By Kim Toolson
Cool, gloomy and unearthly quiet, the cave I entered hardly fit my notion of a hotel lobby. It seemed more like a setting for “Star Wars,” which is exactly what it was when George Lucas used this underground labyrinth of vaulted rooms and dim passageways as young Luke Skywalker’s subterranean home on the desert planet of Tatooine.
But, contrary to my expectations, the Hotel Sidi Driss was no touristy Universal Studios re-creation; it was the real thing.
Located in Matmata, 40 km. from the southern Tunisian oasis town of Gabes, the Sidi Driss is perfectly suited to its rugged environment. At 400 meters the air here is cool and the land arid, studded with dull boulders and carved with craters.
Matmata was the ideal setting, not only for “Star Wars,” both the classic one and the most recent film, but also for the refugee Berber founders who, centuries ago, literally “dug in” against hostile attacks and created the troglodyte caves like the Sidi Driss; the enemy never even knew they were there!
Check-in formalities complete, I was escorted to a series of compact caverns dug into the base of a tall circular courtyard and assigned a surprisingly cheerful room with whitewashed walls and bright Berber weavings. My personal grotto had three beds, meaning I had three blankets at my disposal; one, as it turned out, was more than sufficient since the thick earthen walls guaranteed a temperature both comfortable and constant. Apart from a small gap beneath the fortress-like wooden door and a hole in the ceiling (originally meant for funneling grain), I was well insulated in my troglodyte abode.
I was sorting supplies when a stifled squeal announced the presence of an entire Japanese family examining me with unabashed curiosity, eager to snap photos of the “courageous” woman actually spending the night in a cave! Suddenly, I was the tourist attraction. Giggling, they retreated, and I decided it was high time to check out the rest of the hotel and meet some of my fellow travelers.
After navigating the echoing corridors back to the now-deserted reception desk, I located the bar at the opposite end of the hotel. And still I hadn’t encountered another soul! It dawned on me that there were no other guests at the hotel, and it appeared that the staff had abandoned ship as well. Little remained but to retire to my cave for the night.
In the morning, the staff had returned and a trio of waiters served up coffee, bread and the inevitable quince jam along with much conversation. They were eager for me to meet their friends who lived one rocky mound away in a troglodyte house accessed by a tunnel and bursting with cheerful plants and flowers.
Niches carved into the walls served as storage, stone mills were fitted into the floors for preparing couscous the hard way, and the otherwise bare walls were decorated with pictures of local saints and “Charlie’s Angels.” Fitted with electricity, this was the family’s sole residence, but many Matmata residents are now erecting above-ground maisons confort to supplement their troglodyte dwellings.
I discovered that Matmata was made for walking. Shale paths combed the hills and skirted terraced inclines high above the camouflaged homes of the village. I descended trails into shade-darkened valleys and delighted in the purple wild flowers that sprang unexpectedly from patches of parched, monotone earth. I greeted women drawing water from communal cisterns and followed the leisurely meanderings of men on donkeys. This was as much the surreal setting of “Star Wars” as it was a real place.
At dusk, as the final rays of day played off white minarets and mosques, I settled myself on a rock-strewn knoll to watch the alien landscape greet the night under skies of azure and pomegranate red. Women in flowing robes traveled in pairs, shadowy forms carrying makeshift lanterns fashioned from old tin cans.
The sun set in total silence on this late autumn night, a momentary prelude to the solemn echoing of the muezzin’s call to prayer. I needn’t have worried that Matmata would be no more than a tourist trap. At that moment, I was free to enjoy my solitude and equally free to imagine that the ghost of Luke Skywalker still wandered the Lars Family homestead that I now knew as the Hotel Sidi Driss.
Hotel Sidi Driss
6070 Matmata Ancienne, Tunisia
Tel: (05) 230005
Capacity for 145 guests in 20 rooms. Restaurant and bar. From US$10/night per person including breakfast.
Unless traveling off-season (November through March), reservations are recommended
Regular daytime service by louage (share taxi) or bus (8 daily) from Gabes (40 km). Specify Matmata Ancienne as some services terminate in Matmata Nouvelle 15 km distant. Daily service to Tunis (450 km) via Sfax and Sousse.
ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES
The small museum just behind the Sidi Driss Hotel keeps erratic hours but is worth a look. A trip to the scenic stone village of Tamezret (12 km) makes an interesting daytrip, as does an excursion to the tiny troglodyte village of Haddej (3 km) known for its underground olive press. Two buses a day ply the Tamezret route. The small Syndicat d’initiative near the bus stop/market in Matmata can help arrange transport to Haddej.
No banks or ATMs in Matmata Ancienne. The nearest bank is in Matmata Nouvelle (15km)
Embassy of Tunisia
1515 Massachusetts Ave
Washington DC 20005
Tel: 1 (202) 862 1850
Fax: 1 (202) 862 1858 Tunisian Tourist Office
1253 McGill College, Bureau #655
Montreal, Quebec Canada H3B 2Y5
Tel: (514) 397 1182/0403
Fax: (514) 397 1647
Tunisian National Tourism Office (ONTT)
1 Ave. Mohamed V, 1001 Tunis, Tunisia
Tel: (216) 1 341 077
Fax: (216) 1 350 997
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