Djerba: The Island where Flamingos Turn Pink. Part I

Djerba is a wonderful island of the African Mediterranean, where cruel pirates become kind wizards, believers pray underground, and in general, many interesting things happen, and this is not just words, but the absolute truth.

There’s surprisingly little information available online about Djerba, and it turns out that different sources are circulating the same information. That’s why we’ve decided to learn more about Djerba, its inhabitants, and the peculiarities of vacationing here by talking with one of the islanders.

Meet Julia Pushkina. She’s an experienced travel industry professional, a member of the Carthage Group team, and a European who has managed to be at home among the people of the island.

How did you discover Tunisia and Djerba in particular?

I’ve been working in the tourism industry since 2009, I’ve worked in Turkey, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. I spent two summer seasons working in Tunisia on the mainland, and in 2017, I was invited to Djerba.

I decided to give it a try, signed a standard job contract, and now I work here as a tour operator representative. My responsibilities include providing information support to tourists at the airport, in hotels, and during various excursions. I deal with a wide range of situations, both tourists’ personal issues and more serious ones. I strive to ensure that travelers feel comfortable on their vacation.

You’ve been living on Djerba for several years. Have you ever regretted that you’ve decided to stay here? There’s a common belief that islanders usually aspire to move to the mainland where life is in full swing…

No, I don’t regret my decision at all. But I have to say that Tunisians from the mainland usually don’t want to go to Djerba. I’ve been told that «it’s a village, you’ll be bored to death there.» And indeed, the island is not suitable for everyone. I know people who were able to live here only for a few months and then gave up on it and left.

On Djerba, there are no luxurious beauty salons and branded boutiques, and the «big city life» is indeed somewhat unknown on the island. However, Djerba has a special atmosphere with the turquoise sea and magnificent beaches, the rustle of palm trees’ leaves, and birds singing. It’s a place for those who seek for tranquility, peace, and absolute relaxation.

By the way, Djerbians also aren’t eager to move to mainland Tunisia. More often they relocate to Europe but at least once a year they come back home to enjoy the sea and fully relax.

How different are the islanders from the mainland residents?

Mainland residents are more straightforward and open. Islanders, on the other hand, tend to be quite protective of their community, although this doesn’t apply to guests of Djerba, tourists from other countries. However, they are not always welcoming to residents of mainland Tunisia who want to move to the island, even though they may overlook some mistakes made by their neighbors.

As for their appearance, it is worth noting that islanders still wear traditional clothing in their everyday lives. While women in the capital on the mainland may wear jeans, on Djerba, for example, it is easy to encounter women dressed in accordance with the traditions of the local Jewish community, wearing modest knee-length skirts, shawls, and wide-brimmed straw hats. Men also wear hats and robes. It looks very colorful.

In general, who are those tourists who prefer vacationing only on Djerba and come to the island year by year?

On the island, there are several kite surfing schools catering to different preferences. Some are for those who prefer calm waters and wind, while others are for wave riders. Beginners and professionals alike come here; it’s quite a young and energetic crowd.

But the majority of the island’s guests are mature family-oriented individuals who are not seeking sophisticated benefits of civilization. They come to Djerba simply to relax and find inner peace.

Many tourists come from Eastern Europe, e.g. Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary. There are hotels that are traditionally chosen by travelers from Spain and Italy. Tunisians and Algerians also vacation here, but European tour operators book up to 90% of the room stock, so there are few Arabs in the hotels. The staff remembers their regular guests, so they already feel almost at home and happily greet their favorite administrators and animators, with whom they have become friends during previous trips.

Where are the hotels located on Djerba? 

They are situated on the northeast of the island, where the best beaches are. Most of them are 4-star hotels operating on an «All-Inclusive» basis. Although the star rating is a relative concept, largely nominal. When choosing a place to stay, you should primarily consider the cost of the tour. In terms of service, a 4-star hotel can easily be better than a 5-star one.

Most of the hotels are located on the first coastline, although the second line is also close to the sea. The beaches are sandy, with few rocky areas. They’re gently sloping, without sudden depth changes. That’s why senior European tourists love swimming on Djerba with their grandchildren. It is a very pleasant and safe activity here.

What about jellyfish, seaweed, and tides?

Jellyfish appear during the peak season when the sea temperature reaches 30°C. However, there are very few of them; there is no «jelly» of jellyfish on Djerba.

As for seaweeds, yes they are, especially after a storm. However, firstly, they’re an excellent indicator of the environmental cleanliness of the area, and secondly, they cannot be completely removed as it’ll disrupt the natural balance. The sea should take the seaweeds away naturally. 

Tides are more noticeable during winter. However, on the beaches of the tourist area, there are always waves as it is the open sea. During low tide, which starts early in the morning, the water only recedes by a maximum of 20 meters.

After sunbathing and swimming, what’s next? What interesting things await tourists on Djerba? Is it possible to rent a car and embark on a self-guided mini-adventure?

Actually, there’s no public transport on the island. If you want to rent a car, you need to do it in advance, even before the start of your tour; otherwise, you may be left without a vehicle. Taxis are available, and the drivers of this type of local transport are very friendly, with reasonable prices for their services.

However, getting to know Djerba without a guide can be challenging. Its treasures are often hidden from plain sight, and one must know exactly where to focus their attention.

I recommend curious independent travelers to visit Djerbahood and enjoy the artworks in the open-air gallery, admire the murals by professional artists from different countries around the world. You can have an incredibly vibrant photoshoot here and then relax in a café, sipping a cup of aromatic Arabic coffee prepared on the sand.

You should also definitely visit the old fortress of Ghazi Mustafa, which is one of the main attractions of Djerba. There are many defensive fortresses built by the Portuguese and Spanish around the perimeter of the island. Some of them have become military facilities and police stations today, while the Ghazi Mustafa fortress houses a national museum where you can photograph and even touch many curious items such as household items and weapons. The museum is open all week, except for Fridays.

The tour of the fortress is not included in the island sightseeing excursion; tourists usually organize it by themselves. However, when we take tourists on a pirate ship trip, we always talk about the events that took place here.

Pirates on Djerba are a special topic for conversation. It is known that in past centuries, corsairs from the Mediterranean Sea often dropped anchor here. Or is it just a legend for tourists?

That’s not a legend, it’s reality. I enjoy chatting with my neighbors on the island and sometimes ask about their family origins, who their ancestors were. And I know for sure: even today there are people living on Djerba who have pirate blood in their veins.

Today, the descendants of those corsairs still spend a significant part of their time at sea, with ships. However, they no longer plunder but engage in peaceful work. They service vessels, take tourists on boat trips, and accompany travelers on fishing trips. There’s a fun fact: even the police sometimes turn to the services of former pirates, once sinister and ruthless, if there is a need to apprehend any offenders in the sea, for instance.

So, pirate ship tours on Djerba are conducted by actual descendants of pirates? The authenticity is priceless!

Yes, a pirate ship trip on the island is different from the one on the mainland. It’s not just a costumed show, but a tour with a strong historical foundation.

Djerba, in general, has a very interesting history, and you can see some truly unusual things here. For example, there are unique underground mosques left by the Ibadis, members of an Islamic sect that was based only on this island in Tunisia. Incidentally, the somewhat reserved nature of the Djerbians can be attributed to this heritage, as the Ibadis led a secluded lifestyle and spent their days only in prayer.

A large Jewish community has also settled here, and this is far from a coincidence. Djerba is home to the El Ghriba Synagogue, which has a history of more than two thousand years. According to ancient legend, it was built on the site where a heavenly stone fell. Every spring, on the 40th day after Passover, Jews from around the world make a pilgrimage to the island, placing eggs inscribed with their wishes in the place where one of the oldest Torah scrolls is kept.

No wonder that last year, in September, Djerba was officially added to the UNESCO World Heritage List…

Very soon, we will continue our conversation about Djerba and talk with Yulia about the flamingos that acquire their beautiful pink color on this island, the «living» and «dead» palm juice, and much more. Stay tuned for our updates!