Tangier - Meknes
I don't think I took any pictures in Tangier. We didn't spend much time there, we had a walk along the beach, up to the ferry gates and considered hiring a horse for a quick run in the sand but we gave up on the idea, it had been too long since
I had done it and I wasn't quite sure if I still knew how while Abby, who had never tried, was a bit worried about having her first experience on a fierce Arab horse. So we just remained faithful to our Transalp.
After all, we were back with a mission: finding a job in Morocco, we had to get serious.
That evening, I had a chat on Facebook with Philippe, a dear friend of ours who lives in Paris when he's not busy painting or taking care of his eco-lodge in a tea plantation in Sri-Lanka. He told us that he was searching for a three hectares olive
grove near Volubilis so as to open another eco-lodge there and, since his Moroccan associate couldn't find anything decent, he asked if we could check it out for him. That sounded pretty interesting so we agreed to take a look around.
The next day, we packed up our stuff and rode to Moulay Idriss, near Volubilis, 25 kilometres away from Meknes. We had taken a quick look at that holy town a few months earlier as we visited the Roman ruins of Volubilis but not long enough to really explore it. So this was the perfect opportunity for a good checking. The place is known as the Mekka of the poor for the peasants around to go on pilgrim. It is said that going there seven times in seven years is as good as doing the trip to
Mekka. However the mausoleum is closed to non-Muslims so we could only walk up to the entrance and have a quick look from the top in a street nearby. The little town is perched on a pretty stiff hill so we could only ride the Transalp up to the main square that serves as a car park as well as market place. Abby went to look for an hotel but came back empty handed.
However a local dude approached us and said that he knew of a family house where we could rent a room and have breakfast and dinner. It wasn't the most luxurious place we had ever stayed in but it was good enough for a while.
We began walking around Moulay-Idriss up to Volubilis. Oliver groves were everywhere but non were for sale. Finally, as we left, we took a last ride on a small road above the cemetery and came across a sign on a large house: "For Sale". I think we woke up Mohamed, the owner but he was nice and invited us in for a look. He explained how he had almost renovated the whole place into a cool little guest house but that the banks had refused to lend him the money to finish the work. We visited the building and indeed, 75% of the work was done. It was a beautiful house, surrounded with a garden full of olive trees and Mohamed told us that the olive grove on the other side of the little road was also his with about forty trees. We were far from the three hectares Philippe wanted but it was worth telling him about it. The terraces were particularly impressive with enough room for a restaurant, a kitchen and a bar. They were facing the ruins of Volubilis above a forest of olive trees. There was a large garage, about six or seven rooms, two separate stairs, plenty of space, it was perfect. Mohamed told us that the whole region was now protected as a natural park and that no other houses could be built. That could explain why Philippe's associate couldn't find anything for him. I filmed the whole visit, interviewed Mohamed and sent Philippe the video but he found the place too small indeed so, sadly, we gave up on the idea of becoming guest house managers... oh well.
We decided to ride to Agadir where we knew, from Facebook, that Mohamed, the medicine student we had met in Marrakesh would be, on holiday at his parents countryside house. We could have a chat together again, he was cool. We also wanted to see if we could find a job as French and piano teachers there since Agadir had a French institute and a large population of expatriates. We probably should be checking this in Rabat or in Casa instead but these cities weren't our cup of tea.
As we crossed Meknes, we reached a crossroad where the traffic had come to a halt. I inserted our bike between two trucks but couldn't get further. Of course, that's when the two trucks drivers decided to show each others how high they could bounce their cabins by playing with their accelerators. One of them didn't apply the brake fast enough and hit our left side pannier with his wheel, sending us flying to the ground, with our helmets inches away from the other truck large rubbers. Fortunately our protections saved us from getting hurt and miraculously the bike was fine too, not even a bent handle.
The policeman who, as usual, was responsible for the traffic jam in the first place, came to check us out and decided that things needed to be investigated further despite our claim to be fine. So we showed our papers and the truck driver began to blame us for being hit by his wheel. The cop told him to shut up and asked if we wanted to sue him. I repeated that everything was fine, no one was hurt, the bike didn't have a scratch (more) so could we please just leave and forget all about it?
The policeman didn't seem to understand, what, we didn't want to sue? He looked disappointed. Meanwhile, the truck driver who obviously wasn't speaking French too well, was still trying to put the blame on us. In the end the cop, with a sad
look on his face, explained that he didn't need to bother any longer because we weren't going to give him any hassle anyway.
So his attitude immediately changed, he loved us all of a sudden! He smiled, shook my hand, obviously relieved and thanked me with profusion. I told him to check out his mirrors from time to time and watch out for bikers in the future because we
were slightly more fragile than his truck and then, we wished him the best.
Being safe, the whole scene looked quite amusing but Abby scolded me for having inserted us between the two trucks in the first place. She wasn't totally wrong there. I think she got a little scared when we bit the dust... can't blame her really,
I did too.
Agadir, Tizi-N-Test, Tangier, back to Spain.
Since we were planning to stay for a while, we went back at our old hotel Azour and rented an apartment with a kitchen for a month. Same staff, same kindness, we always felt at home there.
The weekend was starting so we decided to take a ride to Paradise Valley, named as such by Jimi Hendrix himself as he was travelling there in 1969, with his guitar on his back, playing Voodoo Child while smoking a joint he had purchased in
Chefchaouen and saved until then because he knew he would have to give a creative name to that valley.
Isn't that's the scientific proof that creativity isn't enhanced by marijuana at all since the valley turned out to look heavenly indeed? I bet locals had already called it that way in their dialect. We followed a small river, hence the valley, or rather the gorge, and we could imagine hordes of hippies camping along the banks or in the caves we could spot in the cliff. The place was always fresh, yet sunny. The stream was clear and the water inviting. It looked very cute.
And of course it ended with a magnificent waterfall as if a huge reward was naturally due to the cool heroes who had made it there all the way, bare feet and severely stoned. I was only nine years old at that time, oh, how I wished my parents had met ten years earlier than they did! Blissful years the sixties! Banks for instance, were true services then, you could attack them, not the reverse! Terrorism was a souvenir from the Second World War... and was on the good side! Communists and capitalists were busy scaring each others instead of having just one sect frightening everybody else. Jagger sang "Oh Carol" out of tune but everyone loved it anyway! In Liverpool, Lennon wasn't very imaginative yet, but in USA, "Kick out the jam, Motherf***ers!" was already a good idea. The "White Rabbit" was starting to show his naughty nose and India was about to welcome a whole bunch of very different tourists very nicely. Afghanistan was a warm and inspiring country while Nepal was soon going to be considered as Nirvana by some rather colourful, and imaginative, extremists. Dads were square but had money
while Moms were more understanding, being stoned on Valiums. Love had become a slogan, the florist market was in full bloom and motorcycles were made of metal.
Then a so-called evolution process kicked in and by the time I could become a hippie myself, there were only bunches of punks around who had "no future" instead of a karma... guess who got frustrated!
Imagine, I even had to take a completely lame airplane instead of driving a psychedelic antique to Goa because Afghanistan had already turned into a war zone. By the time I could join a kibbutz, Israel had started committing crimes against humanity in refugee camps. When I finally could light up my first joint, Marley died from lungs cancer and then the brainwashing rhythm of hip hop began to devour the good ol' appeasing reggae. Now that I had a licence, England and Italy had shut down their motorcycle factories. I was free to do whatever I liked but wearing ones hair long disqualified anyone from finding even summer jobs except among alcoholic roadies for local Heavy Metal bands... how uncool had it all become!? In fact hippies were traitors who just didn't wait for late comers, worst, they had turned into yuppies instead, that's all I could observe!
But Paradise valley and its waterfall didn't care about times and their changing, the stream had washed it all away and everything had remained the same, natural and pretty.
Then it was time to justify our return and seriously look for job opportunities. I sadly visited the barber for a long-due shave, we updated the curriculum vitae of our past sufferings, wrote our letters of submission, wore our best slavish outfits
and off we went for the infamous task.
First we visited the French Institute. Damn, just getting in it was enough to cut my appetite. It felt just as bad as one of the places I used to teach for in Hong Kong: the Alliance Française. I was 23 When I moved in Hong Kong. For several reasons,
I was disgusted by the French education system and I had applied in that institute, firmly determined to leave France once and for all. As soon as I popped up to my new job in Hong Kong, it was like I had never travelled half way through the
I was greeted by some sort of sub-director who just looked at me and announced that I couldn't stay. My hair was too long!
The Chinese students would hate me. The only freaks with long hair in town were beggars and mad men. The guy had a beard down to his chest and I pointed that the location of hair wasn't making much difference between him and me but it didn't help, I had to dig into my bag and stick the three months contract paper he had signed in front of his eyes. I had spent all my savings buying a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, was he going to pay for the return or let me do my job? He said that he was 70% sure that my students would complain. That left me with 30% chances, I said, may I use them please? In the end he gave up and I could get into my classes. The salary was ridiculous, not even enough to pay for the cheapest, crappiest, cockroach infested "room" in Chung King Mansion, a huge building in Tsim Tsat Shui that had the worst guest houses in town. But that didn't matter, I didn't want to return to France. Ever.
So I taught and thought that my students didn't hate me at all. I kept moving from a cheap place to another cheaper one to finally share a flat that belonged to some expats on holiday with two young colleagues. I had a good time. I found some
private lessons to teach and made some extra bucks that allowed me to travel to very communist looking Beijing where I ended up having a free dinner at Pierre Cardin's newly opened Maxim's branch.
When I returned, the director of Alliance Française announced that, my three months contract having expired, he wouldn't renew it. No reason given.
I know, I know, I should have cut my hair at that point but the idea had not even entered my mind. Why the hell should a badly paid job make me change the way I wanted to look!? The fact that I wanted so badly to leave my home country? But that's exactly why I had left, to get away from that sort of imbecile nonsense. A job is just a way to survive, not a way of living!
My paid work was just a tiny part of what I did, let alone of my life in general! I wasn't going to sell any bit of myself out, specially now that I had finally made it to my favourite climate, and certainly not my hair! Those cheap cretins had to pay me for my time, that was fair, but they couldn't expect anything more, the rest belonged to me! Moreover, Hong Kong girls seemed to love my hairstyle! I looked young, wild and free and I was, maybe that's what freaked out the management.
Still, now I was being fired for it... again. It didn't matter if the director's wife who had sat in my classes had judged me with enthusiasm as a very adequate teacher, it didn't matter if my students never missed a single one of my lessons, I was
hairy and that was a good enough reason to get rid of me and send me back to my rainy home town. Yes, they knew that the French education system had sent me a letter with my new teaching post and they knew that I had sent my resignation letter as a reply but, some French loving being complete bastards, that only added to their pleasure I guess.
My students saw the sadness in my eyes and asked me what was wrong. I explained that I probably would have to leave Hong Kong since Alliance Française was the only way to get a proper working visa but refused to renew my contract. They asked why and I explained that my hair was apparently the problem. They didn't suggest that I should cut it, instead I saw anger and outrage in their attitude and the next thing I knew, they got in touch with the students of my other four classes and all together, they wrote and signed a petition letter to the director of Alliance Française, claiming that they would not register for any other class, the next term, but mine.
So the director had reluctantly come to me, humbly asking if I would agree to teach another term and that's how I eventually made it out of France for good. In the end, they even chose to shoot me in my class for an advertising video clip on TV, go figure!
Three years later, two of them having been spent in other Asian countries, I eventually got married with a young Hong Kong beauty, had two marvellous Eurasian daughters, became a resident in the last British colony and never bothered about working visas ever again. I was free from any bit of France for good. Hong Kong was a land of golden opportunities and quickly Alliance Française became a ridiculous job option with the miserable salaries it was paying. I did carry on teaching a few hours there however, feeling thankful for the students who had helped me make my dream come true with my hairstyle untouched. Among other activities, I had become a lecturer in local universities and enjoyed being evaluated for my work rather than for my look which is probably why I still feel wild and free today, even if most of my hair eventually fell off... coz you see, hippie hair is betraying too!
However, along the years, I could observe how the situation regarding Alliance Française management had never really changed and had even worsen in the late Sarkozy years. Every four years or so, a new direction would replace the old one, essentially made of folks sent from Paris, with their different levels of arrogance, incompetence, alcoholism and taste for abuse. That kept the atmosphere quite unbreathable but bearable enough if I was just going to rush directly to my classroom and left the place immediately afterwards. My students, however, were always worth the effort.
I had finally resigned from Alliance Française, about a year before starting this journey, definitely sickened of the worsening attitude of the latest sarkosist like management, but not before making the reasons for my disgust public with a few amusing mails to the directors which I forwarded to the entire staff. It had made me feel very good to finally slam the door.
But there I was, in another one of these tiny hells the French are so good at creating for no reason and out of nothing.
I felt nauseous... oh please, no, not THAT again!
Nevertheless, I left the letter and the curriculum vitae on the secretary's desk while silently praying Allah to be merciful. He did, I never got any reply or any call back. Allah Ouakbar!
Then it was Abby's turn. She had spotted an American language institute and was determined to give it a try. I might not like the French attitude much at work (as one might have noticed) but I have to admit that it stank even more there. The look of despise on the secretary's face was certainly worth a photo, too bad I had left the camera at home. We left, convinced that Abby's application letter was probably thrown into the bin before we had even passed the doorstep. Morocco didn't look very nice from the working point of view.
In the end, I did get an interview. The old man was nice, we had a good and interesting chat. His school was very tiny with antique blackboards and chalk in the classrooms. He was willing to hire me but, quite understandably, couldn't provide a
salary good enough to even pay for our rent at Azour. The fact that his offer didn't come in the form of a proper written contract but only vague promises wasn't too reassuring either. It sounded pretty much as if I would have had to teach there
almost for pleasure only. I'm just too old for this. Thank you Pierre, you're a kind man, but... nah thanks.
So we left Morocco empty handed. At least we had tried... and learnt that I could no longer bear working for the French, regardless where they stood. I should have known really, after all, isn't it why I'm writing all this in my bad English? I wrote an unpublished book of poems and songs in French in the past and another one made of short stories as well as a long scenario but somehow, I feel it isn't worth the effort any more. Shouldn't the French be able to read English by now? The others probably wouldn't be interested by what I'm saying anyway. The page had slowly been turned over and I wasn't feeling sad about it at all.
We decided to leave the country via the last exit point we had not yet tried: Tangier. On the way, we stopped in Ouirgane/Tizi-N-Test in the mountains, where storks were nesting and then rode to Marrakesh where a bomb had killed a large
group of tourists in a busy coffee shop a few days earlier which probably explained why the city felt quite empty of foreigners. The ride from Marrakesh back to Tangier was pretty long and I pushed the Transalp a little hard so by the time we
reached the city, the chain was making a strange noise. It turned out that one side was missing to the joining link. The next day, we found a garage and took the opportunity to change the oil and give our good ol' bike a nice check-up while we were there because it would be much more expensive to do repairs once we were in Spain.
The ferry took us to Tarifa the next morning and since it was still early, we decided to push to Valencia on the other side.
That meant having a long pleasant ride along the Mediterranean sea but I'd better twist the throttle a little more than usual if we wanted to make it there before nightfall. After all, the chain had just been fixed.
The sights were really cool indeed and the road being quite empty, I saw no problems in allowing our Transalp to take over a few GS1200... we refilled the tank time to time and just rushed back on the highway. Good grand-mothership, doesn't matter how much we demand from her, she responds. This bike was a tractor, it didn't do much wheeling, didn't even forced Abby to take a hold on me during accelerations but it was doing the job. Every morning it was starting without a single hesitation.
The brakes weren't the best but the engine brake made up for it. It was vibrating but remained comfortable. The handlebar wasn't straight but I got accustomed to it. She was part of the family, part of the trip, she had become one of us. Actually
she spent as much money as each one of us but fair enough, she was doing more than her part, we loved her and felt somehow loved back. My W650, back in Hong Kong was a pretty girl with all her handmade brass parts but she was a little princess, like most Hong Kong girls were, she needed her loving, caring maintenance, every three days or so, with special care products and soft wiping cloth. Our Transalp didn't care about make up and creams, she wanted roads, didn't care which, she would happily speed up on highways as well as cool down on small tracks, she needed panorama, she hated sand but didn't mind pebbles and rocks, she was longing for far distant horizons and altitude, just like us, she was a tough traveller, hungry for new landscapes and mountain U-turns.
Go figure but she felt alive to us. Upon arrival, I used to pat her tank for a job well done and thank her for having taken us safely to our destination. She had become part of us. We covered her at night. We woke her up with care and checked her up
after each tough rides. Abby was in charge of loading and I was in charge of driving while she was in charge of taking us there... a perfect team. We were worried about her, what would we do with her once our trip was over? We wanted to stay with her, ship her back to Hong Kong, yes, but would she like it there with all that humidity and restricted riding space?
Probably not more than we did! Should we store her somewhere in China and take her for a little trip from time to time? Yes, but that would mean keeping her in a garage for long periods of time, she'd hate it.
Should we take her back to France and store her in my parents barn? She'd rot in there. This bike wanted to stay alive and ride across the planet, just like we did. She trusted us as much as we relied on her. We couldn't let her down. So should we set her free and sell her to another traveller once we'd reach Istanbul which looked more and more like the end of our journey and our budget? It was hurting just thinking about it. I know it sounds silly but, by now, we felt responsible for
Now even if it really sounds silly, listen to this. I'm not making this up and I swear what's coming is true. This bike felt responsible for us too. Here is what happened.
Remember how I was speeding on that highway, keeping the speed at 150/160km an hour, fully loaded and with Abby sitting at my back? Six hours had passed, then seven then eight and we were coming close to Valencia. The sun was coming down, I kept the speed up, we wanted to get there before dark and then, all of a sudden, our Transalp needed fuel. That didn't sound quite right. Only 140km since the last refill and she wanted a drink again? Usually she could reach 180/200km before I had to switch on to the reserve. What was going on? Plus, Darling, you could see how petrol station were rare around here! What were you doing to us? Had I pushed you too hard? Were you needing a rest? Oh well, never mind then, we would take the first exit out of that highway and find a petrol station for you in one of those villages we could spot along the shores of the Mediterranean sea. Was it alright with you?
It was. We pulled out of the highway a few kilometres ahead and reached the pay toll. We paid and I engaged the first gear, then second gear and we rode a few dozen metres when I felt the back tire had gone flat. It made us swing across the road but I managed to stop our babe with no spill. Yes, the back tire was flat. Damn! First flat since the beginning of the journey.
It was due to happen but well, it always happens at the wrong time. Abby walked back to the toll booth and I stayed with Transalp Babe. I checked the tire. I couldn't keep my fingers on the burning rim, it was very hot but I couldn't spot any
nails or any screw. Damn, what could have caused that flat?
Abby had called for help and soon a lorry popped up and we loaded the bike on it. It took us to Aguilas, the nearest town, where we unloaded the tow truck and left the Transalp in a garage for repair. We booked at an hotel nearby and slept like
The next morning, we went to pick up our bike and the mechanic showed us the tube of the back tire. It had melted! The sight of it sent chills all along our spines! The heat produced by the high speed, the long highway ride and our heavy load
had melted that thick tube Geoff had specially, and wisely, chosen for us, knowing how heavy we were. That wasn't too surprising in itself frankly but what really was, was that sudden mysterious need for fuel that had driven us, quite miraculously, out of the highway before the flat happened!
So we finally went to the petrol station and refilled. Nope, the tank wasn't empty at all. The consumption of petrol had been as normal as usual. So why did we have to turn on to reserve then, which led us to pull out of the highway in the first place? Had we carried on at that speed on that freeway, the back tire tube would have melted at the speed of 150km/h sending us down real bad! We immediately felt as if our visit to Santiago di Compostella, at the beginning of our trip, had just been
justified! We looked at our Transalp and felt like going down on our knees, join our hands and say "thank you Ol' Girl. Dunno how you did it but you have probably saved our skins"!
How could we not grant this bike, who so obviously cared for us, a happy future!?
The question was how. But now I'm confident something will let us now soon or later.
You're laughing? Watch "Christine" then!
It was about time to change our back tire again anyway so that's the first thing we did when we arrived in Valencia after checking in our hotel. The ride had not been very smooth. Something was wrong. It felt as if some dirt was stacked in the
carburettor or something. I felt sudden losses of power and then it would all come back as if some dust was sucked into the chambers. Nothing too bad but it didn't feel like our usual old reliable babe any more.
"There you are!" would die-hard Cartesian say "That's why your bike needed to be switched to the reserve in the first place, there was no miracle, no mystery there at all! You probably had refilled from a dirty tank at some edgy petrol station and
that's all there was to it!"
Die-hard Cartesian burned as Heretics long time ago you know!
The mechanics, at Valencia's repair shop, were a little puzzled by the problem. They dismounted the tank, checked and replaced the spark plugs. They weren't too confident about them being the source of the losses of power but we had them
changed anyway since they dated back from Essaouira. The new tire was great, it was very thick and would definitely last for a while.
The next day we were awoken by a familiar sound of fireworks. There were scores of Chinese shops everywhere and one of them was having its traditional opening ceremony right in front of our window. We dressed up and went out for breakfast. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was very pleasant. We walked to the river and found an interesting display of modern, colourful and weird sculptures along series of surrealistic buildings. We crossed a vast public park that had about
everything Hong Kong doesn't provide, tracks for roller skaters, skaters and BMX acrobats, a large pond where people could let their dogs bathe and play, fountains, water displays and rowing boats. Large alleys allowed for bicycle riding. A huge
Gulliver, tied up to the ground served as playing area for kids with scores of toboggans and swings. The place was lively and diverse. Unlike Hong Kong sad and tiny Victoria Park, there wasn't a single outlet or shopping fair to spoil the fun. Along the park lay a music museum, beautiful old houses and some antique bridges. While having a smoke, yesss inside the public park, I took a picture of a sign displaying the only three things that were forbidden: No fire, no camping and keep dogs on leach. That was it. Looking at all these folks having all sorts of free fun in their park, we couldn't help but feel sad about the amount of life Hongkong people are being deprived of, not even missing it, having a long time ago forgotten what having a good time really meant.
Valencia was a very large city but there was something cool and laid back about it regardless where we hanged around. We crossed ancient districts through old medieval paved streets, with their churches, chapels, fountains and pigeons. We went through colourful markets where tempting fruits were set as paintings, we came across tiny paths where most walls were decorated with superb tags, the ceramic museum was fun and interesting, we must have walked miles and miles, not feeling tired until we were back at our hotel because there was something nice to catch our attention everywhere. We loved it. And then we came across a large central square occupied by young demonstrators who had set their camp-site in the bushes and under the trees.
They were the Spanish "Indignados". Banners, slogans, notes and signs of revolt, quotes from Hesse, Orwell, Huxley could be seen all around. Booths were set with all sorts of activities. I had my Don Quixote T-shirt painted on the back with "Spanish Revolution - Utopia? - 15-5-11" by some young dudes while having a revolutionary conversation with them. They cut the English letters for my T-shirt specially for me, how cool was that? Sit-ins and meetings were being held and every person who attended had a chance to grab the microphone and expose his ideas. It made me happy to see a Chinese man address the public.
Public libraries offered interesting reading, free of charge of course. Other youngsters prepared free sandwiches for anyone feeling hungry. Bands had naturally formed and played some reggae music in some corners while "comedians" dressed with home made costumes were amusing the kids. Old people mixed with the younger ones, families were visiting the square too, reading the "da-zi-bao" that were posted on the trunks of the trees, on the statues recycled as banner holders and on the booths.
The atmosphere was excellent, everyone enjoyed it. It was very peaceful, interesting, mind opening, creative and fun. Some Indignados, dressed up like Hong Kong businessmen, were brandishing fake corruption money they took from their attaché case and walked in the nearby avenues, talking to old people about their pensions and chanting slogans. We absolutely loved it!
There was no violence nor provocations to it, just a healthy reflection about today's society and how to reach true democracy and real happiness. It was optimistic and positive, it was green, anti-nuclear, anti-cartel, anti-corruption, anti-capitalist, anti-everything I am anti about! It kicked my old butt, it made me feel 10, 20 years younger, it helped me evaluate how much Hong Kong had damaged my inborn idealism and my dreams for a better humanity, it renewed my wishful thinking, my taste for intelligent anarchy and my longing for tolerance and reflection. It gave me hope. Yes, Sarkozy WOULD bite the dust and along with him all the sad gutless yuppies who established arrogance and abuse as a "new world order".
Before leaving Valencia, I made a silent deal with myself: I will stop smoking the day Hong Kong re-establishes the right to do so on beaches and in public parks.
Well, our dearest Transalp wasn't getting better which was a shame really in a country that looked like a biker paradise with legions of them cruising the streets freely and sometimes without a helmet (something I still disapprove though, despite of the enhanced pleasure) or any sort of protections. Maybe our bike was feeling old and awkward among these crowds of shiny new machines, the fact is that she was still having that loss of power problem. It wasn't too bad, just a hint, but it was definitely enough to worry me.
We booked in the worst hotel possible in Barcelona, thanks to our GPS, a yuppie hotel far from the centre but we didn't care much since we planned to spend all our time outside. Still, who the hell was the depressed if not suicidal designer who had
not found any better idea than decorating the rooms with black and white pictures of factory chimneys and gloomy industrial harbors? Let alone the plastic "Deco" furniture and the flat screen TV for which each option was charged? The staff was
about as enthusiastic and welcoming as the pictures in the room but we would survive, it was only for a few days anyway. At least it had a safe car park but still, that was the last time we'd trust Garmin when selecting our hotel.
Barcelona wasn't quite as brightly fun and creative as Valencia had been but not far. Again we watched local kids enjoying freely the large pedestrian spaces where they could play, run, skate, practise bicycle riding, walk their dogs, whatever they
wanted unharmed and undisturbed by guards or policemen. They could take off their T-shirts without old ladies raising their outraged eyes to the sky. Parks were full of youngsters taking it easy on the grass and couples embraced with passion behind the bushes. There was no pushing the limits there, it was just natural. A breeze of freedom warmed up the air and everybody just enjoyed it, unaware of the existence of less fortunate distant ex-British colonies. Hong Kong was so insignificant anyway, that just about everyone on the planet thought it was situated in Japan and would "sayonara" us with a candid smile, once we told them where we came from. We almost had to reassure them, no, we weren't radioactive hazards, they could safely sit down with us. Such is the power of the media... unfortunately.
We met another "Indignados" camp-site set on the Plaza Cataluña and we joined for while, my T-shirt from Valencia serving as a magical name card. We enjoyed some music, read some "da-zi-bao", wrote a few and shared the general fun and laid-back atmosphere.
Spain made us feel good about life, about the world, about ourselves, it was liberating, we loved it. A bit of "jamon" and cheese, a good glass of "vino tinto", the sun and the streets, that's all it took to make us feel at ease and happy among all
the positive thinking.
Perpignan, Aix-en-Provence, St-Raphael-Fréjus... in short France.
France isn't very far from Barcelona which might come as good news for the French who travel there as just about everyone can speak their dialect.
We reached France without noticing much of a change, the sun and the blue sky were the same and the Transalp was having its weak spots on both sides of the border. The road through the Pyrenean mountains was totally gorgeous but those sudden losses of power made us dread having a break down in the middle of nowhere. "Damn, Sweet Rolling Pie, you took us through 1600km of desert roads to Mauritania, it can't be worst than going back to France, can it? We know you're a Transalp, not a TransPyrénées but would you cheer up and take us there please, we won't stay too long, you have my word! Don't you want to explore Greece?"
We arrived in a very hot Perpignan, unloaded our gear at the hotel and immediately went for a good garage. A local dude came up to me for a biker chat and explained how a local peasant had managed to kill one of Perpignan best off-road rider by putting a cable across his path... charming story. We found a Yamaha workshop but they were overbooked and didn't take Honda bikes. Huh? Imagine that in Morocco! That'd be such a laugh! Not here, we're in France remember!
So we asked for the Honda workshop. There was one. It took a while to find it but eventually we did. The owner came out, sort of rushing, and said that he was overbooked until the following week. I still managed to describe our problem but he just raised his shoulders saying: "oh, that's a CDI problem, it's always a CDI problem on those bikes and it takes a long time to order one. Sorry, can't help you."
Nice. Of course it isn't a CDI problem! We know what CDI problems feel like, the bike runs on one cylinder and the odometer dies. That isn't the case. Both cylinders gets weak and the odometer remains fine. Tell me about a Honda jerk!
Fortunately, the mechanic was a bit more understanding. Once his boss had rushed back under the shadow of his shop, he came to us and we had a little chat about riding in Morocco since he was planning his own trip there. He said he would check the carburettors and take a general look at the bike, he would replace the CDI unit with the spare one we had just in case but didn't think it was the problem either. Meanwhile, we could take a rest inside where fresh water was available for free.
60 Euros and an hour later, we got hold of our bike again after the mechanic had given it a test ride. Everything was fine he said. He just hoped it would stay that way as he couldn't find any dirt in the carburettors at all. After such an invoice, we
did too! He did point out, however, that the water level of our battery was a little low, about half actually. We would have to refill it ourselves however since he didn't have any de-mineralised water in the garage. Since he was a nice guy, I
refrained from having a grin. No battery fluid in a Honda garage, you gotta be kidding us!?
As much as we had been impressed by the professionalism and efficiency, let alone kindness and caring, of the Spanish Honda workshops we had visited, particularly in Sevilla, as much we were left quite bitter about those we had the misfortune of
ending up into in France, being in Carcassonne or in Perpignan. The attitude was so radically different there!
Maybe it's the general atmosphere that ends up affecting everybody. One guy stopped me in the street to compliment me about my "Indignados" Spanish T-shirt. He said some youngsters had tried doing the same here in Perpignan but were immediately evicted by bunches of full gear riot policemen. He sounded completely disgusted ad discouraged. At least there was one guy who would never vote for the dwarf that pretends to be French president ever again!
Perpignan providing little interest and unable to find de-mineralised water anywhere in town, we quickly left for Aix-en-Provence which, to my knowledge, should have been more entertaining.
In a way it was.
The Transalp accepted to take us there almost flawlessly but with enough hints that the problem was still there and that our 60 Euros had probably been wasted for nothing. It took us a while to find a decent hotel as some football or rugby match was being disputed in the city that weekend. We had crossed the path of scores of supporters who were killing the horn of their cars, brandishing the colours of their favourite team while blowing their matching trumpets as well as my mind. I never quite understood how sport and drunkenness were compatible topics but then again, I'm not known to be very sporty.
The first evening, Abby and me went to one of the main avenue of Aix for dinner. We picked a restaurant from a long line of terraces and the food proved to be quite good. It was Saturday night. Like in any cities, lots of young people were out for a
bit of fun. The only difference was in the way these ones had dressed up. It was quite surprising to see young dudes in their early twenties wearing suits and jersey while the young ladies, at their arm, wore their mothers dresses and jewellery. Were they "Indignados" in disguise? Would they suddenly pop a guitar and chant revolutionary anthems? Not quite. Those were genuine future lawyers and chief executives. Why... so many of them!? Such a thick concentration of well-mannered yuppies astonished us. I observed a few of them, sipping their cocktails with a straw, in large bubbly glasses. They didn't talk or laugh very much. My idea was that they badly needed sex but didn't quite know how to do. Then again, I might have been wrong and all that really was to it was a generational constipation, I couldn't tell.
The city was pretty however with its set of little streets bordered by cute traditional houses and flowery balconies. Some street entertainers stopped our walk for a while, a South American flute player, a band of standing, dancing drummers, a few
break-dance artists, a comedian dressed in colonial outfits who called me "Papa!" with a sob in his voice and hugged me in front of an amused crowd, it was quite pleasant indeed and a pretty good laugh.
Back at the hotel, I had a good chat with the dude at the reception about road trips and bikes. But his idea of having fun on wheels was a little puzzling. He loved nothing more than giving speed radars the finger. He had trained for it. He would
speed up towards them, then slide on the side of his bike while bending it so that only his arm and his pointed finger would appear on the picture taken by the machine. It reminded me of my own attitude in my youth. How come French bikers use their machine as a weapon or some sort of instrument of revenge, to the point of endangering their lives and the one of others?
Spanish bikers didn't act like that, they seemed to prefer enjoying the ride instead. Cool down dudes! No wonder the French government is the only one in Europe that decided to limit bikes to 100Hp! And that goes for race tracks as well! Check out
the dangerous attitude of some French racers, even during GP events, have they lost all sport spirits or what?! They lose points, they risk being disqualified, even when they hold good positions, but they just can't resist making complete ass-holes of themselves. Chill out Dudes, give life some value, this ain't a battlefield for Crusaders, "Monster" is just a name for a drink with a bad taste. Your grave will be forgotten as quickly as any other, which is better yet than having someone else's death on your conscience for the rest of your life! Get real!
And nope, there wasn't any de-mineralised water in Aix either. We were wondering how local people did, buy a new battery each time the level dropped? Crazy world!
We rode back to the coastline of the French Riviera and enjoyed the fantastic Mediterranean sights, stopping for lunch in Borme-les-Mimosas, a little fishing port which I had visited with my parents back in the early sixties. However I didn't find
the swing that was the only memory I had left of the place. Disappointed, we jumped back on the Transalp and enjoyed a pretty thick traffic jam through beautiful St-Tropez and Ste-Maxime up to St-Raphael. The Transalp wasn't rid of her problem at all.
It still felt as if some dirt was having difficulties getting through the needle and then was being sucked into the chambers.
It didn't happen too often but always at the wrong time, like when I took over some trucks on a congested road... annoying enough.
As we crossed St-Raphael, Abby had a sudden burst of intuition as we passed a sign that said: "Hotel Du Soleil". "Let's try this one" she yelled in my helmet. Why not indeed? The hotel was a little away from the main road, the building looked pretty with its 1920 architecture, it had a large park around it and old trees that provided shadow for the bike. I was further impressed by the fact that the owners were Swedish, warm and welcoming which made a relaxing change from the general moody atmosphere we had encountered since Perpignan. No nonsense there. Yes, the hotel was non-smoking but of course I could smoke on our balcony. The beds were the most comfortable we had experienced since the beginning of the trip, they were imported from their homeland, where beds were very important due to the long nights they endured. Soon later, a couple of British bikers popped by and soon we were sharing road stories and mechanical advice. I was delighted to have found some water for our battery in a nearby supermarket but discovered that someone had changed our sidepannel screws for bolts, for which, naturally, I had no spanner. The British guys fiddled with their toolbox but couldn't find one that fitted either. Damn, maybe the problem of the bike was there, although that sounded unlikely but the whole process of refilling that battery was just becoming some sort of quest from a computer game when every step turns out to be a tricky challenge, first the water, now the spanner!
The next day, we waited until lunch time was over, by having lunch ourselves, and rushed to the garage as soon as it reopened. It was a Kawasaki workshop so we weren't quite sure if they knew how to refill the battery of a Honda but we just
wanted a spanner, so we decided to boldly try our luck.
The mechanic was very nice actually. He decided to do it himself while we were having our first look at the W800. It looks exactly like my W650 except for the absence of a kick-start. Cool machine. I'll definitely have one of those one day. Geoff, you can start gathering the sheets of brass!
Five minutes later, the battery was refilled but of course we experienced another loss of power on the way back to the hotel.
Voluntarily optimistic, I decided that the electrolysis process couldn't possibly be yet complete, so it was too early to tell. Still, for Christ sake, bike, give us a break now, will you! This is no way to treat people who took you to nice places like we did. Be careful, we could still sell you to a pizza delivery joint!
I shouldn't have said that.
Riding along the Napoleon road up to Cannes and Nice was nice (yeah, lame joke, I know, it's just like my previous "gorgeous gorges" but what can I say... can't resist, I'll never grow up, you know that!), the curves were a real thrill and the
Mediterranean shores a sweet treat for the eyes. We stopped for a few pictures and a pee behind a car (French tradition) and met a British biker in a rented car. He had crashed his KTM the day before and wasn't quite sure if he could catch up with his mates as they still were on two wheels. We wished him good luck and arrived in Monaco. The Grand Prix was going to be disputed two days later but we didn't wait, we just had to try the track straight away. I was praying for the Transalp to spare us its losses of power all the way up as the streets were extra stiff and the U-turns particularly tricky. She was a good girl and she did behave until we were out of there. Then she played her sick trick again. I was growing tired of it. The battery should have been OK by then but the problem was just getting worse and worse.
Now we were in Italy on a splendid road made of tunnels and bridges but with very few gaps for emergency stops. Big Serbian trucks were taking over shaking the air around, pushing us hard, then sucking us in and that damn engine kept losing power, getting it back again all of a sudden. The temperature gauge was raising almost up to the red. It was failing on us in the middle of long tunnels, forcing me to squeeze the clutch and free wheel 'til the end of them. I stopped by the side of the road, the engine died. I waited a bit and turned it on again. It went OK for a little while and then started messing up again. That wasn't the most comfortable or safe ride we ever had, it sort of spoiled it a little for us. But still, I recommend it to any biker in search of special rides, I had never experienced such a road layout ever before. Very cool!
We arrived in Genoa at the end of the afternoon and booked at a Novotel on the West side of the city. We dumped the bike in the underground garage. We needed to get our minds off the damn thing for a while. She had turned into a rather dangerous shithead and I was mad at her. "There, you're grounded for good now, undergrounded even, consider yourself in detention. For what I care, you can stay in the dark forever and reflect about what you've done, you nasty piece of junk! Any local Vespa is more generous-spirited than you are, you spoiled old crappy creep! Shame on you!" and I slammed the garage gate on her. I was pissed.
And we did forget her down there. The hotel was nice, the food was delicious and Genoa proved to be a very interesting city to discover. There was plenty of beautiful places to see. We hanged around in the old streets, visiting cathedrals and palaces, well, some of them at least as we had never seen such a concentration of fanciness and architectural highlights.
I observed a young dude who was looking very different in a small church. He looked a bit like a beggar or a hippie who had spent too much time in the streets. His attitude touched me. He superbly ignored all the tourists around him, penetrated in an area that was normally forbidden to visitors in order to approach the statue of Mary and begin a long conversation with her. It took him a long time and his gestures were quite un-ortodox. He looked as if he was humbly saying "sorry, you know me, I'm not much but I'm trying my best, would you still please help me a bit?" with his palms opened along his sides. He saluted Mary many times but more like Muslims do. When he returned to get out, his face showed a air of relief, joy and confidence. We met him again later on in the streets, asking passersby for a coin or two. To those who refused, he would smile and tell them that it didn't matter as if he didn't want them to feel bad about it. I ran after him and gave him a coin. He softly smiled at me and thanked me as if I had given him a great present and as if, somehow, he knew that would happen. There was something infinitely gentle, smooth and bright about him. I touched his shoulder, smiled back at him and told him to take good care of himself. This dude, I wasn't quite sure why, was definitely moving me. There seemed to be so much love and kindness pouring out of him. He was quite special!
We spotted an incredible ship anchored in the harbour. It looked like a superbly maintained galleon complete with canons and sporting an impressive sculpture of Poseidon at its prow.
Enthusiastic, we bought our tickets to visit the antique vessel. Lots of tourists were already on board, surrounded by scores of young kids so it was kind of hard to shoot decent pirate-like photos of ourselves. That's when Abby pointed at a slightly
damaged canon. It didn't look as if it had been hit by a canonball at all, it looked more as if some kid had kicked it and broken it open. I froze, puzzled, then approached it to gently tap on it. Now I don't know what it was made of but that
wasn't heavy metal, neither heavy nor metal. In a corner, we discovered a cell with a skeleton still hanging to some chains.
"Darling" I told Abby, "I think we're in some sort of children playground!"
It turned out that we were visiting the "Neptune", a fake vessel built for Polanski's film "Pirates" in 1986! Oh well, I have a passion for cinema and I liked that movie anyway. Still, I think I should wear my glasses from now on, not just for reading.
A couple of days later, we decided to ride through the Apennines mountains to Venezia. We packed up and loaded the Transalp.
It looked as if the detention in the darkness had taught her a lesson. The engine started at the push of the button and I rode back up to the surface flawlessly. We left Genoa and began climbing the mountains, along the coastline. We didn't go far.
In Nervi, the same problem as usual arose except this time, the engine completely lost power and stopped. Fortunately we were just next to a petrol station, not in a tunnel. We called a tow truck and then waited an hour. We called back and waited
another hour, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the rain. We waited some more and, completely soaked, decided to call another tow truck. An hour and a few showers later, a guy popped up in a van. What? That's a tow truck? Worst, there already was a broken down scooter inside it. I don't know how that dude made it but the Transalp was dutifully loaded in and we crammed on the front seat as the cheerful Italian driver took us to the local Honda workshop which happened to be located on the East side of... Genoa. I guess we weren't meant to travel very far that day.
There, we met Ricardo who's English was excellent as he had lived ten years in California. We explained our problem in details and everything we had done to try solve it. He looked puzzled. Everybody hoped that it wouldn't be an occasional
electrical failure as those are real tricky to sort out. Ricky tested the battery, wasn't too happy about the results but decided it wasn't bad enough to cause the mess. The fairing was taken off, all the electrical appliances were tested. But
then, as it was now 6 o'clock on a Friday night, the workshop had to close down and would only reopen next Monday. We booked at a nearby hotel which happened to be quite cosy with a magnificent garden terrace, where I could have a smoke, once I had climbed up and out by the window that is.
The place was just next to the seafront and we enjoyed walking along the beaches. we visited some local restaurants but food was a little disappointing with flat skinny pizza and meagre salads. That is until we found a Brazilian restaurant that kept on serving us dishes with all the sorts of meat ever invented by mankind and series of pantagruelian desserts until we nearly exploded. Fortunately, they spared us the wafer-thin mint and we avoided a disaster, just.
On Sunday, I decided to call Geoff in Hong Kong. Maybe he would intuitively find the reason for our mechanical trouble. Did I mention the guy was a genius? I described the symptoms and he immediately concluded that the fuel system was faulty. The bike would start and run fine for a while because fuel had filled up the bowl but then it would start losing power because the bowl wasn't filled up steadily. Simple as fuck! (Geoff isn't a French yuppie). Takes a minute to fix. How I'd wish he'd be there with us because you know me, just getting to the battery took me days. Let's hope Ricky would know how to do.
On the Sunday, we met a nice couple at the hotel, they were on their way back from Corsica to Milano... on their Vespa! Makes one feel humble, isn't it. They left, fully packed, under the pouring rain, for a good five hours ride.
Next Monday morning, we rushed first thing back to the Honda workshop for some fresh news. Ricardo was there and the bike was ready. Ricky said that he had returned to work on it the previous Saturday and had fiddled with our stubborn rolling mule.
He thought he had spotted the problem. The fuel system was faulty. "Has he been talking to Geoff?" I thought.
Not exactly. He had studied the manual for 1988 Honda Transalp models and found out that the reserve system was messy.
Apparently, the mechanics in Valencia had plugged the tank tube back to the wrong entry. The fact that the reserve system had never really worked, having me relying to the odometer counter instead, was the reason why fuel was still getting in, but not in sufficient amount. Now he had plugged it back to the correct entry and we went for a test ride together, during his lunch time.
The Transalp ran perfectly well all the way, as it used to do. Ah, what a relief! Ricardo charged us much less than the mechanic had done in Perpignan despite having spent lots more time on the job and we gave him a present from Dakhla as a reward for his patience and caring kindness.
Finally, we were back on the road with a lightened heart. We crossed the Apennines mountains, another superb ride, but the rain began falling so we stopped in Piacenza on the way to Venice. In the restaurant that evening, bus loads of school children joined in as they had their end of the year dinner with their teachers. They offered them presents, a tradition I had forgotten since a long time. It reminded me of my own primary school and the four years that had seen me turn from a good hard studying boy to an ink throwing, teachers hating, disobedient brat. We resumed our journey the next morning and booked in at a small hotel in Mestre, a little town located about thirty kilometres away from Venezia. It was much cheaper that way.
We simply took the bus to visit the mythic city of romance, half an hour away.
Frankly, I didn't expect Venezia to be that incredibly beautiful. I thought we'd probably end up in an overrated touristy place with matching prices. Mea culpa, I was wrong. Let alone the canals and the pretty gondola, Venice is a cool city, with
no traffic at all, full of small bridges and lovely hidden squares. The small streets offered charming details and everywhere we looked, there was something cute, interesting or attractive to see. We spent three full days walking through the town, we visited stunning cathedrals, original exhibitions and interesting museums, we had fun with pigeons on the Plaza St-Marco, we just couldn't get enough of it.
The pasta was delicious, the ice creams were a true redefinition of the word, the people were cool and helpful. We kept discovering new amazing little squares and alleys all the time. I think that's about the most charming and interesting city I've ever been to.
On our last evening, I had a sudden intuition. I have a passion for comics since I was a teenager and one particular author had always given me food for dreams: Hugo Pratt and his Captain Corto Maltese. Now I knew that Hugo Pratt had been living in Venice most of his life. After "Corto Maltese in Siberia", "The Fable of Venice" was one of my favourite book so, logically, the city should have kept some trace of Pratt... I wasn't his only fan, far from it. I went online and was delighted about my finding. "La Casa di Corto Maltese" could be found Cannaregio, 5394/B, Rio Terà dei Biri, a remote little street along a small canal which is a pleasure just getting to it.
The house and particularly its courtyard got us into the mood straight away with its mysterious sculptures and shadowy benches. The staff was more than friendly and welcoming. Here is what I wrote to them and to the whole "Casa" itself.
"Thank you for your most excellent welcome and for a deeply moving experience at the "Casa di Corto Maltese", this is a memory I will truly cherish for the rest of my life. Corto has always meant a lot to me and I'm very grateful to you, Guido
Fuga and Lorenzo for showing us around. You brilliantly made it up to the legend, Hugo Pratt would surely be proud of you all.
It isn't an easy task! Others failed dramatically, probably due to a lack of means, like St-Exupery's "Little Prince" museum in Tarfaya (Morocco) which left me with a sad and sour feeling of inevitable loss and unstoppable decay.
You have understood how important (I was about to say "vital") your role really is and you accomplish your work with an enthusiastic and kind heart. Corto, like "The Little Prince", carries the dreams, hope and desperate need of idealists like me for a better humanity, for a world that would prove Orwell, Kafka or Huxley wrong and darkly pessimistic. Your understanding and supporting team at the "Casa di Corto Maltese" has built a magnificent shelter for us, melancholic souls, where to rest for a few hours of appeasement, in OUR cherished world, surrounded by OUR reality and I can never thank you enough for that.
Abby, my tender Oriental "Bucca Dorada", and me have left Italy yesterday. We took the boat in Brindisi and sailed to Igoumeniza (Greece). Once the night had fallen, I left her to her reading and went to stand alone at the prow of that large
ship, under the moonlight that reflected, glittering, in the waves of the Ionian Sea, my long white hair floating in the powerful cold wind and I assure you that, somehow, Corto stood next to me. Both of us had a faint smile on our faces, while
wondering what new adventures the horizon had in store for us. We're now in the mountains, near Ioannina, where we arrived in the early hours of the morning, after a solitary ride through the night. Our host is very kind and, strangely, despite being able to speak, he prefers to talk with his hands. Perhaps he doesn't want to disturb the quietness of our peaceful surroundings - what a wise man!
May the spirits of Corto and Hugo Pratt always be with you, like they will never leave us, revived and kicking as they are thanks to you."
I generally don't write to museums but these people deserved our encouragements and our enthusiastic admiration. Guido Fuga, who was drawing the backgrounds and the diverse machines that can be seen in Pratt's work signed a very kind autograph together with a cute drawing on the back of a postcard for us. I was allowed to wear Corto's clothes and Abby shot lots of pictures of me sitting at Corto's desk while I was writing a note to him with an antique feather pen. One of our nicest shot was taken there: Abby sitting in Bucca Dorada's Caribbean armchair and me standing next to her in Corto's outfit with the sun shining on our face through the Venician window. That picture will end up on the walls of our future home for sure!
We left Venezia the next day with high spirit, as if re-energised by Corto's positive influence. We soon reached Rimini, a small town near the little republic of Sanmarino where we booked a room in the friendly little "Hotel Vera". We took a shower and started visiting the place which wasn't without reminding me of my home-town in Le Mans, so provincial it felt. It took us a while to walk up to the centre and have a well deserved meal on the main square, in front of the city hall where a wedding was being celebrated. Champagne bottles were opened, sending corks flying into the air as the little crowd was cheering loudly. It was charming and old fashioned.
Getting to Sanmarino was less fun as we soon realised on the next day. We should have taken the bike, specially that the ride was so beautiful. But we missed the chance. Having finally found the bus stop, we found out that there wouldn't be any until at least an hour later. Fine, we found a little coffee shop nearby and had breakfast before returning to our post, in a constant cloud of pollen (I'm allergic to it) and wait for our bus. 45 minutes later, we assumed, between compulsive sneezing attacks, that the bus had probably been kidnapped by aliens and returned to the coffee shop to call a taxi. Guess what! The bus arrived in first position, followed immediately by our taxi. Did I mention that Rimini reminded me of Le Mans? That's a typical example, bus drivers have no notion of schedule in either city!
We did, however, enjoy the visit of Sanmarino and its medieval defence towers built at the top of the well-named Mount Titan.
The sights were totally breathtaking. We enjoyed the Motorcycle GP exhibition a little less as it resumed into five racing bikes parked next to each others, a sexy girl and a Playstation running the GP racing game. Hong Kong bikes exhibition
definitely beats that. The shops around had lots of weapons for sale, medieval crossbows, old riffles and pistols, crusader swords and... quite surprisingly, Japanese katana blades too.
We met a young American traveller who confessed that travelling around the world had opened his eyes. "In America" he said "we grow up believing that there's no point getting out, that our country provides the best there is and I guess that's the reason behind our attitude towards other countries, but I'll tell you what, this is so inaccurate! I feel like a citizen of the world now, I will never stop travelling, my next destination will be North Korea." Wow, Mate, I like the way you think but... North Korea... are you sure?! I didn't want him to get back to his old habits! You want an exotic exorcism? How about India or Morocco instead?
We left Rimini early the next day as we wanted to push down to Brindisi and arrive in time to catch the 18:30 ferry to Igoumeniza in Greece. At 17:30, we pulled out next to a little booth near the harbour and bought our tickets. At 18:00, we
were parking our Transalp into a very large ship and we searched for our seats. We found them in a sort of campsite full of East European people, mostly from Bulgaria, who were laying just about everywhere on the floor, some with their head
underneath the chairs. They didn't look like tourists... why did they go to Greece? Were they seasonal workers, fruit pickers perhaps? A skinny man, sitting behind me with his lady, shook our hands with a big smile and gave me a can of beer.
They couldn't speak a single word of English, French or German so our conversation was brief but full of smiles and cheers.
Soon after the ship departure, a large determined hairy dude decided to shut down the lights except for one, plunging the whole room into darkness. An old man began snoring immediately. Well, snoring was actually quite a weak word for the earth shaking roaring that guy was able to produce. No one else could fall asleep. Heads were popping up from behind all the seats, trying to determine the source of the racket. I went out to check the location of the nearest lifeboats just in case that guy would have us all sink. There weren't many people outside on the deck. The wind was surprisingly strong as I walked to the prow of the ship and then I realized that the speed of the boat was responsible for it. I watched as we took over another ferry in no time and wondered how fast we could be cruising... 50, 60 kilometres an hour? The Ionian sea was very quiet, we were smoothly surfing on it and I enjoyed my temporary solitude for a long moment.
When I returned to our crowded room, the old man was still snoring loud and people had grown exasperated by it.
Eventually, a young dude got up and knocked on the guy's bold head with his finger. That woke him up in an outraged jump. But then everybody started laughing at what the young guy told him in Bulgarian. The old man, blushing with embarrassment, straightened up, trying to concentrate on the silent TV screen, hooked to the wall in front of him and everybody else could finally take a nap.
We arrived at about three in the morning. We went down to our bike and disembarked at the same time as another biker on a Fazer. Igoumeniza looked very dark and sleepy. The air was fresh and our tank being half full, we decided to follow that Fazer and enjoy the empty road that led to the mountains.
The Transalp waited until we were quite far and then had a few losses of power.
Fortunately, Ioannina was close. We stopped at an open petrol station, about eight kilometres from the city and the staff indicated an hotel nearby, a few hundreds meters away from the road. Our evil motorcycle from hell accepted to start and take us there. Abby went to the reception and came back with a smile. Yes, a night guard was there and there was a room for us but I shouldn't be surprised if the guy didn't speak to me.
He could talk, Abby said, he wasn't mute, but he just wouldn't. Strange.
And indeed, a very nice old dude showed us in and explained the location of the fridge and different appliances with gestures only. Perhaps the hotel sound proofing was very bad and he didn't want to risk waking up other guests, go figure. The whole Cezaria hotel was very large however, modern and beautiful. Our room was as large as a suite and everything looked new. Our bathroom offered a impressive choice of free products and outside, as far as we could tell, we were surrounded only by grass-fields and mountains. We fell asleep as the day rose up, forgetting to curse our annoying vehicle one last time.
The chiming of little bells, right next to our window, woke us up the next morning. I got up and drew the curtains open.
There was a herd of sheep feeding in the rough grazing right in front of me. Some had bells around their neck, some didn't.
Abby and me stood there for a long moment, watching them, as appeased by the sound they made as we could be by Tibetan singing bowls.
The GPS took us to the nearest motorcycle garage in Ioannina. Actually, it was a scooter garage but the owner gave a quick phone call and an old dude, apparently employed at a Honda workshop nearby soon popped up and, upon hearing our explanations, looked very confident about fixing the problem. He went straight to the reserve system, demonstrated how it was working fine and pointed at the tube that links to it. He blew some compressed air into it, jumped on the bike, gave it a test ride and returned with a large grin on his face. It happens all the time he said, it's nothing, no worries, that's a good bike... and no, we didn't have to pay anything, not for such a small fix. Wow, we gonna like Greece, we thought. And indeed, we never experienced another loss of power ever since. Greek mechanics rule!
Ioannina was a very pleasant place. We stayed for a few days, enjoying walking along the lake and through the little streets of the old city. I had my first try at "Ouzo", a local alcohol that tasted quite good but left the head hazy to say the
least. I confirm that except for the few first instants, "Ouzo" wasn't very compatible with the punishing, glaring sun we enjoyed.
People were very kind though and the atmosphere was totally laid back. There were lots of motorcycles cruising around at low speed. Most bikers rode with their helmet on... their elbows, we couldn't quite figure out why. Even cops weren't wearing any. They came as couples, one in front for the driving and another sitting behind... for the shooting perhaps.
The ride across the mountains from Ioannina to Meteora was very beautiful. The tarmac was good and the curves exciting.
The bike ran smoothly for a change and we enjoyed a stunning panorama that reminded us of Morocco. Before we knew it, we were facing series of huge and incredible rocks that stood up as giant cliffs under the blue Greek sky. Meteora was sheltering a dirt bike race that week-end. The place was full of bikers who, probably thanks to "raki", another lethal local drink, were doing wheelies every chance they had.
Some folks were actually living like hermits, high in the cliffs. They had built their houses, partly into some caves, partly on terraces, far above the ground. How cool was that... except for the way up perhaps. We envied their peace. Somehow, it
felt very different than living on the 50th floor of an Hong Kong skyscraper.
I taught Abby how to play backgammon which is about the only game I fancy. Greeks obviously loved it too and one could see them play at the terraces of most coffee shops, in the shadow. It was pretty hot in Meteora so we soon rode the bike to the highlight of the region: the Orthodox monasteries located on top of those impressive "suspended rocks". Quite a sight!
Getting up there was a bit of a challenge as well. We visited three or four of them and their chapels covered with Byzantine iconography were amazing although the painted scenes turned out to be severely violent with representations of various
tortures inflicted to the saints. Dressed in black robes, sporting long hair and a thick beards, the monks could be seen, contemplating or immersed in their holy reading. One couldn't take pictures of them of course and dressing properly was a
strict condition for entering their monasteries. However, dresses for ladies were provided at the entrance. I could keep my cap on as the priests and monks themselves wear a sort of black hat.
Back at the hotel, we met a young Japanese couple on honeymoon, backpacking and touring around the world. We had a good chat with them. Being on foot, they didn't have the possibility of seeing the monasteries so I took each of them for a quick tour on the Honda, my way to express a small thank you to the Nippon mechanical technology without which, after all, we wouldn't be there. I spoke to them about the Spanish "Indignados" and advised them to go and camp with them on the squares. Since they didn't have a tent, we gave them our camping equipment, which we had carried with us for nothing since the previous summer,
and wished them a very pleasant trip. In retaliation, they bought us a bottle of local wine which we kept for our trip first anniversary that was coming up, a couple of weeks from then.
Abby also had a chat with a couple of bikers from Volos who had made her a promising description of the beaches there. The temperature being quite high, we decided to go and have a wet look before heading to Delphi.
We spent a day at the beach, enjoying the refreshing floods and the good food before returning to the dry mountain roads. We wanted to reach Delphi by the smallest roads possible. We did but that's when our chain decided to remind us of the ambient dryness by making worrying noises. We stopped and soaked it with lube. The noise disappeared and we were free to carry on and enjoy the view.
It was my second visit to Delphi. In the mid-seventies, my parents had taken me along for a classic tour of Greece. We had been to the Acropolis, to Delphi, Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus, Sparta etc... and I had enjoyed Delphi the best, so I wanted
Abby to have a look. She was now reading a book about Greek mythology and she was as seduced and amused by all these antique tales as I had been a long time ago. It was time for her to meet Apollo and decide who was the most handsome between him and me. After all, my beard made me look like some sort of skinny miniature of Zeus or Poseidon, I wasn't too worried.
My biggest surprise was to find the place totally unchanged in 35 years. Every single stone or piece of column was there, untouched. The same bus-loads of tourists, mostly teachers like my mom, were frantically photographing the remains of the "treasures" which, except for the Athenian Treasure, resumed into rather insignificant piles of stones. The sanctuary of Athena, a little way down the main archaeological site was a little more interesting as our path was crossed by a rather imposing snake that looked at us for a while before carrying on with his rampant life through the dry rocks. The museum contained scores of decapitated statues apart from the "Aurige" which had miraculously escaped degradation. In fact we were left rather exasperated at the display of how past human beings had absolutely no respect for art and beauty. What was the point of fighting against sculptures like they so obviously did!? What courage does it take to chop the head of a stylish statue?
Knocking off dickies could perhaps make sense in a context of prudish religion wars but noses as well? That was pushing the sense of decency a bit far! Such a moralistic approach was simply... immoral. In fact, the political correctness of a few retarded morons has always ended up being disastrous for the entire human evolution. Take Sarkozy for instance who's busy emasculating the French Republic a little more every day, how long will it take for the country to get back to its cocky feet once he's defeated in 2012 presidential elections... hopefully?
Things didn't get much better in Athens. The Acropolis had changed for worse I'd say. Was it caused by the 1999 earthquake or by the huge renovation infrastructure that enveloped the Parthenon like a metal cocoon? We were Friday and I swear we didn't see any worker at their job. Strike, lack of budget, discouraging heat, what was it exactly? Abby was disappointed. I could understand, after all, what would tourists from the other side of the world say if the Forbidden City or the Great Wall proved to be just another old pile of broken stones? They'd feel sad and somehow cheated. We had a good talk about it. Abby thought that the Acropolis, as well as Delphi, should be rebuilt and painted the way it used to be. I was a little more worried about a possible "Disneyland" effect while I had to admit it wasn't making much sense keeping it the way it was now.
Athens city itself didn't impress us much either. We were shocked to see scores of youngsters hanging around in the streets in a very bad shape. Many of them had legs so damaged, horribly swollen and looking so bad, we were left wondering if the country had any medical system at all. Groups of drunks and junkies hanged around the Archaeological Museum in an horrible smell of urine while cops were trying to kick them away. The city was rather dirty, messy and smelled pretty bad, something we had never experienced, not even in Morocco.
We found the Greek "Indignados" camping in the park in front of the Parliament house but the feeling was so different from Spain, it disappointed us again. Apart from a few obvious nationalists and their Greek flags, we met very few true
"Indignados" with a world philosophy opened to the entire humanity. Instead we found that some of the "campers" had a very imperialistic idea about public square occupation. They had their spot and jealously guarded it from trespassers. We found very few common points between their dirty looks and moody attitude and the joyful positiveness we had encountered in Spain. We took a few pictures and left, unimpressed and disappointed.
And then we had a row with one of the receptionist at our hotel. We had probably been lucky until then but this was the worst experience we ever had in an hotel yet.
When we arrived at the reception of the Iniohos Hotel in Athens, a certain George pretended that the hotel only had rooms for 65 Euros. We were surprised because we had checked the Internet and had learnt from the hotel website that double rooms were available for about 53 Euros. So we booked for only one night and then used the Internet in our room to book two extra ones for 106 Euros.
Later on, as we left our keys at the reception to go for a walk in town, George was obviously unhappy about it and told us we would have to be downgraded to another room which we totally accepted, not even reminding him of what he had previously said about not having cheaper rooms.
But the next day, another member of the staff stood behind the desk. Despite acknowledging the fact that we should be downgraded, he told us that we could keep the same room, no worries.
However the next day, as we returned from a visit in town, we met the same George again and he demanded that we paid an extra 12 Euros because we had not changed room.
We tried to reason him about the fact that his colleague had agreed to let us keep the same room but he rudely ignored it and wouldn't even give us our room key without receiving the 12 Euros first.
This was the first time in a long journey that we had been treated so rudely. I suspect that, for some deep psychological reason, this George dude didn't like my beard. Perhaps it reminded him of his father... after all, Oedipus was the original
In the end, we were quite happy to leave Athens. We rode to the Piraeus to catch our ferry to our next destination: the little romantic island of Santorini. It wasn't easy to find our boat but we still managed to embark on time.
The trip lasted nearly eight hours but it was a nice one. We passed over a lot of Cyclades islands, all more beautiful the ones than the others, we had a little break in Milos and could tell, from the yachts anchored in the port, that not all Greeks were "Indignados"... last time we had seen such beauties was in mega-rich St-Tropez.
We arrived in Santorini at sunset time. The sights of the "Caldera", bright in the orange sunlight, were breathtaking. We disembarked in a middle of a pedestrian crowd, succeeded not to injure anyone and soon found ourselves riding up the cliff on a small tortuous road. Darkness was coming fast and we still had to find a place where to stay. The first one we tried was charging 150 Euros per night but was willing to give us a 40 Euros discount. We ungratefully declined. Soon we found another hotel for 50 Euros and were shown in by a little schoolgirl named Maria who was gracefully doing her job as well as any adult and certainly much better than Oedipal George back in Athens. She gave us a map of the island, the code for the wifi and suggested two nearby restaurants where we could enjoy our first traditional Santorini dinner.
Santorini cashes up on romanticism. Apparently, even Chinese couples come here to get married or to enjoy their honeymoon. We had seen several Chinese tourists, particularly in Venice and both Abby and me were having a amused smile at the look of them, sitting at the terraces of restaurants and coffee shops, with their arms dangling at their sides, out of iPhone connections, like orphans. Some tried to fight off their boredom by playing cards. They were the only ones to act like that
and you could tell that they would gladly go shopping instead but were just too worried about being cheated. So they politely sat there, waiting for the end of their short holiday since it obviously took a while longer to wake up to life. It didn't
encourage us much about returning to Hong Kong. We quickly stopped staring at them, it sent unhealthy chills along our spine.
Santorini offers incredible sights of the Aegean sea. We took a ride all around the island, loving every single bit of it. Santorinians are lovely people. If we had a breakfast of toasts and coffee, a few slices of chocolate cake were graciously
added. At the end of our meals, small glasses of "raki" were automatically offered "on the house". In fact, apart from that George in Athens, every single Greek we had met so far had been cool, kind and sympathetic. We had not felt any stress nor
any tension anywhere. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any grocery shop for sale.
Another two hours aboard a small ferry took us to Heraklion in Crete where we arrived at sunset time again. The GPS took us to the Pasiphae Hotel, not far from the harbour. The Transalp had done fine lately, having plenty of rest cruising on boats.
Abby and me regretted not having asked Geoff to figure out a way of converting it into a jet-ski at the push of a button. There's just nothing this guy can't do, damn, silly us!
The next morning, we rode to Knossos and the palace of King Minos. Hmm, yeah. Apart from observing that the tourist season had indeed begun, we weren't particularly thrilled with the site. A few columns, copies of ancient paintings on some walls and endless queues of amateurish photographers sporting brand new short pants, taking exactly the same shots, one after the other.
Abby and me had a brilliant idea to help save the planet. When a tourist bus arrived somewhere, the passengers should take a vote and select the best photographer on board. Then everyone could stay in the air-condition while he would be taking shots outside. Finally, he could email the pics to everyone. Instead of having 35 cameras taking the same photo, you would end up with only one camera and one damn picture being sent to 35 people. The result would be exactly the same and lots of natural resource could be saved that way. Didn't we deserve some extra travelling time, as a reward, for that humanitarian idea, c'mon!?
Nevertheless, the ride was very cool. On the way back to the Cretan capital, a dude on KTM intentionally passed us over a few inches away, making me have a jump of surprise. Grumble, grumble. But then we arrived at the next traffic lights. I aimed at his back wheel and didn't slow down. The look on the face of the guy, as I almost did a stoppie half an inch away from his plate number, was funny. Don't mess with Geoff's mates Dude, you'd be surprised. Er... thanks Geoff... for teaching me!
Our idea was to ride all around Crete. It would take a little longer than Santorini though, the island's quite large. We took West, rode about two hundred kilometres and reached Chania, Crete's ex-capital city. The roads were excellent, large, twisty
and the views of the Cretan sea on the right side were a pure riding treat. The Greeks drive their cars in a very lovely way.
If they see someone faster coming from behind, they squeeze to the right to allow passage. That way, we never had to cross a double line and it felt safe. Thank you guys!
Chania is a port. That's surprising in Crete isn't it? We shamelessly rode along the pedestrian path along the harbour to our Lukia Hotel. Someone, on the way, asked me in German if it was allowed to ride bikes in pedestrian areas in Germany but I
didn't understand what he was referring to since I haven't step foot in Deutschland for decades and I couldn't speak German anymore anyway, so I just carried on. What did he mean, pedestrian, anyhow, I rode so slow, I had my feet on the ground, didn't I? No worries!
Chania wasn't exceptional, the food was great but there were too many tourists, it felt a bit fake. So we took the Transalp (damn, another pedestrian zone abuse) and rode to the Akrotiri Peninsula, not far. We wanted to see some major monasteries
there. The first one, the Agia Triada, was pretty cool with its blooming gardens and gentle monks. It was beautiful too.
The second one was closed but we could still pass it and take a walk in the mountain that led to the Cretan sea in front of us. It was very hot but Abby had refreshments in her bag. We carried on for a while, passing some chapels located in rocky caves.
From the top, we could spot more of them down in the valley so we pushed a little more. Suddenly, as we took a turn, we discovered another tiny monastery, deserted but incredibly cute, half of it being set on a bridge. Noone was living there
anymore and an olive tree had grown and raised in the middle of a house, We loved it.
The path pretty much ended there but it was still possible to go further down, under the bridge and into the bed of the valley. Abby didn't want to go, her shoes weren't good enough but she encouraged me to try. So I went down, carried on among the rocks and soon reached the sea. It was deep blue and refreshing. I stood for a good while (two cigarettes) on the rocks above the floods. The sun was quite unforgiving so I didn't insist too long despite the sweet feeling of solitude I was
enjoying. I found my way back, proving myself that I had not turned too senile yet, and reached the secluded monastery. Abby was nowhere to be seen. A little worried, I entered the shadowy chapel expecting to find her there, taking a rest. Nope, the place was empty. With a dry mouth, I yelled her name which echoed in the valley. No reply.
"Damn, where's my drink!?" I thought.
It turned out that Abby, not seeing me return, had eventually decided to brave the slippery rocks and walk to the sea as well. But then she stopped at the nearest creek instead of venturing on the rocks like I had done and, not finding me, had
assumed that she had missed me somehow. So she had returned to the bike alone, expecting me to be there. Half an hour later, as I finally reached the Transalp, dangerously out of breath, completely soaked outside and totally dry inside, I naturally didn't believe a word of her story and concluded that she had most probably tried murdering me in the cruelest imaginable way. Worst, seeing me coming, she had emptied the bottle of water right in front of my eyes, before I could even reach it!
Ok, we had two cans of Coke stashed in the panniers but still, can you believe such an cold blooded treatment!? And me who was worried sick about her at the hidden monastery! Tss. I told her that she would have to walk back to the hotel, thirty five kilometres away but she managed to jump behind me before I could even twist the throttle and I still felt too weak to push her back down in the dust. Why are women always having it their way, I wonder!?
As we returned to Chania, we found the pedestrian zone blocked so I had to ride on the sidewalk to get back to the hotel. The next morning, as we began our journey towards Elafonisi, the sidewalk was blocked but we found a gap on the other side and carried on. I think that we probably should avoid Chania for a little while, they might push us into the sea next time!
Suddenly, we were back in Morocco, same vegetation, same little mountain roads with astonishing views and dangerous U-turns, same heat. Oh yes, there was one difference. In Morocco, when we stopped on the road side to take a look, noone offered us a glass local alcohol. The "raki" tastes much better in the mountains, it has a little je-ne-sais-quoi of honey, it's delicious... and so fit for the curvy roads ahead!
Elafonisi doesn't really exist as a city. It's a beach with about three resorts where to book a room and a little olive grove around them. But what a beach it is! The best way to describe it on paper is the capital letter "I". See what I mean? It's a
beach from which a large stripe of sand stretches to another beach along an island in front. If you prefer, you get three beaches for the price of one, it's very convenient. Unfortunately, you also get three times more bathers than an ordinary
beach. So expect to pour seven Euros for a pair of deckchairs and a shade. From ten in the morning, we could see a constant flow of rented cars, tourist buses and well ointed people going down the dirt path to the beach(es), which generated quite a few clouds of dust.
We stayed long enough to receive our share of sunburns and then, despite all the free flies that came with our food, decided to carry on with our Cretan journey.
Our next stop would be Matala. We knew nothing about it but it sounded heavy. And I've always liked Heavy Matala... ok ok, I'm leaving!
We had a long sunny ride and reached Matala at the end of the afternoon. Fond as I am of pedestrian areas, I pushed to the very end of the small town and just froze with delight. Imagine a little bay with a little beach covered with (rough) sand and topless ladies and series of cool coffee shops playing reggae music to accompany the sound of the waves. At the side of the beach, there is a large huge rock, with lots of caves dug in it, which some ancient Romans used as graves while more
recent hippies abused as peace and love areas. A few psychedelic boats are gently floating in the bay, flower power paintings can be seen just about everywhere, including a rather accurate representation of Corto Maltese and long hair white rasta are hanging around barefoot all over the place. Bars have live concerts at night, the food is delicious, raki replaces Coke and everyone does his best to apply the local motto: "Today is life, tomorrow never comes". Paradise! We had found Paradise!
The family who took care of our well-named Hotel "Fantastic" couldn't be more lovely. Their good mood was contagious, their welcome was outstanding and we felt so much at home there that we instantly decided to change our plan. We would stay two weeks instead of two days. The only problem was our ferry tickets to the island of Rhodos. We had already booked them in Chania. No worries! As soon as I mentioned the bug, Natasa, the daughter of our host offered to have our departing dates changed as she was travelling to Heraklion that same evening. She returned the next day with brand new tickets and that's basically why you get to read this new chapter of our blog now.
For the past ten days, I have been chilling in front of the waves, drinking ice coffee (yeah, sure!), joking with locals and typing these pages.
But I didn't have a swim yet so... would you excuse me?
Posted by Pascal Leclerc at July 15, 2011 01:35 PM GMT