Life in the Star Wars hotel

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Tunisia  ,
Saturday, June 10, 2006

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away (sorry - had to be done), I was a young lad growing up in the era of the original Star Wars movies. One of my first fully-fledged memories (when I was 4 or so) was being taken to the cinema one fine day to see The Empire Strikes Back, which was enough to addict me to science fiction and the concept of travelling the stars ever since. I've seen Star Wars dozens of times, still have an almost complete collection of action figures kicking around somewhere at home and just maybe I'll get to write a blog from space one day...

So on this trip I was pretty keen to visit Tunisia, where a number of scenes from the original and subsequent movies were shot, and in particular the Sidi Driss Hotel in Matmata - the location used for Luke Skywalker's moisture farm home on Tatooine that features heavily in the opening sequences of the 1977 release - A New Hope.

However original plans to fly to Tunisia then cross Libya to Egypt failed due to cost and visa issues. I'd almost written the goal off, but once I found out that ferries sail to Tunisia from Sicily getting here became possible again. When I found myself on the punctual 6am train to Gabes I knew it would all work out. Gabes is a non-descript, fly-blown coastal town but soon after arriving the louage (8 person taxi) I jumped into was blazing across the scorching semi-arid desert, past small groves of palms and the occasional troglodyte shack carved out of the low lying hills beside the road.

It rose into some substantial hills about 40km inland from Gabes, so approaching the town surprised me as I was expecting a flat, barren wasteland much like the one Luke surveyed from the edge of a crater whilst pondering the dual moons of Tatooine. However here, solid stone walls form agricultural terraces rising up the surrounding hillsides and there is substantial greenery on them and in the valley below. Countless hills ripple across the landscape as far as the eye can see. By 1pm I'd arrived in Matmata.

The Sidi Driss Hotel opened in 1968 and as it is at the centre of town its extensive network of troglodyte crater rooms probably formed the nucleus of Matmata's Berber community for hundreds of years before then. Somehow Hollywood location scouts found out about the highly unusual design and atmosphere, so in 1976 George Lucas' team moved in for two months to fit it out and shoot the moisture farm scenes.

Lucas only used one crater - the restaurant and bar courtyard - and everything in it are remnants of the set used in the film. All of it is a little worse for wear now with paint flecking off and the doorways in general looking a bit tired, but you do get the feeling that you are on the set. The restaurant's ceiling is traditionally crazy-painted (far right hand picture, two rows above) and is also definitely evident in the film, when Luke is discussing the future with his aunt and uncle whilst tucking into a blue milkshake.

For a bird's eye view here are some views from the rim of the crater. These rounded craters must have been naturally formed through some bizarre environmental process and one can only guess as to how a Berber family would get in and out of them. The logistics of defending them also raises some questions in my mind, but maybe the natives of this region were a peaceable bunch...

Anyway, the rest of the hotel is pretty similar although a little more traditional in presentation without the Holloywood additions. Dozens of bare, white-washed hotel rooms are dug into the crater walls and sometimes within them smaller traditional sleeping niches can be found. It's pretty basic but I managed to get a room with a light and a power point, and they are very cool during the heat of the day and quite warm at night.

The food is surprisingly good at Sidi Driss - three course meals of tasty local fare freshly cooked despite me being the only guest there that night (it's heading into summer/low season now). The downside is the toilet facilities which are shared by busloads of pop-in tourists who come to lunch at the famous location. There are a couple of other, cheaper troglodyte hotels here but when you've come all this way on another form of pilgrimage you're not going to stay somewhere else, are ya?

Around town the terrain is pretty rugged. The crew had to use donkeys to transport equipment for the shoot which is a lot of effort for three minutes of footage, all shot in just one day. There is not a lot to see and when the sun isn't shining it's mildly depressing with litter, unwashed children and deteriorating buildings everywhere, as well as touts stopping you every five minutes trying to sell you an over-priced tour. Still, that seems to be the nature of these desert oases. It's a tough, deprived environment in which a visit from a money-laden film crew must be a blessing from Allah - even if it's not wholly in accordance with his principles.

All in all a worthy stop for a dedicated fan, even if it was light-years away from civilisation.

Next entry -> to the edge of the Sahara for more sand and Star Wars locations at Tozeur

Words from the Wise #35

"The force is strong in this one."
Darth Vader
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Where I stayed
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