My first visit to the Star Wars set in the south of Tunisia was a surreal experience. We'd broken our necks to get there before sunset. Beyond us, the endless salt flats stretched uninterrupted towards the distant horizon. We stood in silence as the shadows lengthened along the grey, encrusted ground. The small, fibreglass dome was exactly as I'd imagined it.
George Lucas in Tunisia
George Lucas first came to Tunisia in 1976, using sites in the country as locations for the Star Wars planet Tatooine, a name itself drawn from the Tunisian town of Tataouine. He returned in 1997 to begin work on the series's ill-fated prequels, using many of the same crew members and a few of the old locations. Many of those sets are still there and can be visited easily during a short trip to the country.
While Star Wars is one of the best-known movies to have been shot in Tunisia, it is certainly not the only one. Raiders of the Lost Ark, The English Patient and even The Life of Brian were all filmed in the country.
The order of your visit
The order in which you visit the Star Wars sites is entirely up to you. Many of the key locations are in the southern desert city of Tozeur, which is a short flight from Tunis. Others will likely require renting a car. Smaller scenes and shots were filmed across the country – but these are probably best left to the truly committed, or for a long trip.
One of the film's key locations, the interior of the Lars homestead, Luke Skywalker's childhood home, is located in the small Berber-speaking town of Matmata. Even without Star Wars, the town's characteristic underground houses would seem alien. Some are still inhabited today, but most have been abandoned or are used as outhouses.
The Lars homestead remains open, operating as Hotel Sidi Driss, which you can book for a nominal fee. Sleeping in a cave is always going to be a memorable experience; sleeping in Skywalker's bedroom is unforgettable. However, you get what you pay for and despite some refurbishment, the hotel remains a little rough around the edges.
Plenty of the set's original features survive, although how many date back to the first film is uncertain. Either way, many are easily recognisable and it is fun to sit around the family table where Skywalker argued with his uncle about the condensers on the south ridge, before storming off and emerging 271 kilometres east in Tozeur.
The town of Tozeur
Nestled between desert dunes and salt flats, Tozeur is a short hop from Tunis's leafy streets, but may as well be a galaxy away. The town is now being redeveloped, but it's hard to avoid the impression that the years since Tunisia's revolution have been difficult. Most of the people here relied upon either agriculture or tourism to earn a living and, while agriculture still thrives, the flow of tourists has slowed to a trickle. Many of the sprawling resort hotels that once dominated the town are closed, either for winter or for good. However, there are some that stay open all year, and a host of smaller boutique hotels offer excellent value for money.
Within striking distance from Tozeur, should the force be with you, are the desert sets at Mos Espa, the domed space igloo exterior of Skywalker's home, and Star Wars canyon, the setting of numerous scenes in the film. For the more committed Jedi, all the locations can be accessed by car. However, the Jundland Wastes are not to be travelled lightly, and doing so is unlikely to endear you to your rental company. As an alternative, any of the tour companies that still eke out a living in Tozeur will be grateful for your business. Moreover, most employ local drivers who will know sites that less experienced Star Wars fans might miss.
From personal experience, it is worth stressing to your guide that you'd like to finish your day at Skywalker's space igloo. Most trips typically start with Mos Espa from 1999's The Phantom Menace – one of the most exciting films to be made about intergalactic trade tariffs. Approaching the sets, the eagle-eyed visitor will spot the protruding pieces of desert bedrock where the heroic Qui-Gon Jinn fought the villainous Darth Maul. It's also impossible to miss a nearby rise, known as Ras Jebel, or "Camel's Neck", which featured in both the Phantom Menace and The English Patient.
Exploring Mos Espa
Mos Espa itself looks like a simple sand-locked desert village. If it weren't for the random pieces of piping and incongruous moisture converters rising from the desert floor, it could be any ancient settlement almost anywhere in the world. However, a closer look reveals the threadbare fibreglass exteriors strung together by mesh, wood and screws.
The set was redeveloped as a tourist attraction in 2005, but time, political turmoil and neglect have all taken their toll, and many of the buildings used in the original film, Phantom Menace, have since succumbed to the encroaching desert, which threatens to one day swallow the set entirely.
The Star Wars locations are often deserted during winter, save for a small army of children who will usually make their way here from nearby villages to sell trinkets or offer the opportunity to be photographed with a captive desert fox.
A trip to Sidi Bouhlel Canyon
A little over 30 minutes out of Tozeur, you'll be greeted with the breathtaking views of the Sidi Bouhlel Canyon, home to numerous scenes from Star Wars, The English Patient and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even the car park was used in Lucas's film, doubling as the sand flats where the diminutive Jawa's sandcrawler made its way across the desert floor.
Climbing up to the canyon, past the looming white shrines that dominate the approach, the views are dizzying. On one side, the vast Chott el Djerid extends out to the horizon. To the other lies the canyon itself, instantly recognisable from countless classic film scenes.
It was here the Tusken Raiders ambushed Skywalker. Likewise, it was here that the lonely R2D2 fell prey to the scavenging Jawas. It was also from this lofty vantage point that our heroes stared out to that "wretched hive of scum and villainy", the Mos Eisley spaceport.
Nearby, lost within the featureless tracts of the Chott el Djerid between Tozeur and the nearby town of Nefta, sits the small fibreglass home of Skywalker himself. Sadly, this isn't the original structure. Instead, it's a precise reconstruction made on the same spot for the 2002 film, Attack of the Clones. Nonetheless, it's as recognisable as it is iconic and, as I stand on the salt flats outside, breathing in the desert air, surrounded by a very real piece of film history, I give myself over to the moment entirely.