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Report 1992: Tunisia - the North and the Roman Sites
By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012
Page 30 of 30: Ksar Ezzit - an Organic Olive Farm
Ksar Ezzit is an organic olive farm in the mountains south of Zaghouan, which also has accommodation in small villas scattered around the property. When we were planning the holiday in 2010 (yes we really do start planning this early) we were told this was an exciting new development in Tunisian eco-tourism. There were talks and activities on aspects of the farm as well as horse riding and guided nature walks. There would be chance to visit nearby sites including cave painting sites, Zaghouan etc. It sounded great so we booked three nights there.
When we got the final itinerary though a month before the trip, visits to local sites were no longer mentioned. There was no mention of activities on the web site although horse riding and walking were mentioned. That should have set warning bells ringing but didn’t. Although our driver wasn’t allocated to us during our stay in Ksar Ezzit, he kept asking us whether we wanted him to come each day to take us out. We assured him that wasn’t necessary as we had been told "All optional activities included."
We arrived with high hopes. It is in a delightful setting with hills on three sides and extensive views across the plain to the north. There are 80,000 olive trees and wild flowers everywhere. Security at the gate was tight and involved a series of phone calls before we were let through. It is then a couple of miles drive to reception. On the way we passed signs pointing in different directions to "restaurant" and "reception." Warning bells now began to ring especially as almost the first comment when we arrived was, "You don’t have a car with you?" There was no mention of "activities." We had been expecting to be given a list of options to choose from. We filled in the necessary forms and waved goodbye to our driver who was so concerned he drove to the restaurant to check how far it was - 3.2km.
We were in Villa Huilerie which was opposite the reception block, the stables and area the cows were kept in at night. There were guinea fowl and chickens running around outside including several cockerels which began to crow from 3am. It was huge with a large living room with one way glass window overlooking an old olive press which is now a gift shop. The bedroom was a triumph of design over functionality with little space to put things and a French window which leaked if it rained, as we discovered one night. Still the bed was comfortable.
Breakfasts were excellent self service buffets with plenty of choice. Lunch and dinner consisted of five courses, starter, a salad, soup, another salad, meat course and finally fresh fruit washed down with what we think was ginger tea. The salads often consisted of leaves and flowers growing wild on the farm. We think they only serve food which is grown on the farm. Michael described it as a sort of nouvelle cuisine meets "Gardener’s World." Soups were invariably good. Main courses were rather thin and a bit strange. We are sure it was lamb’s knee caps one night... The fresh fruit was always reliable and welcome.
Once Ksar Ezzit got over the shock of the arrival of two carless visitors, everything worked well. Mahommed gave us a lift to and from the restaurant in a very dusty and battered Passat. He made sure the car headlights were left on so we could find our way back to the villa after dinner as the external lights weren't working.
We spent a couple of days wandering round the estate by ourselves along tracks through the olive groves. We saw the horses out grazing who looked very frisky and made off at our approach. We found two lots of beehives. We found the ruins of the building which housed a 300 year old olive press. This looks very derelict and unlike the pictures in their brochure showing it working.
We could hear but not see a tractor plowing between the olives and watched women hand cutting the vegetation between the olives. Unlike many other parts of Tunisia, Ksar Ezzit do not grow vegetables under the olive trees as they believe it adversely affects the flavor of the olives. The farm vegetables are grown well away from the olives. Lavender bushes are planted between the young trees which is supposed to improve the flavor of the olives. They were in flower in early April. Otherwise the land is left fallow and the weeds harvested for animal fodder.
The soil looked very dry and stony in places. The olives are irrigated during the summer. In April the vegetation was very lush and up to two feet high. There were wild flowers everywhere, even Michael was enthusing. Some I could recognize but there were many I couldn’t.
All morning we were accompanied by the sound of bird song, including a cuckoo. It was good to be out in the fresh air and sunshine and we enjoyed ourselves.
Ksar Ezzit did provide activities for us. We were shown the 80 year old olive press still used to press olives. A large stone roller is worked by belts driven by a steam piston engine. The ground olives are put into straw baskets which are piled up in the presses which are squeezed by a big pile of weights. The best oil is collected in the first 60 minutes. Otherwise the olives are pressed for 24 hours. The oil is collected in large white tile tanks which allow the water to settle out.
Two short excursions were arranged for us. Talking to the manager in the restaurant he had found out that we were interested in the Roman sites and he arranged for us to be taken to Souar and Zaghouan in the morning and to the ‘lake’ in the afternoon.
We set off with Mohammed and a driver in a 4x4. Souar is a tiny village off the Tunis to Kairouan road. It isn’t marked on any of the maps. It is a lovely site at the base of the mountains with a few houses scattered over the landscape with a small school next to the Roman remains of Abthugnos. Apart from a shepherd with a small flock of sheep we were the only people around.
It is a nice run to El Fahs and Zaghouan through very fertile countryside with wheat, olives and vines. A narrow street leads to Temples Des Eaux which supplied the water to Tunis by aqueduct. It is a beautiful site at the base of the mountain above the town with a park with trees, grass and a cafe.
We stopped in El Fahs on the way back. It was market day and chaos with double parking along the street with barely room for one car to get through. There were several stand-offs when cars coming from opposite directions wouldn’t give way and traffic ground to a halt. There were pickups loaded with sheep. The market square is a large open area surrounded by fruit and vegetable stalls and butcher’s stalls with cows heads, lungs, intestines and sheep carcasses hanging up. Mohamed went to buy cigarettes for the manager and reappeared with small bag of chicken. The driver came back with two big bags of vegetables.
After lunch Mahommed took us to the lake in the valley next to Ksar Ezzit. It was a nice drive climbing up through wheat fields and olive groves with splendid views across the valley to Ksar Ezzit. A rough road drops down across the dam. There was a shepherd with big flock of sheep and three very fierce dogs who didn’t like the look of us. Ksar Ezzit rents water from the lake which is pumped to irrigate olives.
We were told by Mohammed the excursions were a "gift" from Ksar Ezzit and we would normally have to pay. We told him our understanding was that all optional activities were included but Mohammed said no. This explains his surprise/concern when we arrived without a car.
We think Ksar Ezzit may have intended or even begun by offering activities and excursions but found that the idea didn’t catch on. We later found out that many wealthy Tunisians go and stop at Ksar Ezzit with their own cars and would not want included activities. This may explain why the Berber house is no longer used for guests, the building and 300 year old olive press are ruined and the olive press next to Villa Huilerie is now a gift shop.
Despite the problems and niggles we enjoyed our stay. Ksar Ezzit does have a lot going for it as long as it sorts out the issues of maintenance and whether it is offering activities and provides transport.
It is a delightful place to drop out and do nothing. There is a swimming pool fed by natural spring water with a slight algal growth on the bottom and frogs which may not suit everyone. Anyone visiting does need to be very clear what is or isn’t provided and do ideally need a 4x4 with them.
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