There was little to enchant me on my journey from Rome to the legendary, and alleged, land of the Lotus Eaters – the Tunisian island of Djerba.
On the second leg of the journey, from Tunis to the island itself, I was jammed into a small seat on a clapped-out turboprop plane, engaged in a tragic conversation with the motor-mouthed Canadian oil-field worker next to me. In the past few weeks, he told me, his brother, his uncle and the daughter of his best friend had died. And his job was taking him to the edge of the Tunisian desert, near the Algerian frontier, where the dust and sandstorms can provide cover for unpleasant men – smugglers, Islamic terrorists – with Kalashnikov rifles.
My sad new friend passed up my invitation to buy him a drink when we landed. As he disappeared into a desert-bound truck, I hopped into one of the island's ubiquitous yellow French-built taxis (Tunisia was a French colony until 1956). Alas, my first impressions were not positive. The island was as flat and hot as a crepe on the skillet, the land brown and dry, even though it was only the start of June. Worse, the roads and fields of olive and date trees were covered in garbage, mostly blue plastic bags. We passed roadside huts selling jerry cans of cheap bootleg Libyan gasoline.
Surely the classical scholars had misinterpreted Homer; this Mediterranean outpost could not be the Lotus Eaters' paradise.
An hour later, I was in love with Djerba, not for its lovely beaches, lively souks and succulent seafood (it has all three) but because of its gentle pace, ancient traditions and extraordinary mix of Arab, sub-Saharan African, Berber, Muslim and Jewish cultures, all layered onto the foundations of the ancient Carthaginian and Roman civilizations.
On this island, you can see everything from synagogues and Roman roads to fortified mosques and Ottoman forts. If that tapestry weren't rich enough, Djerba is home to the crumbling remains of a few scenes from the first Star Wars movie.
Djerba is just under an hour's flight due south of Tunis – next stop Libya – in the Gulf of Gabes. It is the largest island in the Maghreb, but is only about 25 kilometres across. A taxi ride of no more than half an hour, at a ridiculously low price – the equivalent of $3 or $4 – will get you anywhere. Because it is relatively hard to reach from Europe, Djerba is less touristy than, say, the colossal Hammamet resort near Tunis. But do not expect an idyllic location. The island has 140 hotels and resorts, including a vast Club Med, up from less than one-third of that number in the 1980s.
Still, my first evening was magical. That's because I did what most tourists don't do, which is avoid the beach hotels. Instead, I headed inland to the old Jewish settlement of Er Riadh, also known as Hara Sghira (Small Ghetto). When I stepped into my boutique hotel, the Dar Dhiafa, I felt like I had stepped into a scene from a Tintin desert adventure.
The hotel was a maze of alleyways and courtyards, like a small medina – what lurked around the corner? The lighting was subtle and soothing, casting palm-tree shadows onto the walls. Bougainvillea and jasmine provided perfume and splashes of colour. Each of the 14 guest rooms was a small study in Arabesque style, with beds tucked into alcoves, tiled floors, beamed ceilings and Berber carpets. Two courtyards featured small pools, which are filled with floating candles in the summer.
Dar Dhiafra was once five dilapidated homes from the early 19th century. Chiara Allani, 56, an Italian, and her Tunisian husband, Slah, bought the first house in 1993 as a vacation property. They realized the site could be expanded into hotel. Six years later, after a renovation that used local materials and furnishings, the houses were stitched together and their romantic fantasy was fulfilled. "When it opened, it was a real novelty," Chiara says.
The renovation inspired an equally charming, though smaller, property nearby, called Dar Bibine. The study in white is the labour of love of a Belgian couple – Isabelle Planchon and Gerard Gridelet, a lawyer and an architect – who were captivated by Djerba's sunshine and friendly people and combined two old houses into a luxury boutique hotel. Unlike Dar Dhiafra, each room is decorated in fanciful modern art and frescoes. A stylized moose head hangs over the fireplace in the salon.
The two hotels would appeal to tourists who are happy to give Djerba's beaches and jewellery-store laden souks a pass so they can soak up the island's rich heritage. A 20-minute walk from the two hotels takes you to the island's main synagogue, a site of both religious tolerance and intolerance. In 2002, a Tunisian who probably had connections to al-Qaeda detonated propane tanks out front . Twenty people were killed, none of them Jewish (most of the victims were German tourists). Since then, the synagogue, though ringed with security, has been a welcoming pilgrimage site for travellers, many of them from Israel, who come in the spring during the Lag Ba'omer holiday.
While the present synagogue dates from the 1920s, legend says it was built on the site where a holy stone fell from heaven. The interior is filled with bright blue tiles; an inner sanctuary contains one of the oldest known Torahs. Until the 1960s, Djerba's Jewish population was about 7,000. About 1,300 remain; the rest fled for jobs elsewhere, though a few are trickling back. "Life is tranquil for the Jews," says Perez Trabelsi, president of the synagogue. "Between the Jews and the Muslims, there is no problem."
To my disappointment, I did not have time to visit the fortified mosques, one of which is 1,000 years old. White-washed and gleaming in the sun, they have no equivalent elsewhere in Tunisia. Their walls, some supported by buttresses, can be exceedingly thick. The mosques form three concentric rings: The outermost, close to the sea, alerted the one father inland, and so on, when an invasion or attack was imminent. Some of the oldest are being preserved but, sadly, many others are crumbling.
To put it simply, Djerba is a cultural jewel. In Guellala, on the south coast, I bought sturdy handmade pottery made from clay dug out of a hillside mine.
In Houmt Souk, the capital and largest town on the island, I watched a fish auction in the market, where the auctioneer, wearing a straw hat and a dark robe, sat in a chair on top of the fish counter, overlooking the bidders as he clutched a string of small fish. At the corny, though amusing, Guellala Heritage Museum, I saw scenes of Djerban life featuring full-size dummies. The scene of the ritual circumcision made me burst into laughter: The cutting device was a terrifyingly large pair of scissors.
When I left after only two and a half days, I felt like I had just scratched the surface. Unlike Odysseus's lotus eaters, Djerba's charms did not make me forget home and family, but they did leave me with a strong desire to come back to this fascinating island. But next time, I will hit the beach as well as the souks, synagogues and mosques.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Dar Dhiafa (hoteldardhiafa.com) and Dar Bibine (darbibine.com), both in Er Riadh, in the middle of the island, are about 15 minutes by taxi from the airport. Rooms at Dar Dhiafa start at $123 a night, and $163 a night at Dar Bibine.
Where to eat
Haroun, by the waterfront in Houmt Souk, has spectacular views and a traditional Djerban menu, dominated by seafood. I loved the Mediterranean red snapper but the restaurant is pricey by Djerba standards. 216-75-650-488
Restaurant Lagune Tucked into a sandy cove on Saguia beach, on the southeast coast, Lagune gave me my most delicious seafood meal. I went for the house specialty – plump shrimp. Worth the cab ride. Bring a bathing suit because it's on the beach. 216-23-255-234