Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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A Tunisian road trip

Two weeks, two kids — too cool

When I told my mother I was whisking her 10- and 14-year-old grandkids off for a vacation in Tunisia, she wasn’t amused — I wasn’t surprised. This Muslim country, dubiously wedged between Algeria, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea, is uncharted terrain as far as most English-speaking North Americans are concerned.

Yet, alien as it seems, global watchdogs contend Tunisia is more moderate and modernized than Morocco (the Arab standard). And travel trendsetters like the New York Times and Lonely Planet consider it an emerging “must-do” destination, confirming what French-speaking Canadians have known for decades.

And tourism here isn’t exactly new. Tunisia has a long tradition of welcoming visitors, starting with Odysseus who, legend has it, tarried here some 3000 years ago. Today over six million holidaymakers arrive annually, many of them lured by the promise of sunny beaches at bargain-basement prices.

For my brood though, the country’s extraordinary sites were the main draw and, since Tunisia is roughly the size of Florida, we rented a car to squeeze in as many as possible. Save for encounters with road-hogging sheep and the occasional rogue camel, our actual drive proved unremarkable. The experience as a whole, on the other hand, was unforgettable.


Island Idylls

Wanting my kids to have a chance to acclimatize, I decided to make our first stop Djerba: a tiny, well-touristed island, lying just six kilometres off the coast. With the advent of cheap charters, its northeast corner has become a magnet for heat-seeking Europeans, giving Djerba a Costa-del-Sol feel that first timers find comforting. While resorts here echo the vernacular architecture through abundant domes and whitewashed arches, they are typically run to international standards; Club Med operates three!

The same rule applies to area vacation rentals, which provide western amenities with North African flair. Our choice — a poolside villa booked through Homelidays (www.homelidays.com; rental #29064, from $795 per week) — was poised at the edge of the zone touristique.

From there, we could quickly reach nearby venues like the Djerba Explore Park, which combines a fine archeological gallery with a living history museum and kitschy, kid-friendly crocodile farm. But we were also well positioned to visit the island’s farther-flung attractions.

Together, these offered a crash course in Tunisian history. For example, en route to an Arab medina in Houmt Souk (Djerba’s capital), we passed townhouses erected by the colonial French. We toured a 13th-century fortress built on a Roman base by an Aragonese king, then rebuilt by an Ottoman sultan. Later, we visited Berber shops in Guellala, where potters employ techniques passed down by the Phoenicians, before continuing on to pay our respects at the revered El-Ghriba synagogue in Er Riadh. Said to be founded on a stone from King Solomon’s temple, it is an evocative spot and — in the aftermath of a swiftly-denounced 2002 bombing — a tightly secured one.


Set Seeing

Like many parents, I long to give my kids the world, and, as a professional traveller, I’ve been able to deliver in a literal way. I’ve introduced them to dozens of countries. Yet until this trip, I’d never been able to show them “a galaxy far, far away.”

The otherworldly aspects of Tunisia’s interior crept up on us slowly as we drove away from Djerba. Palm-fringed beaches gave way to olive groves, then increasingly arid inclines, before opening onto a barren, almost lunar landscape that sci-fi-loving cinephiles will immediately recognize as the planet Tatooine from Star Wars.

The name was inspired by Tataouine (a real town at the southern end of Tunisia’s tourism trail) and the area has been frequently used as a filming locale. The canyons of the Dahar Mountains, for example, provided the backdrop for pod races and Tusken raids; the ancient granaries of Ksar Haddada doubled as Phantom Menace slave quarters.

Local culture may have sparked creator George Lucas’ imagination as well, given that men here sport Sith-like djellaba cloaks, and their braying camels sound exactly like Chewbacca. Ground zero for Star Wars fans, however, is the more accessible town of Matmata: site of the Hotel Sidi Driss, which served as Luke Skywalker’s home in the 1977 movie.

In keeping with local custom, it is a troglodyte structure set in a pit deep below ground level; hence, finding it might have been tricky if it weren’t for all the tour buses in front disgorging passengers.

The good news is that most only descend at lunch to grab a bite and snap a few photos, meaning that we had Sidi Driss to ourselves by mid-afternoon. Radiating from an open-air courtyard, its subterranean rooms are stark and dark. But spending the night doesn’t cost more than a multiplex ticket and popcorn.


Just Deserts

If I went to Matmata for my kids’ sake, I went to the desert for my own. Having grown up within sight of the Atlantic, I was well acquainted with water. But I’d never set eyes on a “sea of sand.” So we booked a bare-bones camping trip, accessing the dunes via Douz: a small oasis town on the old Trans-Saharan trail.

Since the highway west was well paved and virtually empty, the most memorable part of our drive to Douz was the clash of cultures apparent along the way. After all, it isn’t every day you see Coke signs and skinned sheep hanging side-by-side to advertise eateries, or Bedouin tents tricked out with satellite dishes.

Such juxtapositions were again evident in the town itself where a Thursday market draws both nomadic Touareg tribesmen and tourists on quad bikes. Even our outfitter, Libre Espace Voyages (tel: 011-216-75-470-620; www.libre-espace-voyages.com), straddled the divide. Although my foursome’s overnight adventure in the Great Erg Oriental (the second-largest unbroken expanse of sand in the Sahara) was arranged entirely by email and included two cell phone-toting guides, it still had an old fashioned price tag attached ($35 per person, all inclusive).

Furthermore, the mode of transportation — camel — was positively timeless. Of course, whether it was comfortable remains a subject of debate in my family. With a “Ship of the Desert,” smooth sailing can’t be guaranteed. Mounting one involves a precipitous pitch back, forward, then back again; riding it required swaying awkwardly to dodge flying spittle. Luckily, the simple pleasures of tenting were ample compensation.

The hours were filled, much as they would be in Canada, lounging by the campfire and gazing at the stars. The difference was that we dined on couscous and mint tea, and supplemented the usual round of activities with dune rolling and scarab hunting.


Plain Dealing

Looping west from Douz, we crossed Chott el Jerid (a massive, mirage-inducing salt lake) and drove northward until we approached a plain so flat that the minarets rising up from it looked like architectural exclamation marks.

It was here, on the site of a sacred spring, that Kairouan was founded in 670 CE. Mentioning that name to most travellers elicits blank stares. Muslims, conversely, will nod knowingly because Kairouan is Islam’s fourth-holiest city. Seven pilgrimages here equal one to Mecca, and the top attractions (among them the Tomb of the Barber and aptly-named Grand Mosque) are religious ones that are off-limits to non-believers.

We focussed, therefore, on strictly secular pursuits: installing ourselves at the beautiful La Kasbah (www.goldenyasmin.com, doubles from $110), a fortress cum five-star hotel, then wandering the maze-like streets of the adjacent medina.

Thanks to a UNESCO World Heritage designation, it retains a vintage look (indeed, it was deemed “authentic” enough to stand in for 1930s Cairo in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and, thanks to a dearth of Westerners, it still caters more to housewives, hammam goers and hookah smokers than to package tour groups. Another virtue is the medina’s manageable size: a feature that let us soak up the Aladdinesque atmosphere of its souks without being overwhelmed.

Once we’d bought all the carpets and crafts we could carry, we used Kairouan as a base for daytrips to some of the best Roman-era ruins anywhere in the world. El Djem, to the southeast, boasts a coliseum that is better preserved than the Italian capital’s more famous one and (with seating for 35,000) almost as large. Sbeïtla, to the southwest, is a sprawling classical complex complete with a trio of temples, triumphal arches and mosaic-paved baths.

Sharing both with only a handful of other visitors, it was easy to evoke the “Glory that was Rome” — and easier still to marvel at the glory that is Tunisia.

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