11 and 15 to 19 March 2019
This blog post is dedicated to our friend, Richard, whose love of all things Star Wars verges on obsession and who inspired us to go looking for droids.
Tunisia’s other worldly vistas has long made it a draw for movie makers and we made it our mission to visit some of its most famous film sets.
We didn’t have to go very far to find our first location. In fact it had been the first landmark we had seen on our approach to Monastir and just a five minute walk from the boat.
In 1975 the Ribat was used in the filming of Franco Zeffirelli’s controversial yet epic television series Jesus of Nazareth. The same sets were reused a few years later for Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the satirical (some say blasphemous) biography of Brian of Nazareth, more naughty boy than Messiah.
There was evidence that the building continues to be used for filming with a set and props under construction as we visited. Vans and generators and wires soon also appeared. A trip to the barbers taught us that they are filming a Turkish historical drama.
Hiring a car enabled us to explore some more far flung film locations and we drove nearly 600km south towards the Sahara desert.
Basing ourselves in the oasis town of Tozeur with its intricate brick designs meant we were within easy reach of locations to a number of Hollywood blockbusters.
The Chott el Gharsa desert was the location for The English Patient and the specially built tarmac road into it is named the Saul Zaentz Imperial Highway after the film’s producer. Sand ploughs ensure it isn’t reclaimed by the dunes and it is important to heed the camel crossing warning signs. They definitely have the right of way.
Apparently the dunes doubled as the desert camp of Ralph Fiennes’ Count Almasy in the film although as neither of us has seen the film, and frankly it’s hard to tell one sand dune from another, we cannot verify this. Sitting on top of the dunes, however, looking out to Algeria over nothing but sand was a very peaceful experience and one that made us feel about the size of a grain of sand in that enormous, empty landscape.
Beneath the sand dunes sits a much less natural and intergalactic scene – a small village of fibreglass houses built for the filming of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in the mid 1990s. This is Mos Espa spaceport on the planet of Tatooine, home to young Anakin Skywalker before the Dark Side got him, and it is probably the only reason the road remains maintained to this isolated spot and the dunes have not been allowed to engulf it. Star Wars tourism is big business in these parts.
A few information boards pointed out scenes filmed at the set. Whilst Liam Neeson’s acting can sometimes be described as laughable we are not sure Nathalie (sic) Portman deserves the title comedian!
As only exterior scenes were shot here the inside of the buildings were skeletons
and we did not find the droids we were looking for. Just some children on space hoppers. The nearest we got to a wookie was this fluffy camel!
Enterprising locals cash in on the sci fi geeks with all manner of tourist tat on sale on the approach including “genuine” Tatooine sand and rock.
Another short drive from our base in Tozeur was the Sidi Bouhel gorge or, to Star Wars fans, the Juntland Wastes of the original 1977 film, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It is, for those less acquainted with the film than Richard (who identified it immediately from a photo we sent) the place where Luke Skywalker first meets Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The sandstone gorge is a spectacular 200 feet deep scar in an otherwise flat landscape and is even known locally as Star Wars canyon. It was, however, also used as a location for 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and later again for The English Patient.
Whilst we saw no signs of Jedis nor Stormtroppers, no action hero archeologists or badly burned war hero, we did bump into this colourful, noisy wedding party making their way up to the mosque.
With views like these it is no wonder that George Lucas was first drawn to Chott El Jerid, Tunisia’s largest salt lake, to represent Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine (named after the real life town of Tataouine just a little further south). Our drive back north to Pintail took us across its Mars like surface for about an hour. The causeway that intersects the waterless lake and the apparatus of the salt production that still goes on were the only interruptions in a view that seemed indeed from a galaxy far, far away…