Friday, October 31, 2008

Day 5 -- Olive oil, Roman ruins & the road to Fes

Pics from top: pressing the olives the old fashioned way; green & black olive paste; view of Vilubilus ruins

Leaving Chefchaouen this morning, there was much concern about the weather, as the winds were howling, and the clouds were down low on the mountains, with some drizzle. Not good for walking the Roman ruins of Vilubilus, about 2 hours to the south. Fortunately, the further south we traveled, the weather improved.

All along the way, lining the hillsides of the Rif Mountains, are olive trees, some citrus, and pomegranates. About an hour into our ride, our guide had the bus driver stop on the side of the road when he saw there was a man operating his olive press. Was I excited! Annie Mance, you would have loved it! The man was leading a donkey, which was turning a huge stone wheel over a basin where the green and black olives were being squashed into a paste. From there, the paste is spread onto woven mats, about 18 inches in diameter, and then placed under a metal plate that screws down on top of it, squeezing the oil out; it drains into a holding tank, and presumably bottled from there. Only the first stage with the donkey was functioning when we pulled up. I asked, and it takes an hour and a half to crush the olives in that press; they were though, adding more olives to it as the olives got more and more crushed down. It takes 100 kilos of olives to make approximately 13 liters of oil. I also asked what kind of olives they were, and was told by our guide, “green and black.” When I further pressed the issue (no pun intended), I was still told, “just green and black.” Aside from the partial lack of info, it was great to see it! Unfortunately, there was no oil to sample.

Another hour down the road took us to the town of Vilubilus, where we had lunch at a fancyish hotel that looked relatively new. They are obviously there for the tourist trade. Lunch was another plate of 4 cooked vegetables, and a mixed grill plate with sausages (the first I've seen in Morocco), a thin pork chop with the salt pork attached, chicken breast, and beef livers. The thin sausages were really good, certainly related to Spanish chorizo, as you could taste the smoked paprika in them. The pork chop wasn't bad (Muslim country, they don't eat much pork here), the chicken over cooked, and liver isn't my thing. Oh, and great bread there too; like a fat, more tender english muffin.

From there, it was a 5 minute drive down the road to the actual ruins of Vilubilus, which was the capitol of the Roman province of Mauritania, Rome's southwesternmost lands in Northern Africa. About 20,000 people lived in this valley 2000 years ago; the ruins are spread over 28 acres, and have some extremely well preserved mosaics of the era. Amongst the ruins are also over 50 olive presses, showing the importance of the oil even way back when. It was used for cooking, massage (they know which building was the town brothel and the public baths), and burning in oil lamps, as well as being sent back to Rome for use there. It was very windy while we were there, but it was an interesting lesson in the Roman Empire, and the views were beautiful.

Back to the bus, and another hour and a half, we were at the Hotel Merinides in Fes, where there is wireless internet! The hotel has a fancy traditional (as in, for the tourists) dining room, which was rather ornate. Unfortunately, the traditional Moroccan meal didn't match the setting..... a reasonable hariah soup, though more tomato-based than what I've had in the past, an assortment of small meat phyllo-wrapped savory appetizers, and an alright beef tagine, but that's our third beef tagine in row, and certainly not the best! The end of the meal was accompanied by musicians playing traditional music, and the requisite belly dancer, who was quite good with the moves, but facially, didn't seem into it.

We get to wander the medina tomorrow! (Today's pictures will be added tomorrow!)

Day 4 -- Chefchauoen

Day 4 -- Chefchaouen

Pic from the top:
The hillside city of Chefchaouen; beef tagine at lunch; Ahmed the local guide

The day started with a town tour by a local guide, the irrepressible Achetot Ahmed, or just Ahmed. A short man, wearing his Berber djellaba (again, think Star Wars robes), with very pale blue eyes.(The light eye color is something I would not have expected in Morocco, but apparently, many of the Berbers are of lighter skin and eyes.) His voice at times sounded like he was talking through a tracheotomy box; then he would raise his voice and yell “hello” to get the attention of the group. Apparently, he's been in the Lonely Planet's video on the town....

Ahmed was entertaining, and like most local guides, is probably in cahoots with many of the area shopkeepers. We wandered through the meandering up & down streets, stopping from time to time, and then taking us to a weaving cooperative where a man and his sons took us through their different styles, types, colors, materials, etc. of the woven items they represented. And then they happily took our money. They had beautiful silk and cotton blankets, some of which were in beautiful ocean blues (the one Mom got) and a really beautiful magenta and cream colored one that another woman in the group bought. The teenage son saw me looking at the fabrics, and of course starts chatting me up. Before I know it, he takes me upstairs to see even more of the collection, and of course, talks me into one. It wasn't the magenta I wanted, but it's a small (2.5' x 4') cotton weave, done in beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows. Apparently poppy flowers and henna comprise its natural dyes. My first Moroccan purchase.

We continued onwards, and had lovely at a very quaint place, that turns out to be a 350 year old family-owned establishment, that also serves as a hotel. Lunch was fantastic cracked wheat bread, with mild olive oil, green olives, a quartet of cooked veggies (carrots, cabbage, eggplant, and something green....); all okay,but they didn't jump out at me. The main dish was a beef tagine, with green beans, artichokes, and green bell pepper. Extremely tender beef, obviously stewed for a long time. It had a faint clove taste, and of course in my opinion, it could have used more spice! But very tasty. A very caramelized flan for dessert with our not very sweetened mint tea, a nice change not to have the added sugar.

Ahmed took us to one or two more places, and then we were on our own. Mom, Peggy and I wandered around the streets for a while more, and then by late afternoon retreated to the hotel, just a hair from the plaza and activity. Dinner was here at the hotel, a harirah soup (I think that's how it's spelled) which is typicallly had at Eid, to break the Ramamdan fast, and another beef tagine, this one with prunes and hard boiled eggs. This one was good, and the prunes gave the beef a nice sweet flavor contrast, but it wasn't outta this world good. Picky, picky.... Onto Fes tomorrow!