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!