The Full Monte Carlo

When planning a trip, there is one question that I keep coming back to: do I want to revisit somewhere I loved or go and explore somewhere new?

Since establishing this blog in 2012 I have tried to be as adventurous as possible — whether by embarking on a short-notice secondment to remotest Russia or endeavouring to complete the West Highland Way — and the past few years have been full of first-time experiences as a result.

After all, I have now been to Corfu and to Rome, walked 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William, and even saved a man’s life on Skye, but as satisfying as each new achievement has been I still haven’t been able to quiet my inner nostalgic, and continue to yearn for something a little less trailblazing. It is for this reason that I decided that I would take a holiday from travelling — in the pretentious sense, at least — and go on vacation instead.

The last time I was in the South of France was in 2010, on an ill-fated visit to the Cannes Film Festival. Denied entry on account of an invalid press pass, I instead spent the week exploring Nice with a couple of university friends who had emigrated after graduation. When two other friends floated the idea of flying over for a reunion, I invited myself along for what would be my first time overseas with friends in years. The last time I did something similar was in 2006, on a post-school tour of Romania.

We’d booked a three-bed room at the Ibis Budget in Edinburgh, and arriving early I bought a beer and took a seat in the hotel’s reception-cum-foyer-cum-bar-cum-restaurant. From the tram stop opposite I had initially mistaken it for a McDonalds, so plastic were its furnishings. When my two travel companions arrived we checked in and repaired to the room — a quirky but comfortable affair that came with a television but no lock or even handle on the toilet door.

NiceAfter what can only be described as a power-nap, we rose bright and early for our crazy o’clock, crack-of-dawn flight to Nice Côte d’Azur. With sufficient time to buy but not actually consume a coffee, we queued our way across the airport to arrive at our allocated departure gate just in time to board the aircraft. I don’t think I have ever had a smoother journey — there was no mad-cap taxi ride across Edinburgh, no Marmite-related mishaps at security, not even a call for excess hand-luggage to be stowed in the hold. But then this time I wasn’t flying Ryanair.

It was still an early start though, and having been met at the airport and escorted to our friends’ flat we almost immediately KO’d on the sofa in front of an episode of FRIENDS. Luckily, naps are the norm on the Continent — one of many, many European habits that the UK could really do with adopting — or so we told ourselves, and this could be easily explained away as a siesta. Two hours in France and we were already going native — something that every seasoned traveller should surely strive for?

Rested and refreshed, we rose in the afternoon to accompany one of our hosts to meet the other for a cocktail after work. As with Rome, I had justified my decision to travel within Europe — to a country I had previously visited, no less — with the fact that I would still be visiting somewhere new. Like Vatican City, Monaco is both a city-state and separate country. Unlike Vatican City, it has a Happy Hour — where the drinks are only expensive rather than extortionate. First though, we were to be given the grand tour; and, finding the city in preparation for the Grand Prix, followed the recently re-tarmacked track through Monte Carlo and along the harbour.

I fell in love with Monaco almost immediately. Leaving the train station at its uppermost exit, we were escorted across the street to a road-side terrace overlooking the harbour and affording breathtaking views of The Prince’s Palace of Monaco. Broken, low-lying cloud only emphasised the scale and grandeur of the scene, as tower blocks and towering summits broke through slivers of stratus, casting shadows over both natural and artificial ceilings. With roads, paths, tunnels, staircases, lifts and escalators leading off in almost every direction, often at impossible angles and leading to mysterious places, I felt the overwhelming urge to instigate a game of hide-and-seek.

MonacoAs in another childhood favourite — Marble Run — we zig-zagged our way from one level to another, finally alighting at the harbour. We were to meet our missing member at Stars ‘N’ Bars for half-price cocktails, and made a beeline for the crowd of young trillionaires revelers living it large; sitting outside and listening to the resident (but completely redundant) DJ. Everyone looking impossibly suave and sophisticated as he made a show of clicking away at iTunes. As dusk fell we moved uphill to a bar where we were invited to gorge ourselves on a complimentary buffet providing we fork out a small fortune for a compensatory drink.

We returned two days later, this time without our hosts, in order to survey the palace and visit the nearby Oceanographic. After a day touring the ice cream parlours of Nice and a matinee viewing of Cannes we had jumped on the train back to Monaco — having by this time worked out how to use the automated ticketing machines through an extended process of trial and error. Unexpectedly, I was still struck by the spectacle of it all — and though rather more overcast on this second visit the city-state still seemed to sparkle. Even the yachts continued to delight, each new section of harbour prompting gasps despite none of us having the slightest interest in boats.

Perhaps fittingly, particularly given the confluence of Hollywood and history in Grace Kelly, The Prince’s Palace of Monaco felt more like a movie set than a storied setting; it seemed more likely to evoke comparisons to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle or Duloc (Lord Farquaad’s residence in Shrek) than any real-life royal retreat. Too clean or well kempt to convince as an actual place housing actual people. The canons — and their accompanying stock of presumably fake canon balls — appeared particularly incongruous, the cafes and souvenir shops making it impossible to imaging that they were ever required, let alone reloaded.

We had arranged to regroup that evening for dinner, in Nice at the American-themed Woody’s Diner, so there wasn’t enough time to visit both the Oceanographic and the Palace Museum. Weighing up our options, and deciding that we had technically seen the palace, along with the opulent Jardin Exotique, we opted for the aquarium. I can’t actually recall the last time I visited an aquarium, not that you might ever see too many, but I doubt it was quite as impressive as the Oceanographic. In fact, the only real rival I can think of is Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands, which went to the trouble of recreating the animals’ natural habitats. The museum was great too, with its interactive displays and life-size facsimiles, not to mention the little petting pool and its number of attention-seeking sharks, though the highlight was undoubtedly the views. We were so high up we could see and feel the sun again.

Nice 7I returned to Monaco once more, again two days later, after my travelling companions had returned home, leaving me to entertain myself while my host was at work. We had bid one another farewell in Antibes the night before, over our first and only traditional French dish, having lived on pastries from Paul, chocettes from Carefour and ice cream from Fenocchio until then. My morning excursion to the Matisse museum had been rained off — the queuing area was uncovered, as was I having not packed for rain — so I jumped on a train back to Monaco where it at least was dry. I had heard promising things about a Japanese garden, and set off along Princesse Grace Avenue to see what all of the fuss was about.

It was indeed beautiful, particularly with the city as its backdrop. As carp patrolled the pond I toured the rest of the enclosure, admiring the waterfall and the bridge and the traditional Japanese teahouse accessible through a small gap in the trees. I wondered if it might still be so quiet and calm once the Grand Prix had started, but the more I felt myself relaxing the more I resolved that it probably was. It was so soothing, in fact, that an obese tourist had fallen asleep in a prominent position, on the pagoda beside the pond, and once I had shot the garden the few angles free of his considerable frame I returned to the station, to Nice and, the following day, to Scotland.

As little stock as I put in the delineation of travel and tourism, I did note a number of differences between this trip and others I have undertaken recently. I wasn’t eating alone for one, but mostly it was just nice to slow things down and appreciate a place on a slightly different level. First impressions really aren’t everything, and going back gives you the chance to see how somewhere changes over time, visit areas you might have missed, and yet — travelling with friends — still see a city through fresh eyes. That said, I’m looking forward to going somewhere completely new next time.

(Just as there are questions I ask before embarking on a journey there are questions that I ask before blogging about the results — the key one being whether my exploits were worthy of the effort, both of writing and reading a thousand or so words. I must admit that I wavered over this trip more than most — but then I remembered that I touched a god-damn shark.)

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