An oasis of palm; JOIN THE LOTUS-EATERS ON A TINY ISLAND OFF TUNISIA.
THE stallholders spotted us as soon as we entered the narrow alleys. "Have a butcher's," cried one. "Have a quick shuftie," called another, "we're cheaper than Asda, darlin'".
Stalls selling brass lanterns, silver, Berber jewellery, carpets, stuffed camels, hubblebubble pipes, kaftans and sequinned slippers were all around us as we strolled through the market centre.
We were in Houmt-Souk, the capital of Djerba, a tiny island just off the coast of Tunisia, known as the isle of the lotus-eaters.
In Greek mythology, when Odysseus's ship was blown off course he and his crew found themselves spellbound here among people who ate the honeyed fruit of forgetfulness.
Today's lotus-eaters come to relax on miles of soft, sandy beaches under the shade of a million date palm trees.
From the air, the island seems like a floating garden - fringed by a halo of white sand and rising from the azure sea like a mirage.
It's also relatively undeveloped, with buildings no higher than a palm tree or three storeys.
Measuring only 17 by 22 miles, it is nevertheless the largest island off the North African coast and just a three-hour flight from the UK direct to Djerba's own airport.
Once there, you'll find Houmt-Souk itself is a well-kept town centred around the souks, alleys and whitewashed squares overflowing with handicraft products.
We allowed ourselves to be drawn into a rug shop and, after several glasses of mint tea and good-natured haggling, we emerged into the African sunlight, each with a handmade carpet.
Waiters are as enthusiastic as their stallholder cousins to draw you into sample the wares.
At the harbour, we succumbed to pressure to dine at the Haroun restaurant (Harbour, Houmt Souk, tel 75658 561) where we tried Tunisian delicacies such as brik a l'oeuf, a crispy pastry containing egg fried in olive oil.
Waiters bring several starter courses from the brik to a Tunisian salad and a dish of red peppers and garlic with spicy sausage and seafood at just pounds 1.20 each.
Then you move on to the main courses. Grilled sea bass costs about pounds 7 and a grilled steak is about a fiver.
I had heard that the island basks in almost constant sunshine throughout the year - and I wasn't disappointed.
Our hotel, the Maritim Yadis, was set on the northern side of the island, on a wide, sandy beach with a golf course on the doorstep and a spa centre inside.
And for the best, sandy-white beaches on more than 80 miles of shoreline, the north is the place to go.
And it's THE place to be for thalassotherapy - using seawater to bathe, be massaged and pampered in.
There are 12 centres in the area, including my hotel Yadis's thalasso and spa.
Inside the spa is a seawater pool heated to 33 degrees with 60 hydro massage jets to stimulate, soothe and make you feel as though you're floating on air. A short glide away is the hammam, the traditional oriental bath and steam room. Then comes the brisk scrub to make you gleam and tingle and a massage where I was kneaded like a lump of dough. (A session in the Yadis seawater pool with hammam and scrub costs pounds 14, massages start from pounds 15.)
Night time is low-key, centred on the hotels with discos such as D'Alonisos in the Hotel Yadis or in bars such as Le Corrida Latino's or Le Pacha club.
But, for a flutter, the Casino has special nights with dinner and a show with bellydancing, including half a carafe of Tunisian wine and an after-dinner drink such as boukha (fig brandy) or thibarine (date liqueur).
Both are very potent and if may make you more adventurous on the tables (casino excursion about pounds 18.50 bookable through your rep).
Outside the town, Djerba is really one huge oasis, dappled with palm trees and gnarled olive trees - some over 3,000 years old.
Sprinkled in between are vineyards, fields of pomegranates, figs, melons, lemons, oranges, apricots and every other exotic fruit.
Among the fields, houses known as menzels appear like white jewels. Unique to Djerba, these cube-shaped structures each have a dome on top with high, tiny windows and buttressed walls as a form of natural air-conditioning.
Touring the island is easy and cheap. Taxis are metered and very reasonable' buses and shared taxis (louages) connect all towns and villages and, of course, tour companies offer excursions. The island is flat so bicycles are also a good option.
On day trips we passed straw-hatted men and women and camels slowly pulling their ploughs - we learnt that there are 160 words for camel in Arabic.
In the south, the road at Guellala is lined with whitewashed shops selling handmade pottery. The village has been a centre for ceramics and pottery since the time of King Midas.
The traditional colours are green and yellow, said to represent the green leaves of a palm tree and the yellow for the dates.
At the Cave Ali Berber we watched a potter working a treadmill, shaping his pots - making the local speciality of "magic camels".
Made in the shape of a camel, they have a hole in the top and bottom. You pour water into one hole, turn the camel and, as if by magic, the water doesn't leak out. About pounds 4 secured me a splendid specimen.
On the edge of town, the Guellala Museum is dedicated to Djerban life and crafts.
They use life-size figures to bring the traditions and costumes for important events such as weddings to life. (Guellala Museum of Patrimony' pounds 2 entrance fee and 40p per camera' open 8am-7pm daily).
The Djerba Explore theme park is also a great day out. You travel through 1,000 years of history in the museum and delve into Djerban heritage with displays of handicrafts.
And, in summer, open-air rock concerts attract international rap and R&B stars.
There are plenty of eateries within the park serving dishes like Fatima's fingers - cheese, potato and parsley wrapped in pastry.
But the most popular area is where you can get up close, but not too personal, with hundreds of crocodiles.
It is the largest crocodile farm in the Med and at feeding time the waters become a frenzy of snapping jaws. (Parc Djerba Explore: Entrance about pounds 5 adults, pounds 2.50 children, charge for taking photos 82p).
Other kinds of adventure come via the Sahara desert on the mainland. You travel across a Roman causeway to Douz - just a day's excursion from Djerba. Oases sprinkle the bare pink hills of the Jerid, the parched land all around. We travelled past seas of sand where wind-sculpted dunes tower hundreds of feet high to board our "ships of the desert".
Clad in the burnous (a woolly overshawl) and the kafia, the Lawrence of Arabia type headcloth, we all looked the part. And the camels obliged, reluctantly, rising with a jolt and making guttural grunts.
We saw houses carved out of the rock, built by the Berber people to protect themselves from the harsh desert climate.
And on the doors are still the emblems to ward off the evil eye - a fish, the hand of Fatima or a camel.
In the deep south, the mountainous lunar landscape of the village Matmata became famous in the Star Wars movies.
And scenes from The English Patient were also shot in this magical and romantic setting. (Day excursion gateway to the Saharan desert pounds 30.75).
WHAT IS IT?
A MEDITERRANEAN destination with all the good bits of Spain or the South of France, but better accommodation and cheaper prices (outside the Euro zone).
WHO'S IT FOR?
WORKS equally well for romantic couples wanting palm trees and pampering as it does for families with kids.
WHO WON'T LIKE IT?
IT'S hot - up to 35C in summer - so if you wilt in the sun, then best make it a winter escape when it's still in the high teens.
WHAT'S THE DEAL?
PANORAMA Holidays fly directly to Djerba. A seven-night holiday in the five-star Hotel Maritim Yadis Djerba Thalasso Golf starts from pounds 465, including return flights from Gatwick, resort transfers, bed & breakfast. Call Panorama on 08707 582518 quoting MG or see www.panoramaholidays.co.uk
On the ball.. games on the beach on Djerba' Step on it... rugs on sale in the market' True blue... pool at hotel Yadis' Hair we go.. isle is a centre for massage' High & dry... Sahara desert camel trek
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|Publication:||Sunday Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Jun 18, 2006|
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