After lazing on Plage Neptune, Hôtel Negresco’s exclusive beach, we get ourselves ready for the next étape. The tiny Principauté de Monaco beckons in the afternoon. We decide to take the train from Nice Gare, a mere twenty minute ride on the scenic Nice-Menton-Ventimiglia line and arrive at Monaco Monte Carlo station, in one of the smallest countries in the world.
An air of wealth, elegance and beauty greets us as we step off the train station and walk in the direction of Port de Monaco. We reach a vantage position and pause to reflect. The small municipality is now separated into tiny districts such as the Fontvieille quarter, Monaco-Ville, La Condamine, Monte-Carlo and Le Larvotto. It is difficult to think that back in the 1850s, Monaco was just a small village with a small number of houses and a few olive trees.
Monaco’s history fascinated me in my teens. Since 1297, the Grimaldi family have been in control when Francesco Grimaldi disguised himself as a monk and set out to conquer the village unsuccessfully from the Genoans. In 1308, another Grimaldi had better luck. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Prince Charles III set out to rescue the diminishing principality. He legalised gambling, eliminated taxes and called on architect Charles Garnier of the Paris Opera to design a casino in Monte-Carlo. Ex-waiter François Blanc became the casino’s proprietor and a tiny city was built around the grand casino, drawing on majestic hotels and luxurious villas to make Monte-Carlo the playground of the rich in Europe.
In 1949, Prince Rainier III ascended to the throne and when he married Grace Kelly in the fifties, Monaco acquired the status of fairy tale romances. Looking ahead towards the Casino up on a small hill with colourful villas rising up and away from the waters, pleasure crafts and yachts in the harbour, the Palais Princier behind us gracing the cliffs of Le Rocher de Monaco, we can sense that aura of romance and wealth.
On foot, we set out to explore the popular quarters of Monaco. We climb up a steep scenic incline towards the Musée Océanographique Aquarium, founded in 1910 by Prince Albert I and directed by Jacques Cousteau. Closing time is imminent so we settle for a look at the model yellow submarine outside the museum.
Monaco at Dusk – Cathédrale de Monaco
We continue our walk towards the Cathédrale de Monaco in gleaming white stone. Standing on a site of a former thirteen century church that was dedicated to St-Nicholas, the cathedral plays host to royal marriages and funerals and is the site where Princess Grace is entombed. The light is beginning to fade so we continue walking along narrow, paved, monégasque streets with pretty street lights.
We arrive in front of the Palais Princier with uniformed guards keeping watch at the entrance. The pink palace reflects the last few rays of the setting sun before its clock rings 8 pm and the sun makes its exit behind the palace.
Scenes from Monaco – Palais Princier
From a small lookout surrounded with cannons and cannon balls, we admire all of Monaco. There is a sense of warmth and serenity exemplified by the pleasure boats rocking to sleep on the harbour and the early evening lights dancing on the water. I look around me and realise that we are walking along the famous Grand Prix circuit.
Walking back down, we pass through a number of exquisite looking villas nuzzled among pine trees. I ponder about the people who live there and what magnificent views they must have. When we finally reach Quai Albert I with the large swimming pool in the centre, we stop to consider the various restaurants and cafés trottoirs that line up the boulevard.
We negotiate another steep incline, passing by Hotel Hermitage standing majestically on a hill overlooking the harbour. For a moment there, I am certain Prince Albert drove past in a sporty convertible. Further along, we pass another belle époque hotel. The Hotel de Paris neighbours the famous Casino Monte-Carlo where the fashionable beau monde are gathering.
Security guards are politely turning away people who were not properly attired, and asking those with cameras and large bags to deposit them in the cloak room. We enter the casino, walk past the ornate entrance and admire the hall with marble columns and stained glass roof. To the right, the Salle des Amériques looks mediocre, reminiscent of a local leagues club.
To enter the private games room, a formal dress code is required along with a hefty entrance fee. There are belle époque rooms illuminated by imposing chandeliers, decorated with ornate frescoes. One could play or just watch the ultra rich place high stakes on roulettes and blackjacks, while smoking expensive cigars, dressed for a soiree worthy of royalty.
But not for us. Not being habitual gamblers, we deposit a modest 100 francs in the slot machines and win it back with delight. We leave the wealth and glamour of Monaco in a taxi and farewell a romantic municipality that until now, was always a dream.
Back in Nice, we walk in the direction of the hotel trying to find somewhere to eat. There are no restaurants in sight and it soon becomes apparent that we have taken a wrong turn.
Mr G begins to feel very uncomfortable. Sunburnt from a few hours in the sun, he now has a mild fever. My right foot which I injured in Rome has swollen to abnormal proportions. We amble to the hotel in pain and settle on a couple of aspirins for dinner.
As I close the shutters on the balcony, I bid bonne nuit to the illuminated Riviera, the busy Promenade des Anglais below and the silver moonlight dancing on the Mediterranean.
Tomorrow morning, we go en route.
… continues tomorrow.
‘Le Tour de France Gourmantic’ series is the story of a young couple from Australia who took to the French roads on a whirlwind Tour of France back when the internet wasn’t at everyone’s fingertips, phones were still attached to sockets, GPS was an unfamiliar acronym, digital cameras were a pipe dream and the Euro hadn’t replaced French Francs. With just one fold-out map of France and boundless enthusiasm, they took their Renault 19 and went on a cultural and culinary discovery.
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