Friday, September 30, 2005
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
|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.|
|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).|
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Restless night not helped by visiting mosquitoes. Rose early enough to make it down to the Genovese old city centre, the Porto Antico, by 9am. Turning the corner away from the hotel, I spotted a large reddish malamute shuffling down the street, perhaps having caught Bondi's odour.
Parked underground without any hassle and ambled along the promenade past a galleon, the Aquarium (Europe's largest) and some of the metallic decorations garnishing architect Renzo Piano's refurbishment of the area.
Walking under this city's version of Sydney's Cahill Expressway, we walked up the stone-paved Via San Lorenzo towards the Cathedral of the same name. After zig-zagging through some narrower streets (not more than 3m wide), I stopped for coffee, a breakfast sandwich and Bondi got some heavy-petting from the locals. The cappucino foam was like an ultra-soft meringue, rather than the Starbucksy froth that resembles dirty detergent foam. Later, on the autostrada, I stopped for another superb cappucino, served quickly and reliably at a quarter the price of the muck I'd been served through most of the UK. If your typical roadside service centre served this quality of coffee, you'd have double encouragement for drivers to take frequent breaks: I'd stop every 100km for a creamy blast like that.
The streets were alive with canines (dogs, not teeth). I'd been told that it's the Italians beyond all that love their dogs and you can see it: dogs walked or attached to shopfronts. Socialised with other dogs and people, there's rarely a sound from them. The Aquarium even advertises a dogsitting service for visitors. In the Ducal square Bondi plays with a large husky amongst the fountains. Large dogs have been common in recent days: Bernese mountain dogs and other less familiar breeds. In Italy everyone knew what Bondi was: "A - lask -an!" they would cry a grin and extended thumb, or "magnifico Mal - a - mut - o!!" and I would smile beatifically and repeat " A -lask - an!" like a reverse Nino Culotto.
There's really too much to see in 3 hours - without a map, you find a little sidestreet could lead to a dirty dead-end, a row of elegant shops or open on to a palazzo with painted brickwork.
Just before midday we're back on the Autostrada, heading southwest towards Nice. It's tunnel following viaduct following tunnel for the entire trip, an amazing engineering achievement.We ride from hilltop opening to opening like pegs dragged along a 200km clothesline strung above countless little Mediterranean townships. It's the same even as we cross the French border, yielding our final Autostrada coupon before another tunnel and the exit to Monaco, and then the exits for Nice.
For the week, David and I had booked a pet-friendly holiday cottage or Gîte on the outskirts of Nice. The Gîtes de France website doesn't allow you to see the street address until you've paid, so it's a bit of a gamble. I was also a little concerned about finding the place as the owner's printed directions were imprecise, and I couldn't find the street on my MapPoint Europe trip-planning software.
As per instructions I took the exit for Saint-Isidore, and started prendring gauches and rues up a hillside. If my Genovese hotel was a goat-track, this was a Himalayan goat-track, winding through switchbacks and ascending at 15 degrees over pothole and rock-fall through a suburban-rural zone. After driving upwards for nearly half an hour, I was still not seeing the desired Chemin de Saint Romain, although I had passed other houses labelled as Gîtes, and pulled over to recover from the lack of oxygen. An approaching convertible slowed towards me and I broke out into involuntary laughter as I realised they were going to ask me for directions. They were two French Anglophones, and were actually looking for the same street as I. A few minutes later I discovered that the Chemin de Saint Romain street sign was hidden behind two other signs only a few metres from where we were paused.
The Frenchmen drove off and I knocked on the door of a house whose number figured in my directions. Burbling in franglaise I indicated a name and address on my Tablet PC (ordinateur) screen to a lady peering through the metal lattice of her door. She withdrew into the house, and moments later came around the front and escorted me to the nearest corner (with the hidden street sign) and waved down there with a confident "Deux kilometre" and left me to explore those wilds. I drove down that meandering, steepening track into what I was believed was a restricted military zone until I could find a place wide enough to turn around. Just after that, the two Frenchmen came past, and we shrugged at each other. Further back up the road I pulled into a Gîte and started my Franglais burble. <>mon ami David was arriving ce soir avec tres bien Francaise".
Mr ----- led me to the flat below his house, with a commanding view of the lands below. You could pick out the usual landmarks seen from a space-station: the Great Wall of China, Great Barrier Reef, and Trent Lott's porch. He quickly led me to the bathroom and filled the bidet for Bondi, who slurped greedily at it. Mme ----- suddenly appeared and effected a series of exaggerated sitcom reactions to Bondi's granditude. She protested the water on the bathroom floor to me and started mopping it up, glancing reproachfully in my direction, and then scurried off to get a basin of water for outside drinking.
I finally managed to pursuade the -----s to leave me to unpack, after having the purpose of the kitchen explained to me and several enquiries as to Bondi's bedding. I'd explained to each again and again "non comprehend pas" and "mon ami avec bon Francais" but that didn't help a great deal.
After some preliminary unpacking I left Bondi to nap and drove back down the hill, hoping that the heat-tiles on my shuttle would withstand the re-entry velocity. A Carrefour giga-mall was close at hand, easily the largest single store I'd ever been in in my life. It made your average CostCo look like a 7-11. I trundled around happily for an hour, filling my trolley with provisions, sat in the mall exit-queue for thirty minutes and finally managed the re-ascent to the Gîte.
Mme ----- came by again to ask rapid-fire French questions including a confirmation that I didn't parle French. I confirmed this and the velocity of speech continued unabated, albeit punctuated by more pantomiming.
At 2200 hours I scurried back down the hill to collect David from Nice International airport and filled him in on my day's adventures. When we returned, Mme ----- was waiting to question him. Apparently she wanted to know if sheets were wanted from the beds - something her world-class mime skills had not attempted.
I also discover that a local call made to CK in Switzerland has cost me GBP25 or more - even with a cheap roaming package attached to my O2 account - and now I cannot top up my phone (the British "we don't accept non-UK credit cards syndrome"). I was intending to get a Spanish SIMM card next week but this will hamper communications till then. Bummer.