Sunday, December 12, 1999

TR Spain

Calvia Marathon
Mallorca, Spain
(11/30 –12/12/99)

I last left off on my way to Seville by train from Huelva. Upon arrival in Seville, I made my customary visit to the tourist office to find a hotel room. No $30 modern rooms here! But I did find a room in a 2-star hotel in old town ($50) just a few blocks from the Rio Guadalquivir that runs through the middle of the city. No English channels on TV and in fact no English-speaking desk clerks either. I found this to be the norm in Southern Spain and Portugal –very few people, even in the service industry, spoke English! My first chore was to get in delightful 8-mile training run along the Guadalquivir River. There is a great bike path along the river that passes many of the tourist attractions.
I really like Seville. It is a very old city and the streets are narrow and wind in all directions. I learned quickly not to-and I repeat- not to leave the hotel room without a map. A compass would also be helpful! The city is divided into sections such as Santa Cruz where the cathedral is. It is the third largest cathedral in the world. El Arenal has the bullring, one of the most famous bullrings in the world. Macarena has the only remaining section of the original defense wall and the Macarena Church that contains the Virgen de Macarena that they dress and parade through the streets each week. Triana, south of the river has many great shops and restaurants and is connected to the north side via some really strange architectural bridges. One thing I will note about Spain and Seville. They don’t seem to know what to do with things after they build them. They have several buildings that were built for the 1939 Trade Fair and the World Expo in 92 that are still sitting there. They are neat buildings but they are not being used for anything?
The city is place of such contrasts that I really liked it and would go back anytime. My last evening in Seville was very pleasant and memorable. As I was walking back to the hotel after an early (10pm) dinner I passed a small taverna or bar where a group of 10 local musicians had gathered to jam. They had guitars and other string instruments that I didn’t recognize plus a piece of hollowed-out wood that looked like a coconut that was beat with a piece of wood. The bar only held about 20 customers plus the musicians. I didn’t understand a word they said or sang but they were great! They played until 2am when they broke up because some had to work the next day? I learned that they had been doing this every Wednesday for the last ten years. I bought them a round about 1am and the bartender gave me a look like “crazy gringo”. I guess that is not the custom there but it only cost me $15 to listen to some great music for three hours!
But it was time to get some sleep and move on to Valencia. So I spent the next day touring around Seville and caught a night train to Valencia. I tried desperately to get a private sleeper cabin but was not successful. Nobody at the train station spoke a word of English but what pissed me off the most is that they wouldn’t even try to help me. As a result I got a bunk in a six-person couchette in 2nd class! There were only four of us and none of my roommates spoke English but two of them snored!
I arrived in Valencia at 6am and the city had not awakened yet. I found the bus to take me to the port but discovered even the ferry terminal didn’t open until 9am like the rest of the city and country! So I walked around until I found a taverna open and had a bacon bocadillo for breakfast. Then I made my way back to the ferry terminal where I booked a private first class cabin on the night ferry. It cost me $70 over the ferry ticket but at this point I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to listen to someone snoring again! Then it was off to explore the city in one day –which is enough. Valencia is not a very pretty city. There are only a few old buildings remaining, the cathedral, a few palaces and some fortification towers. I took the metro out to the beach area that was actually very nice and had hoped to have good seafood dinner but alas, the restaurants were closed until 9pm and the ferry departed at 11pm. So I went back into town and found an Irish pub. Since I was wearing my Dublin Marathon shirt I got great service and an excellent bowl of Irish stew that was a great change from the terrible Spanish food. There were a few areas of Valencia that did impress me. One was the Turia riverbed. The Turia River used to flow through the middle of the city until 1956 when there was a very destructive flood. So they dammed the river off at both ends of the city and diverted it around the city. They left the old riverbed in its natural state and converted it to parkland through the city. No concrete. Just soccer fields, tennis courts and jogging paths. At the end closest to the sea they are building a new science and technology city. The buildings are very modern and unique, something like the Sydney Opera House. The Planetarium looks like a human eye and the Aquarium looks like a human skeleton. I would think that these buildings will become world-famous when they are completed. I found these more interesting than the chalice in the Cathedral that is supposedly from the Last Supper!
Finally it was time to catch the ferry and head back to Mallorca. What a wonderful sleep I had in my private cabin with the gentle rocking of the waves- and no snoring!

I arrived in Mallorca at 7am, which is of course too early to find anything open or anyone doing anything. So I had to sit in front of the rental car agency until 9am when the manager finally showed up. But a car was cheap in the off-season; $150 for nine days! I drove out to Palmanova, a seaside resort. Palmanova and Maguluf are the two major resort areas on Mallorca and they cater mostly to Brits and Germans. It was off-season so half the hotels and restaurants were closed. A one-bedroom hotel apartment cost $35/day! I did my final training run along the coast and then searched for the race HQ to pick up my race package. That evening as I went looking for dinner I was pleasantly surprised to find that 90% of the restaurants featured ‘British’ menus and food. Most of them even advertised that they were British owned. Steak and ale pie and fish and chips sounded mighty good after two weeks of Spanish food
The marathon was on Sunday morning and consisted of two half-marathon loops along the coast and into the hills of the interior. And believe me there are some nasty hills on Mallorca! When I crossed the half in 1:43 I wasn’t quite sure if I could continue that pace through the same hills again. But I decided to go for it! As I was cresting the final hill from miles 21 through 24 I did a ‘gut check’ to see if I was up to the effort required to beat 3:30. And for the first time in many years I found that not only did I have that extra tank of energy but more importantly I had the desire and the willpower necessary to overcome the pain and hurt to achieve the desire! When I crossed the line in 3:29:24 I felt that I had just produced my best effort in the last 3 to 4 years! I now have the confidence going forward that I can run any course and time I set my heart on! And I was proud that I had run three marathons in three weeks and qualified for Boston in all three!

But now it was time to clean up and meet my manager and my son Jason at the airport. Jason had flown from Galveston to Gatwick, met his mom at the airport and they both continued on to Mallorca. We spent the week touring around the island. The north and west sides are the prettiest, great sandy beaches and high mountains and coastal cliffs. The roads are fairly good on the island but some of the drives through the mountains were pretty scary. The east and south sides are not as pretty, mostly scrub land with a few hills.
The weather was OK but not great. Mid 60s. It was amusing to watch the various tourists. Some walking around in shorts and t-shirts; others in ski jackets, hats and gloves. Some were sun bathing and even a few idiots were swimming!
There was very little nightlife much to Jason’s dismay. But every night we would hear people screaming and shouting as they came out of the bars about 3am. So the final night Jason decided to check it out. He stayed up and went out at 1am. A few hours later he came back and woke us up to tell us a long animated story about how he had gone to several bars, had a drink in each one and then moved on to find the action. Needless to say he was feeling OK which led to such an animated story! But he claimed he never found the action!
Finally it was time to go home. It had been a very long trip for me. It only seemed so for Jason!

And I am finally finished this trip report –just in time to get ready for the next trip!

Sunday, November 28, 1999

TR Portugal

Trip Report
Lisbon, Portugal
(Spain #2)

Now where were we? Oh yes, just arriving into Madrid by night train from Barcelona.

As usual my first stop was at the tourist/hotel desk in the train station to find a hotel for a few days. My quasi-street person disguise started to come in handy. The agent took one look at me and tried to direct me to a hostel. When I stated that I wanted a 2 or 3-star hotel with an ensuite bath and at least one English channel on TV she obliged me and quoted the bottom end of the price scale but looked at me like “Sure, and how are you going to pay for it”? That ugly warm-up top was one of the best investments that I ever made. It kept me from freezing to death and probably saved me hundreds of dollars on that trip alone!
The Spanish student had advised me to stay in the Central Zone close to the Plaza Mayor and the Parque del Buen Retiro. This turned out to be the correct advice for me. Madrid is big city with lots of traffic and you can smell and taste the pollution during the busy traffic hours. Fortunately Retiro Park which is the old gardens and hunting grounds of the kings was only a mile from my hotel. So I could jog over to the park and run the many dirt trails through the park, as I needed to continue my training runs. The central area is compact enough that one can walk almost everywhere and there are lots of tourist attractions to see: palaces, museums and of course churches.
I took a city tour immediately to learn the layout of the city but walked everywhere after that. But after two days in the city I had seen everything I wanted to see and I was also getting very tired of the Spanish routine. It is completely out of phase with my normal routine. I was eating dinner every day at midnight. And I was tired of Spanish food. During the day all you can get to eat are bocadillas (sub sandwiches) or tapas (appetizers or finger food). The evening meals are all fried. I couldn’t find a boiled potato or pasta!
So I decided to escape to the countryside. I took a tour to San Lorenzo De El Escorial and Valle De Las Caidos. El Escorial or the Royal Monastery is considered to be the 8th wonder of the world. It was built by King Felipe II in 1562 to honor the Spanish victory over the French at San Quentin. It was also built to house the pantheon for all the Spanish kings. I continued my European history lesson as I discovered that not only are the Spanish kings buried there but many of the Hapsburg dynasty including Queen Maria Teresa who ruled all of Europe in the 17th century.
The tour also took us to the Valley of the Fallen that is a memorial built by Franco for all soldiers killed in the Civil War. It is marked by a 450-foot high cross and a church that is carved 400 feet into a granite mountain. Of course Franco is buried in the church!
Then I decided to go off on my own to visit Toledo, an old walled city 70km south of Madrid. This is an old city originally founded by the Romans and then captured by the Arabs. The city has been captured by so many people and cultures and all are evident in the many old buildings. Most streets are the same as they were 2000 years ago. They are very narrow and wind around all over the place. I got lost several times –and I had a map! Unfortunately I only had one afternoon to tour the city and it was not enough!
It was time to move on to Lisbon to meet my manager, lover and companion (Nicole) who was bringing me fresh clothes and supplies. This time I decided to reduce the number of roommates and increase my chance of getting a good sleep on the train –translate that to hopefully no snorers! There actually was a first class sleeper coach on the night train to Lisbon so I booked a semi-private cabin. My roommate was a 75 year-old retired pilot from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was a nice gentleman – but he snored! But he made up for it by taking me under his wing when we arrived in Lisbon. He hired a taxi and dropped me off at my hotel and wouldn’t accept any payment!
Since I had arrived in Lisbon at 8am and Nicole wasn’t arriving until 1pm, I decided to go to race HQ and pick up my race package. Upon leaving the HQ I ran into a friend from the 50+DC club in the street and we decided to tour the city together and have lunch while I was waiting for Nicole.
After she arrived I was able to show her around the old center of Lisbon where our hotel was located. The next day we took a city tour. There are lots of attractions such as the Castelo de San Jorge that overlooked the city and our hotel, Jeronimos Monastery, Torre de Belem –a 14th century defense tower built in the Rio Tejo (Tejo River), a duplicate of the Christ Statue in Rio de Janeiro (but not as tall), and the Discoveries Monument. Portugal is very proud of their place in history as one of the dominant explorers and colonizing countries.
A few things that are also strictly Portuguese and amazing are the use of ceramic tiles everywhere and their sidewalks. Many of the building exteriors are completely covered in ceramic tiles, many hundreds of years old with very detailed patterns and murals. Every sidewalk in Portugal including many roads are made of small (2 to 3 inch cubes) of limestone set in sand. Many have intricate patterns also built in by using small cubes of dark basalt. The labor to build these walks and roads has got to be tremendous as it is all done by hand!
But overall both Nicole and I were disappointed in Lisbon. It is not nearly as dynamic or as picturesque as other European cities. Most of the buildings in the old section of the city are run down and poorly maintained -but could look great if someone would just paint and fix them up!
The next day we took a private tour up the Estoril coast north of Lisbon. We stopped in Cascais, a small picturesque resort town that we really liked. We passed by Cabo da Roca, the most western point in continental Europe on our way to Sintra. Sintra is a Portuguese version of Toledo; a walled city built on the top of two mountains. It is not as old but it is very pretty. There are three palaces. We toured one that had been built four hundred years ago and was noted for the ceramic tiles that were used to decorate the interior. I thought they were very garish but they are the original tiles!

Now it was time to prepare for the big race. Up to now Nicole and I had been enjoying some great seafood which was such a pleasant change from the Spanish diet. But I needed pasta. There were only a few Italian restaurants in the whole city and they were too far from the hotel so I ended up eating something they called ‘spagetti’ at the hotel. Ugh!
The marathon started just off the main commercial square in the old city, ran north into the hills and returned to the center of the city to go out along the Tejo River toward the Atlantic Ocean before turning around and heading back to the commercial square. For the first time in 147 marathons I was misdirected off course by race officials. About 5K into the race they sent about twenty of us off course with the 10K racers. It took us about five minutes to realize that were with the wrong group, retrace our steps and cut a few corners to rejoin the marathon pack. I figured I lost about two or three minutes. Now I am trying to convince myself- “Don’t get flustered and don’t try to make it up all at once-take it easy and catch up slowly”. But of course subconsciously you pick up the pace and when I passed the half three minutes ahead of my expected time I figured I was heading for trouble. But trouble never did appear and I finished in 3:28:39 so I was very happy in spite of the screw-up!
Now it was time for some good seafood and wine! We had a great meal and Nicole really enjoyed her $80 lobster. Actually most food in Portugal was relatively inexpensive so when I calculated the price of lobster I thought it was a good price. Only problem was I dropped a zero (0) in the currency conversion. I thought it was $4/lb – it was $40/lb. Oh well. Nicole did enjoy it! And you have to treat your managers well, especially when they bring you fresh supplies and take back your dirty laundry!
The next day Nicole had to return to England and work (yuk-what a dirty word!) so I left early by train for Faro and the Algarve Coast. It was a very boring ride –not much scenery and it rained all the way. It was still raining when I arrived in Faro so I decided not to rent a car and just stay in Faro. I had to leave the next day by bus for Huelva, Spain because there is no rail service between the Portugal and Spain in the south. I could pick the rail system back and use my Rail Pass again from Huelva. Because it was off-season I managed to find a room in a brand new 3-star hotel in Faro for only $30. This place even had CNBC on satellite so I was able to catch up on the stock market and determine whether I could afford to continue the trip. Thankfully tech stocks are ridiculously high so I was able to continue!
But a humorous (in hindsight) thing did happen at the hotel. As I was checking out my glorious and fabulously modern room I decided to go out onto the balcony to check the view. Since it was still raining lightly I closed the patio door behind me. As it closed I heard an ominous CLICK!
I knew instantly what had happened. The door had locked itself! Now I am on the top (3rd) floor balcony locked out of my own room! After trying to beat the crap out of the door I gave up that attack and tried to catch the attention of anyone on the street. I am shouting “hey Mister, hey Senor”. A few look up but scurry away. Then I decide to shout “hey, Asshole” just to make sure they don’t really understand English! Still no takers or helpers. What to do? I am getting wet and cold! I start to consider throwing the patio furniture down into the street hoping that the hotel staff would notice. But finally the lady proprietor of a hair salon across the street came out for a cigarette and noticed me waving and shouting. She went into the hotel to probably inform them that there was a lunatic on the top floor. But it worked as the desk clerk came to investigate and let me back in.
After my little adventure I decided to stay away from the patio and do a walking tour of Faro. It is a small town and not that pretty. I assume from pictures and postcards that the scenic part of the Algarve is west of Faro but I never did get the opportunity to check it out. As I was traveling east to Spain the next day I was not impressed with the scenery in that direction.

I picked up the Spanish rail in Huelva and headed to Seville. I contemplated trying to make a quick side trip to Gibraltar but realized that I did not have enough time since I wanted to spend at least two days in Seville and I had to be in Valencia by Thursday to catch the night ferry back to Mallorca. Oh well, another time!

And I think another time or report to finish off this trip. Stay tuned for the final part.

Sunday, November 21, 1999

TR Monaco

Monte Carlo Marathon
Monte Carlo, Monaco
11/16 to12/12/99
Mallorca, Spain, France, Monaco, France, Italy, France, Monaco, France, Spain, Portugal, Spain, Mallorca (Part 1)

All those border crossings and I only got one stamp in my passport!
This was one of those trips where I had to pick one location to start and end and then travel by train and other means to all the in-between locations. Since the trip was to end in Mallorca where Nicole and Jason were to join me for the last week, I decided to start there. I flew into Palma, the capital of Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain that is actually a province or region of Spain. After spending a night in Palma and doing a pleasant 7-mile run along the port I caught a ferry to Barcelona and received my first lesson in Spanish culture. In Spain nobody gets up or starts moving before 9am. The stores open from 10 am to 1pm, close until 4pm and then reopen until 8pm. The restaurants open from 11am to 4pm, close until 8:30pm and reopen until 12am. You shop and eat during those hours or you DON’T! I boarded the ferry at 1pm for an eight-hour ride. Since I wasn’t hungry I decided to wait for dinner –except there was no dinner. Lunch was served from 1pm to 3pm and the restaurant closed for the trip!
So I arrived at 9pm in Barcelona hungry and tired. I had no reservations and had expected to find a tourist office in the ferry terminal to assist me. Nope! And nobody who could speak English either to give me directions where to look. I found this the norm in Spain and Portugal. Very few people, even in the service industry could speak English and the majority didn’t even try to make an effort to help. If you couldn’t speak Spanish –tough! They just ignored you!
So I threw my sports bag over my back and headed for the lights of the city. I did manage to find a cop who understood enough English to confirm that I was heading in the right direction. Ten minutes later I found myself at the foot of the ‘La Rambla’, the main boulevard in Barcelona. At 10pm it was a beehive of activity. So I was able to locate a hotel and a place to eat dinner at 11pm. I soon adjusted to the Spanish timetable and ate my dinner around midnight each day.
The next morning I did my final training run down La Rambla and up Montjuic Park (a mountain overlooking the city), past the Olympic Stadium and all the way to the top to the Montjuic Castle. Little did I realize that this hill training was going to be useful. Barcelona is a neat city. It has a good metro and is easy to get around. There are lots of things to see and do. I took the standard city bus tour. But what I discovered in Spain was that it was better to take the tours that allow you to get on and off as often as you wish. They were cheaper and most of the streets are old and narrow which meant that the buses couldn’t go down them and could only take you close the major tourist attractions and you had to walk anyway. Besides the La Rambla there is an old section of the city called the Gothic Quarter that has many old buildings including of course the Cathedral, churches, the Parliament and City Hall. And spread throughout the city are many buildings designed by a Spanish architect named Gaudi. Man you want to talk about weird! He must have been on psychedelic drugs when he designed them. I could try to describe them but you must see them to believe it!
I only had two days in Barcelona and it was not enough. But it was time to catch a night train to Monaco. That was an interesting trip! I traveled by coach car to the French border where I had an hour layover before catching a second train with sleeper cars. I was the first to arrive in the 4-sleeper couchette. An Aussie from Tasmania was next. Then two very pretty, young Spanish ladies arrived. I was surprised and they were shocked to discover that they were assigned to a couchette with two men. They immediately called the conductor to complain but there was a problem. They only spoke Spanish and he only spoke French. So the ugly, linguistic-handicapped American came to the rescue! With my basic French and limited Spanish I became the translator. But the problem could not be solved since the train was full and there were no other sleepers available. So we all went to bed fully-clothed to ease the girl’s minds. By 2 am the Aussie was snoring like crazy and the girls were swearing in Spanish (I don’t know any swear words in Spanish but I do know that they were swearing!) So by 4am the girls gave up, took their suitcases and sat in the hall outside our cabin. By 6am I had joined them, partly to escape the snoring but mainly to enjoy the scenery as the train traveled along the Cote d”Azur.
Finally I arrived in Monte Carlo at 9am, stepped off the train and ran into a colleague from the 50+ DC Running Club! There were a few members there so I managed to get updated on news from the US and more importantly had someone I could talk to – in English!
I had been to Monte Carlo before but only visiting so I did not realize how snobbish and uppity that place is. There is oodles of money everywhere- Rolls Royces, expensive jewelry stores on every street! I checked real estate prices. A 3BR condo on Princess Grace Dr overlooking the sea is a cool 30,000,000 FF or $5,000,000 US. There are no convenience stores. If you want to buy bottled water or a coke you have to go to one of the four supermarkets in the principality which are only open about eight hours per day. Thankfully the locals can drive about four miles in any direction to France where they do have convenience stores and bars, etc!
Because it was off-season half the restaurants were closed and the ones that were open were on reduced hours. And most of them would not let me in! The week before when I was in Dallas, I went to Wal-Mart to buy a heavy and warm jogging suit to use as warm-ups for races. Since there is a good chance of losing them, I bought the cheapest and ugliest suit I could find-for $14.99. I had brought it with me but did not pack a separate jacket since I planned on using the warm-up top if needed. Well a cold front came though Southern Europe and the highs were only in the low forties for the first week so I was using that top every day just to stay warm. With that top, a pair of faded jeans and dirty running shoes I looked about one level up from a street person. So every time I tried to get into one of their fancy restaurants they took one look at me and politely said “ Excuse me sir but our restaurant (half-empty) is fully booked”! I was forced to eat in small casual diners or bars all week but they were half the price anyway.
Finally race day! The marathon started on the main road in Monte Carlo in front of the casino, went east along the coast and up and down the coastal mountains. We ran through Monaco into France, through France and into Italy. This is the only marathon that runs through three countries. I counted the country/marathon as Monaco. About three miles into Italy we turned around and retraced the route back to Monaco to finish in the Louis II Stadium. It was a very hilly course but the scenery was awesome as we ran along the Cote D’Azur. The weather was cool which helped so I was able to finish in 3:33:35, which was very satisfactory for that course.
After the race I had difficulty finding a place to eat and ended up eating a hot dog at a small carnival located on the seashore! So I spent my last night in Monaco and decided to head back to Spain the following day (Mon). I had to be in Lisbon by the following Friday to meet Nicole who was flying in to join me for the weekend while I ran the Lisbon marathon.
My plan was to go to Madrid for 3 or 4 days and then on to Lisbon –all by train. I was disappointed to discover that I had to go all the way back to Barcelona to catch a train to Madrid? So I caught a day train from Monaco to Barcelona with a two-hour layover in Marseille. I had hoped to explore Marseille and have a great bowl of boulaibasse. But the train station is in a very rough/seedy part of the city and after walking around for a half-hour looking for a restaurant with boulaibasse, I gave up and went back to the cafeteria in the station. Then it was on to Barcelona to catch a night train to Madrid.
I then discovered that I had essentially wasted about $100 by buying first class Rail Passes. Most of the trains in Spain and Portugal didn’t even have first class coaches or sleepers on them. So I was forced to purchase a bunk in a 4-person couchette again. One of my companions was a young American on sabbatical from Silicon Valley, another was a Spanish student who lived in Madrid but was working for the summer in Barcelona. Since he spoke English, he was a goldmine of information on what to see and do in Madrid and where to stay. Our 4th companion was an older Spanish chap whom never said a word but –yes- snored all night!

I am going to end this portion here. Otherwise this report will be too long to keep your interest. So get some rest and stay tuned for part #2!

Sunday, October 31, 1999

TR Ireland & Wales

10/23 –10/31/99

This trip was planned from the get-go to be a ten-day re-exploration of a previous trip that Nicole, Jason and I made to Wales and Ireland during our 1st month in England. As you may recall that was the trip where I received my Ph.D. in UK driving!

The purpose of this trip was to run two marathons: one in Dublin and one six days later in Wales.
Since they were so conveniently close in time I decided to drive again and in fact I had to retrace much of the same route we took six months ago- motorways north through Birmingham and then west to Wales where you immediately hit those wonderful roads. But this time the roads were not as intimidating! I drove straight through to the ferry terminal in Holyhead the first day and found a small B&B close to the terminal. The next morning when I told the owner/hostess that I was going to Ireland to run the Dublin marathon she decided I needed extra fuel and doubled the normal ‘full English breakfast’.
Now I don’t know if you have ever had one of these ‘cholesterol-heaven’ meals – fried bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and eggs with toast but it can’t really be good for you because it tastes so damn good! But you don’t want to eat again for the rest of the day!
Adequately fueled I headed for the Irish Ferries terminal to board the fast ferry – a hydrofoil that crosses the Irish Sea in less than two hours. Little did I realize that the high winds that the UK had been encountering for the past week had whipped the Irish Sea up into 12 to 15 foot swells. I have never seen so many seasick people in my life! About 80% of the passengers were seasick within the first hour. The big breakfast did not seem like such a great idea now! I actually didn’t have any problems with the sea because I have seen much worse but watching, listening and smelling 300 people throw up makes it very difficult to keep a greasy breakfast down!
But I did manage to keep it down and eventually the captain had to slow the boat down to reduce the rocking because the passengers were not getting better!
Having been to Ireland and Dublin before came in handy as I had booked a hotel right on O’Connell Street that was only 500 feet from the start and finish of the marathon. No long trips to get to the race or back to the hotel and no freezing my butt off waiting at the start!

When we had visited previously we spent only one night and the next morning in Dublin and hadn’t really explored the city. So this trip I took the mandatory city bus tour and discovered that we had missed 75% of the tourist highlights and history of the city. I reiterate – the first thing to do in any city is take an organized city tour! It points out the major attractions/sites, describes the local history and gives you the layout of the land so that you can explore further on your own. I discovered the Dublin Castle, Phoenix Park- the largest urban park in the world, and the guide pointed out the many bullet holes in the buildings and statues from the many unsuccessful independence wars during Ireland’s violent past. We missed all this history on our first trip!

The marathon itself is treated as a big event in Dublin. It is held on a Monday of a long ‘Bank Holiday’. They call all their long holiday weekends ‘Bank Holidays’. The city and people support it enthusiastically. The marathon has about 6000 entrants of which 50% are from the US. About 90% of those runners/walkers are ‘Charity Runners’-Leukemia, etc. But it is a big economic infusion for the city. Dublin was also hosting some of the World Rugby games at the same time so the city was humming!
The marathon course is a fairly flat 26-mile loop through and around the city but most of it is in the suburbs so it is kind of boring. But there were lots of spectators cheering on the runners and Irish bands playing along the course.
I decided to run easy since I had another race in six days that I knew would be much harder. So I ran an easy 8:15-8:30 pace until the 25 mile mark where a ‘Leukemia team member’ from San Diego and I got into a pissing match or running duel. I don’t know what started it but suddenly neither one was going to let the other get to the finish line first. Right –all you need after 25 miles! So we ran the 26th mile in 6:55 where I passed his young ass and sprinted to the finish line to beat him! He was about half my age and I figured it was important to teach him that although youth is a major factor, wisdom and experience can be more important! That little spurt helped me finish in 3:37, which is respectable for ‘taking it easy’.

Now that the ‘work’ was completed it was time to enjoy Dublin. After a nice hot soak in the tub I headed to the Irish Pubs to listen to some live Irish music and enjoy some good beer. I have to admit that I was amazed that even on Sunday and the Holiday Monday the pubs were absolutely full and buzzing with activity! At my second pub I ran into a bunch of Aussies who had just left the rugby match where Australia had defeated ? This turned out to be a big mistake as I am telling you that you do not – I repeat YOU DO NOT want to celebrate with a bunch of Aussies!
They had me drinking Guinness and I don’t even like dark beer! The next morning my head and stomach hurt much worse than my legs!
And I had to rise and leave early to start to the second leg of my adventure. I figured that since I didn’t need to be in Wales until Friday that I might as well experience some golf in Ireland. I had pre-booked hotels and tee times at three golf clubs in the Ireland Midlands –all within 100 miles of Dublin. The first golf course was Glasson, which is near Athlone. The course is situated on a peninsula jutting out into Lough Ree (Lake of the Kings). It is a hilly course bounded on three sides by the lake so half the holes are in the hills and half are on water. But the scenery and views from every hole were spectacular! The course ate my lunch –I didn’t break 100 but I didn’t care! And surprisingly the weather turned out really nice. It was cool but sunny and I had been prepared to play in rain all week! The hotel was located right on the lake and in fact there was an island about 100 yards offshore that is supposedly the geographical center of Ireland!

Then it was on to the Esker Hills Golf Club in Tullamore. As the name suggests this is a very hilly course. Half of the tee and fairway shots are blind shots because of severe dog- legs or hills! Needless to say I lost a lot of balls and didn’t break 100 again – but I still didn’t care! That night I decided it was time to treat myself like a king so I stayed in a castle. The Kilkea Castle is the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland. It has been inhabited since it was built in 1180! The exterior has essentially been untouched since it was built. A local hotel chain bought the castle five years ago and converted it into a luxury hotel.
They left the exterior untouched and only updated/changed the interior as necessary. The rooms are furnished with antiques or replicas so you definitely know you are living in an old castle. I was lucky (?) to be placed in a room at the top of the southwest battle tower overlooking the battlements.
Unbeknownst to me this tower is rumored to be haunted! But I don’t believe in that crap?
Because the castle is located on its own estate in the boonies I decided to eat in their renowned (but very expensive- but then remember I am a King! ) restaurant. After dinner I went to the bar for a nightcap and then retired early since I had the 8am-tee time on the hotel’s private golf course. Upon retiring I checked my door as I usually do to double-lock it. But it did not have a double lock or safety chain so I just made sure that the door was closed and locked. At exactly 2:45 am I was awakened suddenly as my room door was opened and the door swung in about one-quarter of the way! The only thing I could think of was to shout “Hello, Hello”? The door immediately slammed shut! But then a god-awful thumping noise started up in the hallway or somewhere in the tower. After a few minutes I got annoyed and called the front desk to explain that someone had tried to enter my room and now there was a loud noise in the hallway. I waited a few more minutes and still the noise didn’t go away so I called the front desk again and complained more strongly and demanded that they get their ass up here to investigate the problem.
After a few more minutes the noise went away and I fell back to sleep. The next morning on the way to breakfast I asked the front desk what they had found the previous night. They explained that they had sent an employee up to the tower but he had found nothing or nobody and no noise.
They claimed that no employees had been in the tower at that time and no unauthorized persons had access to my room key. So I guess the mystery will never be solved! But it couldn’t have been a ghost! Ghosts don’t open doors –do they? Don’t they just walk through them?

My good luck (?) at the castle continued as my tee time was delayed two hours by the first frost of the season. But the reward was the nicest weather day of the trip! It turned out to be sunny and warm. I tried to rush my way through the links course only to shoot a 51 on the front nine. So then I forced myself to slow down and concentrate and shot a 41 on the back nine that was the hardest part of the course. I had finally broken 100 in Ireland!
Then it was time to head cross country on the back roads again –and I mean back roads! Most were single lane unpaved roads. If you met another car someone had to find a place to pull over or back up! I was heading across and over the Wicklow Mountains to the Irish Sea. I stopped for lunch in Hollywood –I even took a picture of the HOLLYWOOD sign perched on the side of the Wicklow Mountains with the sheep grazing all around it!
The mountains are similar in height and geology to the Appalachians but with much more pasture. It is very scenic with lots of green hills and valleys and zillions of sheep.
I spent my final night in Killiney Bay, a small seaside resort that is an exclusive suburb of Dublin on the south side. And I did a final five-mile run along the Irish Sea in preparation for the next marathon.

The next morning it was back to the ferry that was much smoother this trip. I had decided to travel north from Holyhead to explore a small coastal resort in North Wales. Llandudno used to have a copper mine but it petered out in the mid 1800s so they converted the town into a seaside resort. It is very picturesque and I realized that Wales is the undiscovered secret of the UK. It has everything the other countries do –mountains, ocean, and lots of sheep. But it is much cheaper to visit and less congested! I spent the night there before moving on to the Snowdonia National Park where the marathon was to be run. On the way to Llanberis I stopped at LLANFAIRPWLLGWYNGYLLGOGERYCHWYRNDROBWLLLLANTYSILIOGOGOGOCH. This is the longest town name in Britain and it means literally ‘Mary’s church by the white hazel pool, near the fierce whirlpool, with the Church of Tysilio by the Red Cave’. How would you like to put that on your return address every time you write a letter?
Then it was over and through the Snowdonia Mountains to Llanberis that sits on the shores of Llyn Padarn (Lake Padarn) at the foot of Mount Snowdon. This is a very scenic area and is a mecca for hikers and climbers.
As I was checking into the Royal Victoria Hotel, a 200 year-old hotel situated on the lake, I met Wally Herman –the retired doctor I spoke about in a previous letter. He was running his 87th country! By now the weather had turned nasty with very strong winds. In fact I discovered that I had been lucky to leave Ireland when I did because the ferries were being cancelled due to the high winds and rough seas. I had planned to do some more sightseeing in the area but the weather was too bad! But I figured I couldn’t complain since I had good weather all week when I had expected to play golf in the rain and cold.
So I did some shopping in Llanberis and the first thing I noticed was that everyone spoke Welsh. They also spoke English but their first language was Welsh that is impossible to understand. I had also noticed in the Midlands of Ireland, especially in the boonies that everyone was speaking Gaelic. I thought it was nice that the people are reviving their native languages!

Sunday was D-day for the marathon and the weather had not improved so I knew it would be a tough day! The marathon started in Llanberis, climbed a 1000 feet up the Llanberis Pass and then dropped a 1000 feet down into Beddgelert. At the top of the pass the winds were gusting at 60 mph and were so strong that I was afraid that I was going to be blown off the mountain pass! But they were at our back – until Beddgelert where we turned southwest into the 60mph gales! From there we climbed another 500 feet up to Pont Cae Gors before descending again. But fortunately the wind started to change direction and assist us. The final climb was the worst. From mile 21 to 23 we had to climb 1000 feet up a hiking trail to the top of a mountain. Running as fast and as hard as I could without walking it took me 20.5 minutes to make that climb. As I neared the top of the mountain I figured I would be able to make up the time on the descent. WRONG! The descent was so steep and the trail so treacherous that I literally had to lean back into the mountain and apply full leg brakes and weave my way down the trail that was grass, mud and loose rocks. One mistake and you wouldn’t stop until you hit the bottom of the mountain! It took 18 minutes to descend two miles! But finally we hit pavement on the edge of town and ran the final mile through Llanberis to finish on the shores of Llyn Paradan. My time? 3:43 which was damn good for that course and the conditions.
I actually enjoyed the marathon because the course was challenging but the scenery was spectacular as you passed through several valleys and passed by several lakes, rivers and waterfalls. We also passed through several small villages and all the locals were standing in that nasty weather cheering all the runners along! It’s a good marathon and a great place to visit if you love nature and beautiful scenery!
And having completed a marathon in Wales I have now completed a marathon in all four countries of the United Kingdom!

Fortunately I do get to rest for a few weeks before my next marathon adventure begins.
So stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 19, 1999

TR Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands
(10/15 –10/19/99)

I have always wanted to do the Amsterdam Marathon because it is supposed to be a fast course and I always hear good things about the city. Well, both rumors are true.

Nicole and I left on Friday afternoon. It is a very short hop from London to Amsterdam and there are lots of cheap flights out of our local airport, Stansted.
What we didn’t know in advance but now you do is that the city is notorious for pickpockets. They had a reception committee waiting for Nicole at the airport and lifted her wallet from her purse within the first five minutes. She only noticed it missing when we arrived at the hotel but she remembers being ‘bumped’ very roughly on the moving sidewalk at the airport. Voila!
So we are off to a good start as Nicole spends the next hour on the phone canceling all her credit cards. And I move my wallet from my back pocket to the front one. That way, even if they do pick it at least I will get a thrill from it! And I resolve that I will use my money belt on ALL future trips no matter where I go in Europe and I ask Nicole to buy one also.
But it’s time to get over the negative and begin to explore the city. The first thing that hits you is all the canals. They seem to be all over the place in a random pattern. But actually they are in a concentric horseshoe pattern emanating from the harbor. The Amstel River (I never knew the beer was named after the river) also flows through the center of the old city. So there is water and bridges everywhere! But the city is actually easy to get around once you understand how the canals are laid out. And the public transportation is colorful and efficient. The other travel tip is to buy what they call a ‘strip ticket’ as soon as you can. This ticket contains fifteen strips for 11 Guilders ($5 US) and a typical trip on a tram or metro takes two strips. With the strip ticket you just hop on and off and punch the strips depending on the number of zones you cross. Really very easy and inexpensive.

The Central Rail station is located on the harbor and is the central hub of the city. All the public transportation (even the canal cruises) starts and finishes at the station so you just find yourself in that area a lot of the time. We stayed in a small hotel off Rembrandt Square, which is one of the main tourist areas of Amsterdam. I didn’t see any of the big hotel chains in the old city but there are several expensive hotels. Hotels are expensive, typically $250+ for a good 3-star hotel. We stayed at a small 2-star hotel that had been converted from an old house. And that is another unique (and charming?) feature of Amsterdam that needs explaining. Most of the buildings in the old city or the city center were built 100+ years ago. At that time they taxed property based on the footage that fronted the street. So most owners built their houses very narrow, deep and high. Since the buildings are so narrow there is not much room for stairs and the stairs are very narrow and steep. And as you go up in floors the stairs get narrower and steeper. Our room for the first night was on the top (4th) floor. The stairs to that floor were basically a ladder built into the house. Nicole could barely get up and down them and I had a lot of fun hauling our suitcases up that ladder. Thankfully they moved us to the first floor the next day.
Since the stairs are so narrow it is impossible to move furniture up and down those stairs. So how do they move? Good question? Each house and building has a sky-hook built into the gable. They use the hook to hoist the furniture up and down and move it in through the windows. Now I can understand why they did that 100 years ago but I observed new buildings both in the city and the suburbs and they are still built that way? Even modern skyscrapers have hooks and hoists built into the structures. I guess they have the moving process down to an art and don’t like to climb stairs?

Anyway back to the city. Nicole and I took our mandatory city tour the next day. The guide explained the canal system and showed us the tourist highlights such as the Royal Palace, the National Monument, the Heineken Brewery, various flea markets and of course the ‘Red Light District’. We also took a canal cruise/tour that showed us many of the same highlights from a different perspective. You get a much better view of some of the grand homes along the canals as well as the thousands of houseboats along the canals. Now we were ready to go exploring on our own. But first we made our way to the Olympic Stadium to pick up the race package. That went very smoothly because everyone in Amsterdam speaks English. It is not their first language but we did not meet one person who could not speak English!
After walking around and exploring various sections of the city for the rest of the day we then had to have our usual boring pasta dinner. I had gotten used to the prices in Eastern Europe so had a bit of a shock to have to pay Western European prices again- of course everything is expensive! After dinner we went for a stroll through the Red Light District. It is perfectly safe (except for pickpockets) and there were several couples strolling around or passing through. I did some window-shopping. There were several ladies at work in their windows displaying their wares. But Nicole wouldn’t let me buy anything! Everything you may have heard about Amsterdam’s open or free attitude is true. There are shops selling various forms of cannabis and other drugs that I have never even heard of. The cannabis shop is right next door to the porno shop that has live sex shows that is right next door to several windows with the ladies selling their services. And all of this is legal! There are gay bars and clubs all over the city. It is not difficult to identify them because they usually have pictures in the front of several customers engaged in the type of sex acts that supposedly go on inside! And the pictures are very explicit!
So I am sure that one can find anything one may want in Amsterdam and most of it will be legal!

Now back to the purpose of our visit (no it was not the items above dummy!). It was the marathon –remember! Damn I almost forgot myself!
The only bad thing I have to say about the marathon is the late start –12:30pm. I hate late starts. But everything, absolutely everything else was first class. The organization, the ease of registration, the start, etc was very good. The course was a 21-km loop around and through all the major tourist highlights of the city. The course was flat and fast and completely barricaded to traffic. There were lots of spectators and several bands playing along the course. The weather had turned cool, almost cold. In fact it was the first time this year that I had to wear gloves and a garbage bag at the start to keep warm. The wind was a bit stronger than desired and always seemed to be coming head-on.
I was a bit concerned after hitting the wall in my last race so I started slow and easy and decided to check my fuel tanks every 5 miles. At 15 miles I still felt good but between 15 and 20 I had one of those lulls where you feel tired and are not sure you want to run anymore. But at 20 miles I felt the tanks still had some energy so I drooped the pace to sub eight minutes. Fortunately there were no walls or dikes in my path this time. The last 10K were my fastest of the race and although it hurt like hell, it felt good! (Only a runner will understand that contradiction!) It also helped bring me home in 3:33:37 or under Boston Qualifying time. That is my new goal going forward. If I can run under 3:35 I am going to consider it a good race! The weather must have helped the leaders too since the winning time was 2:06:47- only a few seconds off the world record!
I heartily recommend this marathon and city to any runner wanting to run a great marathon!

After the race Nicole and I strolled around the city some more and finally settled on a restaurant for a great steak dinner ($70 for two with a bottle of wine!) I was thinking of going back to the Red Light District for a massage but instead we went to a sports bar and watched the first half of the San Francisco/Carolina game. I think the massage would have been cheaper and I know I would have enjoyed it more!

Unfortunately we had to return to England on Monday because Nicole has these silly time restrictions that all workers have (called vacation time or something like that?). I would have liked to have had time to visit the countryside but then I still have something to look forward to.

So the bottom line is that as long as you protect your money and wallet, Amsterdam is a great city to visit and the marathon is a great race to run!

Sunday, October 03, 1999

TR Hungary

TRIP REPORT –The BALKANS (10/1 –10/11/99)
Budapest Marathon
Budapest, Hungary

Four countries in nine days. Not what I had planned!

The original plan, that I had spent considerable research and time on, called for two countries and two marathons (Budapest and Bucharest) in ten days. But that plan went out the window about one week before we were to leave when the race director for the Bucharest Marathon sent me a fax stating that the race had been cancelled. I already had nonrefundable air tickets and railway passes for both Hungary and Romania. I actually scrambled to find an alternative marathon for the second week but after several attempts to contact race directors in neighboring countries I finally gave up.
Nicole accompanied me to Budapest for the first weekend since she wanted to visit that city. Budapest is a nice city. It reminds me a lot of Prague but is bigger. The city was established over 1000 years ago but has seen so many wars that most of the old buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The architecture is not as interesting as Prague except for the Parliament Buildings that were built about two hundred years ago. Of course there is a Royal Palace, a citadel and several old churches.
Budapest actually did not exist until 1873 when the two cities of Buda and Pest merged. The cities are separated by the Danube that runs north-south through the city and most of Hungary. Buda is built into the hills on the west bank and Pest is built on the flat plains on the east bank. Buda contains many of the old historical sites such as the palace and citadel while Pest has the government offices, financial and shopping areas. Most of the international hotel chains are located in Pest right on the Danube. The sections of the city are compact but separated so you have to learn and use the public transportation system (mainly the metro) to get between them.

Hungary and Budapest are relatively inexpensive except for hotels that are completely out of whack with other costs. A room at the large international hotels; e.g. Hilton are $300+ per night. But a metro ticket is 90 forint ($.40) and a four-course meal including wine at a good restaurant runs $30 for two people! A beer is only $.75 at a pub or café.
Nicole and I hired a private tour of the city for $40 that provided a driver and an English-speaking guide that toured us around for three hours. After the tour we knew the city and were able to explore it in more detail using the metro and walking. We also took an evening cruise on the Danube to watch the sun set over Buda and on the return trip the whole city including the seven bridges crossing the Danube were lit up like a Christmas tree! I am now convinced that a Danube Cruise is the way to explore this region and I will address this subject later.

The marathon was held on Sun and unfortunately it turned out to be a very hot day. With the late start the temperature was already 70+ and well into the 80s when we finished. Water stops were only provided every 5K so everyone including myself became dehydrated. The course was flat and scenic as 22 miles were run along the Danube. By 15 miles I knew it was going to be a bad day and at 20 miles I hit the ‘wall’. That last 10K is a long way when you are hurting. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to do it again next weekend since Bucharest had been cancelled! I finished in 3:48:30. I only wish the race had gone better for me since it was a very memorable one. It represented the 10th marathon and country that I have completed since moving to England. It also put me on a very exclusive list in the 50 + DC Running Club. There are only three members including myself that have completed marathons in twenty or more countries. And I hope to do at least another 10 to 12 before I leave! But I will never catch the number one guy. He is a retired doctor from Ottawa, Canada who has completed 83 countries and still runs at least 12 marathons each year at age 81! Hell with all the traveling I do, I still haven’t visited 83 countries!

After the race Nicole and I continued our sightseeing and then enjoyed a very nice Hungarian dinner. For evening entertainment I told Nicole that our options were a “Gypsy Folklore Show” or an American sports bar that was playing a live NFL game. Surprisingly she picked the game. But we haven’t seen a game since we moved and we did enjoy watching Dallas beat up on Arizona.

The next morning I put Nicole on the airport bus because she had to fly back to Heathrow and catch a connecting flight to Canada for business. Since she was going to be gone for a week and I was stuck there for a week I figured that I might as well use my rail passes to go touring and see how many Balkan countries I could visit. There was a train leaving for Bratislava, Slovakia in 20 minutes so I jumped on. It is only 200Km to Bratislava and I saw some nice scenery as the train followed the Danube around the ‘Danube Bend’. This is a very scenic area where the Danube cuts through the Visegrad and Borzsony Hills and changes direction from east-west to north-south. I saw some of the cruise boats that cruise the Danube and they looked very luxurious. I just looked up a cruise package on the web. For #395 ($650 US) you can fly from London to Budapest and cruise the Danube north to Germany for a week and fly back from Germany. This has got to be the best way to explore this region. Two nights at the Hilton in Budapest or Vienna will cost you $600+.
Back to Bratislava. I didn’t know what to expect but what I found was a small city, about 400K people, that has a lot of history that I didn’t even know. When I first stepped out of the railway station I said ”Oh, Oh”! The area around the station looked dirty and seedy. But I managed to find someone who could speak enough English to tell me which bus to take into center town. I always try to travel and live like the locals because you see and learn more that way. I only back off on that strategy if it doesn’t appear safe! So for a $.15 ticket I rode into the center of town where I was pleased to find a small but clean downtown. I found the tourist information office and received some hotel recommendations and determined that the city was too small for a bus tour but they did offer a guided walking tour around ‘Old town’.
After checking into a nice clean 3-star hotel I took the walking tour. The old town was built in the 14th century and has survived many wars including both world wars unscathed. It is in really good shape and the city council still meets in the 500 year-old town hall. According to our guide and history Bratislava was the seat of the Hungarian/Austrian power for a few hundred years and there was a lot of money in the city at that time and thus a lot of very nice houses/palaces. And of course there is the castle/fortress protecting the city and a 500 year-old church where several kings including Maria Theresa was coronated!
The Danube flows through the city in an east-west direction since the city is west of the bend. The city and country are inexpensive except for out-of-whack hotel prices. But my 3-star hotel only cost $55, which was reasonable. I had a great Slovakian dinner with wine for under $10!

The next day I decided to move on to Zagreb, Croatia. So I had to travel back to Budapest, change trains and travel on to Zagreb. I traveled southwest across Hungary. The only interesting scenery was around Lake Balaton. This is the largest lake in Hungary and the recreational playground for the Hungarians. But the weather had changed drastically the day after the marathon as temperatures dropped thirty degrees and all of the lake resorts were closed. As we approached the border with Croatia I got to experience the wonderful border crossings between the Balkan countries that I forgot to mention before. As you approach a border the train stops and waves of border and custom agents descend upon you. Is this case a Hungarian agent comes first, checks your passport and asks questions. He is followed by a Croatian customs agent who does the same thing. Then finally another Hungarian agent comes and stamps your passport to leave the country. The train moves across the border, stops and you go through the same process all over again except a Croatian agent finally stamps your passport into the country. I never did find out why the process was so complicated and took so many people – maybe a remnant of the Communist system? But I can tell you that it gets really annoying and frustrating after you do it a few times each day!

But I was in Croatia and on my way to Zagreb. Again I did not have any idea what to expect but I was very pleasantly surprised when I stepped out of the station to find a very clean, bustling cosmopolitan city. I walked across the street and booked a very nice 3-star hotel for $55. The city is small and compact so I was able to walk to downtown and find the information center. I got there late so had to buy a tourist guide with a few self-guided walking tours which I did. I really liked Zagreb. It has lots of old buildings and history but has moved aggressively to adopt a capitalist economy. It has built many new modern buildings but blended them well into the old city. And the shops stayed open until 8pm which is very unusual in Europe. At 8pm the city was still bustling!
The city was originally built on two hills Kaptol and Gradec that are now part of the Upper Town. Beyond them the city is built up into a mountain range and is very pretty. I easily could have spent another week exploring the surrounding regions. And the city is inexpensive. I made a mistake and exchanged too much money so decided to go to an elegant restaurant to treat myself and spend the money. I had a great meal with a bottle of wine, etc but it only cost me $20!

Now I figured it was time to visit a few more countries and make my way towards the Black Sea. So back to Budapest since the borders with Yugoslavia were closed and I wouldn’t have crossed them with a US passport anyway. I decided to take an overnight train from Budapest to Bucharest because it is a 14-hour train ride. For a $25 surcharge on my rail pass I purchased a Sleeper compartment. That is half the cost of a hotel room and you sleep while you are getting to your next destination!
I arrived in Budapest at noon and I hadn’t run since the marathon so I decided that I needed to find a place to run, shower, etc. Ah-hah! I’ll go to one of the many hot baths in Budapest, use their facilities to change, run, have a hot bath and massage and then catch the train. So I decided to go to the Gellert Baths, one of the most exclusive baths in the city. This experience was amusing and it shows the type of problem you can encounter. I go to the receptionist first to explain what I want to do and ask if that is possible. She looks at me like I am crazy but says it is OK. Next I buy an entrance ticket which includes the locker facilities and the baths. I also buy a massage ticket for 800 forints ($3.50) for 30 minutes. Then I find my way down into the bowels of the earth and little did I realize than when I left the reception area I left all communications in English behind also! In the locker room I strip and put on my running gear. The attendant looks at me like I am really crazy and tries to tell me that I can’t go into the bath with shoes! I am trying to explain that I am going outside but he doesn’t understand.
I want him to lock my locker and give me the key but he won’t do that until I take my shoes off! An expat Yank happened by and heard the screaming and told me that he had been living in Budapest for six months and trying to do the same thing but they wouldn’t let him. But I was determined. I finally managed to convince the attendant to lock my locker, took the key from him and took off. I had a nice 8-mile run along the Danube, showed my key at reception to get back in and went to the lockers. Now I had to find my way to the baths and observe the protocol so I didn’t upset the locals. The hot baths were 38 degrees Celsius that I found cool since I used to keep my hot tub at 40 degrees. After soaking in the bath I had a lot of trouble trying to find the massage room but eventually presented my chit to a huge Hungarian that looked like Attila the Hun.
I tried to explain that my legs were sore and to concentrate on them. He must have understood because he slapped my naked body on the table and began to knead and prod the leg muscles and then twisted and stretched my legs like pretzels. I think I even heard him chuckle a few times through my screams! But it worked as my legs felt great when I got off the table! I even tipped the guy! Now I leave it up to you to figure out how you tip a masseuse after you have been siting naked in a hot bath for 30 minutes?

But now I was invigorated and relaxed and it was time to move on to Bucharest and Romania. And it was time to go to my full European dress disguise!
My pre-trip research had revealed both health and crime warnings from the US and UK embassies for Romania and Bulgaria. The health warnings were the typical “don’t drink the water or eat food from street vendors, etc.” The crime warnings were mostly theft and robbery. As a precaution and preventative measure I had decided to get rid of my American uniform- jeans, running shoes and a T-shirt and dress like a European. That means dark slacks, black shoes and a cheap dress shirt. I even had to go to a flea market in Stortford and buy some cheap dress shirts. And of course I left my Rolex and other valuables at home! I also purchased a money pouch or belt that strapped around my waist so that my pockets could not be picked. I was ready!
My rail passes were for first class travel because that was all that was offered. At first I was disappointed because I prefer to travel in second class because you meet and interact with more locals. But when I traveled in Romania I was very glad that I was in 1st Class!
When I saw the condition of the 2nd class cars and what the passengers were carrying on with them –animals, cookstoves, etc; 1st class looked real good! And besides since nobody could afford 1st class, I had a compartment all to myself most of the time! I even ended up with a 1st class sleeper compartment to myself for both night trips to and from Romania.
The next morning as the train was nearing Bucharest I already knew that this part of the trip was going to be much different. The typical signs of poverty: shacks made of tin, wood, cardboard, etc lined both sides of the tracks. The standard mode of transport appeared to be carts pulled by horse or donkey (I hadn’t seen that many carts since Nicaragua). And there was garbage and trash everywhere!
As soon as I exited the train in Bucharest I looked for a tourist/information office. There were none! But I did find an independent travel agency that helped me book my sleeper car for the return leg back to Budapest. But the agent spoke so little English that she could not answer or help me with any questions on hotels or what Bulgaria or the Black Sea were like.
My next shock came when I exited the train station. My immediate reaction was “I hope the rest of the city is not as bad as this section”. I was not getting on any public transportation at this point especially when I had no idea where I was going! So I found a taxi driver that spoke a little English and negotiated a price to take me into the center of town.
He dropped me off in one of the main squares where I tried to find a tourist/information office. It didn’t exist because they don’t have tourists in Romania! But I did find a bookstore and discovered a small city guide written by a local expat. This turned out to be my bible. It had all the relevant information needed in very frank language and much of it was not flattering to the city. But it directed me to a hotel nearby that had been very eloquent fifty years ago and was situated opposite the military HQ. For the mere price of 1,000,000 (One Million) Lei I got a room for the night. It’s the first time that I ever spent a Million of anything on one item! But I could have walked one block down the street and got a room at a brand new, modern Hilton for 5,000.000 lei/night!
Of course the money was a joke! It was worse than monopoly money! 16,000 lei per $US. My bible also indicated that cash was a necessity in Romania since most places did not accept credit cards. So I walked to one of the five ATMs in the city and withdrew 1,500,000 lei. Even in 10 and 50,000 lei notes it is a big wad. But heh, I’m now a millionaire and not only that I am walking around with over a million in my pocket!
Actually except for hotels and imported goods a million lei would buy you a lot of local goods and services. E.g. a .5 liter beer-8,000 lei ($.50), .5 liter coke-6,000 lei, 1 liter bottled water- 4,000 lei ($.25). I had dinner in the formal dining room at the hotel with music, etc; chateaubriand-$4, bottle of Romanian Cabernet-$3!
Unfortunately it was raining and I mean pouring and it did that continuously for the twenty-four hours I was in Bucharest. But I had already decided that I was moving on to the Black Sea so I took my umbrella and walked around in the rain for a day and got thoroughly soaked while I toured the various highlights listed in my bible. The positive side was that there were few other people crazy enough to walk in that rain so there was nobody to bother me.
I had to go to the local offices of the Romanian Railway Company (CFR) to reserve a seat to Constanta on the Black Sea because my bible told me that was how it was done. What a delightful experience that was as they shifted me from one clerk to another until I finally blew my top and insisted that I wasn’t moving again and somebody had better give me the damn ticket!
In the morning I negotiated a 50% reduction in my taxi ride back to the train station and I was on my way to Constanta. I crossed the Danube again about 100 miles east of the city as the Danube was now flowing north to its delta located on the border of Romania and Ukraine. On the train I continued reading my bible (greatest book I ever bought for 16,000 lei) to learn that Moldavia and Ukraine had the same stringent visa requirements as Russia so a visit to them was definitely out. Bulgaria had no restrictions but was very similar to Romania and it was a minimum three-hour train ride from Bucharest to the border. It was beginning to lose interest to me. I was hoping that I would find a nice comfortable hotel or resort on the Black Sea and just relax until it was time to leave.
I arrived in Constanta at noon but the prospects were not looking much better – the same shacks and modes of transportation were apparent. Nobody, absolutely nobody at the station spoke English. So I found a taxi driver who spoke some broken English and negotiated a price for him to drive me into the town to look at hotels. The second hotel was OK. It was clean, one block from the main street and situated right on the Black Sea – all for 308,000 lei ($19)!
I decided to go for a walk to explore. Within an hour I decided that I was leaving early and returning to Hungary the next day. So now I had to find the local CFR offices again to reserve a seat back to Bucharest. After that was completed I was on my way back to the hotel when a couple of street thugs approached me and started to jostle me all the while they were deftly and expertly frisking me to determine where my money was. The second time one of the thugs poked my money belt hidden underneath my jacket I knew what their intentions were and I gave them a stare that said “yep, you found it but you will have to come through me to get to it!” Apparently that was not their style because they departed as quickly as they had appeared.
Shortly after I was having a beer at a sidewalk café and reflecting on what had just happened. How were they able to spot me so quickly and single me out on a busy street? Then it hit me. I was the only man walking around that town with light hair –everyone in Romania has the darkest, blackest hair I have ever seen. Damn, I might as well walk around with a neon sign on. It was definitely time to get my fair skinned, light-haired butt out of town and out of the country! I also resolved that unless someone pulled a gun on me that I was not giving up my money or passport and getting stranded in this dump!
So I stuck close to the hotel and the next morning took a taxi straight to the station and left.

I arrived in Bucharest at noon and had six hours to kill before my night train left. So I took a taxi into the city to revisit some of the sights I had visited in the rain. The weather was sunny and nice so there were thousands of locals and even foreigners walking around so I was not too concerned about safety. This visit was more enjoyable except for one final negative experience. My bible stated that Bucharest was called Dog Town by the locals because of the approximately 100,000 stray dogs that roam the city in packs. The Communist government razed an old section of the city in the 80s and destroyed over 50,000 homes. Those families threw their pets, mostly dogs into the streets because they had no place to keep them. During the last decade the problem has multiplied. They tried to sterilize the dogs but the do-gooders including Bridget Bardot pressured the government and made them stop the program. There are over 300 dog bites reported each month. I hadn’t seen that many dogs the previous day because of the rain but they were out in packs the second day! The other thing I noticed was that the vast majority of dogs were on the verge of death from starvation and disease. I literally watched dogs staggering down the streets and collapsing in the street. I counted over two dozen dead dogs in the streets, even one on the front lawn of the National Theatre. I suppose there must be a dead dog collection truck but I didn’t see it in action?
That was it! I had my fill of Bucharest and Romania. As far as I am concerned the whole country is a dump and cesspool (I had to think awhile to come up with a nice politically-correct term for SHIT-HOLE!) But it also made me understand that I truly can’t imagine the miserable existence the people of neighboring Yugoslavia must have with their infrastructure destroyed by NATO bombs and their economy in shambles.
I was glad when the train pulled out of the station. I was even glad when the border guards almost broke the door down to my sleeper compartment at 3am to go through the customs process for the last time! And I was really happy to watch the Hungarian customs agent stamp my passport into Hungary!

I arrived in Budapest at 8am the next day. I decided to go directly to the airport to see if I could convince Malev, the Hungarian Airline, to let me return early. Thankfully they agreed and put me on the morning flight to Heathrow. When I got off the train four hours later in Bishops Stortford, the sleepy little village had never looked so good to me!

But now I am back home, rested and relaxed and looking forward to the next adventure because hopefully just like the last trip the number of good experiences will outnumber the bad ones. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 28, 1999

TR Scotland

Trip Report
Edinburgh Marathon
Edinburgh, Scotland

Hi! I’m back for a few days and waiting for Nicole to return from her Asian business trip before we take off again. I feel sorry for her because she is going to be severely jet-lagged!
After Nicole and I parted company in the Vienna airport she proceeded directly to Hong Kong and I flew home to repack and pack up the car. Edinburgh, Scotland was hosting their inaugural marathon on Sept 26th. They have hopes of this race becoming the premier fall marathon for the UK and threw a lot of money at it. It was quite successful and very well organized. But more about the race later.
Since I had not run a marathon in Scotland I had planned to run this one. And since Nicole would be away on business I figured that I might as well leave early and accomplish another goal I had for Scotland –to play golf! I tried unsuccessfully to book tee times at St Andrews and Carnoustie only to find out that singles cannot reserve tee times. You just have to show up and hope you can get slotted with a group.

Since it is an eight-hour drive to Edinburgh I decided to leave a day early and take my time to explore some parts of England and Scotland that I had not visited yet. So I jumped onto the M25 and M6 motorways and made my way north to Leeds @ 100mph. From there I took back roads through the Yorkshire Dales National Park which is very scenic with lots of green hills and valleys. I continued west to the Lake District National Park that is one of the prettiest areas of England.

I stayed a night in Windermere, a small village located on Lake Windermere.
I was curious to see how it compared to Lake Windermere and Inveremere, British Columbia. I had visited the Canadian versions over 30 years ago when my brother lived there. The Canadian Lake is more scenic because the surrounding mountains are higher but the English village of Windermere has more charm because it is much older. My B&B was an old Coach Inn over 200 years old. I walked a few blocks to have an excellent meal of Scottish salmon in a restaurant that has been operated by the same family for over a hundred years. And then I walked across the cobbled street to enjoy an ale in a 400 year-old pub! But both the English and Canadian areas are very pretty and have their own unique charms and I heartily recommend that you visit both if you get the chance.

The next day I continued north through the Park on back roads that went through and over the Cumbrian Mountains (this term is used loosely since the highest peak in England is Scafell @ 3206 feet!). These roads would have scared the crap out of me six months ago but now that I have my Ph.D. in UK driving I rather enjoyed barreling down the 8 to 10 foot wide roads with 4 to 6 foot high stone walls on each side never knowing when you may meet another car or even a bus on the next curve! When you do meet another vehicle you just move over as close to the wall as possible and pray that there is enough room for both vehicles. The English are really good at it –they don’t even slow down!
I passed through some really pretty villages and by some nice lakes and this definitely an area that I want to bring Nicole back to before we leave. It would be great for hiking and walking.

I eventually worked my way back to the M74 motorway that heads north to Glasgow but after a hundred miles got off on back roads again and headed for Lanarkshire (Lanark County). The Wallace Clan grew up in Lanark County, Ontario, Canada and often visited the town of Lanark, Ont. that had a large woolen mill. Lanark, Scotland is a small city that is very old and one of the main attractions is a an old church at the entrance of High (Main) Street that has a life-size statue of Sir William Wallace sculpted into it’s front façade! Lanark is situated in the highlands of Scotland and has a lake, Loch Lanark and the Clyde River flowing through it. A mile south of Lanark is a small village called New Lanark that is designated a World Heritage Village. In 1785 a Scottish entrepreneur built a large woolen mill (at the time the largest mill in Scotland) on the banks of the Clyde River and also built a small village to house his employees. This village has been restored and about 150 inhabitants –mostly direct descendants of the original families- live in the employee houses.
Lanark, Scotland has more going for it than the Ontario version!

Then it was time to head to St Andrews. St Andrews is a small city, about 40,000 people of which half are students at St Andrews College- the oldest college in Scotland. There are also two private schools in St Andrews for lower grades. There is lots of history. St Andrews cathedral was built in the 1200s and there are some castles in the area also. And of course St Andrews is the home of golf and the St Andrews Golf Club. The Club has five golf courses, all are link courses.
After finding my B&B on the edge of town, the owner was able to advise and assist me. He used to be a member of Carnoustie so was able to call and get me added to a group on Friday afternoon. So with that tee time reserved I proceeded to St Andrews Golf Club the next morning to wait in line for an opening. After an hour’s wait I was slotted with an American couple from Boston. I was ready to play at the home of golf -St Andrews! Then one of the following four things (or combination of) happened:
1) My playing partner was a very good golfer and I had to play at his level
2) The golf Gods smiled down on me all day
3) Some ancient ancestral Scottish gene that had played the course 200 years ago took control of my body and played for me
4) I pulled shots out of my butt all day
Because I shot a 42 on the front nine and a 43 on the back nine for the lowest score in three years. And that was only the second game of golf that I had played since retiring!
Believe me I was very excited and happy
After the game I went for my last training run around St Andrews. I explored many parts of the city and ended up running along the West Sands beach where Chariots of Fire was filmed. I got rained on pretty hard but that was ok as the weather during the game had been surprisingly good. I had expected cold rainy weather but got cool sunny weather for most of the week.
By this time I was beginning to feel cocky and confident but that would not last long. Carnoustie brought me back to reality very quickly the next day. Everything you have heard or seen about that course is true. It is a bitch! It is very, very long –two par 4s are 460+ yards. And every hole is target golf since the fairways are so narrow. There is always a wind blowing from some direction from the sea- usually in your face! The rough is very difficult to hit out of. Eventually I realized that the best shot out of the rough was a pitching wedge and hit it as hard as you could and hope that your ball made it back into the fairway! There are bunkers and burns (creeks) everywhere. The bunkers are humongous- again the best shot is a sand wedge just to get the ball back in play. On the 16th hole, a long 245-yard par 3 protected by two huge bunkers, I put my tee shot into the left bunker. My ball was lying in the sand three feet from an 8-foot high vertical wall of grass! I considered hitting backward to the fairway but decided to take one attempt at getting it up over that wall. Somehow I made it, barely, and two-putted a 20-yard putt for one of my few bogeys. But I did manage one birdie- on the shortest hole on the course- a 147-yard par 3 protected by the burn, bunkers and a dragon (or so it seemed)!
I actually had a respectable 93 standing on the t-Box of the 18th. But I misread the distance in the scorebook and placed my put my third shot directly into the burn protecting the green. But unlike Van der Velde at the Open, I did not take off my shoes and socks and contemplate playing out of the burn. But it cost me a triple bogey for a 50 on the front and back nine for an even 100! But even though I considered myself to be humbled I enjoyed the challenge of Carnoustie and would love to play it again!
A short travel tip here. If you go, stay in St Andrews because there is nothing in Carnoustie except the golf course!

The next day I had to head into Edinburgh to prepare for the marathon. I detoured north to Perth, Scotland. I wanted to visit Perth since my mother was born and raised in Perth, Ontario and my grandparents lived there most of their life. Perth, Scotland is a fairly large city but very pretty. They have kept all the old buildings, there are few modern buildings and all buildings are five stories or less in height. High Street has been turned into a pedestrian mall and it is a very charming city – much nicer than the Ontario version.

My B&B that I had booked through the marathon was located just off the Royal Mile, the main street that runs from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace where the Queen still spends part of the summer each year. Edinburgh is a real neat city to visit. There are lots of attractions and history to explore. Also lots of cafes and even more pubs. Unfortunately the drawback of marathons is that you can’t enjoy the pubs until after the race.
I didn’t experience any of the difficulties of the past few marathons in picking up my race packet because there were no communications problems. And the next day turned out to be the coolest day of my visit which is what you want for a marathon. We were bussed out to Dunfermline in the Kingdom of Fife for the start. The start was close to the Abbey where Robert The Bruce is buried (you have to be Scottish to know who he is). Fortunately I just happened to meet 5 or 6 colleagues from the Stortford Running Club so we were able to shoot the breeze until the start. A few local runners told us that the course was very hilly and after only four miles I realized that they were not lying. At mile 6 we ran over the Forth of Fife Bridge, a long suspension bridge very similar to the Golden Gate Bridge but the scenery is not as spectacular. At that point I knew that brains were more important than brawn in this race because of the hills. So I immediately started to slow down. As it turned out the hills actually helped me because by 10 miles my right leg was hurting again (I had been concerned that it had not recovered from Austria) and I discovered that it hurt less when I was running up or down hills. I assume that was because I was using different muscles that were not strained. When I was running long flat stretches and my leg would start to hurt I would actually wish for hills!
At mile 24 I decided to press the pace because the last two miles were downhill along the Royal Mile, through the courtyard of Holyrood Palace (which the queen was kind to lend to us for the day since she wasn’t using it), along the base of Arthur’s Seat (a mountain overlooking the city) to finish in the Meadowbank Sports Stadium where the Commonwealth Games were held. I figured I could stand the pain for just two miles if it would help me finish under 3:35. The last two miles were the fastest of the marathon for me and I had to sprint the final 200 yards in the stadium to finish in 3:34:30!
Then it was straight to the massage hall again. But they had many more masseuses than Austria and someone helped me on to a table immediately and started working on my sore legs. It sure helped and I need a quick recovery since I have another marathon this weekend!

Finally the rewards: a quick hot bath, some food and then I started pub hopping and enjoying the fun atmosphere of Edinburgh –even on a Sunday. However I had to be careful because all the pubs were watching the finals of the Ryder Cup and there were a lot of pissed-off Scots drinking. And that is not a good combination –especially if you are an enemy! So I had to be very silent and careful with my cheers! I never did see the end because I had to leave for dinner.

And lastly a long boring 8-hour drive directly home @100mph-except through Birmingham where the M6 is always backed up bumper-to-bumper for an hour!
I am looking forward to few days’ rest and to catch up on the NYSE before Nicole and I depart again. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 20, 1999

TR Austria

Wauchau Marathon
(9//15 –9/20/99)

The first thing I had to do before taking this trip was make a quick trip into London to visit the US Embassy. Although my passport is only three years old it had absolutely no more space for entry/exit stamps so the embassy added twenty more pages which should keep me going for the rest of my time in England.
Then it was off to Vienna. Nicole thought that she had already visited Vienna on a previous family ski trip so I left a few days early to explore Vienna on my own. Although it is an old city dating back to 100 AD most of the history revolves around the Habsburg emperors who ruled from 1282 to 1918. And most of the buildings in the old city only date back to the 1800s when the fortification walls were torn down and a majestic boulevard (about 5km) was built around the city as a ring road. All the main public buildings such as the opera, theatre, museums and palaces are built along the ring.
It is very easy to walk to all the major tourist sites in the old town.
The main tourist attractions include the Imperial Palace, home to the Habsburgs. It has several wings, one of which contains the Spanish Riding School where they train the Lipizzan stallions. The formal performances are held on Sat & Sun so I attended one of the morning training sessions that included most of the rides without music. The riding arena is spectacular and exemplifies how lavishly the Habsburgs lived. Then there is a summer palace called Schonbrunn built in the 1700s. It rivals the palaces in Russia for decadence! There is more gold used in the interior decorating than exists in Fort Knox.

I lucked in and managed to get a ticket to a special concert of Mozart and Strauss music held in the grand ballroom of the summer palace. Mozart performed a concert in that room when he was six years old! The acoustics were great without any amplifiers or microphones, etc.
Other attractions are the opera, national theater, several churches, and homes once occupied by Mozart and Strauss. A local landmark is a giant Ferris wheel, 200 feet in diameter, built over 100 years ago. There were three similar wheels built in London, Chicago and Paris that have all been scrapped. There are 15 gondolas that hold 37 people and offer spectacular views of Vienna. I went for one ride since they have just built a new 400- foot wheel in London for the Millennium celebration and I intend to ride it before I leave England.
There are also cruises offered along the Danube to view the sites of Wien or you can cruise for several hundred miles if you prefer. I decided to wait for Nicole and cruise the Danube along the Wachau Valley.
Nicole flew in on Friday evening and quickly realized that it was Salzburg, not Vienna that she had visited before. But no problem as her trusty husband/guide took her on a quick three-hour walking tour of the city.

Communications was not a problem in Wien. Although all the signs, information, menus, etc. are in German, most people speak at least three languages and will respond in English if asked. It makes a linguistic-handicapped American feel very stupid.
However when we left the city on Sat morning for the Wachau Valley, it was a very different story! Only two people- the desk clerk and barman at our hotel spoke English. I had the usual difficulties trying to pick up my race number and packet for the marathon since none of the volunteers spoke English. And dinner was a funny experience each night. There were no English menus and our waiters spoke no English. It’s kind of like one of those TV games- “What’s menu item # 4?” “What will you get if you order #2?”
But we made good guesses and we always had great wine and beer because those important items I had learned real quickly.

The Wachau Valley starts in Krems about 50 miles west of Vienna and runs for about 30 miles along the Danube. They have been growing grapes and fruit and making wine in the valley for over 1000 years. Krems was granted city status in 995 AD.
I try to compare wine valleys to Napa but Wachau is just so much different. The Danube flows down the middle of the valley and the mountains rise rapidly from the river edge. The towns and villages are built along the river and up the mountains. There is a bike path, a two-lane highway and railroad track running along the length of the valley and in many cases all three are cut into the sides of the mountains. We took a boat cruise from Krems to Durnstein and discovered that you get a much better view from the boat. The little villages are very old and scenic. Durnstein is the home of the Durnstein Castle where King Richard the Lionhearted was captured and held for ransom during the Holy Crusades. I thought it was the nicest of the several small villages along the valley.
The vineyards are typically tiered up the mountain above the villages and all the vineyards have a cellar or outlet in the nearest village so that you don’t have to drive all around to do your wine tasting. You can take a train or boat to a village, walk around and visit a dozen cellars and crawl back to the train or boat.

As for the purpose of going there- the Wachau Marathon- well that’s a different story. The marathon was a point-to point race. We took a train 18 miles west to Aggsbach. The Austrians may speak German but they don’t share the German organizational skills and efficiency. We got our first glimpse when we went to the pasta party to find a complete fiasco so we left and found our own pasta. The next morning the race started 20 minutes late. The course ran along the Danube passing through several small villages with vineyards all the way. The last 8 miles were run around Krems. Since the course was point-to-point and fast I decided to go for broke and started at a 7:35 pace. But only 8 miles into the race my right leg started to tighten and by 11 miles it was cramping and I was in pain. That is the first time in 140 marathons that I had ever experienced that problem. I figured the best thing to do was stop, stretch and massage the leg until it loosened up. I continued doing this until 13 miles when it finally relaxed enough so that I could run without pain as long as I didn’t run faster than an 8:30 pace. Around 18 miles it seemed to loosen up and I foolishly (in retrospect) dropped the pace back to 7:45 but that only lasted until mile 21. At that point it was cramping so bad that I knew that the wisest thing to do was just back off and jog in and hope that I didn’t injure it seriously.
When I finished (3:47:12) I went straight to the medical tent but they were so overloaded with serious dehydration cases (it was very hot!) that they just directed me to the massage tent.
There I waited in line for 45 minutes before they could get to me and by then my leg was so stiff and sore that I couldn’t move it!
But a massage did help some and then it was limp around for another hour while I tried to find my finisher’s T-shirt and claim my warm-ups form the baggage bus. What I am trying to paint here for my fellow runners is that the course was great and the area fantastic but the organization and logistics sucked!

To summarize the two areas for those who might be interested in visiting. Vienna is an interesting city that can be visited in two or three days. If you are into classical music you could spend more time and not be bored. It is reasonable cost-wise by European standards.
The Wachau Valley is very beautiful and would make a great vacation spot if you are into wine and food. I would love to go back and do a combination bike and cruise vacation. You could easily spend a week or two biking, hiking and cruising along the Danube and stopping at a different village every night.

Well I must close this report and go repack my suitcase and start packing the car as I am driving to my next country. Nicole deserted me in Vienna on the way home. She had to leave for Asia on business direct from Vienna and will be gone for a week. So I am leaving early to play some golf in Scotland before the marathon next weekend. Stay tuned for next week’s traveler’s tips!

Monday, September 06, 1999

TR Norway

Trip Report
Oslo Marathon
Oslo, Norway
(9/3 –9/6/99)

Oh! What a difference a week makes! At least in communications.

Oslo is much different from Moscow; 800 Thousand vs 10 Million people and about 40% speak English as a 2nd (or 3rd) language.

This was my third trip to Oslo this summer and I was hoping that this one would leave pleasant memories unlike the first two. The first trip was during the weeklong train tour through Sweden and Norway. When I got to Oslo there were no hotel rooms to rent so I had to visit for the day and then travel on to Goteborg, Sweden to get a room. The next trip to Oslo was during our Baltic cruise. It was the last port and my sinus infection was kicking into high gear and pain and I spent most of the afternoon on the Acker Brygee drinking $8 beers trying to kill the pain with booze!

But fortunately the third time was the charm as I had a very pleasant visit this time.
Oslo is a fairly small city even though approximately one-third of the Norwegian population lives there. Although it is celebrating its 1000th birthday this year there are very few buildings older than a few hundred years because they have all been destroyed by fires, wars, etc. Even the Akershus fortress and castle which is the oldest landmark in the city and celebrating its 700th birthday has been rebuilt several times during that period. So its architecture is not as impressive as many younger castles throughout Europe. But they were holding a pageant this past weekend, which included full dress re-enactment of life and battles around the fort during the 17th century which were very interesting.

Oslo’s beauty lies in its location. It is situated at the mouth of the Oslo fjord that is about 150 miles long. Oslo is built up on both sides of the fjord. The downtown core is built along the harbor and rises up into the mountains on both sides. There are several parks and green areas throughout the city. The downtown is small –about one square mile running from the harbor and the Aker Brygge (similar to Fisherman’s Wharf but more modern and upscale) to the main street called Karl Johan Gate that runs one mile from the Central train station to the Royal Palace. Inside that core is the Aker Brygge, the Akershus castle, the national Theatre and most of live and movie theatres, hotels restaurants, pubs and sidewalk cafes. The streets are filled with sidewalk musicians and entertainers and on weekends there are literally tens of thousands of locals strolling around and enjoying the cafes and pubs.

There are many other tourist attractions such as the Viking ship museum that houses two 1000-year-old Viking ships and artifacts; the Kon-Tiki museum that houses the Kon-Tiki, a papyrus ship that sailed around the world; and the Vigeland Sculpture Park that contains hundreds of nude sculptures of men, women and children depicting life from birth to death. On the outside of town there is the Hollmenkollen ski jump high above the city with some spectacular views. And of course there are several museums that focus on Norwegian and Viking culture.

One can easily spend two full days visiting Oslo but make sure it is in the summer!
As for the marathon I leave with mixed feelings. They screwed up my entry form; i.e. they lost it. No matter, I went to the problem desk and got re-registered. At least I was able to find someone who could assist me in English. But all the written race instructions and info was in Norwegian. And after charging $50 for the entry fee I had to pay $15 to get a T-shirt!
Then I decided to go to the rice party since it was the cheapest dinner in town – only $5 which is a bargain in Norway. (more later on prices in Norway). Since this is really considered a local race they don’t advertise outside of Scandinavia. As a result it is small; 1500 half-marathoners and 500 marathoners. There were only three entrants outside of Scandinavia; a German, a Brit and me. And I couldn’t find the Brit at dinner so I had nobody to talk to again! And they conducted all the presentations in Norwegian!
The race started at 1:30 pm on Saturday at the Bislett Stadium. Track enthusiasts will recognize that track as one of the main venues in Europe for track events. I just don’t understand why the Europeans start most of their races between 11am and 2 pm. It was too damn warm by start time –low 70s! The marathon was twice around the half marathon loop that was three concentric loops around the downtown core and Vigeland Park. But the loops overlapped so it was very confusing which direction to go, etc. Oh yeh! They had signs and were shouting directions –in Norwegian! I had to concentrate on what kilometer I was on and when I arrived at a junction I would shout the next km and someone would point in the right direction. Pain in the ass but it worked! And I ended up running by my hotel on Karl Johan Gate four times. By the fourth time my hotel room was calling to me “Come lay down, have a beer; come lay down----------“ You get the idea!
On top of all that the course was very hilly and we got to repeat those hills many times and by the time the first half was done there were no more sponges and very little water left. In other words they don’t get an ‘A’ for logistical support. But somehow in spite of all these obstacles I was feeling great and got into a ‘zone’ right from the start. I had decided to go out at a sub-8 minute pace and hold it until the end or I crashed –whichever came first! I don’t know why but the crash never came and I finished the race feeling good in 3:25:37! That’s my fastest time in eighteen months so obviously I am very pleased with that performance!

After the race I decided to treat myself to another reindeer steak at one of the finer restaurants on the Aker Brygge since I don’t plan on going back to Scandinavia for awhile. Now I need to fill you in on prices. Norway is one of the most expensive countries in Europe! I just don’t understand how anyone can live there? A beer at a pub runs $6 to 8. On the Aker Brygee, $8 to 10! A personal pan pizza and pepsi cost me $15 at Pizza Hut. A Big Mac is $9. Don’t even think about wine with dinner. A bottle of house wine is $30 to 40! I felt a bit guilty about paying $30 for a reindeer steak until I checked a beef steakhouse; a 16-oz T-bone was $50, a 12 oz Filet -$70! And from what I can determine all other living expenses are proportional.

But do not let that stop you from visiting Norway. The west coast of Norway, from Bergen all the way up above the Arctic Circle has the most spectacular natural scenery in Scandinavia. The mountains rise up out of the sea and go along the fjords for mile-after-mile of awe-inspiring beauty. It is similar to the scenery in Alaska but more of it and I think more forests and greenery on the mountains. It is truly one of the prettiest parts of Europe! And of course it should only be visited in the summer preferably June when you would have the summer solistice and 20+ hours of daylight.
Hope you can make it some day. It is truly a lifetime experience and memory!