These days, film locations in southern Tunisia are as abundant as Saffas in Wimbledon, from those used in The English Patient to the setting of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. You can plan an entire holiday around touring them, though some of the Star Wars locations are a bit of a letdown. I arrived in Matmata to see Luke Skywalker’s hometown on the desert planet Tatooine (the real Tunisian town Tataouine is a few miles south) to find little more than a few odd-looking holes in the ground and some locals trying to flog me tacky fridge magnets made in China. Luckily, though, the Tunisian desert holds a lot more appeal than its Hollywood associations.
With its varied, other-wordly landscapes, extraordinary architecture and endless blue skies, the desert is a place of enchantment and hallucinating relaxation. Lay your hands on a 4WD, find a guide familiar with the desert and drive out into the open expanse to stare at the endless dunes, soak up the sun and discover the allure that fuelled the imaginations of Lucas and Spielberg.
The desert settlements and buildings of the ancient Berber communities of northern Africa are truly awe inspiring. Visiting some of the ksour – ancient fortified grain stores with vaulted mud roofs – is a must. The multistorey ksar in the Tataouine district, Ouled Soltane, is a popular tourist destination. It was used in 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to shoot scenes of the slave quarters where Anakin Skywalker lived as a boy.
Just as innovative as the Berbers were at building multistorey structures, they were also fairly handy at carving caves out of the sandstone. These homes centre on a crater, used as a courtyard by the troglodytes (cave dwellers, from the Greek word trogle, meaning cave), where two levels of tunnels lead to other rooms like spokes on a wheel.
Trying to fathom how everyday existence must have been in these Saharan homes is comparable to imagining life in outer space.
The main difference being that, instead of being a galaxy far, far away, Tunisia is just a hop across the Mediterranean.
The Greeks coined the term thalassotherapy from their word for ‘sea’, but the Tunisians perfected the treatment. It’s a combination of therapies that use seawater and seaweed to revitalise the body and improve blood circulation. Thalassotherapy centres can be found all over Tunisia and the stress-busting techniques come in many forms, from mud baths to algae wraps. If you’re on a budget, avoid the centres found in posh hotels and seek out independent centres instead.
» Piet van Niekerk travelled with the Tunisian National Tourist Office and Tunisair (020 7734 7644), which operates four flights a week to Tunis from £177 (including taxes).