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!