Inter-planetary Landscapes (and Hotels) in Tunisia

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When people start living underground and the landscape above their homes is a combination of desert sand and pale rocks, that’s when I feel I might have landed on the moon. Driving into Matmata in southeastern Tunisia really had the feel of an inter-planetary experience and it was one of those unique destinations I will vividly remember for a lifetime.

I’d ended up in Tunisia mostly by accident – escaping a cold European winter to anywhere slightly warmer – but my traveling companion was a guy obsessed with Star Wars, who knew that some of the original Star Wars movies had been filmed at various locations around Tunisia. Most importantly, he begged to visit Matmata, where you could stay in Hotel Sidi Driss – the location used for shooting the Cantina Band scenes in the Mos Eisley bar of Star Wars, Episode IV. 

We nearly fell into the hotel, quite literally. Hotel Sidi Driss is a troglodyte hotel, dug out of sandstone. A thin rope had alerted us to a large hole, and peering down we could see the main courtyard of the hotel. Tunnels had been dug into the sides of this courtyard, leading off in five directions. A little further over, we peered down into another courtyard hole, with doorways dug out of its sides, leading into the cave-like hotel rooms. 

Diving down a hole didn’t seem the right way to approach even this unusual kind of accommodation, and eventually a dune led us back down to a short road which passed in front of the hotel, between the various souvenir stalls waiting for the tour bus day-trippers. Bypassing these, we ducked into the low, carved entrance tunnel and wound our way into reception. Taped across the whitewashed walls were yellowing newspaper and magazine articles showing scenes from Star Wars movies.

Our room – our cave – was a whitewashed hole dug into the rock. A door of sorts covered three quarters of the entrance and could be more or less secured from the inside. Two single beds ran along each side of the roughly square cave. Two coat hooks and a centered, bare light bulb made up the rest of the furniture. It was wardrobe-musty but bright. I wasn’t confident that the blankets provided would be enough to survive a cold desert night, but the cave room was surprisingly warm – the underground nature of life in Matmata seems eminently sensible for their climate.

Outside of the hotel, we explored the rest of Matmata and discovered numerous holes or doors which appeared in the sides of rock walls, entrances to underground homes and businesses. It was a truly unusual place and it was abundantly clear why a Star Wars scouting crew would pick it as the perfect inter-planetary backdrop.

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