Saturday, June 28, 2014

France 2014: Road Trip to Monaco

Although the principality of Monaco is considered a separate city-state from France, you would not know it, since there are no customs, border patrols or checking of identification required to enter its territory.  At 2.02 square kilometers in area and a population of just over 36,000 as of 2011, Monaco is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with over 18,000 people per square kilometer.  Compare this to Hong Kong at around 6500 or Canada at 3.5 people per square kilometer.

When we bought an IPAD SIM card with a data plan for France from the TelComm provider French Mobile, we were told that it would not work in Monaco.  We quickly established that this was not so, and we were able to use our IPAD everywhere within Monaco with no issues.

We started our day at the museum housing the antique car collection of Prince Ranier III.  There were almost a hundred vehicles including carriages dating as far back as the 1860s, classic cars representing many of the following decades, and a series of race cars including ones used in Monaco's Grand Prix.

Rich's favourite cars included the elegant 1952 blue-grey Nash Healey convertible with maroon seats, the classic Mercedes 300SL with its gull-winged doors, the 1959 Fiat 600 which had a frilly canvas top and wicker(!) seats, and the futuristic 2004 Venturi Fétish, the world's  first two-seater electric sports car whose curved windshield makes it look like a spaceship from the cartoon "The Jetsons".
The vehicles I liked best included the beautifully rich blue 1971 Alpine Renault, the bright yellow 1911 Super Cyclecar that has "antique hot rod racer" written all over it, the 1957 Citroen CV convertible with the roll-up roof and seats that look like folding lawn chairs, and the pink and beige 1937 Rosengart LR4N2, mostly because I'm a sucker for two-toned cars.

But my absolute favourite car in the collection is the Italian designed bright red 1960 Issetta BMW 300 "micro-car" which only has three wheels (two in the front and one in the back), a fabric sunroof and a single door that opens from the front, tilting the steering wheel and instrument panel forward with the door, to provide  the driver with enough room to enter or exit the car.  This is the most uniquely shaped and designed car I've ever seen.  It's top speed is only 75km/hr which is probably why there are not more of these around today.

There was the first 1903 Humber "motorcycle", which was actually a bicycle outfitted a with a two-horsepower motor.  Many of the vintage cars had sleek hood ornaments that imbued speed and motion, including a greyhound, a panther, a goose, and several art deco styled winged female forms with long,  flowing hair.  Another unique decoration popular in the 1910-1940s was the bouquet holder or car vase, made of either glass or metal and which came in different colours and patterns.  It was attached to the dashboard to hold a few sprigs of fragrant flowers and was the precursor to the modern day cardboard pine tree air freshener.  With so many gorgeous vehicles to look at, lyrics from the Loving Spoonful song comes to mind–"Did you ever have to make up your mind? Pick up on one and leave the other behind?"

A trip to Monaco would not be complete without a visit to the Prince's Palace, originally a fortressed castle built on top of a 140 metre high rock formation called the Rocher de Monaco. It has been the principal residence of the royal Grimaldi family since the 13th century.  A bronze sculpture in the courtyard and multiple paintings inside the palace commemorate the tale of how François Grimaldi seized control of the castle in 1297 by disguising himself as a monk to infiltrate the stronghold.  From the rampart walls, you can look down to see beautiful views of the harbour and other parts of the area.

One of the highlights of a palace visit is watching the changing of the guard, which happens daily at noon in the courtyard of the palace.  Large crowds gather in a semi-circle to witness the ceremony, which includes a fleet of white-clad soldiers who march in various formations, salute each other, raise and lower their rifles and stand for inspection while a small military marching band plays a reveille.

Even though the current reigning Prince, Albert II, still resides in the palace with his family, some of the staterooms and apartments are opened in the summer for public viewing.  In fact, Albert provides the welcoming introduction to the audio guide.  Many of rooms on display are decorated and furnished in the styles of former French palaces.  There is a Mirror Gallery that is modeled after the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, while a gold bedroom is named to reflect its inspiration–"King Louis XV Bedchamber".  The regal red Throne Room is where all state ceremonies are held and features portraits of former princes and dignitaries.  The modern and rather tacky family portrait of Prince Ranier III, his wife Princess Grace, their three children Albert, Caroline and Stéphanie, complete with family dog, seems out of place with the rest of the paintings.  It is interesting to note that although Ranier is the head of state, Grace seems to be the head of the household, since she clearly is the focus of the portrait.  Another point to ponder is why all the rest of the family are touching one another, but no one is touching Grace?

It was exciting to be able to walk along parts of the course of the Monaco Grand Prix race track and imagine the race cars speeding by.  Obviously many wealthy car owners were getting their vicarious thrills by driving through this course, as we spotted numerous Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Rolls Royce, Bentley and other luxury vehicles zoom by.
An art exposition for both professional and amateur local artists of Monaco was being held at the Ranier III Auditorium by the harbour.  It was actually quite difficult to find this building and we had to use the Google maps on our IPAD to track it down.  Once there, we saw some interesting works in various mediums including painting, photography and sculpture.  I particularly liked the sculpture of a pair of black stiletto-heeled open-toe sandals with multi-coloured paints dripping from the shoes down the stand on which the piece is displayed.  I like when a work of art leaks into its environment, similar to when artists extend their paintings onto the frame or the sides of the canvas.
While we were down by the harbour, we did some more gawking at luxury yachts.  We looked on with interest as a group of people seemed to be waiting and watching for one of these yachts to dock.  Also waiting was a long black stretch limo.  When the gangway lowered, a distinguished-looking well-tanned man walked off the ship, got into the limo and was driven away.  This gave us an up-close glimpse into the daily lives of the truly wealthy.

Visiting the stretch of Monte Carlo that is home to the Casino and Opera House makes you feel like you have stepped back into the Belle Epoch (like Owen Wilson did in the movie Paris in Midnight).  These two prestigious buildings were designed in 1879 by Charles Garnier, who also designed the Opéra Garnier in Paris.  Many of the restaurants and buildings in the area, such as the Hotel de Paris and the Cafe de Paris, blend right in with equally beautiful decor.

Our day spent in Monaco was a great way to top off our weekend road trip and allowed Rich to tick off another country from his bucket list.

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