The Sahara and Us Morocco 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

In Memory of Panagiotis Carvouniaris, Hotel Saronis, Palea Epidaurus

The Carvouniaris family and the friendly giant

Our hotel in Epidaurus was very good with 3 younger girls running around attending to everything. We seemed to be one of their only guests though. Now I’m not going to do a hotel review, let’s just say, we’re fussy, and they were great.

The most important part of the story here is only in part the hotel, because it was the realization of a lifelong dream. You see Panagiotis served onboard Greek Cruise Ships of his era and saved enough money to buy and work hard at refurbishing this 30yr old hotel. The hotel has just completed its refurbishment, but Panagiotis passed away last fall 2010 before seeing his dream realized. He and his wife raised at least 3 daughters of which 2 are twins, and we met Katerina his eldest daughter who has studied Tourism at University to help the family business as well as her younger sister and a younger still cousin (in the middle). As we were checking out Sandra asked if tourism was slower and Katerina explained the plight that Greece is in financially. As a result people are not visiting Greece because they are afraid. So please, while there are strikes, and tractor protests and electrical power outages each day, these are just color to the backdrop of a beautiful country and especially Epidaurus as a beautiful village.

The harbor in Epidavros
The legacy that Panagiotis leaves is not a hotel called the Saronis, a good place to come and stay while attending Greek plays at the Theatre, or visiting the fortress in Napflio, or the Mycenaean ruins, or just enjoying this damn gorgeous weather, water and coastline; but it is his family who are passionate about running this hotel in his memory. Katerina when you read this remember to plan a visit  for you or your family to Vancouver island where we can have you as our guest.

Epidaurus is on the other side of the Corinth canal from Athens, a distance that is about 120 kms. We had a lazy start to today after yesterday and we walked to the bakery in the morning and bought amazing pastries for breakfast, sat and had coffee, yogurt, fruit etc. for awhile then visited with Katerina’s family, then we stopped for gas and I decided to change oil in the bike. I carry a filter with me at all times, and bought oil at this Avin station and used their facilities to change it, in and out in 20 mins. Pretty good!

The Corinth Canal 1889-91
The Corinth and Us

Next onto the Corinth Canal that causes the Pelopennese peninsula to actually be an island now since it severs it from the mainland. You can read the details in the link but it’s a neat place.

We are now in the Athens suburb of Glyfada awaiting the results of the vote on the EU measuresa nd we’ll see how the day or so plays out.


Monemvasia the Gibraltor of Greece, view from our room

As we drove into Monemvasia we were surprised at how small this little seaside resort is. We drove the waterfront and as we returned a woman who was on her front balcony motioned to us if we needed a room. We waved and came over, she showed us a front room with a view of the ancient Monemvasia and we took this place not even looking further for the selection we had made through research. We can’t gove you the names of many of these places because we don’t have access to a Greek alphabet to spell them.
Here we shared the place with an Italian riding a Varadero 1000 and some Germans who want to ride but are afraid, so they tent instead (??). You can see both our bikes in the above picture. Town’s name comes from Moni (Single) Emvasia (entrance) Its upper town was founded in 6th Century by refugees fleeing Slavic raids into the Peloponnese and this area of the fortress is now being refurbished, quite well, into boutique hotels. We saw some of the rooms, and they are so secluded and quiet it would be incredible to stay there and be housed in this secured place.
Harbor Fortress in Napflion

Next onto Nafplion, the first capital of Greece before Athens. Napflion is located at the delta of two peninsula’s about 50 kms away from Sparta. We took the Monemvasis to Sparta road to go up the one peninsula then crossed an amazing mountain range before descending into Napflion. One thing about these peninsula roads they are slippery since whatever they use wears off and all that’s left is slippery marble type rocks. You have to be very careful descending these hairpins turns.

Once in Napflion we drove into Syntagma (Constitution) Square to see the Palamidi fortress perched on top of the mountain there. This was the centre of the Mycenaean people and the harbor and mountain fortresses are amazing. This is a fertile valley and was something to defend back in ancient times. Of course the fortress here is a WHS as well and is accessed by hiking up 999 steps to it. I felt pretty good when I passed a Polish marathon participant  and later when talking with him noticed I  had heart rate recovery far faster than him. And he is in his 40’s.
999 Steps Really!
Water cistern

This is an amazing place to visit, and a must for anyone visiting the peninsula. Besides Burg Eltz in Germany, which is the most intact castles in all of Europe, Napflion is the most intact fortress of its day in all the World.

Farm Protest, Nobody's happy
But wait we aren’t finished yet. As we had entered the town square there was a lot of shouting and banners being raised, then on the climb up we could hear chats and noise from down below. In the town square a demonstration was now taking place. When we finished our tour we walked down past it and found it to be farmers unhappy with what is happening in Greece. This is a country of much unrest at the moment, but not for travellers, just people upset with finding themselves in ths economic crunch.

Perfect Acoustics
Again we aren’t finished yet. We decide since it’s a beautiful afternoon and ancient Epidavros is only 30 kms away we’d head there to see the most intact theatre of the ancient world. Here we saw the best preserved acoustically perfect ancient theatre constructed around 360 BC that houses 20000 people. Imagine back that far before Christ to a civilization that was that far advanced that it could construct a acoustically perfect theatre that required no amplification and held theatre performances. It was truly amazing. Today the theatre again does both ancient and modern theatre performances. One of note that Sandra saw was Kevin Spacey in Richard the 3rd, a Shakespearean play, July 26th, 2011.
People test out acoustics by clapping lightly
OK, now we are drained, 2 days of sightseeing stuffed into one energetic effort, so we head off to the new townsite of Epidaurus to find a hotel. There we find the Hotel Saronis which we write about next.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ancient Mythology in Greece

Iraqi students and us

Our next place to visit was the ancient Greek mythology site of Delphi, the site of Apollo and Athena Gods. They were supposed to be twins, male and female. Not ever having much interest in this I was a bit disinterested until we followed a tour guide at the museum site of Apollo who was doing a tour for English speaking Iraqi high school kids from Kurdistan. She really juiced it up to where I learned a lot. The museum has many really interesting artifacts and the site was interesting as well.
Temple of Apollo Story
Treasury at Apollos Temple

View from the Temple

All the stones having writing for what happened, if you can't read click on the image for larger version

Probably what we enjoyed just as much was Delphi as a mountain town in view of the Mediterranean. The hotel Sandra had selected was very good and reasonable and we asked and got a room with a view of the mountain valley that Apollo’s site is part of.
Then we went out for supper to a recommended taverna (Gargantua) and had great lamb, Greek salad and vegetables. 

On the way we travelled thru Nafpaktos on the canal
The Quality is exceptional
Next onto Olympia which is a very small town but the site of ancient Olympia and the Olympics. We took a museum tour here first since many of the important artefacts found on the site are housed in this space and it offers the best explanation for what was found, where and when. It was extremely hot here as well, so we took the tour early in the day to avoid the mid day heat which is in the high 30’s.

Artifact array

Close up in Array
Entrance to Athletic Field

So you think you're fast eh?
Ancient Church
Altar where Torch is Lit for every Games

So as many of you probably know the Olympics were an ancient athletic games held by the Greeks before Christ until about 376 AD. To understand this better, remember that the Greeks used this as a training ground for their soldiers and the games a way of determining their readiness. So it really was sort of like a military base with an athletic focus. Even Nero, the hated Roman emperor who raped and pillaged Greece had a place built there to live in while attending the Games. Theodosius I who had conquered the Roman empire in the late 300’s AD, ended the Games in 393 AD since he feared they could be used to train soldiers to defeat his army. They weren’t put back in place until the late 19th century. Much of the archaeological  work corresponds with the restart of the Games.

From Olympia to Kardamili

Kardamili is a small town ‘find’ of Rick Steve’s and we met some people from Perth Ontario who were on a Rick Steve’s tour. Kardamili is located about 50 km south of Kalamata (where the olives come from). It is on the Mani peninsula of the Peloponnese. It is a small village with quintessential Greek characteristics and a very nice setting for its old town. Where some of Greece’s’ towns have no character Kardamili really stands apart and it was so laid back, with a great pebble beach, and hot, very hot that we ended up deciding to stay extra time here. The water is warm, and we actually spent much of our time either in the water or at least sitting or lying in the water at the beach end so stay cool enough. And the water is so clear here it is amazing. Our meals have also been so, with Roast chicken in rosemary and lemon sauce, to grilled filet of fish, to Moussaka all at restaurants that overlook the Med. Absolutely magic.

Come in the Water's fine
It's so hot you'd lie in the water to stay cool while suntanning

Tale of Two Ladies         Olympia and Stella

Irida's Shop at Night
What makes Kardamili the best though are the people. When we arrived we had 2 places listed as good hotels, it was just that they were up out of the town a ways so everything would be a hike up a hill back. We stopped on a little side street and began to look for a specific hotel, then spoke with Irida who is a young 30-35 ish Greek woman who with her boyfriend run a small jewellery and clothing store, Sandra actually selected and bought a necklace there for our anniversary. It is beautiful.

Back to the story, Irida pointed out Olympia’s place and we walked over to it. Olympia was on the 2nd floor balcony hanging out some laundry and in the common high toned Greek voice said “Hello, looking for room?”. We said yes, she showed us a room and we said for 1 night even though we knew we’d stay more so we agreed on 35E. The place was good, the outside courtyard was fantastic and we made our lunch out there and had our breakfast the next morning and bought fruit and vegetables at a market just houses away from there. That next morning we were going to head to the beach and just wanted to confirm we’d be staying another day, and she got this grave sorrow filled look on her face and said ‘Sorry.. Complete.. No room.’ Then she said ‘Wait I call friend’. When she came back she said her friend didn’t answer phone but for us to wait in the courtyard. She then scurried off… and this is a big woman so scurrying is a feat.

About 15 mins.  passes and she comes back and says her friend Stella has room, and she agreed to 40 E a night… no more.. (obviously indicating she negotiated for us) So we walked back to Stella’s place with her and looked at the room which had a balcony and kitchenette and was a bit bigger. We agreed on the room and went back to get our belongings. When we arrived back Stella had a plate of biscotti’s out and Greek coffee and melon, which was fantastic. Later she would bring us a plate of cherries, and late a 2nd day in the afternoon we’d wake up from a nap after going to the beach to find a plate of watermelon perched on the ledge of our balcony. And the watermelon is so good and in season it keeps showing up as an after supper refreshment at all the restaurants. She had also brought out a photo copy map of the area and was telling us about everything to see. She would point to the moto say “Moto drive, look, look, fantastico” and make the motion of a person doing the breast stroke as if to see better.. Between these two ladies and Irdia we really enjoyed Kardamili for its people as much as its great town location, weather and beach.

The Demetrios on the Beach varying stories as to how it got there
When we finally pulled ourselves away and headed south toward Monemvasia it was not a long drive so we decided that we’d wear our bathing suits and if we found a great place for a dip when it got hot we’d do just that. Just outside Glythion this happened where we stopped at a viewpoint to look at the ship Demetrios which went ashore there many years ago and noticed a beautiful stretch of sandy beach. So we drove down and swam and sunbathed for over an hour before having some fresh fruit for lunch and heading on to Monemvasia, a Gibraltor like fortress separated off from the peninsula in 376 AD by an earthquake.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monasteries of Meteora

St Barbara Monastery in Distance
The Greek Orthodox church is a more traditional form of church to the Roman Catholic church and uses the Greek language as its form of communication, whereas the RC church used latin and eventually in the 60’s converted to the language of the country. Practices are the differentiation between the churches, not beliefs. My apologies to the Greek Orthodox church if I have over-simplified the comparison. It is due to a matter of space in this blog.

Interestingly there is a tablet there called the King of Glory that indicates the number of  philosophers of the early 8th century BC including Homer, Socrates, Aristotle and Pythagoras that all forecast the birth of a God made man (Christ) and even by pure and virgin mother (Mary) 800 years before it actually happened.
Click on Image to enlarge to read
The most stunning part of the monasteries is not their existence but their location and the work to construct them. The rock formations of the Kalampaka area of northern Greece has steep to columns that jut out like Devils Tower in Wyoming. Kalampaka is a new town which was totally wiped out by the Nazi's during WWII due to resistance to occupation.
View from our Balcony Holy Trinity Monastery on Left most column
 Access to them was by rope, where people and supplies were hauled up in crates. 
View down to Town
This area is located approximately 6 hours from Athens and you have to take a dedicated bus tour to see them, or like many Greeks you visit them on Sundays. It is beautiful to see their expression of faith as we were there on a Sunday.

Welcome to Holy Trinity Monastery
There are 6 such monasteries there with the Holy Trinity Monastery being the one featured in the James Bond movie “For your Eyes Only”. St Stephens is the oldest and Mega Meteora being the largest. The term Meteora in Greek is roughly translated to “suspended in air”. By the photos you can see why.

We had a lot of WOW moments as we  hiked up to two of them and then drove with helmet cam active to the 4 others.

Monastery Valley
Sandra in Cloister outfit to be allowed entry

Enter at the bottom right in the hole, then up the stairs and to the left


Our drive from Levanto to Venice was a quick cross country one. I had picked a mountain pass Passo di Centro and it was fantastic, all backroads, then lunch in Navaro de Taro, and later we drove by a walled village that we haven’t seen mentioned anywhere. We’ll find the name and add it.
We stayed at the Villa Gasparini, a hotel near Dolo 20 kms from Venice, right on a canal that empties into the Venezia lagoon. It is an excellent location and the hotel nice; but the owners not really friendly. That didn’t matter to us much and we visited with different guests, a lady that was just like Jim’s mom Elsie, and a couple of IT guys from New Delhi India.

That night we walked down 200 meters east to a wonderful restaurant right on the canal that had great food. The breakfast at our hotel is worth mentioning since it was exceptional with muesli, peaches, yogurt, excellent coffee, buns and meats and cheese, Italian pastries and the list could go on. Well worth the bit of a splurge we put on, but after Morocco and Portugal we are well ahead of budget. The location was also a beautiful drive following the canal  into Venice and over to the island where we pulled up to the ferry terminal, got tickets, showed our BCAA card and got a 20% discount on the ticket price. We had hoped to see some of Venice walking before loading but that didn’t happen, instead we visited with all the Germans and Slovenians motorcyclists.

There are a lot more motos on this route and we drew a bit of interest as the novelty couple, people wanting to take our pictures with the bike and wondering how we came to Europe. As we waited for the ferry to load a couple of German riders were already celebrating going on holidays with beer on the loading ramp.
Sandra said I couldn't join them

Weather was hot 28C at breakfast and sunny then as we were finished loading and in our cabin a rain shower came thru. The rain finished as the ferry pulled out of Venice and sailed right by St Marks square. So our view of Venice this time was from 8 storeys up in the cruise ferry which is much nicer than the GNV one we took from Morocco. Since we traded Levanto for Venice for timing before catching the ferry we now know we will come back this way in late August and spend more time here.

A Different Perspective of Venice 100 ‘ view

One of the French GS riders we met in Tangiers had mentioned about how beautiful the ferry ride is to/from Venice and was he ever right. The Minoan Lines ferry docks in Venice and on leaving sails down the canal that St Mark’s square is on. We were met with a quick rain shower and then everything got hot again but sailing out past all the canals, and outer islands including the Lido gives you a much broader appreciation for Venice. As our Italian group in the Sahara had mentioned about how much they loved Venice to live in, we can understand why, and the ferry really showcases the canals. It made me remember one of the last parts of the remake of the James Bond movie Casino Royale where James Bond and his femme fatale sail in on a beautiful wooden sailboat and you get an aerial view of Venice. 

Well that scene could have been shot from our 8th storey cabin window. The food on the Minoan ferry was much better as well and we enjoyed the trip all the way to Ignoumenitsa a nice port in northern Greece. We highly recommend Venice as a port choice over Bari, Brindisi or Ancona and Minoan Ferry’s are great.

Venice in the Background 50 days 
Today is also officially 50 days gone, or 1/3 completed. It feels great!

Above Metsovo very much like Banff
On leaving the ship we got the E90/A2 freeway, spectacular roadway to Metsova where we had lunch then onto Meteora/Kalambaka to the monasteries. Again out of another James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only“. Cinematographers really know their stuff. You can travel very quickly thru this area, but don’t since it is very scenic. We really enjoyed this northern route and now the monasteries.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Morocco Epilogue

Morocco is an incredibly diverse country both geographically and ethnically with Berbers occupying the east and south and the more Arabic/Islamic culture occupying the north and west. 

Morocco is in a different time zone from Spain measured in both centuries and hours and that adds to the interest. As our muslim guide in Fes said, the berbers tolerate the Arabs (muslims) and go their own way. The principal language is Arabic with French as a 2nd language. Rarely do you find English speaking Moroccans. 

Morocco is for experienced travellers and a very nimble motorcycle is necessary to navigate the roads, passes, and dirt. We hardly saw another moto except a Vstrom 650 -2up ,a few GS’s and the Kawasaki KLR600’s, a few new Yamaha 660XT’s and a couple of Africa Twins which Sandra refers to as Africa Queens. Too much Bogart I think. A Hamburg based R 1200RT was at the ferry terminal but they drove the motorways to Marrakesh and back, the easy stuff.  Scooters are everywhere and ½ of the riders are bent over at the side of the road re-attaching their chain. It is a national sport! And on every street there has to be 2 -3 shops with broken down scooters at them. Old Mercedes are everywhere as well in diesel format, as Grand Taxis. Dacia’s are the Petit Taxis. 2-3 shops per street as well.

Riding in Morocco is a guerrilla survival technique of driving and it is seldom that you ride for fun since oil, sand, debris, people, animals or a vehicle will appear out of nowhere. Line markings mean nothing. In fact after we posted the Dades gorge video we found online another video we have created a link to. It shows all the driving mistakes that drivers regularly make including the ‘professional’ bus driver. It is hilarious and deadly accurate. Watch it.

The country is very mountainous with the Riff mountains covering the east and north, and the range of Mid Altas, High Altas and Anti Altas mountains covering the middle, mid south and south part of the country respectively. Dades gorge is in the mid to high Altas on the east side of the pass. The Ticht au Tizha pass that we went over west of Ouarazazate was likely 120kms in length with 80 kms of it in hairpin turns as difficult as the ones you saw in the Dades article and video. Riding it was scenic but exhausting. I will enjoy the riding videos more when home since I can recall the route but know I won’t get hit. We were warned to stay out of the Riff mountain area but at no time did we feel at risk when there; even though there apparently is a drug trade going on. 

Sandra has the following reminder….. 80>>>>60>>>>40>>>>20>>>POLICE.

In virtually every situation you see a set of reducing speed signs in place like this you will find the police. In nearly every town Police are there to control traffic on one end of town. They do not seem to be interested in tourists though.

Tourists go through the rigor of having to complete a daily travel diary at each hotel they stay at, where they are coming from and where they are going to and including their temporary entry visa number on each one.

We love the Berber people who are so genuine and hard working. We are concerned with the high unemployment that has many people laying in fields, ditches, or sitting at the side of the road with nothing to do. At 50% unemployment this place may be the next to erupt. Poverty is everywhere. Men sit together in cafes all day and visit while the women work at field work. Hmmm.. maybe there is a message here. Just kidding……Sandra was very upset with this so I have promised to take out the garbage more often when we get home.

People still cut their hay by hand scythe, use themselves and particularly their wives as beasts of burden, hmmm... no comment…ouch Sandra that hurt!!  Donkeys are a main travel tool for both goods and people. Sheep and shepherds are everywhere, now you see where the love affair began, they spend so much time together!!  LOL… Ouch that really hurt!! The roads are narrow and used more as convenient walkways often being used by people and animals rather than vehicles.  Only now are some major toll highways being built. If we had driven the country the way we first planned we would have thought Morocco was a snap, that eventually deteriorated. Staying on the east side first gave us the rapid immersion in the culture. If we had done the west side first when we got to Marrakesh we may have decided we had had enough and retreated to the coastal areas. We would have missed the heart and soul of the country.

Tagine made foods and Couscous are their cultural dishes and served in a Menu du jour at many small out of the way hotels. The tagine will be like our stews but can be very spicy. The amount of food is limited. Salads are made up generally of some cold finely cut carrots, beets, green peppers, tomato with cucumber (to which I am allergic). Surprisingly the salads were good .. sans cucumber. Breads are typically a pan bread as you see in the pictures. Since the Islamic faith does not allow alcoholic beverages it is rare that you can find beer or wine, and if you do it is usually expensive. Water is by bottle… do not drink tap water anywhere. Even locals drink bottled water which is sold everywhere. And water is precious in the smaller villages with maybe 1 or 2 community taps and people hauling water to their homes.

A Super Marche in France is a Superstore like food store. In Morocco it is more than likely a little corner store. Only now are they trying larger food stores but they are so counter-culture it will be a long time for them to catch on.

With all this as backdrop we are so glad we visited Morocco as it is because it is so different. It is difficult and you must be prepared for that. Their king is well loved by the people and seems to be making some major strides forward, but the cultural  practices really stifle progress as we measure it in the west. We will always remember Morocco favourably even with all it challenges. It’s geographical beauty, especially in eastern Morocco east of Marrakesh, must be experienced. All the other bikers waiting in line had very similar feelings to us.

GNV Take at your own risk
Our departure from Morocco left us feeling like we were never going to be able to leave with the ferry GNV, loading 2 ½ hrs late for Barcelona which threw everyone’s schedule out. GNV is not a ferry line I would ever recommend after this experience but they are the only ones that do this route.

Waiting and waiting and waiting

Vernazza on the Cinque Terre
We are now back in Italy landing here Monday night and drove to Levanto where we’ve spent the last few days re-acclimatizing to a western culture. Stay tuned for more as we have just moved on to Venice after a most incredible day riding such a beautiful landscape.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


See our Dades Gorge video on the right side of the page.

Ibis Pool
Essaouira is a coastal village of 40000 people and is also listed as a UNESCO site for its intact medina and sea fortress. The drive from Marrakesh was simple, the road is virtually dead straight, very prairie-like and you start to see more European road markings such as double solid lines and passing on one side while prohibiting on the other. The 174 kms clicks by pretty quick  and the last section is actually 4 lane divided and we arrive to a beautiful setting at the new Ibis hotel here. Another Oasis. Pic is from our room.

Medina Walls and Mineret
Sandra’s stomach is giving her a bit of a problem again and we are trying to figure out what she’s eating that I’m not that is affecting her. We sit out and use the gorgeous pool and even though we’ve had many days in the sun, the sun here 800 kms south of the top of Africa is apparently a lot more powerful because we get sunburnt, not bad, but warm.The next day we walk into the old medina area. We are about 5 mins from the beach and encounter some camel jockeying as they set up for their rides on the beach every day. The beach is super long and goes on out of sight. I find replacement sunglasses for the ones that broke in Spain, and Sandra finds a miniature tagine with Essaouira towers painted on it. We are doing pretty good with our small travel mementos.

outer ramparts
The fishing port is just outside the towers and we take a walk through there. The fish has just come in and there are huge long eels to see, something that is strange for us to see in the cold Pacific climate. There are 4 huge fishing vessels being built in the port, all of wood, and the fishing fleet as you can see is like everything else in Morocco, rundown. I do spot some Yamaha outboard motors and they look in good shape. They must be great engines to keep on running here.

The medina while being old is very well run and not as dirty as most others we’ve seen and the stall operators are well behaved. I think the tourist influence from Europe, especially Germany where Ruby mentioned her parents used to take her, has probably had more of an effect. . It is definitely in good shape here. Eastern Morocco obviously doesn’t see the tourism.

Fish hauled up ramp

The fleet

A windsurfing destination

Amazing  soccer talent on the beach especially guy in yellow