Travel 2010 – Monaco, Days 1 and 2

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Wednesday, 13th/Thursday, 14th October 2010 – Monaco, Days 1 and 2

I’ve been missing in action for such a long time now that it’s very hard to know where to start, so I’ll make it simple and go with where I am right now and what I’m doing. After a long complicated summer, Lynne and I are now in Monte Carlo, at the Columbus Hotel, and will be until Sunday afternoon, when we fly back home. The ever present sound of building work is an old familiar one here as the locals continue to expand into the surrounding sea or dig massive tunnels underneath the rock, all in an effort to make this tiny Principality function more efficiently and make more money for the rich among its inhabitants. It occurs to me that I haven’t been here for getting on for a decade, and as we drove in from Nice airport, it became clear that while many things have changed beyond all recognition, the street patterns that we both used to know so well have not altered that drastically. We’re here visiting a good friend of ours, Skil Piccione, and while she originally wanted us to use her apartment while she went away, she is now staying put and has thus treated us to a room at the Columbus, which is far and away the most ridiculously generous things anyone has done for us in a very long time. I’m very, very grateful and intend to use the next few days to try and rest and recuperate after everything that has been happening this year, and to try and draw breath before the winter sets in and everything is dark and gloomy at home.

And that was how we ended up at Birmingham airport this morning, sitting in Costa coffee having breakfast (medium skinny vanilla latte, fresh fruit and yogurt and granola), while we waited for bmibaby to announce our flight to Nice, which duly took off and landed on time (and we even got the emergency exit seats), where Skil collected us and drove us to the hotel. Apparently we’re having dinner with her and Clivio tonight at a new place over on the old harbourside where we’ve spent a lot of time over the years. Looking forward to that, especially given how hungry I now feel. It’s been a long time since that coffee and granola…

And now it’s time to get unpacked, get changed and go out for an aperitif and a stroll around Monte Carlo and see if everything really is still where we left it.

Thursday got off to a bit of a bit of a bad start one way and another, mainly due to the intake of copious amounts of alcohol on Wednesday night. It started with a raspberry caipirinha each in the hotel bar, then champagne at Skil’s as we were introduced to her gorgeous Maine Coon cats, Cookie…

And Eden.

From there we went to dinner with her and Clivio (who was about to shoot off to Magny-Cours for a French GT3 race and so could only manage the one night) at le Virage on Tabac corner. The meal was tasty though the risotto was somewhat undercooked, which was a pity given how good the breadrolls and the cheese straws were, and for that matter the starter of…, but the kir beforehand and the bottle of wine with the meal was probably where we should all have stopped. Instead we came back to the hotel and had a round of mojitos, and then I topped that off with a martini, so frankly my sore head this morning was entirely of my own making.

It didn’t stop it being pretty uncomfortable in the gym, even when I failed to complete my training session because I managed to switch the treadmill off 20 minutes in and couldn’t get it to restart. I gave up at that point and retreated to the room to shower and then we headed down to breakfast only to run into Allan McNish’s Mum and Dad, who were there on babysitting duty. We haven’t seen Bert in about 15 or more years, but we all recognised each other which was nice, and we played catch up while we ate our breakfast.

After breakfast Skil had arranged to pick us up and take us to the Thermes Marins where we could sunbathe, swim, and in my case have another go at my run, using the gym there. It was all very civilised on the sun terrace overlooking the yacht harbour, and the pool was very pleasant once I got over the saltiness of the water in there. After a swim, a sunbathe, and a huge fruit cocktail (of kiwi, orange and apple) I felt almost human again, and actually managed to complete my run, before it was time to change and leave to wander around and check out whether all the parts of Monte Carlo were still where we’d left them.

Skil had appointments to keep so she dropped us off at the Café de Paris, and we took it from there, strolling round past the infamous Tip-Top which is probably no longer the disreputable haunt it used to be, then down past Loews (which presumably should not be called that anymore as the hotel name has changed) towards the tunnel. We got a bit side-tracked at that point by the Japanese gardens, which we realised we’d never seen before, so we veered off and took a turn over the various bridges, through what may be a replica tea house.

It was delightfully peaceful in there, with Koi carp swimming happily around, a turtle basking on a rock, and a tiny little duckling that had managed to get temporarily separated from its mother. From there we wandered through the tunnel (which always unnerves me slightly after an incident in the early 1990s with a Scuderia Italia F1 car and Pierluigi Martini – I’d not even been introduced to him at that point and there he was trying to kill me) and down to the harbour where we stopped for lunch and watched as a variety of disorganised looking individuals went on with attempting to build the track for the weekend’s Kart Grand Prix. To be fair, laying a cable across a main road using a glue gun when the traffic is still coming through as normal did seem a bit tricky…

Lunch was pizza, not something I would usually eat in the UK, but this was a proper southern French pizza with a very thin crust and not too much cheese, tomato and chorizo topping.

It was very good as was the fruit cocktail I ordered, which contained various ingredients like banana, strawberries and what the translated menu informed me were “cramberries”. Presumably on the grounds that there were a lot of them in a very small space…

Once we’d had lunch we struck out towards the old town, opting to walk up the hillside path instead of taking the soft option of staying on the flat as far as the carpark at the end of the harbour and going up in the lift. The old town is just as peaceful as always, with a lot of the touristy type places now shut for the winter, but there was plenty to occupy us as we ambled around, including the palace, the seriously unreal guards outside, and the views back down over the old harbour and over all the relatively new territory on the Fontvielle side.

We opted not to take a tour of the interior and instead made our way back via the alpine garden, where there seemed to be much excitement going on over a trout that was in the pond with the Koi carp and that kept leaping to the surface in between ever faster laps of the water. It seemed more than slightly out of place, but maybe it lives there normally.

From there it was back down again, stopping for a mid-afternoon drink at Stars’n’Bars for old times’ sake, and for the entertainment offered by the karting paddock which was being set up on the car park in the middle. The cabaret came in the shape of an Italian team, who had parked their truck successfully but were now attempting to erect an awning by committee. You would think they had never done it before, the amount of head-scratching it was causing them. When they finished we applauded and raised our glasses to them. And then we left just in case they thought it meant we wanted to buy them a beer too.

It was time to meet Skil and go back to the hotel but we did have coffee in a bar in the Metropole shopping centre, and ended up having a brief chat with Lucas di Grassi, who was also having coffee, with someone who was presumably his girlfriend. He said he was still a bit sore after his crash at the weekend but still alive, which was what mattered. We left it at that and wished him well next time out.

Back at the hotel we changed, rested for a short while before meeting Skil for dinner. This time she took us to a Capo Sushi, where the food was superb (though unfortunately the music was too loud for us – apparently Thursday night is disco night in there with a buffet provided too at a price the locals can’t resist. I think different music might have worked for us but the repetitive stuff being played just made us all want it to stop. It didn’t take away from the quality of the sushi and sashimi though, especially the eel and the scallops. With our eats ringing we retreated and moved round to Casio square, heading for Moods, a new music bar which Skil wanted to try. And that was a very smart move on her part as it turned out. Playing on Thursday was Robin Trower, who Skil hadn’t heard of but we had. We reckoned it would be good and it was.

We couldn’t get a seat (there are tables on the main floor) but we could stand at the bar on the mezzanine, which was great on several counts, not least because it meant we could dance, which blues guitar always makes me want to do. The band played a blindingly good set of around 90 minutes, and we danced and I took a handful of photos, the whole atmosphere being amazingly relaxed and good fun. It helped that there didn’t appear to be an entry fee either. The leaflets said your first drink would be 22 Euros each but that didn’t seem to apply when I went to the bar (mind you, 38 Euros for 2 glasses of wine and a G&T was a bit of a shock but in the end we worked out that it meant we’d paid just under 20 Euros per head for a terrific gig which gave us a bit of perspective on it). The band finished just before 11 and we left for Skil’s where we spent a little time playing with Cookie and Eden before returning to the hotel the long way round after we failed to negotiate our way out of the correct car park exit from the flats! Wearing high heels and with sore feet from dancing it was not what we needed but we figured out where we were quite quickly and eventually found our way home, where we slept soundly, undisturbed by mad quacking ducks and early morning helicopters (we’d figured out how to fly the aircon so we were able to shut the window overnight).

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