Friday, 16th February 2018 – Vence, Monaco
And so for Lynne’s 60th birthday weekend away we found ourselves on a stupid o’clock BA flight from Heathrow to Nice where we picked up a hire car (after a certain amount of trying to battle our way through the chaos that is the building work going on at Nice). Supplied with a much bigger than expected Ford Focus we headed out onto the autoroute, with intent to stop off at Vence before going on to Monaco to check in to our hotel for the weekend.
We were going to Monaco because we hadn’t been for a good few years, and also because Lynne’s 30th and 40th had been celebrated on the Cote d’Azur so why not one more milestone birthday? And so we found ourselves in one of our favourite places in the world, in not the best weather. Still, that wasn’t going to stop us. We battled our way out of the airport, fought the inbuilt SatNav to a standstill and – eventually – worked out how to turn the proximity indicators off so the damn thing didn’t beep at me intensively every time I stopped in traffic! It was infuriating so it was a relief to realise I could make it stop.
After heading in completely the wrong direction for some distance, I found somewhere I could stop, set up my own SatNav and directed it to take me to Vence. 20 minutes later we were parking up just behind the main market square, the Place du Grand Jardin, just by the Tourist Information Office, in the gloriously restored Villa Alexandrine. The former home of Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish writer, now contains on the second floor an exhibition in French and Polish about his life, as well as the Tourist Information function on the ground floor.
The house itself has belonged to the town since 1988, but was in a poor state when the Polish Ministry of Culture entered into a collaboration with Vence to set up the museum dedicated to Gombrowicz. It took a while, but eventually the work got underway and was finally completed in 2017 with all four levels of the building getting a workover. It’s lovely outside and in now.
A lot of the work was apparently done by experts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, with 30 students freshly graduated from the Academy involved in the restoration indoor painted decorations and the outer frieze. There’s a conference space on the first floor, which was clearly in use at the time we visited, and apparently a belvedere at the top overlooking the place and offering views of the Baous du Pays Vençois.
From there we pottered across to the medieval old town and the Place du Peyra, which was strangely quiet given how stupidly busy it can be in the main tourist season. It was lovely to meander about and be two of a handful of tourist around the place.
In fact we seemed to be alone with the cats at one point.
It wasn’t the warmest of afternoons and we’d been up since 4am so we scooted into a restaurant that we first visited back in 1989 when it was the Pizzeria du Soleil (with a self-proclaimed 600 pizzas). Now it’s the Michel Ange, and it’s basic but good with friendly service and solid portions of regional cooking. Fine dining it ain’t, but the grand aioli I had was tasty, even if I couldn’t get close to finishing it.
It also came with a vast pot of aioli which I thoroughly enjoyed. Lynne had the ravioli with a beef sauce, that actually turned out to be a daube du boeuf complete with whole chunks of beef. Again, it was too big for her to finish.
We both laughed hysterically when dessert was suggested. There was no way we could even consider it. After that a walk was needed so we picked up a map from the Tourist Information office and headed off to the Matisse Chapel. We stopped off at the Roman column in Place Godeau first.
We also made an attempt to go into the Cathedral but as there was a funeral going on, that was not possible. We admired it and the newly refurbished Hotel de Ville from the outside and then walked on.
Eventually we reached the splendid Chapelle du Rosaire, designed inside and out by Henri Matisse. I’m now fan of modern-ish art but the chapel is beautiful, peaceful and full of light even on a miserable February day. Sadly, you’re not allowed to take photos in the chapel itself for “copyright reasons”, but there was a model in the associated exhibition that did a pretty good job of showing what it looks like.
From there we walked back down to the town and extracted our car from the car park and hit the autoroute towards Monaco. That quickly got interesting when we hit the boundary of the principality and got sucked into a system of tunnels that didn’t exist back in the day when we were spending lots of our time there. It was very sparkly (of course it was, it’s Monaco) and it went on forever to our confusion. I was temporarily even more confused when we were spat out at Portier, much further on than I wanted to be. At least from there I was able to point the car back towards the harbour side and the carpark I knew I wanted to be in on the Avenue d’Ostende. Parking in Monte Carlo isn’t easy unless you know where you’re going – luckily I do. From there it was a short lift ride to the Avenue J F Kennedy and the Port Palace Hotel. I’d messed up my booking with them in the first place, and they’d impressed me by sorting it out with minimal fuss and no cost to me. We were more impressed once we’d checked in and we’d seen the view we had from the fourth floor room we’d been allocated.
We were also quite impressed by the box of chocolates that was delivered along with a bottle of water.
They were followed a couple of hours later by a small box of two chocolates and the offer of a turn down service. It looked like we’d do well here. We unpacked, sorted ourselves out, and then went out for dinner with a friend who used to live in Monaco but has since moved out to one of the villages further west. We went to Cap d’Ail and the a’Trego, which was very good. A glass of Champagne and a platter of charcuterie downstairs soon gave way to a starter and main upstairs in the rather lovely restaurant space. The cafe gourmande was excellent too and we were driven back to the harbourside where we walked the last bit back to the hotel, admiring the floating gin palaces as we went.