“I have a crazy idea … lunch in Monaco?”
It was the end of a two-week documentary film production in France and we were spending the last night in Nice, so our director deemed it only fitting to grab lunch in the world of casinos and Formula One racing. When in Nice, drive to Monaco.
Opting for the scenic Basse Corniche route as opposed to the autoroute, we drove along the coastline through Villefranche-sur-Mer, a winding road that hugs the cliffs that drop straight into the Mediterranean. Terra cotta-colored rooftops pepper the coastline and bright white yachts sit moored in the various harbors along the way. It’s the kind of scene that feels like it was pulled directly from a postcard; it’s no surprise that many of the world’s most well off individuals choose to make this part of the globe the destination for their second, third or fourth villa.
The road is the kind that’s meant for a sports car. Two weeks of film production means two week’s of film gear though, so we were stuck in the silver Peugeot mini-van. At least it was a manual, so you could almost get the thrill of a quick down shift.
The budget traveler in me of course knows that Monaco certainly isn’t a destination I would normally seek out, but the chance to quickly cross a border and grab some lunch is quite another story.Monaco is one of those places that you know about because you hear the name often enough, but when you think about it, you realize that you actually don’t know very much about it at all. In fact my only relation to Monaco before this day was a couple of summers ago when I was in Sweden and got conned into watching the live stream of Monaco’s royal wedding; a royal wedding is always a big affair in Europe, no matter what the country.
The Principality of Monaco is bordered by France on three sides and the Mediterranean on the fourth. It’s a constitutional monarchy and governed by Prince Albert II. With an area of only 0.76 square miles, it’s the second smallest country in the world. But its 35,000 plus inhabitants make it very densely populated.
Drive into Monaco and you’ll quickly get lost. It’s a city built into the cliffs, with roads intertwining like a complicated maze. Best solution: do another drive around the roundabout just to make sure you are taking the right exit. And when you park and a Ferrari is in front of you trying to back up, don’t move. In the face of opulent automobiles, avoid any risk of you hitting them.
Fortunately, we had a local to guide us around, and he took us to one of the many underground parking complexes and we climbed out and up onto “Le Rocher” – the Rock – the old city that sits atop a rocky promontory. This is where you’ll find the Palais Princier, and just like in any other country that boasts a constitutional monarchy, you can watch the changing of the guard.
From atop Le Rocher you also have an excellent view down both sides of the cliffs, one looking down into the old harbor, and on the other, a more modern collection of buildings and docks. Le Rocher is also where you will find the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, an impressive structure that almost looks like it’s rising straight out of the sea.
To say that the streets and alleyways of Monaco are clean would be an understatement. This is an impeccably spotless place, almost disarmingly so. You get the feeling that the entire place simply drips of money. Which of course it does; the principality doesn’t charge its residents income tax, which attracts a whole plethora of glitterati.
But there’s also the charming side of Monaco that even the budget traveler can enjoy. A wood-fired pizza for lunch with a carafe of Chianti (thank the Italian influence for that) and a simple stroll up and down the hilly streets gives you a real sense of a place loaded with oversized yachts and casino action. It offers a picturesque setting, to say the least.
We walked through the tight alleyways, pink and yellow walls jutting up around us, a quaint but manicured setting. A pair of cyclists decked out in tight training gear rolled up to a door and walked their bikes inside. Japanese tourists bought chocolate at the local chocolatier.
Descending the steps next to the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium we overlooked the Mediterranean, a stormy mix of white caps and breaks of sunlight as a small storm rolled in. It started to drizzle. Whereas in most cities the raindrops would have cleaned the dirty streets, they instead just added to sidewalks that already seemed to glitter. “You know, just an afternoon in Monaco. No big deal,” said my friend as we looked out over the water.
It’s funny to go to a place known for so much wealth and instead just take in the surroundings. No casino. No Grand Prix. No luxury purse purchases. Just a moment to be in a place and remember that our world is full of these corners that we may never fully know.
We returned to Nice at dusk, the evening winter light hitting the French Riviera houses on the cliffs in a way that only a painter could replicate.
“A good afternoon in Monaco everyone,” said our director. Check that one off the list.
[Photo Credit: Anna Brones]