Sunday, August 15, 1999

TR Belgium

Trip Report
Middelkerke Marathon
Middelkerke, Belgium
France, Belgium, Italy and Canada
(8/14 –8/18/99)

What was supposed to be a great trip and vacation turned out to be a trip and week from HELL!

I wanted to run a marathon in early August since the last one was July 4th. The only race I could find was in Belgium which was OK but I had to book it through a local running/tour operator because I couldn’t find any information on it to arrange the travel myself. Since the tour took us by coach to Belgium I figured we would just go on from there for a week’s vacation in Italy.
The trip started out OK. We traveled by coach from London to Dover and across to Calais, France by ferry. The tour made an obligatory stop in Calais for everyone to load up on booze. Most things in France are expensive just like England except for beer and wine, which are about 50% less. And since they eliminated duty free between EU nations you can now bring back unlimited quantities of items that are bought in another EU nation. So everyone was buying at least two cases of wine or beer which was the limit that the bus would hold per person. We could not participate because we were not coming back with the coach.

We overnighted in Brugges, Belgium. It is a nice city with lots of canals and three main squares in the city center with lots of quaint shops and restaurants and outdoor cafes. We enjoyed a good Italian dinner (pasta for the race) on one of the squares and people-watched for a few hours. Brugges is definitely worth another trip for a long weekend.
But one of our problems started to appear on the first night. Communications!
You have heard me complain before about the telephone systems in Europe - they suck! Most of the hotels have old analog systems and rotary phones which restrict you from accessing voice mail and you cannot connect a computer. We had purchased a set of telephone adapters, which are supposed to enable you to adapt a US telephone connector to various European systems. But it was useless in Belgium and Italy because the hotels don’t use standard connectors!
So Nicole was very upset because she had decided to lug her PC around to stay connected to the office but she was never able to connect!

Anyway the next morning we traveled about 20 miles to Middelkerke, Belgium to run the marathon. It was indeed a small race with only about 300 running the marathon. The marathon started at 9:30 am. It was warm (mid 60s) and very windy. Since Middelkerke is a coastal resort it seemed that the wind was always in our face no matter what direction we were running. I was still recovering from a bad sinus infection and taking antibiotics and painkillers and wasn’t sure how they would affect my breathing and energy level. So I just treated the race as a long training run and took it easy. I don’t know whether it was the strategy or the painkillers but I completed the race in a satisfactory time (3:39:41) and with no pain or agony, which is unusual.
A 10K and Half-marathon started at 2:30pm after most of the marathon runners were completed. We stuck around to watch the start and attend the award ceremony for the marathon but that was a waste of time since it was conducted totally in Flemish and we didn't understand one word!
At that point Nicole and I split from the tour and caught a train to Brussels. We stayed in a 3-star hotel just off the GrandPlace thinking that we would have a better chance for a standard telecom connection. No such luck but the location was great. We walked over to the old fish market, which now accommodates rows of seafood restaurants for an excellent Flemish seafood dinner. We were also able to communicate verbally since 60% of Brussels speaks French. After dinner we walked over to the GrandPlace which is the main square. The buildings are about 400 years old but have been maintained and refurbished and the architecture is just amazing. We sampled a few of the 500+ types of Belgian beer and people-watched again. We were also treated to a light and music show when they turn all the lights off in the square at 10:30 pm and the town hall emanates classical music and all the interior and exterior lights synchronize with the music. Very spectacular show! That was our second trip to Brussels and we still want to go back.

But the next day it was on to Milan, Italy by air. We realized as soon as we arrived that we had bad timing since August is the month that Italians take vacation and everyone leaves! The city was almost deserted. That has pros and cons. Hotels were cheaper and easy to find. I booked a 3-star at the hotel desk thinking again that we would get a better room/hotel with tone phones and a standard connection. Wrong guess! And we found that the cons were that 50% of the restaurants and shops were completely closed for the month of August. The only restaurants open were in the tourist areas where you get a pizza, ham sandwich and two beers for lunch –for $80.
So we decided to take a city tour in the morning which included the main highlights of the city such as the Duomo Cathedral, the Castello Sforzesco and the Scalla Opera. We didn’t get to see Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of the ‘Last Supper’ because you had to have an appointment to view it for 15 minutes. We left a day earlier than planned because we thought that Milan was a very dirty and unattractive city. It did not make our list of places to return to.

Then it was off to Naples by air. We booked a hotel right on the main square in the center of town which turned out to be a mistake. It was supposedly a 3-star hotel but had no air conditioning. And it was very hot in southern Italy. We had to leave our windows open all night and listen to the traffic in the square that never stopped all night. And again rotary phones and no modem connection. Naples does have some natural beauty as much of the city is built on the coast and up the side of the mountains. But it is a very filthy; garbage and trash lying around the roads and streets (and I’m not talking about the hookers on the corners)!
We decided to take a tour and leave but there are no city tours. So we hired a private guide to tour us around the city for 3 hours. That was quite a trip! Our guide was a vet about 70 years old who had lived in Naples all his life. He spoke better English than we did Italian but not by much! But he knew Naples and the area. And a driving lesson was included for free! He aimed the center of his hood down the white line (didn’t matter what kind of road, he picked a white line) and never veered. It was up to the other cars to get the hell out of his way. After a few brown stains on his upholstery I realized he had been driving this way all his life and was still alive so I relaxed some and let him do his thing. The other rule in Italy is that nobody follows rules. The most aggressive driver wins! Nobody stops for red lights or stop signs, nobody signals, etc; it is just a big game of chicken!

After the tour we picked up a rental car (thankful for the driving lesson) and headed south to Sorrento. We stopped at Pompeii for a visit to the ruins which was interesting but it was 90+ degrees by then and we started to look forward to ocean breezes so we continued on to Sorrento. As we got closer we realized that we had finally found a place in Italy that we might like. And we were right. Sorrento is very pretty. It is situated on cliffs that are about 100 –200 feet above the Bay of Naples and is built up into the side of a mountain.
The town was full and only two hotels had rooms left –a 3-star (been down that road already) and a 4-star which was one of the most expensive hotels in town. We decided to treat ourselves and booked the 4-star. It was a very modern and luxurious hotel built into the mountain about 1000 feet above Sorrento with views to kill for. We could see Naples across the bay and the Isle of Capri. It even had air conditioning but guess what – rotary phones and non-standard telephone connections!
We decided to eat dinner at the hotel because the views were so spectacular and after dinner I opened a second bottle of wine to sip on the patio overlooking the bay while we plotted our next day. Nicole decided to call our son in Colorado to let him know where we were because of all the problems we had experienced with the phones. That’s when all Hell broke loose!
We discovered that our family had been sending us emails and leaving voice mails for three days to inform us that my dad had died two days earlier! It was a shock to the whole family that he passed away so suddenly and so soon after our mom. Now it became a frantic exercise to figure out how to get home to Canada in time for the funeral. We ended up driving the rental car to Rome- did get to see Rome from the ring road on the way to the airport- and catching a direct flight to Canada. We did make it in time but I was the only one at the funeral wearing Dockers and a polo shirt!
It was a much different occasion that my mom’s funeral as we were prepared for that one. I am glad that we only have two parents so that I never have to go through that ordeal again!
So we never did get to see Rome and Nicole never got to buy a leather purse that was one of her few shopping goals in Italy. But I will take her back to Italy before we leave.

We are back home in England now planning our next trips because life must go on and this summer has driven home how fragile and short life can be and I am even more determined to enjoy every moment that I may have left!

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