Monday, February 18, 2008

Brave New 2008

The critics rave about Deus beer--all notes of this and nuances of that. Deus is the "champagne of beers", as it is fermented in the champagne style. Although it's a Belgian beer, the bottles are taken to France at some point in the process and something mysterious happens to them there.

We bought a bottle of Deus for New Year's eve. We chilled it, cracked it open, and poured it into champagne flutes. I was expecting something light, crisp, and hoppy, essentially a dry champagne character with a little bitterness thrown in, or something. But this "champagne" was fruity. Sweet, almost. I don't object to beers with a little sweetness to them, but somehow it didn't work for me here, probably due to the mismatch between my expectations and reality. Since it seems to be second only to Westvleteren in retail price of non-vintage beer (and Westvleteren is not supposed to be resold--you go to hell if you do), it should save us some cash.

New Year's Eve was a dinner party at Jack's coworker's house, since the fireworks on the Grand Place had been canceled due to the threat of terrorism (which has also caused them to seal off all the trash cans in the Metro stations). This was followed by an American-style brunch at our place on New Year's day. We had homemade English muffins and biscuits and baked eggs and fruit salad and quinoa-tahini salad. No one wanted mimosas so we ended up with a lot of leftover sparkling wine. Some kind of unspoken conspiracy caused everyone to bring dessert so there was Portuguese flan and Polish prunes covered in dark chocolate (surprisingly delicious) and German stollen and Spanish torron that we brought back from our trip. We ate like kings for the next several days.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The sea was calmer on the way back to Tarifa, thankfully, making for some smooth sailing. Once back in town we had about three hours to kill before the bus came, time enough for some lunching and wandering. Once again we weren't hungry, so we took a stroll to kill some time. We checked out some castle ruins, visited the southernmost civilian point in Europe (there was a crumbling military base on an island that we couldn't get access to that was the actual southernmost point), and generally enjoyed the bright sunshine with the other promenaders who were taking advantage of it. We found a Plan B restaurant and the went to check out the one that the guidebook had recommended: a healthy breakfast-all-day type place which I assumed would be closed for the season, but they weren't!

Jack got an enormous bowl of yogurt, granola, and fruits of all types. I got a miniature sandwich, which was fine. We each ordered a smoothie to go with our meal. It could've been one of those lengthy affairs had the newspapers been in English, but no. I ordered a lovely piece of homemade energy bar/oatmeal cookie thing for the journey back to Seville.

After lunch we went over towards the bullfighting ring, an area of town which seemed to house most of the non-seasonal residents as well as some the city's more monumental public works projects, such as a long boardwalk festooned with graffiti along the Atlantic-side beach, and a wind-swept plaza on a hillside that served no apparent function and was falling into ruin. Once we knocked that off our list we had literally seen everything even remotely worth seeing. So we headed to the bus stop to wait. The bus was on time, and the ride back uneventful.

Once we checked into our hotel in Seville Jack did some texting with a coworker who was visiting her family nearby and was in town doing some Christmas shopping. We met up with her at a tapas bar for a drink, and were subsequently joined by her sister and friend. We had to do the triple-kiss greeting to these strangers, the first time I had to kiss someone on the initial meeting. Jack's coworker talked about things on the menu that people ate at home, and we got some bean and ham combo at her suggestion. It was not very delicious, sadly.

After she left to take the bus home, we went to see a fabulous belen that I had read about the last time we were there. It was entirely crafted from ice. There was some kind of eco-theme to it, and it was traveling the countryside to make Spaniards more environmentally aware, but the message wasn't overt and you just walked into the semi trailer, took a gander, and walked out.

More wandering commenced, and after visiting the remains of the old city wall and some Roman columns in a pit in the backyard of an apartment building that we came across by chance even though we had gone looking for them in the past, we returned to the hotel.

The next morning all we had to do was check out and get to the airport. Since we had some time, we decided to fortify ourselves with churros and hot chocolate before hauling our luggage around. The churros place had just opened for the day and we may have received the reheated leftovers from the previous day, so I was a bit disappointed that this Christmas eve treat was a bit lacking, but it was fun sitting in the park and chowing down on the crispy nuggets while taking sips of the hot chocolate, which was a lot thinner (and therefore more easily drinkable) than the previous one we had.

The bus ride to the airport was uneventful aside from the fact that the bus driver appeared to be insane, conversating with other bus drivers on the route through closed windows.

Then it was back home for a memorable Brussels Christmas with our Spanish treasures.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On the trip over to Tangier, which was somewhat rough but not as nauseating as the ferry to Capri, I kept having flashbacks to our last trip to Tangier--Tangier Island in VA that is. In 2004, the ferry failed to return for us the next day in spite of their promises and assurances, and we had to hire a crabbing boat that was lashed by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan as the captain navigated across the Chesapeake Bay to take us back. What if we got trapped again?

Once we showed evidence that they had already collected our ticket stub we were allowed to exit the boat and made the long stroll to the end of the dock. A. was waiting for us with a sign with my name on it. He greeted us enthusiastically and led us to his car.

We chose to book a tour guide for our Tangier visit because it was cheap and because we had heard stories of people being led to a carpet merchant's shop and essentially being held hostage until they bought something. Since we had only allocated a day for the trip, we didn't have time to do the normal wander-until-you-stumble-across-it method that we prefer to use to see the sights and we wanted to make the most of our time there.

A.'s car was a beat-up old clunker that needed to be restarted at every light--a far cry from the air-conditioned van that had been described. But in it we felt less obvious than we would've in a larger vehicle full of tourists, and I got to ask A. unlimited questions from my front seat vantage point. Everything was green and lush from the recent rainy spells, delighting farmers but disappointing people like us who wanted to move around without fear of being drenched.

We wended our way up the hillside overlooking the town and went through a neighborhood nicknamed California where the streets were lined with eucalyptus, and then higher to the palaces of the very wealthy. Apparently all Arab nations are required to supply at least one prince to the area during the summer months, and they all live in a row on this one hillside, the guards for the prince of Qatar going next door to the guards for the prince of Oman to see if their royal can spare a cup of sugar. Or something like that.

At the summit we came to Cape Spartel, where the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea meet. Mixing isn't thorough due to differences in temperature, salt content, and so on, and you could clearly see the variously-hued blue-greeny waters moving past one another far below.

After that we drove to the Cave of Hercules, an aperture in the rock that allows great crashing spumes of ocean water to spray into the cave. This is where Hercules stayed while he was resting up before undertaking his 12 labors. The hole is also, if you cross your eyes and squint, a mirror image of the continent of Africa. While that part was formed by water, there was another portion of the cave that was created by Berbers carving millstones out of the rock. Semi-circular concavities crept up to the ceiling.
Returning aboveground, we were sad to see that the adjacent cafe was closed for the season, but there were still camels patiently awaiting riders in the parking lot. They looked very out of place amongst all the greenery and wetness, not to mention pathetic for sitting on pavement.

Next we drove to a hotel nearby where A. had friends. They were enduring the off-season doldrums as well, and there were a lot of staff standing around doing next to nothing. They had some beautifully appointed rooms and we got to pretend we were famous and hiding out from the world for a few minutes.

We headed back towards the city by a larger road. Occasionally we would veer into the oncoming lanes to avoid some nasty potholes as A. described the economy of the city and various other topics. Once in a while he'd take on a weird tone, as if he were a recording of himself, clearly going into auto-pilot mode. But I asked an incredibly large quantity of questions so he couldn't phone it in very often. We talked about Moroccan industries. Cultural vs. religious aspects of Islam. Schools. Arabic writing. Did you know that although writing in Arabic is from right to left, the numbers appear correctly to speakers of European-based languages because they start with the lowest digit and proceed to the highest?

We stopped at the entrance to the Casbah and he led us down an alley to a restaurant, deposited us on the cushions at a table, and left. The place was simply riotous with colors and patterns. We were the only ones in the restaurant aside from the staff, yet moments after we arrived a band struck up. Clearly a favorite tourist-dropping point. The staff was festooning the walls with garlands, adding even more color to the mix. A French family who knew the owner came in soon after we got there.

In spite of the emptiness and touristiness, the food was quite good: harira soup to warm us up followed by a chicken tagine with preserved lemons for me, and amazing pastilla for Jack. This dish was minced chicken and spices and other good things in a phyllo dough crust, topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. You bring a bite to your mouth and the sweet aromas get there first, so you get a mental image about what you're about to consume, and then you bite in and your brain does a double-take. Somehow it works deliciously. I usually don't regret my order, but this was one of those times.

We finished the meal with real Moroccan mint tea and almond cookies. The band played on. A drenched-looking couple came in, complaining that some guy off the street had led them to the restaurant, and wanting to know if he was being paid by the management. How they could be upset about ending up at such a place, I have no idea.

A. came back from having lunch with his family. We paid the bill in euros, since that currency was given on the menu, and it caused a commotion. Eventually we received our change in dirhams, the Moroccan currency.

Then we went into the Casbah, driving through the city gate and then parking off to the side on a narrow street for the walking tour. I would guess that the Casbah in the rain, with rivers of dirty water and trash rushing down the narrow pedestrian streets, is not the same experience as the Casbah on a dry day. But I don't really know. It was hard to follow everything A. was telling us, since one was constantly trying to not bump others with one's umbrella, hopping over the murky rivers, take pictures without dampening one's camera, ogling everything, and listening.

A. pointed out all the locations where the "Bourne Ultimatum" was filmed. I'm not sure what he would have talked about if they hadn't made that movie--the tour would've been much shorter without it. He also informed us that Morocco was the first country to recognize the U.S. as a country, and we established our first diplomatic outpost there. He advised Jack what pictures to take of the building.

We did end up visiting a rug shop at one point, but it was low-pressure. They brought out all the different types to show us, then left us to think about it. As we wandered around I hissed to Jack, "Don't touch anything!" because I had been told that if you showed the slightest interest they would crank up the sales pitch. He whispered back, "I already did!" But it was okay, and we left without buying anything. I thought about getting a lovely summer-weight bedspread, but I was afraid to ask about the price for fear that it would be way more than I was willing to spend, and then having to say no and disappoint the guy, even after haggling.

Once it stopped raining, the people trying to sell on the streets came out. Most didn't bother us because they recognized A., but there was one I remember. I don't recall what he was selling, but he approached us and very quickly said, "Thirty euros okay for you 20 euros." As if we were actively engaged in some kind of negotiation process, and he had dropped the price because he liked us. It was like a customer service rep reading from a script and missing out on all the proper inflections--he seemed to have very little invested in what he was saying.

At any rate, the Casbah was an interesting yet bewildering place, and I don't feel like I really even scratched the surface. Eventually we exited after a harrowing drive in reverse up a steep, one-lane, two-way street. There was quite a traffic jam getting through the city gate when we were leaving--one car at a time would pass through, and it was impossible to see if there were any others waiting behind, so we would creep up (in forward gear at this point) and then have to glide back down the hill in neutral and wait some more. After about 8 cars we finally had our chance.

As the sun finally peeked through the clouds and a rainbow appeared, we visited some Etruscan graves overlooking the sea. We reached them by heading down a narrow dead-end street. A small park was carved out of what would have probably been someone's backyard. Sheep were grazing in the grass, unpenned. We walked around on the grave pits carved in the rocks, admiring the view.

Then A. dropped us off at our hotel, made sure we were checked in properly, and then left. Although we had been led to believe the place would be shabby-chic in a 40s-glamor sort of way, our room was mostly just shabby. Our hotel reservation included half board, so we were all set for dinner. Since we weren't at all hungry after our extravagant lunch, we took to the streets following our siesta. Not having procured a map we didn't want to get lost, so we stuck to the neighborhood in the vicinity of the hotel. The sidewalks were full of young people, mostly groups of males but also couples, promenading on Saturday night. The tea houses were full of older men, which was surprising given Morocco's relatively liberal interpretation of Islamic law. The quick bite restaurants were mixed, though, and full of what appeared to be students. We found a shop selling postcards and stamps that had an English-speaking proprietor, so we spent about 30 dirhams on that.

We headed to the restaurant with pretty low expectations, leading us to be pleasantly surprised that the food turned out to be decent. It was continental, so nothing Moroccan about it aside from the Tangier-produced beers. The one cause of friction was that when we told the waiter our room number, "305," he repeated back to us "503." "No, 305." "Are you sure?" We pulled out the key to show him. He left for a while and eventually came back with our food. Once we finished the meal we went to the front desk to make sure everything was in order and we were told that Expedia-booked hotels didn't usually come with the half-board, hence the confusion. It was then that we concluded that the third floor was the discount ghetto floor, and that the ones above were probably in better shape than the one we stayed in.

The next morning we had our generous buffet breakfast, with olives among the other culinary delights (I thought they were particularly large raisins), checked out of the hotel (€60 for the room, meals and supplementary drinks) and then took the long walk down to the pier. Sunday was quiet and things were just starting to open up. Eventually we got on the boat where we discovered, much to our chagrin, that you could only spend euros there. But the 20 dirham note (about €2) we had left is a lovely shade of purple with so we will keep it for decorative purposes.