Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Èze and Grace's

The wearing combination of distance driven (2000 km), nations and languages over the last 10 days is creeping up on me. I really needed to sleep-in this morning: this I did, folded in with sporadic reading of 'Freakonomics'.
Around mid-morning we set off for Monaco, set between Nice and the Italian border. Coming off the A8 highway, we faced a steep descent into the principality that reminded me of entry into an underground parking garage. Not that Monaco is much bigger than one. Certainly, faced between creating an 11-hole golf-course and a mountain to sea (+ reclaimed land) carpet of project housing blocks for tax-refugees and dirty rotten scoundrels, the Grimaldis made a canny choice.

Once into Monaco, we found a parking garage near the foot of the Grimaldi Palace that was so tightly constructed, it took a reverse Heimlich manoeuvre to get us through the ticket gate and then into a parking bay several paint-coats wider than the car. I think the standard exit from parked vehicles here is via sun-roof. Shame on me for not having a convertible, or chauffeur to drop me off before the station!

We found a crack caffeine dealer to propel us up the walkway to the palace, where a crowd had built up to witness the changing of the guard (singular) or one of the royal siblings’ partners - I'm not sure which is more predictable. We sauntered past a clutch of gelato and souvenir shops to the church where Rainier and Grace had married. Bondi, in his European fountain odyssey, stopped to quench his thirst at yet another historic water-display.

Passing through the very nice exotic gardens on the seaward slope, and then the Oceanographic Institute, Bondi made friends with a gaggle of multilingual schoolkids, and I got some photos of the Monte Carlo Casino across the bay (with the requisite f**k-off boats parked in the foreground). At sea-level again, outside the Monte Carlo Yacht club, a passing parade of wide-eyed 5-year olds squealed and screamed as they clustered around Bondi.

David and I enjoyed some cheap club baguettes for lunch and scanned the local newspaper: speeding fines in radar-monitored French roads have been raised from 90 to 750 euro!! We then drove vewy vewy slowly around to the Casino (10th hole, par 4) via a section of the Formula 1 race-track, and enjoyed either ice-creams or more fountain-water, depending on individual taste. Positioned below the Casino are dealerships for Mercedes, Lamborghini etc: it's just like Gloria Jean coffee opening up kitty corner to Starbucks. We didn't visit the Casino proper - the entrance having been cordoned off by police. We speculated that a VVVIP was turning up – perhaps the Pope trying to win extra space for the Vatican (the only state smaller than Monaco) or poll-position for the Popemobile at the next Grand Prix - but it turned out to be just a security scare over an abandoned vehicle.

This was a big disappointment since I thought that visiting here would fulfil memories of playing ABBA's "Money Money Money" on the piano at age 11. My teacher, Sister Celestine, sang along in her octogenarian vibrato: In my dreams/ I have a plan/ if I got me a wealthy man/ I wouldn’t have to work at all, I’d fool around and have a ball... .... So I must leave, I’ll have to go/To Las Vegas or Monaco/And win a fortune in a game, my life will never be the same... ". Such are the dreams of boys and nuns...

In any case, it was all very pretty but ultimately quite sterile. Judging by the kerb-side defibrillator stations, which are more common than telephone booths, the average age here is probably quite high. The apartment blocks, oozing from the water up to the mountain ridge, are unexceptional. My thought on leaving, was that if Dee Why had a private baccarat table, it could give Monaco a run for its money. Perhaps I was just missing out on a louche undercurrent, and just needed a slice of Peter “Jason King” Wyngarde’s When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head album to set the mood: I’d forgotten to burn a CD for the car and the local radio station density hampered attempts to broadcast on FM from my MP3 player.

Beginning with the Basse Corniche, the lowest coastal road, we re-ascended to Èze (pronounced Airs), a very picturesque medieval hilltop village. Touristiana aside, it really is quite an interesting little place; the boutique restaurants and hotels up there making for an incredible weekend getaway. The day, which begun quite cool had by now heated up, and we took some time out in the shade with a citron presse, or prone on cool flagstones, again according to taste.

Finally, we drove back via Ville de France to Nice, (listening to Brazilian Girls and Grace Jones) where we hoped to go for a swim on the public beach. The signs said that dogs weren't welcome, but we were told later that this is never policed. The pebbly plage had a tennis-court sized patch of sand overlaid on one section to give the illusion that you really were close to Dee Why.

We retreated to the old part of the town, wandering through alleyways similar to Genoa, albeit wider and with designer labels attached to the underwear hanging out of windows. I stopped at a butcher to get l'os pour le chien and obtained a bone for Bondi that a mastodon would have found useful. I was still seeing plenty of very large dogs in the streets, these seeming to be favoured over the portable iPoodles seen in other places. Passers-by stopped frequently to enquire after Bondi or share their own big-dog passions.

Stimulated by food fragrances in every street, we had developed quite a hunger. Unfortunately the restaurants were not open till 7pm (over an hour away).

Sitting at a cafe with a cafe of vin ordinaire and a plate of olives, we watched the day markets pack up and the world go by. An acquaintance of David's stopped by and then a friend of that acquaintance. A carafe or two later, it was time for dinner and 3 of us continued on to the more elegant Cafe Voglia for farfalle and a shared crème caramel the size of a meatloaf. Bondi nonchalantly stretched out across the footpath so that the Riviera’s evening strollers had a furry mountain to dodge.

Returning to our gîte dans l'étoiles after 9, our host Mr ----- intercepted us for an aperitif, showing off his wine-making vats, and telling us about his travels around Australia. (Mostly translated for me by David).

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