Tuesday, October 30, 2001

TR Slovenia Marathon

10/23 – 10/30/01

Now where was I? Oh Yes! Leaving Zurich for Zagreb, Croatia. I explained one reason why we were flying into Zagreb instead of Ljubljana – ticket prices! A second reason was that I had visited Zagreb on a previous trip to the Balkans in 1999 and liked the city and wanted Nicole to have a look at it. As is always the case this trip was different because we arrived at the airport which is about 30 miles south of the city instead of the train station that is only a few blocks from the city center.

There was no information center at the airport but I quickly learned that Croatia Airlines ran a bus into the city bus station ($3). When we arrived at the bus station there was still no information center and very few people who spoke English. However I managed to find a kind travel agent who informed me that we were still about ten blocks from the city center and furthermore our hotel was NOT located downtown and in fact was on the outskirts of the city. So I decided to change that minor problem and had a taxi take us to the Hotel Dubrovnik, a 4-star hotel on Bana Josipa Jelacica Square. What a great location!
We could walk to all the tourist sites, restaurants, bars, etc. The only problem was running –lots of traffic and the locals looked at me like I was nuts running through the city square.

I finally made my way to the tourist information center located on the square to gather information on the city and country and here is what I learned. Croatia is about the same size as West Virginia and is bordered by Austria, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. It has a long coastline and several islands in the Adriatic Sea. The population is 4 Million and 800K live in the capital Zagreb. The country is predominantly (96%) Catholic. The principal language is Hrvatska (Croatian) although some of the people in the service industry (hotels and restaurants) speak English. Croatian is a complex mixture of Slavic and German and difficult to understand. But we learned the three basic food groups quickly: voda – water; pivo – beer; and vino –wine!
The currency is the Kuna (8 kuna/$US) and most things, other than hotels, are fairly cheap. A good dinner for two with wine will cost about $30 to $40.
Another example is the city tour -$30 for two people. And as often happens in the off season we were the only customers so we were provided with a private tour guide and drive and car to escort us around the city. Our guide knew the city and history very well and was able to spend extra time showing us the main tourist attractions: Jelacica Square, the Cathedral, St Marks Church, the Kaptol and Gradec sections in the Old City and Dolec Market. She recommended a restaurant located in the Gradec(Upper Village) overlooking the city where we had an excellent 5-course gourmet dinner with wine for $60!
Fortunately Zagreb is a nice city because I will have to return for the Zagreb Marathon some year. But I intend to plan for some time on the Adriatic Coast as I was told that the coast is very beautiful and inexpensive!

After two relaxing and interesting days in Zagreb it was time to move on to Slovenia. The border is only 35 Km west of Zagreb so the train had barely got moving when we stopped at the border. The border routine has not changed since my last trip. The train stops 100 meters from the border where the Croatian guards check your passport. Then it moves 100 meters across the border where the Slovenian guards check your passport. Only this time they didn’t seem to be as big and surly as they were in 1999.
The train passes through some very scenic and hilly country on the way to Ljubljana, Slovenia. The autumn leaves were in full color and 60% of Slovenia is covered with forests so there was lots of color to enjoy.
Actually I should keep the rest of the trip a secret because Slovenia is an undiscovered jewel and I would like to keep it undiscovered (selfish old me!)

Slovenia is a very small country sharing borders with Austria and the Alps on the north; Hungary on the east, Croatia on the east and south; Italy and the Alps and the Adriatic Sea on the west. In early summer you can ski in the Alps in the morning and then drive through thick forests on the way to the Adriatic Sea to swim in the afternoon!
There are only 2 Million inhabitants – 300K live in the capital Ljubljana. The principal language is Slovenian but most people speak English and a third language depending where they live e.g. those in the west also speak Italian. The currency is the Slovenian Tolar (250 SIT/ $US). The average salary is $400US/month! Other than hotels which are out-of-whack ($100/day for our 4-star hotel) and anything imported, the prices are very inexpensive. Pivo – 300 SIT for a ½ liter; dinner for two with vino -$25!

Ljubljana, the capital, is a small and compact city with a lot of interesting architecture and charm. The Ljubljanica River flows through the center of the city before it joins the Sava River that flows through Zagreb and eventually flows into the Danube at Belgrade.
The city is built on a site occupied by the Romans from 100 to 600 BC although Ljubljana was first mentioned in 1144. The city is overlooked by a grand castle called Ljubljanski Castle that was originally built in 1144 but the current castle dates from the 16th century. It has been restored and is used for concerts and other social events in the city. Because the city is so small and compact there is no city tour but the information center did provide us with a brochure for a self-guided walking tour.
Since we knew that we could do the tour easily in one day we decided to explore the countryside. Tourism has not been discovered or developed in Slovenia so it was difficult to find a tour that would take us out of the city.

On Friday morning I went for my last training run and it was so much better than Zagreb. There is a large public park, Tivoli Park, on the northern edge of the city that has miles of dirt trails running through forests and lots of challenging hills. I would have run for hours if I did not have a marathon in 2 days. After the run we explored the city by foot. We walked along the cobblestones of the old city while enjoying the buildings and views along the river and finished up with a tour of the castle. There was one strange thing we discovered. There are lots of ‘cafes’ in Ljubljana – essentially bars that serve booze and snacks – but very few restaurants? We ate several meals at the same restaurant because we couldn’t find other restaurants?
On Saturday we had booked a tour to the Lake Bled region – in the north at the base of the Austrian Alps. Again we lucked out – we were the only customers so the owner took us on a private tour. The owner was a young man who had worked at the front desk of the luxury hotel in town and had recognized the need for a tour operator and had started up his own business. He escorted us up to Lake Bled where we toured a magnificent castle overlooking the lake and the only island in the country. Believe me folks this is drop-dead, postcard scenery! And the real-life view is even prettier than you will see in the postcard. The 16th century castle has been restored and sits on a rock cliff 300 feet above the lake. We also took a unique paddleboat over to the island that is occupied by a 17th century church that sits on the same sight as the original church built in 400 BC. Because of the spectacular scenery the church is used mostly for weddings and has its own custom and legend. There are 99 steps from the lake up to the church and legend says that if the man cannot carry his bride-to-be all the way up the steps the marriage won’t last.
I asked Nicole if she wanted to carry me down – but she declined???

After the church our guide took us to a local restaurant for a snack of special local sausages, mushrooms and bread. He figured we needed the fuel for the next part of the tour – a one-mile hike into Skocjanske Park. The park is a steep canyon carved by the Sava River. The canyon walls rise so steeply from the river that they had to build wooden walkways into the sides of the cliffs. I have never seen water so crystal clear! But then it was time to return to the city and begin the look for a pasta dinner. No easy task in Ljubljana as we couldn’t find one Italian restaurant?

Sunday was M-Day! Our hotel was only one block from the start/finish in Kongresni Trg (Congress square). But it was a late start (11am) which makes it difficult for me – do I eat a breakfast or not? The weather was sunny and mild at the start and the course was a half-marathon loop that ran through the cobbled streets of Old Town for a few miles before heading north into the suburbs and country. I had not driven the course but the map indicated that it looped north along Tivoli Park so I assumed that it would be hilly. Thus I decided not to be foolish like Luxembourg and started slow and easy. When I had picked up my race bid I had wondered if the yellow bib I received had any significance. I didn’t understand the significance until the 17K mark when I was heading back into the city center and the half marathon mark and I started meeting the elite runners coming the other way on their second loop (25K). They all wore yellow bibs! They had seeded me with the elite runners! Thank goodness I hadn’t known that beforehand because I might have tried to live up to their billing! I was already discouraged because I started meeting runners in my age group which meant that they were running a SUB 3:00 hr race!
But I wisely stuck to my own pace and crossed the half in 1:48. It paid off in the second half as the hills started to take their toll on most of the runners. I felt OK all through the race and at 20 miles decided that I could pick up the pace. At 40K I decided that I could/should break 3:40. I tried my best which required hurting like hell for the last 2K so I was not disappointed when I crossed the line in 3:40:35. My 185th marathon and 50th country!
However I was surprised/shocked when I scanned the results list and discovered that two runners in my age group had run 2:49s! It is unusual to have one OLD FART run that fast – but TWO in the same race? I am not and never will be in their league!

After the race it was time for the standard hot bath and then we strolled through Old Town stopping for a few pivos and vinos while searching for a restaurant for our celebration dinner. Ljubljana is such a pleasant city to stroll around and we felt absolutely safe at all times!

The following day we ate breakfast at the hotel and caught an early train back to Zagreb. We had arranged for a taxi to meet us at the train station to take us to the airport where we had a light lunch while waiting for our flight to Zurich. In Zurich we enjoyed a snack and beer while waiting for our connection to Luxembourg. Finally – back in Luxembourg! We had booked a hotel at the airport since we had an early flight to London but decided to catch a local bus into the city center to enjoy a last gourmet dinner and stroll in Luxembourg before leaving Europe.

Fortunately our routing home was much better – Luxembourg to London Heathrow to Miami to Tampa. Ah! It’s always nice to be back home!
Time to rest up for the next trip! To where? Stay tuned!

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