My younger brother Gabe is obsessed with Star Wars. George Lucas visited Tunisia before filming the original series and much of the culture and architecture found in the movies was inspired by what he saw. In fact, many parts of the epic series, namely those taking place on Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine (ringing any bells?), were actually filmed right here in Tunisia! I've been excited to send home photos for him ever since we arrived.
Today was our first Star Wars-related visit: Matmata. Matmata is famous for its troglodyte homes, one of which being the Sidi Driss hotel. Star Wars fans know it as the home of Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle. The Sidi Driss went back to being a hotel after filming was completed and they shrewdly kept much of the set intact. Beyond this attraction, to which tourists come from around the world, Matamata is more or less a tiny, mostly empty, desert town.
There is a museum exhibiting the same folksy items we saw yesterday in Medenine, but other than that, there isn't really anything to "do" except see the underground homes.
When we arrived, we checked in with no plans other than to relax and take photos for my brother. We arrived just as lunchtime was ending but the hotel let us buy full board accommodations anyway. As soon as we were given a key we dropped off our things and joined the rest of the tourists in the dug-out rooms where lunch was being served.
For only three dinar each, we were given a huge spread of food including bread and harissa, egg briks, omelets with tomato salad, Tunisian salad (tomato, cabbage, and hot pepper in a vinaigrette), and a sort of spicy lamb stew that reminded me of the roasts my mother used to make every Sunday. For dessert, they served sweet, fig-filled fried pastries. It was all remarkably good.
Stuffed, we went to see the hotel. The central courtyard, a large round hole dug into the ground had a raised bed of desert-loving plants growing in the middle. The rooms were dug horizontally into the courtyard wall. All of them had thick, wooden doors which didn't quite fit their plastered openings. Instead of knobs, they were simply secured shut with a padlock and chain, provided as your room key.
We were surprised by how nice and cool it was inside the hotel. It was a welcome relief from the hot afternoon sun. As we entered our room and our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we both agreed that we loved the barren simplicity of the accommodations. They consisted of three beds with colorful blankets and absolutely nothing else. There were only soft white walls, a single unshaded light bulb, and cozy nooks dug into the earth (perfect for storing our few belongings). It was very peaceful and we both decided it would be nice to live underground (in the desert, anyway).
After a little while we went to explore the rest of the hotel, namely the courtyard in which Star Wars was shot! It was impressive to see what a profound effect lighting and film have on a scene. What appeared so space-age and realistic in the movie was nothing more than a few spray-painted tubes and pipes! Here at the Sidi Driss, in person, it seemed like the set had been made by a junior high art class.
This huge, well-constructed wheel appeared to be a notable exception until I touched it. I thought it was going to fall off the wall! In all fairness, the movie was filmed here over 30 years ago.
A few hours later, when we were enjoying dinner in one of the rooms of the set, we looked over at the door when the waiter came in to clear the tables. On the back, scrawled upside down with permanent marker, perhaps in George Lucas' own writing, was written: Lars Homestead Door F. Cool! For some reason this small detail felt more exciting than seeing the rest of movie's remains.
After finishing our gigantic meal we snapped another round of nighttime photos, then settled on the steps of the Star Wars courtyard and spent a few minutes looking at the stars while trying to imagine a galaxy far, far away.