When you talk Star Wars, most people think of galaxies far far away. But all those exotic planets from the movies were filmed on earth, specifically Tunisia. Four of the Star Wars movies were partially filmed in southern Tunisia (the planet Tatooine in the movies) and the good thing is that many of the locations are still in relative good state. Film locations are located throughout the country, but the two main ones are around Matmata (Anakin’s home in Episode 1), and Tozeur, a paradise oasis town that I visited, and home to Tatooine.
While much of the Western hemisphere grew up with Star Wars, most Tunisians have never even heard of the movies let alone know about the film sets in their own country. Most are pretty flabbergasted as to why so many foreigners want to see these strange cardboard made houses in the middle of the desert. Nevertheless, enough people in Tunisia’s tourism industry understand the value of the sights so it’s easy to make a visit once you’re in Tunisia.
Update 2018: Prices listed in this post are from 2015 and as the Tunisian Dinar has devalued, I would add 20% to any of the prices listed here!
Getting to Tozeur
Tunisia is a surprisingly well connected country. Its small size makes it easy to travel between towns. Tozeur is a remote town in the desert, far away from Tunis. If hiring a private car is out of your budget, then one can take either a train or bus from Tunis. The train is the faster option to most places in Tunisia but not Tozeur as it makes numerous stops along the way, and takes almost 9 hours.
The bus is a much better option for Star Wars seekers as it runs multiple times a day and takes 6 hours. The bus cost me 24 dinars one way.
The bus ride isn’t much to speak of. It drives through the countryside where you can see the other side of Tunisian living, and see the stark contrast between life in modern Tunis, and life in the countryside. We passed through small towns, olive plantations (Tunisia produces a lot of it), and many roadblocks where police would come into the bus and check everyone’s ID which is a good thing I suppose as it shows they are committed to people’s safety. The police also completely ignore foreigners. We stopped for food along the way before finally reaching Tozeur at night.
With the current situation of ISIS, I would imagine there will be much stricter roadblocks, and even potential road caravans set up.
Arriving in Tozeur
Tozeur is about as 180 as it gets from Tunis. While Tunis is a hectic European/Middle Eastern hybrid of a city, Tozeur is tranquil and sparsely populated. As far as towns in the desert go, I’d have to say that Tozeur is acutally quite nice. This is the type of town you envision when you think of some lost city in the middle of the Sahara. The stuff that movies like Aladdin are made of. It’s a city that’s still retained most of its classic architecture and is home to one of the largest palm forests in the world.
Tozeur is characterized by its seemingless endless display of palm trees and is also one of the highest date producing regions in the world. As it is surrounded by mountains and desert, the climate is actually quite mild year round. When I visited in November, day time was a pleasant 30 degrees and night time dropped to 15 degrees or so.
There are not many tourists in Tozeur. At times, it felt like we were the only ones there and the restaurants definitely reflected that. It is quite sad as tourism is one of the main parts of the economy here. Nevertheless, I can’t complain about the lack of hordes of tourists.
Where we stayed in Tozeur
We stayed at the Residence Loued, an amazing little hotel with gigantic rooms, wifi, breakfast and close proximity to everything. It was one of the cheapest hotels we could find but it did not disappoint.
The room was incredibly spacious with two bedrooms. The town is small enough where location is not a big factor but this hotel was located near everything we wanted to see. It was also very cheap at only 60 dinars a night.
What to eat in Tozeur?
There’s no shortage of good food in Tozeur. All the street food; shawarmas, rotisserie chicken, and cous cous are available here. Don’t expect much seafood here however as it is in the middle of the desert. One thing you can easily try here is camel meat. There’s an abundance of camels in this part of the country and turns out, people do eat them.
Obviously, I had to cross that off the list so I ended up trying some at Dar Deda, a quaint little tourist restaurant.
What does camel meat taste like? Pretty good in my opinion. They marinaded and slow cooked it in a tagine which made for good flavor and texture. I thought for sure it would be more gamey than it was,but ultimately I would say it tastes like a cross between beef and lamb. Would definitely eat again.
Visiting the Palmeraie
Tozeur is famous for its giant palm tree forest in the middle of the city. It’s located right in the city so you can either walk, or take a horse carriage ride through. We decided to walk but I’m sure those horse carriage riders would have accepted a deeply discounted fare from us as there were zero tourists around. People actually live in this palm tree forest as we walked through a village.
Tozeur Day Trip to the Star Wars sets
Almost all the tour companies in Tozeur offer some sort of tour that visit the Star Wars sets. The typical day tour consists of visiting various oases, ancient towns, waterfalls, desert landscapes, Ong Jemel, also known as Mos Espa in Star Wars, and El Jerid, also home to Luke Skywalker’s home.
Chartering one of these tours is simple. There are a few tourism agencies in Tozeur, all starved for tourism after the Arab Spring, looking for business. To be honest, I’d bet you could just find someone with a truck that’d be willing to drive you around to the sights. We ended up paying about 150 dinars for a full days tour.
Tozeur is located in the Sahara desert, and more specifically, at one of the largest Oases in the world. It’s home to over 400,000 palm trees, most of them being date palm trees. Who knew? I’ve had dates before, but never bothered to think where it came from, and certainly did not know it came from palm trees. The town is famous for its date production, and some of the world’s best dates come from Tunisia. The first stop on the trip is in Chebika, a small town with a huge date production facility.
Our guide didn’t speak any English which was a bit annoying but I suppose most of Tunisia’s visitors are from France. My French is good enough to speak to the guy and we talked about the history and how the tourism landscape has changed so much following the revolution. It was a bit sad to hear but it is consistent with many of the other Middle Eastern destinations like Egypt and Jordan.
I also asked him if he found it funny that strange white people come all this way to the desert to look at random metallic structures and pay good money to do so. We both laughed at this and he said most people in Tozeur have never even seen Star Wars before!
We wandered around most of these places until we finally reached the Star Wars area.
Reaching the Star Wars sets
After extensive driving through dunes, and desert, we reach the Star Wars set. I had seen many pictures of it beforehand and even though it’s all man made, I must say it was a cool feeling to finally be there in the flesh. It’s obviously not as grand as the movies, as most of that was made through CGI but walking around, make no mistake, it was still the real deal.
This is what it looked like in Star Wars Episode 1:
And this is in real life!
This star wars set is for the planet Tatooine, and this theoretical planet is actually named after the actual town in Tunisia called Tataouine, a town to Tozeur’s east which is also home to the Anakin’s mud houses in episode 1.
I have to say that the scale and quality of the set pieces were actually quite amazing to look at. I’m not a huge Star Wars fan by any means but I found this little excursion to be far cooler than I had anticipated. The scale is obviously much smaller than it looks like in the movies (thank you CGI), but I found it to have bested my expectations.
After spending an hour walking around this set, we drove to a lookout point in the desert to watch the sunset. Overall a great tour!
With more time in Tozeur
If I had another 2-3 days, I would have also done a tour to Douz, Chott El Djerid and Ksar Ghilane but alas it wasn’t meant to be. Next time!
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