The Sahara and Us Morocco 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Black Sea Coast and Shumen

Madara Horseman near Shumen

Our drive down and up the Black Sea coast was relatively uneventful given the past few days. South towards the Turkish border are some remnants of old soviet industrial institutions that lie abandoned now on the seashore.

North the road gets much better though still two lane almost to Burgas. There are a smattering of seaside resorts some leftover soviet construction ones, others recent additions. There is no road construction going on though in the country and it seriously needs it.

One of many 9th century churches in Nessabar 
Burgas itself is a large industrial centre and it is here that you start to notice more common European store names. We decide to continue north to Nessabar, a place that Diana had suggested we visit since it had a beautiful old town. It does, Nessabar while a tourist magnet for the famed Sunny Beach and the Old town is again tour bus heaven.

What struck us here is the architectural difference of the town. Stone walls for the main floor and wood clad walls for the upper floors. Also, the churches, built between the 4th century AD and 11 century AD all had a very similar design. And in the Orthodox religion apparently each ‘class’ had its own church, so that was why there were so many in such a small old town centre.

Along this stretch of coast we ran into 3 different vehicle accidents within a very short distance. All on narrow 2 lane road. Since there are very few other roads everybody just stops and gets out if traffic is blocked in both directions. With the motorcycle we wound our way thru the stopped traffic and made our way around the accidents and continued on. We definitely wouldn’t have got to our destination for the day had we stayed in line.

Sandra with Phillip and Yoanna
Now the Garmin map set for Bulgaria is basic major highways and very little side road detail. So we are headed for Shumen, the old home of a work colleague of Sandra’s from Suncor and her parents. We had been invited to stop there by Yoanna’s parents when they heard we were coming through Bulgaria, and then when our schedule changed it ended up that Yoanna and Phillip had just arrived from Calgary. It was such a fortunate opportunity.

Plaman and Diana at Plitska
You see Yoanna’s parents both had wanted to be archaeologists but went different paths during the Soviet occupied era. He became a military officer and she a teacher. But they never lost their interest in archaeology and Shumen is the centre of the original Bulgarian empire. Don’t take my word for it even the Soviets recognized it by building a monument in Shumen. It was created in 1981 by the Soviets and  has stark “Starwars’ type features to the monument and images but is very powerful. Obvious Yoanna’s parents are exceptionally proud of their hometown area. It is 1300 steps above the town, 1 for each year dating back from the dedication to the start of the Bulgarian state.

Statues are part of the Soviet legacy

1300 Steps Up 1 per year

The magnitude 

Like Star Wars figures of 9 th century Kings
Plitska was the first capital of Bulgaria during the Han Krum era dating back to the 5th century. This later moved to Veliki Preslav where King Simeon was recognized for bringing Christianity to Bulgaria driving out the Moors in the 10th century. These are all within 15 kms of Shumen. The ruins here are very interesting and have artefacts from them that we have not seen anywhere else.

In addition the Madara Horseman, which adorns their coinage, the lev (BGN) was found carved into an ancient cliffside just a few kms away. And the surrounding area to the horseman was an ancient cave dwelling area. The place is beautiful to see.

Again Bulgaria has been fought over ‘forever’ it seems and was annexed by Russia after WWII. 
sewage drainage

Water source piped in

We definitely benefited from Yoanna’s dad’s knowledge of the sites, he has such a passion for the area. And we really enjoyed the company of her family, who were celebrating the arrival of their first born grandchild/great grandchild. We are just so appreciative for being able to be guests of theirs. There is no way the sights would have meant as much to us without Yoanna’s dads explanations which Yoanna and Diana translated to English for us over a 2 day period. What an enriched experience! and great food. Thanks Diana and Yanka.

We also learned that the common man in Bulgaria doesn’t believe that belonging to the EU has made Bulgaria a stronger country. It has facilitated an exodus of people to other EU and north American countries but those that remain are witnessing a very difficult time. In contrast Romania is doing well after its revolution against its communist state. Roads are excellent, the economy is cooking.

Buildings that the soviet era had begun, now sit unfinished or unused in Bulgaria. The routine and order to the peoples lives the soviets brought has now been replaced by uncertainty about their economic future. There is the perception that the EU controls quotas for products in such a manner that it restricts economic development of a region like Bulgaria that has lower wages and many raw resources. They have only joined the EU since 2006 some 16 years after the fall of communism.   It doesn’t seem they accomplished much before the EU. We hope for this and future generations of proud Bulgarians that the EU does benefit them.

We did discuss the difficulty we encountered with the current Bulgarian government in getting tourist information like we did for other countries. Yoanna’s dad shared that same experience when his masters dissertation in Economics  based on a viable tourism industry in Bulgaria was accepted but without discussion suggesting they had no interest in the content. It is yet another area of great economic potential. The Balkan states during the soviet era used to be the summer playground for soviets due to its great weather and beaches, now the former soviet countries travel elsewhere and that economic void has not been filled with other visitors.

economic void has not been filled with other visitors.

But the best part was seeing Bulgaria through the eyes of a proud Bulgarian family.
Four Generations at Yanka's house
everyone at Breakfast, they don't do
breakfast in Bulgaria this was just
for us, so we'd leave LOL

Yanka's house in Pleslav
Old Bulgarian Border now a toll fee collection

7 Nuclear reactors in total
Bulgaria exports power

So we have said goodbye to Bulgaria by way of a GPS programming error (mine). I went off on the wrong road from Shumen and after beating ourselves up on a bad road wasn’t going to go back so we have now crossed over into Romania. The Cyrillic alphabet is my excuse.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Leaving Istanbul ( And quite a Border story)

We left Istanbul at about 10:30 am in the morning, about the same time we left Athens. What a difference though. We drove out from our hotel located in the Sultanahmet to Kennedy Caddesi and headed northwest. Beautiful road next to the Marmara sea, a well kept park on the seaside of the drive made it very picturesque. Traffic was light and flowed well until well past Istanbul and into another town where road construction ground things to a halt and delayed us by about 15 mins. All told, we drove out of Istanbul in 1 ¼ to ½ hrs in mostly trouble free conditions. Pretty good since it is twice the size of New York City.

Our drive through the countryside was fairly boring as the area north of Istanbul toward the border is flat and farmland. However as we crossed this area we stopped at a service station/market to buy something to eat and get out of the heat.  As is customary on my part I always wave to the service staff. We picked up a large bottle of Coke and some chips. Immediately the owner, one of the pump guys brings us out to a patio table he has set up between islands and brings 2 cups for us to drink from. We sit with him, unable to converse much but we try and we offer him some pop with he declines. A few minutes later he rushes away and comes back with 2 very hot coffees for us. They are the best coffee we have had in Turkey. After telling him where we have been, and he tapping his heart with feeling, Sandra brings out an Oh Canada pin that we wanted to give Bora and we pinned it on him. You should have seen him glow.

Our drive continued north and east and into the hills heading to the Bulgarian border. What a gorgeous road and the new tire really was appreciated. Thanks again Bora ! As we reached the border though at about 2:30 pm. things changed. Here was an old Soviet style building that houses the Turkish Border Services, for which I use the term lightly. A complete departure from our previous experience. 

Immediately things go south in a big way.

We check in with the first border guy, and he tells us to go inside to get the passports stamped checking out, and the vehicle stamped as well. We go to the vehicle inspection guy and he stamps us out without even inspecting the serial number on the bike. Says to Sandra he trusts Canadians. We then go to the Border Polis and we tell the guy we are leaving Turkey to Bulgaria, he stamps the passports and we return to the vehicle guy and he gives his OK and “bye bye“. We then drive to the final checkpoint where a guy examines everything for 10 mins. then says, “Problem“, and points to the stamp over the Visa. He says it says we just entered Turkey not exited Turkey and it needs changed.

We are questioning this when some Turks/Bulgarians who speak his language  and English intercede and say they will help us. We go back to the Border Polis.  After 20 mins of explanations and how they made the error with their stamp, he takes the ‘helpers’ aside and immediately their faces turn pale and they tell us they will be outside but they can’t help any more. I am ordered to follow him, and then bring the bike back from the checkpoint.

I come back with the bike to find him gone and Sandra standing outside. Now I’m hot figuratively and literally, and since I have dealt with customs and immigration in my past life I do not scare easily with these types. So I go after him, and he finally checks back in with the vehicle guy, and all the time they are looking at computer screens. One other border guy begins to try peeling my Visa sticker off my passport and I tell him to stop and demand he give it back. While he doesn’t return it he does stop peeling it.

In the room with the vehicle guy another guy comes in who seems to be a boss, and the border polis guy gets some kind of direction and I get my exit stamp and an apology, ‘Sorry’ its OK now‘.

So we go back to the checkpoint guy with our new exit stamps. 

He again examines them for 10 mins and then says “Problem”. 

I said “What now?”. 

He says the border polis guy did not cancel the entry stamp and I need to go back and tell him to cancel it.

By this point there is a line up of other cars and people are huddled about his little kiosk window about 200 meters away from the main building.  

I then advise the checkpoint guy that I don’t tell anybody how to do their job at the border.
 Sandra pipes in:“The Border Polis guy says everything is OK“ You say its not“.  

I then said “Listen if there is a problem you need to talk with the Border polis guys, I can’t tell him to do anything You call him;  you talk.”  

A fellow that identifies himself as an American now living in Bulgaria who has been listening in begins to say “Welcome to our life.” and that this isn’t America and these guys are nasty. Sandra says that he says to her that these guys can make you cry. So he tells me to go, and I say “ No’ Get the border polis here and talk it over‘ and with my two index fingers pointing to each other I gesticulate. 

He makes a radio call but gets no response. No doubt, those guys don’t want to talk with him either. I then take off my helmet and sit on the bike, 7 cars are lined up behind me.

The American/Bulgarian then hands over his passport. The guys demands all 5 passengers passports. Then after 4-5 mins he says “Problem” and begins to tell him what his problem is and to go back. The fellow has to make about 10 cars back up  by this time so he can back up  but he goes. Another guy is told to go back as well for a second time. I’m just chuckling about this. 

Then the checkpoint guy pretends to look at his screen for a few moments, says  “Bree-aan Geeeor--jah”  that’s what they think my name is, (forget the Smith) and I respond “Yes” and he hands back both passports and says “You can go”. 

With that we are gone. I guess the magical cancellation stamp appeared or the passport healed itself. So that little round about took almost 2 hrs of riding time away, but as Sandra says makes for another border story that we have to tell.

We cross into Bulgaria and are welcomed back into the EU, which feels like home after Turkey, and then we look at the road ahead of us. A 1960’s paved ??  road that is barely 2 lanes wide, no shoulders, 4’ tall weeds growing into it and twisty as hell with ruts and potholes. It begins to shower a bit but nothing worth anything in the 33C heat except that it causes the road to steam. Then out of the steam comes an old green 60’s soviet style van, something that looks like the old Corvair vans of the 60’s  but more bulbous coming slowly up the road. I comment to Sandra, “this is what I imagine the Transylvanian road to be like“. It takes about 1 hr to drive the 56 kms we need to make to get to our destination for the night, Tsavero. Quite the experiential day. 

Tsavero in Cyrillic


We have noticed with concern how conditioned we had become in the almost month that we were in Turkey and then Greece before that. Instead of running across a street to avoid being run over, you can stroll down the middle. There is no garbage strewn about. There are garbage cans and they aren’t overflowing. There is no pushing or shoving. There is though a lot of drinking. My God a 50 cl beer is .85 BGN at the store cold. That’s about 48 cents Canadian. We bought a pizza for supper tonight that cost 2.50 BGN or $1.50  A whole pizza hot and good!

Right now it is vacation time here and with hot summer nights and visiting families they have a carnival with rides in the park , street vendors selling incredible ice cream and popcorn, all things we couldn’t find worth buying in Turkey.

Carnival at Night
We spent a few hours at the beach, and I talked at length with the young son of the owner of our hotel. He is an architectural technologist who can’t find work here so I was helping him with targeting a few places in Canada he might try. A nap in the afternoon was just great, some excellent Bulgarian white wine and then of course the pizza. Life is good here.

As we walk about Tsavero we notice lots of remnants of the soviet occupied era. The statues of the workers in the main square were meant to inspire hard work. In Romania after the soviet era they tore down all the statues but here they don’t have the money to replace them with any others so they remain.
Left over from the Soviet Occupation

Istanbul - Old Constantinople

First of all Istanbul has 17 Million people.
Istanbul and the Galata Tower
Our research and expectations about Istanbul certainly didn’t reveal what we found on our arrival. We had expected a very cosmopolitan city, something that would live up to the fact Ataturk, the father of modern day Turkey had wanted the country to look west and modernize and set it on a course. It appears that course may now have been altered with the present government. 

 Roman emperor Constantine conquered the city in the 4th century and had it named after him. This stretch of land has been fought over in almost every war and became home to the Sultans of the Ottoman empire in their day as well during the 15th and 16th centuries. Constantine even shipped an Egyptian Obelisk from Luxor to the Hiipoodrome as part of his re-dedication of the city. 

Serdar Gürcan, Bahar Altun and US at Bandirma Ferry
We arrived via ferry crossing the Sea of Marmara from Bandirma and arrived virtually in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. We did not have to drive all the way in from some other location which was great. 

What we found is a fairly traditional Islamic city. We have likely seen more fully Burka’d women here in our short stay, than all the rest of Turkey in 3 weeks. Of course population concentration may have something to do with that as well.
Fully Burka'd Woman with her Raybans and Iphone 4
The call to prayer from all the Minorets can become overpowering and invasive. Like most other places in Turkey it is not the Imam doing the call to prayer, it is a recording dialled in remotely to the minoret and played over a loud speaker. Often times you can hear the phone keying in signal before and after the actual recording. So much for tradition.

Fortress of Europe

Fortress of Asia
Our Bosphorus tour was informative as it shows the development of Istanbul from early times  mid 300’s through to today, from the Fortress of Asia and Fortress of Europe, both built during sultan times to control the Bosphorus to the influences of Genoa and Venice, and the 19th century buildings along the shore. Of particular interest was Dolmabahce Palace, which sits on the shore and is where Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey died. We decided to take the tour 2 hour loop instead of the 6 1/2 hr one. In 33C weather it was the wise decision. Of course we had to be in Istanbul during a heat wave.

Government Centre new meets old

The Grand Bazaar was started in the 1500’s as a commercial centre, and was later followed by a Spice Bazaar a few blocks away. Both are very colourful and full of people trying to make a sale. We did go look again at carpet then came away with the realization that we weren’t going to entrust several thousands of dollars in a carpet to have shipped from Turkey to Canada. We did however bring back a smaller representation of their craftsmanship.

Spices Too

The Blue mosque is very large, 2nd only I believe to the one in Mecca. 
The Blue Mosque is large
The ‘Islamic’ blue tiles display geometric patterns as it is against Islamic practices to represent the human form. As a result the building has a cold interior presence, much like a very large tiled  football stadium. You are allowed to enter; for women with their heads and shoulders covered as well as their knees. For men, their knees need to be covered. They provided Velcro skirt wraps for both of us. Sorry no pictures allowed of them. Smithlamic practices we are required to adhere to.

Stained Glass and Tile Magnificent

The Basilica cisterns were very interesting. I can’t remember which movie used them as a backdrop, possibly a James Bond movie, but they are really neat. They were only re-discovered in recent times when people would tell stories about fishing thru their basement floors and drawing water and fish from below. It was then uncovered. There are two Medusa’s faces submerged in the columns with no explanation as to how they got there.

Sultans view of Bosphorus from Topkapi Palace
Our visit to the Topkapi Palace, the home of various sultans during their rules was interesting. Again pictures were not allowed in any interior rooms. That did not seem to stop most Muslims including an Imam from doing whatever they pleased. It did have some artefacts from their prophet Mohammed. What was surprising for me is that both Jesus and Mohammed were considered prophets by the Muslims. For Christians we know of Jesus as a man of the people and of peace. Mohammed’s artefacts included a breast plate, jewelled daggers and several swords. These were instruments of war. Not exactly a man of peace from his worldly possessions and that may provide insight into why the Quran has fighting references in it. As well, the Muslim conduct around the palace and in particular in front of Mohammed’s artefacts was appalling. They did not show the respect I have come to expect in a holy place. They would push in front of you, separate Sandra and I  and we were listening to an audio guide of the tour and then pull their family members in.  This wasn’t some small butting in, this was quite rude given the sweaty nature of many of them and the fact it was 33C inside. I had to push several of them back on occasion and finally guards interceded to speak to the line pushers and relocate them. If one of them had been a pickpocket then the outcome would have been a lot worse. 

Unfortunately in Istanbul  there is litter everywhere. While strolling on the Galata bridge we watched a traditional Islamic mother and young boy about 10 take their plastic water bottles, .50cl size and set them on the railing then the boy hit them into the water and they both walked off laughing. Rather disturbing I would say. I looked over in disbelief to confirm what I thought I saw.

Friday, July 22, 2011

We Bought New Shoes

Bora, friend and Sandra in office talking tires

 Horizons Unlimited is an excellent resource for getting great advice on world motorcycle travel and the development of contacts. One such contact made was Bora Eris in Bandirma. 

Bora runs what on the surface looks like a small tire shop, and has a penchant for motorcycling. Just ask to see his certificates for classes he has taken. But beneath that friendly exterior is a smart business person as well. Now he sells Metzeler, Pirelli, and Continental tires and K&N filters. And he is associated with OMM.

I knew I was going to need a couple of tire changes on our trip based on past tire performance but the Continental rear tire that I put on in Canada has lasted almost 22000 kms. in some very tough use. I had coordinated getting the tire with Bora along the way and he has kept one aside for me.
Baby gets new shoes

Making them fit

Yesterday we pulled in to his shop and were greeted by one of the friendliest Turks we have met. After many Turkish teas, and him booking our ferry tickets for us, arranging a hotel, etc. we finally got our tire put on. What a super experience. If you need anything tire related in Turkey, Bora knows people everywhere there. 
Email him at bora at eris dot com dot tr.

Now we just need to get him interested in visiting Canada.

Travellers Cave Hotel

Travellers Cave Hotel At Night

Watching Balloons from the Balcony

Zoom in to find Sandra

Our Room on the Left

Sandra has done a lot of research for this trip and the Travellers Cave was no exception to her great picks. Matter of fact it rates as one of my favourites. As mentioned before we don’t make a bunch of reservations because plans change. So while we were in Side I emailed them and Bekir got back to me right away that they had one room left. Great, good luck remains with us.

When you get into Goreme you’ll discover that the fairy chimneys dictated the streets so we stopped at Voyager Balloons and they called Bekir and 5 mins later staff was there with a van to show us up to the hotel. 

Now the Travellers Cave is the highest located hotel in Goreme and wonderfully situated. We were shown to our room, which is carved out of the rock. It was very nicely done and made you get in to the mood of Goreme. Next a briefing on what there was to do, hikes, tours, balloon rides etc. We selected the hike right away and were taken by bus with others from the other Travellers hotels, they have 2-4 more in town and led on a 2 ½ hr hike through Rose valley. As I said before excellent value and they even picked up some tourists caught on a long walk back to town from another hotel and dropped them off.
When we came back we sat out in their leather cushioned gazebo until well past 10:00 pm. With wine and beer in hand marvelling at the fantastic view of the town and chimneys all lit up below and enjoying some cooler evening breezes to what we have experienced for the past 3 weeks.

The next morning before breakfast we could hear the balloons firing up and we popped out of our room to see 35 hot air balloons floating above Goreme.
35 Hot Air Balloons Count them actually 2 are behind the camera
 Sandra took up watch from our favourite seats, ones we’d lay claim to later the next evening again. The balloons were quite a sight, and if we had thought more seriously about it we should have taken one ourselves but the next opportunity was at 4:30am and with a champagne breakfast after and we had to head for Istanbul. 

At breakfast we were pleasantly surprised to see a buffet style layout, with the best tomatoes, honey, yogurt, actually everything was the best it could be, including French toast! And Bekir showed me a special jam that is made from red wine grapes. Wow was it good.

We did the drive to Ugurp, a grape growing area and where some of the mushroom chimneys are, and then thru Zelve before returning to town. Then a another great meal at “Bufet” a small café on the road up to our hotel. It serves great Turkish foods at very reasonable prices. No alcohol allowed.

Carved from the Rock
Sandra in Room

The last surprise was this morning while paying our bill. I won’t tell you what it was because we‘ll give them the chance to alter the ‘gift‘ as they see fit, but it just showed us that Bekir is one savvy host for people, and he wants them to come back.

These people deserve a 10/10 in our books.

Derenkuyu and Cappadocia

Fairy Chimneys at Night - Cappadocia

Derenkuyu is an underground city located about 30kms south of Neveshir which is 50 kms east of Akasary where we stayed the night before. Goreme, the centre of Cappadocia is 15 kms to the east of Neveshir. The area forms a triangle of interesting stuff for the visitor to see.

Cave dwellings above town
We went to Derenkuyu first. As we headed out of Neveshir there is a eery feel when you look up at the cliffs and see cave doors carved out of the rock facings. This was evident both going out of and back into Neveshir from every direction. Later we’d drive by these same kind of cliff dwellings in Zelve and they were inhabited until 1952.

Derenkuyu was an underground city built by the early Christians to seek protection from persecution by the pagan Romans of the day. It was 8 storeys in depth, and apparently the population was thought to be around 20,000 at it’s height (pun) depth. There was a 90M deep well shaft dug,  ventilation shafts, stone round doors that could seal off areas for protection. It had a church and even an underground cemetery. We took our LED flashlights with us and they came in handy as the lighting in places left a lot to be desired. This is a site you do not want to miss.
Stairs Down

Oops where did Sandra go

I:m here stupid
Stable on First Floor Down

Transition between floors
Stone Door to Section off Areas

Air Shaft Up
Burial Plot Down

Cappadocia and specifically Goreme is the other absolute must. 


Entrance to Monastery

A view from the Rose Valley

 This is the home of the fairy chimneys, and cave dwellings dating well back before Christ. The area was first created by the eruption of a now extinct volcano. The “luft’, soft rock spewed by the volcano was able to be carved out and rooms and even a monastery created. As part of staying at the Travellers Cave Hotel there (another great story) you could pay to go on a hike that took you through Rose valley, where the best examples exist. If you don’t take this hike, you could walk around, or go to the Goreme open air museum. We chose the Travellers cave option with the bus ride and refreshments and explanations. It was excellent value.