Star Wars and other things Tunisian

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 October, 1993, 12:00am

TUNISIA? The former French colony my travel agent suggested for a holiday had seemed to be a poor man's Morocco, and I grimaced.

My agent gingerly pushed a brochure towards me. ''You could go on a four-night desert safari by jeep, visiting Roman ruins and Berber relics, Troglodyte caves, the Saharan mountains and salt lakes.

''If you could bear three days at a beach resort before or after the jeep tour? Then it's cheap.'' The brochure contained several magic words, apart from ''cheap''. I was blase about the tour's ''camel ride across the desert'', but my train-loving eyes had lit up at the idea of riding the ''Red Lizard'' train through mountain gorges.

There was an even better come-on: the chance to view cave dwellings where the fabulously freaky Star Wars scenes of a desert bar were filmed.

Tunisia clearly had more attractions than I had imagined. I began to understand why it is a popular holiday destination for the French and Italians, and ubiquitous Germans.

There are good reasons of history, as well as beaches: Tunisia had been part of both the Roman and French empires during its long history.

There was a lot to learn, starting with the tour's mod-conned Mediterranean home base at El Kantaoui, a two-hour drive south of the capital city of Tunis.

A totally artificial marina-resort development, El Kantaoui boasts five-star hotels, discos, waterside cafes, long sandy beaches and, best of all, cheap taxis for the short ride to the neighbouring ancient city of Sousse.

Dashing through Sousse's daytime must-sees - the souks, the 9th-century fortress and mosque, a museum of Roman mosaics, and catacombs that are better preserved than Rome's - I unwound each night in an Arabian dream of a bar, sipping orange-scented Turkish coffee, puffing a hookah, mesmerised by an elderly Arab chanteur's haunting songs. Then I checked out the resort's casino and discos.

Waking early on the third day, I was masochistically eager for the jeep tour's promised Tunisia Experience (''discomforts and all!'').

It began with a driver who was the strong, silent and surly type. He was named Ali. My two back-seat companions were delightfully dour Scots who tacitly agreed that we would not be giggly tourists when the tour guide introduced himself as Baba.

We rattled across Chott El-Jerid salt lake and up to the mountain oases of south-western Tunisia on the fringe of the Sahara.

We stopped in the old Muslim Aghlabite capital city of Kairouan. Founded in the 7th century, it marked the Muslim invaders' long-sought conquest of North Africa's caravan routes.

Its Great Mosque, the oldest in Africa, is one of Islam's holiest places. Visit it seven times, Tunisians believe, and you can forego a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The mosque boasts a prayer hall with a ''forest of columns'' salvaged from the ruins of the Roman colonies of Carthage and Sousse. Other columns are Byzantine; the mosque was built on a Byzantine Christian site.

Ancient wells on rainwater channels dot the mosque's colonnaded courtyard. On the outskirts of the walled city, vast reservoir ''pools'' are other extant relics of the Aghlabite desert civilisation.

Tunisia had one period of greatness starting in 800 when, finally quelling native Berber resistance, Ibrahim ibn El-Aghlab, an Arab governor, created a Tunisian empire that stretched from Egypt to Morocco and conquered Sicily. It was called Ifriqia.

But Baba spared us a detailed outline of the centuries of chaos. He was happier showing us the world's sixth largest amphitheatre at El-Jem. Towering beside scrubland and a small township, the 30,000-seat Colosseum is a massive symbol of Roman might and second-century regional prosperity. It was meant to be, to convince the ever-rebellious Berbers of Rome's power.

A short way south, the Roman city of Sfax was a Mediterranean entrepot whose citizens' money-making abilities were famed. They still are, in modern Tunisia's second largest city. Its medina is a shopper's paradise. But our group was Scottish or practical: there is not much room in a jeep for carpets, brassware, painted glass and birdcages.

THE first of the tour's three-star-hotel stopovers was in the southern coastal town of Gabes, set beside a vast oasis of 300,000 palm trees.

A hoped-for overnight stay in the Star Wars lunar landscape of Matmata, on the adjacent desert plateau, was off the tour menu. Matmata-cave hotels provide a primitive one-star experience that Harrison Ford did not share, Baba explained.

We wished we had been one-star for a night, when we visited some of the underground Berber family homes.

Their open central courtyards are ringed with dugout rooms. Spacious rather than snug, the cool caves were the troglodytes' man-made solution to the problem of dwelling in Tunisia's summer heat. As a film location, they were a stroke of Star Wars geniusthat has not yet been exploited in a theme park.

A few hours to the west, at the tour's southernmost point of Douz, we sighted North Africa's natural theme park: the Sahara. In front of it lay an enormous camel park, where we had no choice but to be dressed in flowing robes and were hoisted aboard the one-humped beasts.

Self-consciousness soon ceased: the Sahara's silent, golden beauty is always overwhelming.

The landscape is almost as mind-blowing but less inviting on the Chott El-Jerid salt lake, a vast flatland where a black quagmire lies beneath a white sun-baked crust of salt. A few surviving wooden posts mark the line of the ancient palm-trunk causeway over which camel caravans stepped with care.

It is only since the mid-1980s that motor vehicles have been able to cross, on an army-built road running straight as an arrow.

Beside an occasional roadside cafe, chunks of coloured salt crystal glittered in the setting sun. Standing beside the crystal, gazing into the lake's multi-hued briny canals, we could sense mountain Berbers' age-old fearful respect for their enormous natural defence system.

Before a road was built, travellers had to detour north of the lake to reach a group of oasis settlements. The major one is Tozeur, where Tunisia's newest international airport and a cluster of hotels were designed to create a new tourist industry base.

The town's Berber district sports distinctive brick-designs; the resort area boasts a superb museum, the Dar Cherait. Created by a Tunisian millionaire, the museum palace's rooms are packed with costumes, jewellery, furniture and artwork that illustrate the sophistication of Tunisia's former beys and ruling classes.

A century ago, France decided to ''protect'' Tunisia's ruling classes, and its neighbouring Algerian colony, from warring mountain tribesmen.

France was given a bonanza when an amateur geologist discovered rich phosphate deposits north of Tozeur, around Metlaoui. Tunnels and a railway line were built in the spectacular Seldja Gorge.

It is no place for a jeep, and we boarded the threadbare-curtained, velvet-furnished, vintage VIP carriages of the ''Red Lizard'' train.

It chugs off every morning, its tattered dining car dispensing local soft drinks and dry biscuits, stopping mid-Gorge for a photo opportunity before it reaches the upland mining camp of Redeyef. There, independent travellers can make a rough way across the hills to the mountain oasis of Tamerza. But for us the journey was almost over, with much more left unexplored.