Island of Djerba: Land of the Lotus-Eaters

Linked to the Tunisian mainland by a Roman causeway, and still maintaining an ancient way of life, the island of Djerba has long seduced its visitors
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The Independent Travel

In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses recounts how his seafaring warriors were driven by winds to the shores of the land of the Lotus-Eaters. There, the locals fed them lotus flowers and they became addicted, forgetting all thoughts of returning home. Legend has it that this place was Djerba – the island just off the coast of southern Tunisia. Tennyson elaborated on the scene in his 1832 poem "The Lotos-Eaters": "In the afternoon, they came unto a land/ In which it seemed always afternoon./ All round the coast the languid air did swoon, / Breathing like one that hath a weary dream."

Today, many of the island's visitors come to enjoy the thalassotherapy centres clustered along the main tourist strip of Sidi Mahres beach, on the north-east coast. Djerba is a centre for thalassotherapy, which involves the use of the sun and sea water to treat ailments ranging from arthritis to eczema to depression, and the new Radisson Thalasso is a vast ensemble of sea-water pools, hammams, treatment cabins and massage rooms, with views across desert and palm trees to the sea.

But the Djerba that lies away from the big hotels is even more rewarding. The island is mainly rural, with wild stretches of beach on its western and south-eastern coasts, and flat, open plains in the centre. It is joined to the mainland by a dramatic six-mile-long Roman causeway built in the 6th century BC, and there is also a regular 10-minute ferry crossing to Ajim.

Djerba's small capital, Houmt Souk, is a pretty town with a working fishing port and a population of about 70,000. Its atmosphere is relaxed, combining the quiet self-confidence that accompanies an ancient way of life, with an openness to tourism. Most of the residents speak French as fluently as Arabic. I revelled in the city's gloriously undeveloped funduqs – 15th-century buildings arranged around a courtyard that accommodated merchants and pilgrims, and their animals (known in other parts of the Arab world as caravanserais). A handful have been converted into basic but charming hotels, often with bougainvillea climbing the walls, painted wooden doors, and colourful tiling within, all accompanied by a warm family welcome. Hotel Erriadh, for example, charges just 32 dinars (£13) a night for a spotless double room with breakfast.

The town centre comprises a maze of winding streets, opening out to reveal covered souks, mosques, and even a large Catholic church. Inevitably, there is some tourist junk on offer, but visitors are generally left in peace by the vendors, and are free to wander – apart from inside the mosques. I enjoyed the auction at the fish market, where an old man in a fez and flowing robes sat upon what looked like a throne, overseeing the sale of strings of fish to the highest bidder. Indeed, dining on fish is one of the highlights of a stay on the island. Some of the fishing methods used have not changed since the time of the Phoenicians, 3,000 years ago. Fishermen simply trawl the huge clusters of fish that gather around rocky coast, and oval-shaped terracotta amphorae are still used for catching octopus.

In restaurants, grilled sea bass and groper are presented alongside meat and couscous, after starters of small salads and bread with olive oil and harissa, a fiery chilli paste, and mechouia, a dip made with grilled peppers. I also enjoyed briq, a deep-fried pastry envelope filled with cheese, potato, egg or meat. It's all very relaxed, and the cheap local wine flows freely.

Unusually, Houmt Souk's cafés aren't the preserve of old men smoking hookahs: men and women sit drinking espresso and mint tea in a way that is still uncommon in Muslim societies. Indeed, Djerba's laid-back tolerance is partly due to its varied ethnic mix. It is home to one of the last remaining communities of Ibadis, an unorthodox Islamic sect adopted by some Berber tribes. Vulnerable to attack from purists, they retreated to Djerba in the Middle Ages, though they continued fighting against Christians from Sicily and Aragon, who disputed the territory.

Remains from this period include two forts and some exquisite rural mosques built of mud and stone, which, with their buttressed walls and enclosed compounds, resemble small forts themselves. These squat whitewashed buildings sit like ships against the bright blue sky. I found Fadloun and Ben Maaguel particularly impressive. Dating from the 11th and 14th centuries respectively, with their lantern-style minarets, they seemed carved from ice. Both welcome visitors.

Djerba is also home to one of the largest Jewish populations in North Africa, and thousands visit each year on pilgrimage. The island's synagogue, the El Ghriba in Erriadh, is one of the oldest in the world, dating back over 2,000 years. In 2002, it was targeted in a bomb attack by al-Qa'ida, and 21 people died: 14 German tourists, six Tunisians and one Frenchman. Today, security is understandably tight, with all visitors required to pass through screening. Those responsible for the atrocity were not native to Djerba but fundamentalists living in Europe; perhaps they targeted Djerba because Arabs and Jews have been living and trading together there peacefully for hundreds of years.

In Erriadh, I stayed at the Hotel Dar Dhiafa, which, because it is close to the synagogue, was also under tight security. The hotel is a seductive composition of old village buildings, with stone floors, terraces and courtyards. It has 10 rooms and four suites, each with different antiques, art and textiles. I had a suite comprising a Moorish-style bathroom with rolltop bath and chandelier, a large reception area, and a bedroom on the mezzanine level. I found the hotel enchanting, and would happily return to enjoy its tiny courtyards, pool and hammam.

With my guide, Hassine, I hired a moped to visit more remote parts of the island. We came across a path that took us alongside wild, empty beaches. As we sped onwards we were surrounded by wetlands, with only flamingos for company. In the haze of the sun, suddenly a castle appeared, like a mirage. We kept going until the end of the peninsula, and we arrived at Borj Kastil, a fort built by Alfonso V of Aragon in the 15th century. Scrambling to the top, we could see a vast expanse of land and, in the distance, the Roman causeway.

"This could be the site of the scorpion island," said Hassine. "During the arrival of the Arabs on Djerba, there was a governor who had three sons. Two were killed by scorpions, so to save the third, the king took him to this castle in the middle of the sea. But as they carried their provisions there, including lots of fruit, they kept dropping the grapes. The scorpions followed the grapes and the king lost his last son in the fortress."

Crossing the causeway to the mainland, I visited the deserted ruins of Gightis, a Roman port. As I approached the site, its keeper appeared and showed me round the remains of temples, roads, store rooms, hammams and mosaics, and I could just imagine the bustling port in the second century, from which gold, ivory and slaves, brought from Africa, were exported.

Returning to the island of dreams in time for sunset, Tennyson's words made even more sense: "Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; / O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more."

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

There are no direct scheduled flights between the UK and Djerba, but operators such as MyTravel (0871 664 7625; www.mytravel.com) have flights from Gatwick and Manchester. Tunisair (020-7734 7644; www. tunisair.com) flies from Paris Orly.

STAYING THERE

A three-night package at the Radisson SAS Hotel & Thalasso, Djerba (00 216 75 75 76 00; www.djerba.radissonsas.com), including accommodation with breakfast, transfers, four treatments each day, and unlimited access to the fitness centre, Jacuzzis, saunas, hammam and swimming pools, costs from £220 per person.

Hotel Erriadh, rue Mohammed Ferjani, Houmt Souk, Djerba (00 216 75 650 756; e-mail: hotel.erriadh@topnet.tn). Doubles from 35 dinars (£14), including breakfast.

Hotel Dar Dhiafa, Erriadh, Djerba (00 216 75 671 166; www.hoteldardhiafa.com). Doubles from 180 dinars (£71), room only.

MORE INFORMATION

Visit www.cometotunisia.co.uk, or call 020-7224 5598.

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