The vast biblical landscape of southern Tunisia is no stranger to film crews. Here, among the palm-fringed oases, where ragged red cliffs rise above the salt crusts of dried lakes, in the orange expanses of spreading sands and majestic dunes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jesus of Nazareth, The Little Prince and The English Patient have all taken their turn. More famously, though, this was the setting that inspired George Lucas and now travellers come from around the planet seeking signs of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and the other beloved characters from the interplanetary epic. Above all, they come to Matmata, where many of the Star Wars settings are clearly recognisable.
Centuries ago, the Berber people of this small village on the edge of the desert devised a way to hide from invaders while also protecting themselves from the extreme temperatures that occur in these latitudes: by digging down into the ground and living underground. Great pits of up to fifteen metres in diameter and seven metres deep are made to serve as courtyards, around which caves are dug for rooms and living spaces.
Now, in the twenty-first century, a handful of families continue to live in these giant underground burrow-like dwellings. Some of the cave houses have been abandoned, though, while others now form the basis for such startling business premises as the Hotel Sidi Driss. While there are other hotels in town that also offer the underground style of dwelling where you can imagine yourself a real troglodyte – from the Greek for 'cave dweller' – it was the Sidi Driss that was used on screen as the Lars homestead where the young Luke grew up with his Uncle and Aunt on the desert planet of Tatooine. What Star Wars fan could fail to feel the Force in such a setting?
Although the name of the real city of Tataouine, some 80 kilometres southwest of Matmata, may carry echoes of Tatooine, the inhabitants of these lunar landscapes are no Jawas and Hutts, and there are no native Sand People around, just the welcoming Bedouin tribesmen. All around, it is possible to follow the trail of the Lucas series: the spectacular canyon of Sidi Bouhlel where R2-D2 was captured by Jawas is now known affectionately among locals as the 'Star Wars canyon'; the cliffs and gorges visible from the heights of the Mides mountain oasis are the site of the podraces that Anakin competes in; some of the exteriors of the Lars moisture farm were filmed on the scorched plains of the salt lake of Chott El Jerid, while in Chott Gharsa and Oung Jemel, you can still see the houses of the slaves of the imaginary city of Mos Espa, erected as a film set and modelled on the real-life ksars, or fortified granary complexes, which can be visited in the abandoned settlements of Ksar Ouled Soultane, Chenini, Douiret and Ksar Hadada, at Medenine and Tataouine itself. In the town of Ajim, on the island of Djerba, you'll find the house of Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as that haunt of pilots and space travellers, the Mos Eisley Cantina, where Luke meets Han Solo.
This whole region beyond Gafsa, the gateway to the Tunisian south, brings the traveller into contact with spectacular landscapes and with a society that has adapted over the centuries to the harsh natural conditions. Here, in the shade of palm trees, skilful exploitation of the limited water and other resources has allowed the people to eke a living from the thirsty land. Women shrouded in black robes and turbaned men in traditional burnous walk around villages like Douz, tucked into the foot of the sand dunes, or tread the narrow streets of desert towns heavy with history such as Nefta and Tozeur. These are the scenes that inspired George Lucas, and here, in this marvellous alien landscape, you can discover the original settings for one of the biggest film sagas of all time.
When to visit
It is possible to travel at all times of year, but in spring and autumn weather conditions are less extreme.
For independent travellers, the best thing is to rent a vehicle, and, in general, the roads are in good condition and well marked. For those who prefer, though, there are plenty of local agencies that arrange excursions to less accessible locations.
Where to stay
True Star Wars fans won't want to miss staying at the modest Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata (Tel: + 216 (75) 240 005) with its close links to the films. Also in Matmata, the four-star Diar El Barbar also boasts many troglodyte rooms. On the island of Djerba, Dar Dhiafa, is perfect for relaxation in a traditional setting, while the exotic Ksar Guilane camp, nestles in its own oasis in the Tunisian desert.
Where to eat
Even if you aren't staying at the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, you can still eat at the farm where Luke Skywalker grew up.
Take a stroll around the old desert towns of Tozeur and Nefta and visit the fertile oases that surround them. Ride a camel on the dunes of Douz at sunset – there will be hordes of tourists, but it's still an experience not to be missed. If you are driving yourself in an off-road vehicle, head for the mountain oases of Chebika, Tamerza and Mides. Steep yourself in the atmosphere of the Berber villages such as Matmata, and the near-deserted Ouled Sultane and Chenini. Watch for the mirages that form over the surface of the dry lake of Chott el Jerid, and round off your trip with a few days of beach, culture and good food on the island of Djerba.
Tunisian National Tourist Office