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Friday September 21st 2018

The English Patient| 1996

The English Patient filming location: Bacci Chapel, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy
The English Patient location: the chapel where Hana studies the frescoes: Bacci Chapel, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy | Photograph: wikimedia / louis-garden

Anthony Minghella’s visually beguiling film of Michael Ondaatje’s WWII romance is set in Italy and Egypt, though the dazzling desertscapes are in fact Tunisia.

1940s ‘Cairo’ was filmed in the city of Tunis itself, the Egyptian original being a much more developed city these days, while the the city’s Medina filmed in Sfax, on the Tunisian coast. The invasion of Tobruk shot in the port of El Mahdia, between Sfax and Sousse.

In general, access to the locations was difficult and precarious, so be warned if you want to follow in their footsteps. The production was filmed in the mountain oasis of Tamerza (a mere 3 km from the visible Algerian border and guarded outpost), part of the Djebel en Negueb range, an off-shoot of the Atlas Mountains. The narrow, winding road to Tamerza climbs beside a thousand meter high gorge which veers off into several hairpin turns, which can be slickly layered with mud especially after a rainfall.

Nearly as remote was the site of the entrance to the 'Cave of Swimmers'. Located deep inside a rocky crevice at the summit of a hill outside the desert town of Degache, and inaccessible by ground vehicles. Camera and sound equipment had to be carried from the base camp by donkey train. Some twenty animals were used while cast and crew climbed to the site on foot, a 25 minute hike.

The English Patient filming location: Camel's Neck, Tunisia
The English Patient location: The 'Egyptian' desert camp: Onk Jemal, Nefta, Tunisia

The desert camp of Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) is in the western Tunisian desert near to Nefta, not too far from the set of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, beneath the strange rock formation called Onk Jemal, known for obvious reasons as the Camel’s Neck. A guided desert safari with four-wheel drive vehicle is the only practical way to see the location.

The huge shimmering salt lake is Chott el Jerid, the dry lake you’ll need to cross to reach Nefta, and the cave where Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas) dies, which is near the old Bedu caravan post of Tozeur. Locations can be easily reached on expeditions or tours available to those based at the beach resorts of Hammamet, Sousse or Monastir.

The English Patient filming location: Hotel des Bains, Lido, Venice
The English Patient location: The 'Cairo' hotel: Hotel des Bains, the Lido, Venice

The old ‘Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo’ – the wartime watering hole for explorers, diplomats and spies which was destroyed in the fifties – is not Egypt either. Nor Tunisia. Surprisingly, it’s the the Grand Hotel des Bains, Lungomare Guglielmo Marconi 17, on the east shore of the Lido in Venice, the setting for Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice.

A Tuscan monastery (Sant 'Anna in Camprena) becomes a focal point within the film where the English patient reveals a serious of flashbacks when employed as a map maker charting the Sahara Desert in the 1930s.

The production moved on to Viareggio, a coastal resort town near Pisa, where the emergency field hospital triage tent was created.

Actual Italian locations include the village, which is Pienza in Tuscany, and the chapel where Hana (Juliette Binoche) studies the frescoes. This is the 13th century Bacci Chapel in the Basilica of San Francesco at Arezzo, also in Tuscany. The frescoes, painted between 1453 and 1466 by Piero Della Francesca, have recently been restored. Reservations are required to view them, and, no, you can’t light flares or dangle from the ceiling.