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Trains to Tozeur

Fascinated by the notes sung by Alice and Battiato, surely there will be something in Tozeur that will capture our hearts. A retro journey, where history and nature bewitch travelers, among mirages and dates of one of the first oases of the Sahara.

In recent years, Eurovision has also made a comeback in Italy, but many may not know that Italy has actually participated since the first edition, which took place in 1955, and that the initial model for this international singing competition was precisely the our Sanremo Festival.

Trains to Tozeur

But what does Tunisa have to do with Eurovision? Apart from a non-participation in 1977 (participation announced, followed by a withdrawal for which no reason was ever given), surely many will know I Treni di Tozeur, by Alice and by Maestro Franco Battiato, who made his debut at Eurovision in 1984.

Chosen as participants through an internal system (even today it remains the most common), Alice and Battiato finished fifth with this truly elegant piece, which retains a nostalgic and exotic flavor starting with the title, which recalls the Tunisian Tozeur, the capital of one of the its 24 governorates: the one to which it gives its name. Near the border with Algeria, Tozeur is located near the Chott el-Jerid, a salt lake, and is one of the first oases in the Sahara desert, 450 km away from Tunis and equipped with an international airport, through which it is possible to reach it in a short time. The Chott el-Jerid, which with its over 5,000 km² of extension is the largest salt lake in the region, is actually more of an agglomeration of crystallized salt on sand and clay, given that summer temperatures often exceed 50°C and rainfall rarely exceeds 100 mm per year. The wind continually changes the color and appearance of this impossible-to-ignore expanse, classified as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, a treaty for the conservation and management of natural ecosystems.

We also find this natural wonder in classical mythology: for Herodotus, this was the mythical Lake Tritonide, where the Argonauts ended up aground, following a storm, and where the God Triton himself intervened to rescue them.

Why does Battiato sing about his trains?

In Battiato’s video clip, shot in the very Italian Brianza, we see a vintage train belonging to Ferrovie Nord Milano, still occasionally in service during some events. Many have wondered why Battiato mentioned Tozeur and even on his website we find references on how on the salt lake near Tozeur it is possible to see a mirage, called the Fata Morgana effect (also present in nature in Italy, for example on the Strait of Messina), which makes subjects seem extremely close that they are actually much further away. Werner Herzog shot a visionary film of the same name on this particular type of optical effect in 1968, also shooting in the Sahara.

Going back to the song, unfortunately it is no longer possible to ask Maestro Battiato directly how much part the reopening of the section for the Lézard Rouge (literally red lizard) had in providing him with the idea, which took place precisely in 1984, but due to the relevance of this vintage train in the history of Tunisia, it is certainly appropriate to talk about it.

La Lézard Rouge, the Tunisian Orient Express

Built in 1910 for a French company in Leuven, Belgium, it was built as a train to transport the Bey of Tunis, together with his entire court. Originally made up of a locomotive, the carriage dedicated to the Bey, one for the court, a restaurant carriage and two other carriages intended for luggage, the Lézard Rouge is a carriage of elegance and luxury which makes one think of other historical trains, such as the Orient Express. In 1922 she was brought to the yard to be refitted for metre-gauge (railways with lower operating and maintenance costs than higher formats), but having served the last two Beys and the last King of Tunisia (deposed in 1957) , was abandoned in a garage until 1974, when it was baptized with its current name and intended for tourist transport between Tunis and Tozeur, with a stop at El Jem, the ancient and very Roman Thysdrus which still retains the remains of that era of a splendid amphitheater, originally seating 35,000, adorned with mosaic floors and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.

In 1984, following a restoration, it was put back on the rails and it was probably expected that it would resume the Tunis-Tozeur section, instead it was relegated to the short, but no less intriguing, Métlaoui-Redeyef tourist section, decidedly less demanding: we recall that Tunis-Tozeur are 450 km, while the current route does not reach 50 km.

The current route is carried out only once a day and in the summer. It is a historical-naturalistic tourist attraction given that, in addition to traveling on the Bey train, you will visit the Selja Gorges (which became a nature reserve in 2009 and are protected by the Ramsar Convention) where it is possible to admire the Selja wadi, a river with an irregular hydrogeological regime, but in the approximately two hours of travel it is also possible to admire waterfalls, canyons and a phosphate mine, as well as get off in the small stops made for tourists, who like to get off to quickly take some souvenir photos. We advise you not to go too far during these brief stops, because the train seems to resume its journey without warning. The route was stopped for a few years due to low tourist numbers, resuming activities in 2011 and today it is possible to book in the summer by contacting them directly, also to check times, days and rates.

Composed today of a locomotive; a car bar; a carriage used as a saloon and four other passenger carriages (two of which are first class) for a total capacity of 116 seats, the Lézard Rouge also offers tourist groups who book in advance the opportunity to participate in a fake attack on the train , staged in the style of Lawrence of Arabia, or request additional carriages.

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