all of which have to be admired form outside the wall. All you see is the top of the minaret.

For photographs head to El Kebir, on the outskirts of Melita. There is a big bank outside the courtyard wall which can be climbed for views into the courtyard. The Mosque is in the centre of the courtyard which has cisterns beneath it. These provide water for use in the ceremonial washroom in a small building in the courtyard. A small stone shelter is used by the Imam when leading prayers in the courtyard. Around the walls are small rooms used for teaching the Koran.

Just south east of Guellala on the coast is the very old Mosque of Sidi Yati. It is reached by a rough track off the main road. It is a whitewashed building surrounded by trees. A very weathered sign outside the wall says the mosque “was established by Shiek Yati Mestaoui during the 3rd century of the higare accordant 9thC Christian” We went through the doorway in the wall surrounding a courtyard enclosing the four domed mosque and a smaller building.

Erriadh where we were staying used to have a large Jewish population. Most of them left after the Second World War to return to Israel. El-Ghriba synagogue was constructed in 1920 and despite very tight security is open to visitors. However we visited during the Passover, so it was shut. Erriadh is one of the more interesting settlements on the island. The old Jewish quarter is fascinating place to explore with a maze of side streets and squares. The houses have white walls with a doorway off the street which leads into a passageway or courtyard. Many have a smaller shaped doorway inside the big one. Several have fish carved above the door. Doors and windows are usually painted blue. Many of the old houses had barrel roof which helped keep the house cool during the hot summer months. We found the remains of a disused Synagogue. This had once been large and splendid building. One window was open allowing a glimpse into a courtyard with pillars.

We enjoyed Meninx, a Roman site, on the Adjim road just after the causeway . I had seen this marked on the map and there is very little information about it on the web. It is a thought to be a Carthaginian settlement which was resettled by the Romans. It is marked by a brown tourist sign after the causeway and there is a lay by at the side of the road. There is no information at the site, so we just wandered. The site stretches a long way along between the road and the coast.

It was a beautiful day and the sea was glinting in the sunshine. There were a few small fishing boats moored on the beach and someone wading in the sea catching fish in a hand held net. We walked across a rough area with piles of rubble and low growing vegetation, with a lot of bright yellow trefoil providing a splash of colour.. At first there was little to see and only the fragments of red pottery lying everywhere indicated people had once lived here. We found the remains of handles and rims. As we walked towards the sea we discovered the remains of the forum with column bases, remains of much eroded pillars and bits of carved marble lying around. Things were beginning to look up. As we wandered we found the site of the cisterns. Two tanks are still in good condition but the rest have collapsed into a pile of rubble. We kept stumbling across bits of walls from unidentified buildings, some still with plaster. Walked back the other way is a large area that has been partially excavated. There is a wide paved street lined with the bases of very dark red sandstone pillar bases and remains of buildings on either side. We found more cisterns and a large flat area with an impluvium (well) in centre.

We were shown the remains of some ‘Roman’ remains on the edge of Midoun. To our driver anything old was ‘Roman’. These were next to olive groves surrounded by earth banks. Again there were no signs or information at the site. Perhaps this could the site 4thC of B?rg? mentioned in the Wkipedia entry on Djerba? There were massive pile of stones which had been collected and dumped(presumably when clearing land for the olive groves). Another pile has been reassembled on a modern base to form a ‘structure’. Set of steps lead down to made circular area round it where there could have been the remains of some old masonry. Weird.

Guellala is a tiny village on the south coast renowned for pottery. Workshops line main street all with displays of pots outside and stuck to the walls to attract the tourist trade. We had an interesting visit to a working pottery. Clay is still mined on site. Steps lead down to a 25m deep shaft as the clay above this level is crystalline and no good for pots. This leads to a long tunnel where the clay is taken from. The clay is mixed with water; fresh water gives a red colour, salt water turns clay white. Pots are made on a potters wheel. Small pots are left 3-7 days to dry in the shade. Larger pots take 20 days. The kiln is fired up using palm leaves (usually every 2 months) and pots are fired at 1000KC for four days. The kiln takes another three days to cool before the pots cool down. Pots are painted by hand by local women, glazed and then fired in an electric kiln at 900KC. The ‘magic camel’ is a popular tourist souvenir. Last of the big spenders, we bought two small bowls for 8TD. Not having any change we handed over a 10TD note and weren’t given any change until we asked for it.

We had asked to go to Borj Jillij on the north east coast and drive along the coast road to Ajim. This was marked as an unsurfaced track on our map but is now surfaced all the way. We drove round the airport perimeter with airport control tower and past the lighthouse and other military buildings. This is a sensitive area and photographs not allowed.

Borj Jillij is on a stretch of long low lying coastline with little vegetation and a few trees. The rocky coast is made of flat volcanic deposits with sand beyond. Small fishing shacks are scattered along the coastline with piles of nets and crockery pots used to catch lobsters. Each pot has identification initials painted on it and are carefully piled up. We could see strange ‘Y’ shape structures resembling fences made of palm leaves out in the bay. Our driver said they were designed to help catch fish… Several small fishing boats were moored in the bay and a couple of men coming ashore with fish they had caught. Apart from the fishermen we were the only people around. This is rural Djerba going about its business.

It is a nice drive to Ajim, along low lying coastline with rocks, stones, seaweed and a few sandy beaches. The only settlement along the road is at Sidi Jimour where roads from Houmt Souk join the Ajim road. There are a few scattered houses. It has a reasonable sandy beach and there were a few fishing boats moored. The Mosque is now shut and there was a group of young Tunisians sitting on the steps playing music. Further south the land is very dry and sandy and showing signs of desertification.

Being a Sunday, all the Tunisians were out for the day and parked up in any patches of shade provided by palm trees having a picnic. Rugs were spread on the ground with hampers and fires lit to grill fish. The area however is strewn with litter as no attempt is made to clear up or take it home. The area is becoming squalid. We felt this summed up Djerba.

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