Travel 2018 – Monaco, Day 3

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Sunday, February 18th 2018 – Monaco

After some pretty questionable weather we woke on Sunday to blue skies, bright sunshine and just the sort of weather we’d be hoping for. After another very pleasant breakfast we took the lift to the top floor of the hotel and set off towards the Casino, getting side-tracked by the gardens on top of the buildings on the Avenue J F Kennedy. The sea was blue, and beautiful, and we were soon wishing we’d left our coats in the hotel. It was all very pleasant.

And just to cheer everyone up, the gardens of the Théâtre Princesse Grace were full of daffodils, in full bloom and looking very perky.

I was inveigled into taking some photos for some Russian tourists (as I tend to be hopeless with phone cameras who knows if they came out OK) and then we poked around the gardens behind the Casino, not an area we’ve ever been able to get into before. It’s rather lovely, although apparently it becomes an outdoor area of the casino in the Summer months. In February it was a pleasure to just stroll around, looking at the statues, and enjoying the views out over the Mediterranean.

I’ve just finished reading a history of the Casino (Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle by Mark Braude) so I had more idea about what I was looking at, especially the spectacularly wonderful Salle Garnier, home to the Opéra Garnier.

Anyway, it was very nice to be able to get up close and personal with the buildings. From there we surrounded the buildings, and then decided that we probably needed to stop at the Cafe de Paris for a coffee, if nothing else. As we approached the terrace, there was clearly something going on. A small choir of children was lining up to sing to some adults in costumes, and masks. They were apparently revellers from the night before’s Grand Masked Ball and they appeared to be enjoying a pre-lunch aperitif, before presumably staggering home to sleep it all off.

We settled ourselves at the other end of the terrace and enjoyed a cafe creme in the sunshine while we planned our next move. Our Hop On bus tickets were valid all day so we decided we’d go up to the old town and pay a visit to the Oceanographic museum, another attraction we’d never visited before (though we had walked past it a couple of times). However, first we were after taking a look inside the Casino (or at least those parts that were actually open before 14:00 when the Casino’s various gaming rooms open to the public). As neither of us are gamblers – what is the point, the house will always win – we decided we’d settle for the public spaces that can be seen for free. It’s a very handsome structure indeed and there are a lot of decorative details that reward closer study.

I think there are guided tours in the summer months so if you’re really keen to get more information, and to see more, that might be a better time to go.

Outside again, we walked north to the bus stop, trying to ignore the rather ghastly shops that have popped up alongside the Allées des Boulingrins, les Pavillons Monte Carlo. These resemble rather shoddy-looking geodesic domes if we’re being kind, or revolting excresences if we’re not. I’m really not sure what the local authorities were thinking letting them be built. They are really quite horrendous. The only thing to be said in their favour is that they are apparently temporary and should be gone by the end of 2018.

We sat in the sun and waited for the bus by the cute police station at the edge of the Boulingrin gardens.

When the bus came we stayed with it as far as the Palace, and got off to take a few photos, including one of the statue of Francesco Grimaldi, known as il Malizia (the Cunning“), who captured the Rock of Monaco on 8th January 1297, disguised as a Franciscan monk. He held the place for four years, before the Genoese dislodged him, but despite his failure he was the first if the Grimaldi’s to attempt to take possession of Monaco.

There was also a small scale version of the changing of the guard going on outside the palace, which seemed so low-key as to be slightly silly.

Anyway we walked along the narrow streets of the old town, and then along the hill top path, where I was amused by the sign suggesting that Leipzig is more beautiful. Now that may well be the case, but I’d dispute it on a sunny February afternoon.

The footpath is part of a much longer trail, the Via Alpina, which starts (or ends) in Monaco and ends (or of course starts) in Trieste, with five possible routes that can be followed. I suspect if you’ve walked the whole thing from Trieste it could be something of a shock to the system when you fetch up in Monte Carlo, which is basically a fairyland theme park on steroids! After 5000km through the Alps, it could be a bit much.

We made our way to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-Immaculée (also known as Saint Nicholas’ Cathedral after the earlier building on the same site). It’s rather modern, having been built towards the tail end of the 1890s, and consecrated in 1911. The original church was built in 1252, but clearly something new was needed.

It’s an interesting structure on the inside, with one source describing it as “in the Neo-Romanesque style with many features in Neo-Byzantine style”.

The Neo-Byzantine style can be seen especially in the mosaic in the apse. I was very much surprised by just how Byzantine it looked actually. More traditional to the Western church perhaps were many of the paintings, some of which seemed to be undergoing quite serious restoration (well that or someone was randomly going round sticking little squared of white paper all over the place). The most notable were those by Ludovico Brea, including this which would not have looked out of place in any medieval church in Belgium:

There is also a Pieta by his nephew, François Brea, though it’s not as fine.

In complete contrast is the startlingly modern Grand Organ. all 7000 pipes of it, which was finished in 1980, and apparently is decorated with plates of plexiglass which can be illuminated in a variety of colours based on the tone of the instrument.

After we’d finished with the cathedral we headed to the Oceanographic Museum, which is a product of Prince Albert I’s mania for collecting interesting things. He seems to have been a bit like good old Augustus II the Strong (or the “Augustus II the Ooh Shiny” as we tend to call him) over in Saxony some time earlier, in that he’d see something and have to have it. In Albert’s case it was less “Ooh shiny! Want!” as “Ooh interesting and new! Want!” It could I’m sure have been much worse… He did end up with a lifelong fascination for the sea and what was in it, and the museum is a fascinating reflection of that.

There’s a yellow submarine outside, and we admired that as we queued to buy tickets (you can get combined tickets for all sorts of pairings of museums, and the Hop On Hop Off bus tickets also get you a discount).

Once inside we decided we’d start in the aquarium on the lower floor. This was rammed with small children, but we were still able to move around and get a good look at the various exhibits. There’s around 6000 specimens living in a variety of tanks, which are designed to recreate the environment they would naturally inhabit. There are a variety of zones from different areas of the world, and it was good to see how the smaller visitors were engaging with what they could see. The aquarium is one of the oldest in the world, with the collection starting in 1903, when cement tanks were used to hold the specimens brought back from a series of expeditions.

In addition to the museum a lot of scientific work still goes on in Monaco. Albert himself  led 28 scientific expeditions, and then in 1906 he founded the Oceanographic Institute which comprises the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco and the Home of the Oceans in Paris, and I suspect he would be much impressed by the work still being done, including the nursery where they are breeding, among other things, seahorses, clownfish and rock salmon. Needless to say these little babies had a small child yelling: “Nemo fish!” at the top of his voice.

Anyway, it was a well worthwhile visit. As we emerged from the aquarium we decided we’d scoot up to the cafe on the roof, via the rather bizarre – and massive – Cabinet of Marine Curiosities, designed by Mark Dion. It’s very strange indeed and with each section you look at it gets weirder…

Anyway, we scooted up to the roof and sat in the sun, drinking water and eating ham and cheese crepes, while keeping a sharp eye on the gulls, one of which is apparently a bird rescued by the cafe staff. I still don’t trust them; they’re worryingly mad-eyed, and terribly territorial when it comes to food, especially other people’s food.

Anyway we then took a look at the gallery of specimens on the wonderfully old-fashioned gallery that is the Whale Room, one half of which is currently empty after an exhibition (Philippe Pasqua’s “Borderline”).

What we hadn’t been aware of was that there would be a sound and light show on the hour. It all got a bit Pink Floyd-ish in there for a few minutes, and it didn’t seem to much impress the children, but then they weren’t much impressed by the old specimens anyway compared to the live specimens in the aquariums. For adults it was much more interesting.

Anyway, we’d pretty much seen it all by then. I note that I haven’t mentioned the seven African spurred turtles that live on the roof, which they are trying to breed from. They were not very active, it being somewhat cold for them, but they were gently munching fruit.

Also on the roof was the one bit of Philippe Pasqua’s “Borderline” exhibition that hadn’t been taken down. The shiny shark on the roof was wonderful and I hope it can stay!

We were pretty much done with the museum now, so we used the various lifts through the car parks to get back down to the harbourside. Nowhere outside Monte Carlo could you possibly have such a shiny car park, and with a gift shop and restaurant halfway up/down it. I do like Monaco but it’s really not real!

From there we once more caught the bus boat across the harbour, and then I went for a slightly wobbly run round the Grand Prix circuit just because I wanted to add it to my Strava profile… And then it was shower, change and head out for a very special dinner at Le Mirazur, over towards the Italian border. But that belongs to another post.


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