Tunisia: An island fling in Djerba

By Dana Gloger, August 22, 2008

We find cocktails, culture and a very unusual festival in Tunisia

Given the current state of our summer, it is reassuring to know that in just two and a half hours you could be basking on a beautiful African beach. And given that that beach is in Tunisia, where the temperatures tend to stay high throughout the year, you could top-up your tan any time in the year.

While Tunisia's spectacular coastline is studded with a range of resorts, complemented by museums, sites of historical interest and golf courses, one of the country's most popular destinations, Djerba, is also the one steeped in Jewish history.

With its white sandy beaches and laid-back atmosphere, the island of Djerba began attracting British tourists in the 1970s. It is still more popular with other nationalities (notably Germans and French) but that is probably due to the absence of directs flights from there from the UK.

To get there, I had to take a one-hour internal flight from the capital, Tunis. Since one of my travelling companions was an avid Star Wars fans, a must-see was Tataouine, where the original film was shot.

One of many ksars - ancient fortified villages carved into the mountains - Tataouine may be the most famous thanks to its Hollywood connections, but Ksar Ouled Dabab and Ksar Hadadahad more character and charm.

One of Djerba's highlights is Pink Flamingo Island, a 45-minute boat ride off the Djerba coast. Although May is the wrong time of year to see flamingos - the best time is October-November and February-March - it is still well worth a visit. Completely secluded, it has pristine, white sand beaches and sea of the deepest emerald green.

The focus of my visit, however, was one of Djerba's cultural highlights, the annual Jewish festival of El Ghriba which has been a landmark on the island since the seventh century BCE and is a place of Jewish pilgrimage every year on Lag B'Omer - usually in May - attracting visitors from around the world.

The festival is held at the historic El Ghriba Synagogue, in the Jewish quarter which used to be known as Hara Seghira - meaning small ghetto - but is now officially renamed Erriadh.

Though a synagogue has stood on the site for almost 2,000 years, the present synagogue buildings date from the 1920s. Outside, they are traditional white and blue, typical of the local style, but the interior is brightly decorated with intricate mosaics, painted arches and pillars, glittering silver plaques and the melted wax from hundreds of candles.

Ghriba, after whom the festival is named, was a woman, giving the festival a strong feminist slant, and many of the thousands of pilgrims are women who come to ask favours of Ghriba.

Inside the synagogue, after removing my shoes and covering my head, I was offered dried apricots and sugared almonds by members of the local community. For those who wish to participate, part of the festival involves writing their name on an egg, which is left overnight in a cave behind the synagogue.

The festival begins with a noisy auction conducted in Arabic or French and accompanied by drums, dancing and shouting. In the courtyard local traders sell sweetmeats, refreshments, jewellery, clothing and handicrafts.

At the heart of the celebration is the large silver menorah which is decorated with silverware and hundreds of multicoloured silk scarves and paraded around the village followed by musicians, pilgrims and locals dancing, ululating, swaying and clapping.

At the end of the procession there was a short service and we then joined other visitors and members of the community in the courtyard where there are more refreshments and more singing and dancing.
After the festival, I decided to dedicate my last day in Djerba to sampling the leisure facilities, the spa at my hotel and topping up my tan.

First stop was the beautiful, tranquil Djerba Golf Club, with its three nine-hole courses, surrounded by sea and palm trees. Back at the hotel, the five-star Yadis Thalasso Golf Hotel (spacious rooms with sun-drenched balconies perfect for catching the last of the day's rays) I decided to sample the sea-water treats at its spa.

My treatment began with an underwater massage in a whirlpool bath with high-pressure water jets to aid circulation, then a massage followed by a rest with a cup of fresh mint tea.

After briefly sampling the Turkish bath, I headed to the pool to cool down. The sunbathing area is spacious, so guests can always find an uncrowded spot. The poolside bar is expensive, but serves a selection of cocktails, as well as beers, wine and soft drinks.

As a vegetarian, I had no problem finding delicious things to eat in Tunisia, although there is plenty for fish- and meat-eaters, too. There were plenty of choices at breakfast, with fresh fruit, juices, cheeses, breads and freshly-cooked eggs, while at lunch and dinner there were always veggie dishes available, including local specialities such as brik, pastry filled with egg and potato, and mechouia, a salad of grilled peppers tomatoes and onions. Makroudh, a sweet pasty stuffed with dates, honey and sesame seeds, was one of the delicious local desserts.

Food, sun and beaches aside, one of Tunisia's greatest assets is its people. Those I met were universally helpful and friendly.

As a society, Tunisia is also fascinating - a Muslim country that is remarkably liberal. Although the history of the Jews in Tunisia hasn't always been perfect (in the 12th century they were expected to convert to Islam or flee), since the mid-19th century, Jews have been permitted to freely observe Judaism and members of the 2,000-year-old Djerba Jewish community live freely alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbours.
Along with the fact that Tunisia is also relatively cheap, it is just one more reason to visit this fascinating country - for the Lag B'Omer festival or merely to escape our chilly weather.

Travel facts

Tunisair (020 7734 7644; www.tunisair.com) has flights from London to Tunis from £170 return. Flights with Seven Air (00216 7194 2323) from Tunis to Djerba from £45 return. Yadis Thalasso Golf Hotel (00216 7083 8330; www.yadis.com) has double rooms from £40 per person per night (based on two sharing) including breakfast. The 2009 El Ghriba festival is on DATE T/C. Further information from: www.cometotunisia.co.uk; 020 7224 5561.

Jewish Tunisia

- Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times. In the 12th century they were forced to convert to Islam or leave. Since 1857 have been free to observe Judaism
- In 1948 the Jewish population was 105,000. Today it is over 2000
l During the Nazi occupation, 5,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, 
- Khaled Abdel-wahhab, who hid Jewish families during the occupation, was the first Arab to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
- The El Ghriba is the country's most famous synagogue. The site is thought to have had a synagogue on it for almost 2,000 years

Last updated: 4:24pm, March 11 2009