Note: This entry is labelled as being my December 16th entry because that's the day being described although it was written the following day. It was emailed from France to my Notify list and posted to my website upon my return home.
So... on Sunday Sully and I drove to Monoco. That is less than twenty kilometers straight line distance but it takes a while to get there, depending on your route. There is the A8 highway, a limited access high speed toll road that runs inland a bit, over, between and through mountains; a high and winding road that clings to the upper portions of the rocky cliffs with magnificent views of the Mediterranean far below; and a winding coastal road that hugs the base of the cliffs almost at the water's edge.
I chose the high and scenic route to get there because I remembered from last year just how breath-taking that view can be. This is not a quick route because you have to wind your way for some distance on busy city streets before working your way uphill and out of town, but it is worth the effort once you get up and away from town. The day was sunny and pleasantly cool, the cold, damp, and cloudy weather we had during the final days of the past week had cleared away and we were treated to views of blue skies above and blue waters far below.
Eventually the road curled down the mountain into Monoco, the tiny (and prosperous) little nation that clings to the base (and well up the sides!) of the rocky slopes that overlook its harbor... one point seven square kilometers... about three times the area of the mall in Washington DC (the area from the Lincoln Memorial to Congress, including the various museums along the way)... around thirty-two thousand citizens, although that's not counting the wealthy foreigners who maintain condos here nor the throngs of tourists... one advantage of visiting in December is that it was not packed with tourists.
Found an underground parking garage near the base of the high rocky slab upon which the royal palace is perched. It was easy see how this would be a natural place to site a castle back in the days when that meant a fortress. This was a huge vertical slab of mountain, a natural defensive point overlooking the harbor. We walked up the very steep pedestrian path to the top (although there is elevator service available, and a very steep road for very limited vehicular access as well).... So there's the royal palace, royal guards marching back and forth in front (now that must be a boring job!) and, facing the palace across a large paved courtyard was a cluster of buildings, quite old buildings, many of medieval vintage, almost nothing newer than a century or two (expect for things like the Oceanographic Institute, etc.) with the usual narrow coblestoned medieval streets (and even narrower alleyways winding in between) with the usual Riviera-flavored collection of restaurants and souvenir shops. We also found a wax museum devoted to the monarchs of Monoco beginning with the founder of the royal line who apparantly seized the job by conquering the castle several hundred years ago by sneaking in disguised in a monk's robe (he was known as "The Cunning")... and showing a few along the way who did things like help the French king in fighting the Flemmings, etc. but mostly a collection of royal princes who were noted for being royal princes. Had a nice lunch. Bought a few trinkets. Wandered around taking in the sights.
There are extensive royal gardens, mostly along an edge of the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and part of the harbor and partly along cliff-edge terraces clinging just below the top... inspiring views... although some of the thoughts that were inspired were ones wondering just what the effect of an earth quake might be on this terrace... The gardens were beautiful, a wide variety of trees and shrubs (and a few flowers, although December is not a time of year to expect many blooms... I have the feeling that there may be gorgeous displays here in spring and summer) and I kept thinking how much my wife would enjoy strolling along the garden paths.
Also visited the Chapel of the Visitation, gorgeous internal decoration and some incredible paintings hanging inside, including two by Rubens and a large painting by Van Den Hecke (The Eucharist Overcoming Pagan Sacrifices)... but my favorite was a Madonna and Child by Cantarini, truly beautiful.
And last, but far from least, we visited the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco... one of the Monocan princes (the current reigning prince's grandfather I believe) was really into oceanography so he founded the institute, which sponsors various scientific expeditions and research, etc., and also runs an oceanographic science center and museum and aquarium... so spent a couple of hours wandering around watching fish... actually very enjoyable and entertaining (although given that I can easily get to the aquarium at Mystic, CT and the New England Aquarium in Boston, I suppose I didn't need to travel quite so far to look at pretty fish... but still, I did enjoy it... although I was wishing my kids were along, especially my daughter who loves fish and has a very fishtank in her bedroom)...
Monaco has, I have been told, on a per capita basis, the largest police force in Europe.... all those tourists and all of those casinos and all of those wealthy visitors and residents. (I had always thought that Monaco was the name of the country and Monte Carlo was the name of the only city, but apparently the entire country is one hundred percent urban area and it is divided into four administrative districts, one of which is Monte Carlo and apparently that's the "secteur"district where the casinos are located.) So... having gone to Monaco via the high road, I wanted to return to Nice on the low road... but as I attempted to go that way it appeared that the road to the tunnel (through the base of a mountain) that begins the coastal road was closed due to construction... and I attempted to loop around to come at it again just to be sure that it was closed but I miss judged the point at which I should make a right turn and went straight from that roundabout... into a very short block... two narrow lanes with painted arrows pointing towards me and the lane I was in -- unfortunately my lane was not for traffic going my way -- this short street was one-way -- the wrong way -- and I was in the bus lane. Okay, no problem, no traffic, just hang a light at the intersection and I'm okay again... Uh, nope... The only police officer I have seen on foot directing traffic is standing in the middle of that intersection... and he signals me to stop right where I am... and he comes over and we go through a long discussion, somewhat complicated by the fact that his English is not too much better than my French (he had a very thick accent and limited vocabulary)... No, he didn't give me a ticket, just kind of kept me there for several minutes, asking lots of questions (where was I born, what did I do for a living, why was I in Monaco, why was I in France, etc.) Amusingly, while he was busy giving me a hard time another car made the same mistake that I had and stopped behind me, waiting for me to move, then apparently realized I was not asking directions but had been stopped and, I assume, also realized it was a one-way street, and they shifted into reverse and quickly backed up the fifty or sixty feet and got out of there. The cop almost laughed at that and handed me back my documents and cautioned me to read signs and sent me on my way.