By Antonio Malara
Monte-Carlo has always been popular for its eccentricity and the luxurious lifestyle of its inhabitants. In the collective imagination it has always been connected with wealth and pomp and to be a city where its inhabitants do not pay taxes. In addition to this aspect, he also fascinated people with the personal stories of the royal family. A family whose worldly chronicles have always made news for better or for worse. For us ordinary people, being able to visit this city was like living for a day in the midst of an unattainable world. It was the chance given to ordinary people to feel "someone" for at least one day, the famous fifteen minutes of popularity. So often ordinary people, at least where I live, decided to go and see Monte-Carlo following this logic. I have been to Monte-Carlo three times with my family, twice as a child and another time as a teenager but the best visit I made there was in 2003, with a school friend of mine.
While I have only vague memories of the first three occasions, the day spent in Monte-Carlo in 2003 was epic! Those were the years after graduation and one of my schoolmates was working in Liguria and that year I decided to visit him. Together, we were two free spirits and without fear of daring. After taking me around to see the Ligurian locations, we had the crazy idea of going to Monte-Carlo, but not on a normal day, the day of the F1 Grand Prix. My friend's brother made fun of us saying that we will never be able to evade the controls and enter the stands, "you will only hear the noise of the engines and nothing more" he repeated to us. We set off on the adventure with a scooter that took us from Finale Ligure to Ventimiglia where we took the train to Monte-Carlo. The scooter trip was beautiful thanks also to the sunny day but with a mild weather. That day after arriving in Monte-Carlo, I approached a security officer who guarded an entrance to the stands and I showed him an Italian card of a volunteer I was a part of. That uniform photo on the card and the way I called him aside must have led him to think that we were two undercover agents and he opened the gate for us. We watched the F1 Grand Prix from the stands with indescribable joy, mingling with the people who had paid to see the show. So I took several photos with an analog camera and I always carried one taken by my partner in my heart as a testimony of that unique day.
At the beginning of 2018, wanting to plan a trip with my former travel partner, I thought of Monte-Carlo, to be honest a little selfishly. Without ever saying it to her, I wanted to relive that trip made with my school friend and so in March 2018 we met at Milan Malpensa airport from where, with a rental car, we reached Beausoleil. We made the outward journey along the highway while in agreement with her, we decided to do the return journey via the state road and visiting some popular places. For the uninitiated, Beausoleil and Monte-Carlo are two cities merged together, except that the first is part of the French territory while the second of the Principality of Monaco. This means that living in the French part was much cheaper so I decided to go to Beausoleil where I practically found a large apartment for very little money.
In this post rather than making a chronological story, I will dedicate myself to describing the parts of the city that I visited with my travel partner, recounting my experiences and my impressions of this bizarre place.
Our apartment was located on a slope and had two entrances. Every morning we went out from the lower part and after having descended two stairways, we traveled a long road and arrived in the Monegasque territory. There we found an Italian place where we had breakfast every morning. From the bar, we walked down a street and we were practically in the center. I immediately realized that March was not an optimal month to visit the Principality of Monaco and heavy rain on the first day of our arrival led us to visit the Metropolis shopping center as the first place of interest, but only out of necessity! This place despite being built with fine materials such as marble, it was not particularly beautiful. Beyond the luxury shops that can now be seen everywhere inside some malls, the only thing that struck me in the metropolis was a showcase of the Tag Heuer brand dedicated to Ayrton Senna. In addition to a normal-sized photo of the Brazilian champion, his unmistakable yellow helmet was also inside a display case. I've always been a huge Senna fan and seeing such an object gave me a different energy.
Although Monte-Carlo preserved classical architecture, I noticed how in that part of the city, modern buildings matched well with classical ones. There was such a building just before arriving at the "Jardin de la Petite Afrique”, a green area located in front of the famous Casino. In reality, that area was very large and was practically joined to the Casino park. We did not explore the gardens much, we only came to a pond while inside the park there were some very interesting structures. In the midst of the greenery they had built structures that, due to their design, gave the impression of being temporary. In reality, those buildings with a rounded shape and white in color were luxury shops. These shops were divided by a serpentine-shaped boulevard that cut the park in two. In front of this area was the famous Monte-Carlo Casino with its baroque style, very popular in the collective imagination because it has always appeared as a backdrop in famous photographs and even in the F1 grand prix. What I didn't remember was the oval green lawn right in front of it which was maniacally kept. In front of the entrance to the Casino, the classic expensive cars and chauffeurs but in those rainy days, that area did not have the charm that you normally see in newspapers and TV. In my opinion the casino was beautiful especially in the back, both because you could visit it in peace and because it had a view of both the sea and the "Hotel de Paris" which from that side showed a circular shape that created a very nice effect.
From there along "Avenue D’Ostende" you came to the port area. This road is the famous uphill straight that is always seen at the Grand Prix and is the point where there is the famous view of the harbor and the yachts. For me that road had a particular meaning because it was there that I was able to watch the 2003 Grand Prix. The lower part of the city, that is the port, disappointed me a bit because it was practically very vast and deserted. That's where the paddock areas are during the Grand Prix and I think they purposely avoid building structures because every year they need the big space to set up the temporary ones. However, on Boulevard Albert 1er there were many shops and restaurants, almost all under the arcades. That was where we had dinner every night in an Italian restaurant which cooked very well. It must have been the period but already at dinner time the Boulevard was almost empty with the restaurants that were the only place where you could see any human beings. The whole area behind the Boulevard was the only one where during the day you could see a bit of life, with people who mostly walked their dogs. To tell the truth, the whole part of the center that I described made me sad but I hope that the desolation was linked to the winter period and bad weather conditions. A characteristic place, on the other hand, was the station area because it was located, let's say, on a plain between the mountain and the lower part of the port. It was nice both for the partial view towards the sea and the overhanging buildings and because the station was perhaps the only place where you could see a few people.
Place du Palais
In the final part of the port, you could walk a path that led to a large staircase from where you arrived at "Place du Palais" the square where the Prince's Palace of Monaco was located, or the official residence of the royals. Walking up that staircase also gave the opportunity to enjoy one of the most beautiful views that you can have of Monte-Carlo. The area of the royal residence was very large and the palace had a very linear design with large windows, however on the right side there was a gray stone part with a tower. The design of that part of the structure was completely different and reminded of old castles, I don't know if it was part of an even older palace. Also on the square overlooked other buildings with an interesting design, especially a three-storey pink one that had many decorations on the windows and above the entrance door. In that area I discovered another part of Monte-Carlo that I did not know. From the garden there was a panoramic area that I thought overlooked the sea. In reality, the large balcony was above "Port de Fontvieille", the other residential area all around the tourist port of the same name. The view was predominantly dominated by the boats and yellow-orange houses which made a beautiful effect. On the other hand, near the mountain there was an area with a large shopping center and many outdoor activities. "Place du Palais" was also the only area of Monte-Carlo where there were tourists and many activities such as restaurants but full of people. There it was the only place where I felt at ease, where I could do some shopping and have the impression of being in a real city.
Port de Fontvieille
After seeing it from above, I couldn't help but visit the "Port de Fontvieille" area. We got there through a strange tunnel that was the watershed between one area and another. The difference was immediately noticeable because this area was completely new. Although the design was classic, the colors and conditions of the buildings were decidedly new. I don't know when it was created or renovated but Port de Fontvieille gave me something more modern and I felt more comfortable there. In fact, the place was moderately populated but all those bars with outdoor chairs gave me something familiar and I was instinctive to stop, for example, to enjoy an ice cream sitting at a table. I found this area much more interesting and intimate also because it was smaller and more concentrated. Walking along the quay of the port was nice because I could reach up to touch the boats. Everything seemed more "human" and moreover there was a beautiful view from different angles on the sloping mountain where the Prince's Palace stood. Walking in that place gave me the impression that if I were to live in Monte-Carlo, I would probably choose Port de Fontvieille as my neighborhood. Scenic, elegant but not superb.
To visit the Larvotto area we took a route that brought us the famous curve of the Fairmont Hairpin, in front of the Fairmont Monte-Carlo Hotel. This curve has always fascinated me not only for its harmonic line and the subsequent passage under the bridge but also for its height difference. The fact that racing cars with a very low set-up could go through that curve and that difference in height has always excited me. I must say that live the difference in height was perceived even more and this makes that stretch of road unique. The fact that everyday the curve looked the same as when the cars run for the Grand Prix made that place something iconic to me. Unfortunately, I only walked it to get to the view of the sea but from there, turning left, I went towards Larvotto. In a few steps you are immersed in the great “Jardin Japonaise Princesse Grace”. This large Japanese garden is dedicated to the memory of Princess Grace and inside, in addition to the beautiful plants, there was also a bronze statue of Grace of Monaco. The statue was beautiful both for the context in which it was located but also for its design. In fact, her facial features were not defined but tended to be more stylized so that one had the impression of seeing Grace, not as if she were real but rather as if she belonged to another dimension. I also want to emphasize that the statue also had a sexy connotation due to the large and perfect breasts that could be seen from the wide neckline of her dress. Arriving in front of the beach, the show was truly remarkable. The large buildings close to the sea have always fascinated me and that part of Monte-Carlo followed that model. The large beach was equipped with wooden structures such as walkways to move with more ease and also special protections against storm surges. There were also many areas used for restaurants and activities related to the summer season, unfortunately everything was closed. There I was particularly struck by one of the tall buildings despite its simple design. It was a sort of high rectangle with an orange background where the balconies were in dark blue glass. However, what emphasized the orange color were the awnings which were also orange. I admired and photographed that building from many angles and the sight of it never tired me.
Another peculiarity that could be noticed walking on the beach was the three-dimensional sensation that was perceived. For me it was always thanks to the tall buildings close to the beach, something so forbidden in Italy where I live. The level above the beach was also very beautiful, it was the long walk all paved in marble, a completely pedestrianized marine path that extended up to the garden of Princess Grace. On the way back I was able to see the Grimaldi Forum up close and I must say that although I love modern buildings, I didn’t like this. The structure was made of steel and glass and covered in some parts by a series of green colored flaps, it gave me the feeling of a temporary structure which, however, did not have the whimsy. I liked the Larvotto area very much but unfortunately that day I found it sad because it was empty except for a few people present there. I tried to imagine it in the summer season and for a few seconds I succeeded. However, I could not help but perceive the fact that Monte-Carlo as my city was a purely summer place, therefore very sad in winter.
The Monte-Carlo seen as a child and especially that of 2003 during the F1 Grand Prix were distant memories of the city I visited in March 2018. For me that visit was like the end of a myth, of an icon because in reality Monte-Carlo is not what it seems or at least what they show us. Surely a place with an interesting urban planning, despite the limited spaces, in Monte-Carlo there is space for everyone, from luxury cars to pedestrians. Everyone can enjoy the city by walking or riding a Ferrari as long as they only use first and second gear. There is a constant background noise in this city which is the roar of powerful engines accelerating without the possibility of inserting that extra gear for which those cars are made. The Monte-Carlo of 2018 was a rainy, deserted, boring and disappointing city. I think bad weather only played a minor role in all of this. After all, we are used to seeing this city only when there is an event and it is precisely in those moments that the city really lives; during events that are normally only scheduled from spring onwards. My last visit to Monte-Carlo gave me the feeling of being in my city, except that in the Monte-Carlo the streets were impeccable and clean. The palaces were in excellent condition and with more sumptuous designs. The philosophy, however, was the same as for places on the sea; beautiful and popular in summer and depressing in winter. Even if I don't plan to come back to Monte-Carlo soon, one I'll have to exorcise the 2018 Monte-Carlo, also because that trip was my idea, but a sentimental idea linked to past events which gave happiness.
Pictures: Antonio Malara