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Phil's Travels - Monaco (09.22)


Phil’s Travels – Monaco (09.22)

On Thursday 8 September 2022 at around 18.30 I had one of those, “You must be joking!” moments. I was in the midst of a four-day design marathon and a few of us had gone to the QS’s local office in the City of London for a few free drinks and a chat with the local team (good to see Matt again). On arrival we had an embarrassing 20 minutes standing on the landing outside the office because our QS was too embarrassed to enter a room full of QSs in the middle of some presentation. Our QS was definitely not a shrinking violet. Our man-mountain was better known for regularly shaking down lions on the savannahs of South Africa of a Sunday. And yet, when faced with a herd of gentle QSs our mighty Boer warrior totally lost his bottle. We eventually joined the party and it was during our networking that someone came up and dropped the bomb, “Have you heard? The Queen just died.”

On the Sunday following Her Majesty’s passing, my wonderful wife and I flew to Nice for the former to attend the annual insurance rendez vous and for the latter to follow up on some leads and work. Heathrow was packed and our flight was delayed because of the battalion of insurance folk armed with multiple wheelie-bags trying to board a full flight. It was very slow going, but amazing how many wheelie-bags can fit in a given plane. The taxi from Nice to Monaco was a pleasure (lovely driver), but still expensive (over €100). I swear there were even more underground roads beneath the Principality than the last time I visited (about five years ago). It is such a resourceful place and constantly seeking to maximise its real estate potential. It was swarming with cranes and busy building on its most recent stretch of reclamation (by Portier, near the Fairmont Hotel) – known as Mareterra, adding 6ha to Monaco, costing USD2.4bn and comprising over 120 new residences.  

Our hotel check-in was a fraught affair. They could not find our reservation and accused us of not having paid. So, my wonderful wife very patiently retrieved the relevant emails on her mobile and proved that we were indeed to be their guests for the next four days. How were we rewarded? They gave us a Seaside Room. One might think that this means you are on the side of the sea. But not in Monaco. In Monaco a Seaside Room means you are on the opposite side from the sea and that to be able to see the sea you need a periscope to look round corners with a telescopic attachment to bring the distant sea into focus. Needless to say, given we had booked a Sea View Room, relations between my wonderful wife and the reception desk deteriorated rapidly thereafter. In the end, and despite becoming the reception desk’s worst nightmare, we had no choice but to the keep the Seaside Room (view over lots of buildings and a circus tent, which turned out to be the indoor pool) as the whole place was packed with wheelie-bag toting insurers.

Even without the wrong room issue, the hotel did not fill itself with glory. In our room the TV kept cutting out, the door keys kept failing, the layout was awkward, the wardrobe hangers were plastic, the breakfast area was under constant bombardment from sparrows and wasps (leave your plate for a second and the whole lot was under avian attack, sit down to scare the birds and the wasps arrived!), the sun loungers (made from steel girders) amputated your feet, seagulls swam in the pool and ate any unguarded food left on the balcony, and room service breakfast was never quite accurate. On the plus side though, the windows (the world’s heaviest) were so thick no sound could penetrate and the balconies on the Seaside could deflect HIMARS (Vladimir take note), even if not gull-proof.

My Monaco mornings were spent working, on conference calls and/or in meetings. Afternoons involved walking about and exploring sites. Along the new look Larvotto Beach, the designers had installed a catwalk of Fat Cat sculptures (by the Philip Geluck). Some might say, “How appropriate!”, given the nature of many of Monaco’s residents, but I thought they looked cool. Below the catwalk, on the beach, were some very good restaurants, where we had a couple of very delicious dinners, including perhaps the world’s largest portion of carpaccio (the dish dwarfed my fellow diners’ already sizable pizzas, including my wonderful wife’s QEII creation, in honour of you know who, I just hope She actually liked ham and mushroom). One evening I had a lie down by the pool and despite the best efforts of the music system and nearby lapping sea, the bangs, yells and cranks from the massive construction site opposite could not be deterred or camouflaged. Pastor seems to be rebuilding the second smallest nation on Earth single-handedly.

One afternoon I gave the marvellously curious Maddie a quick guided tour of the F1 circuit and the Palace on the Rock. We walked a good few miles, saw many things, visited the Palace and took some photos of pilot Maddie driving a 1950s F1 car near La Rascasse. One thing I did learn from our Palace tour: Monaco Harbour is actually called Port Hercule. Why? Well, only someone so mighty as Hercules could have created such a perfect natural harbour out of solid rock where the mighty Alps plunge so precipitously into the sea. Great stuff. On another afternoon (not-so-curious Maddie chose the pool over me), I found myself alone on the F1 finishing straight and treated myself to a slice of pizza from a kiosk (which I ate out of the box on the finishing line). I waved my euro note at the vendor and the vendor waved me down to an automated cash system below the display counter – imagine a hybrid between a vending machine for payment (it gave me the exact change) and a real person for service. Way to go Monaco efficiency!

One evening we had a dinner at a nearby Thai place with my wonderful wife, her friend the effervescent and delightful Carolyn and the marvellously curious Maddie, under a robot bird (the bird theme was very curiously recuring, clearly not enough cats about the place, and I have to say the Fat Cats were no use in this regard either) and when the bird finally stopped chirping its robotic chirps, we were serenaded with some most excellent 80’s classics (which even the youthful curious Maddie enjoyed). Another evening we were joined by another lady of the insurance sorority, the sparkling Lady of the Schnapps (minus husband, sadly). Despite insurance being perceived as a somewhat dull profession, these insurer ladies were huge fun and we had a blast every night.

With the rendez vous over and the peripatetic wheelie-bag loving insurers thinning, my wonderful wife came with me to Italy. Monaco railway station is not a grand affair. It was very understated, small, exceptionally clean and underground. Compared to the glitz, glamour and bling overground, the station was simple and functional. We knew exactly when we had crossed from France into Italy (no passport required, thankfully, as I had forgotten mine in the hotel) – the train slowed to a walking pace, the countryside became wilder, the buildings older and more dilapidated, and where there had been no graffiti nor trash, there was suddenly an overabundance of both. It was like passing from the 21st century into the 19th in the matter of a moment. The admin involved to use the WC at Ventimiglia Station was positively Byzantine, with a permanent chap on guard behind a formal table loaded with tickets and a cash box. Very low tech compared to even the pizza vendors of 21st century Monaco. 

In Ventimiglia, we explored and viewed what had to be viewed. We ate at the best pasta joint on the Riviera (Pasta & Basta), in which we were honoured with four different kinds of homemade noodles, thanks to Andrea and our mutual friends. We shopped in the little market (best peaches in years) and headed back to the station in Mistral conditions. Autumn had seriously gate-crashed the end of summer that day (it rained all morning and was grey most of the day). The train journey between Ventimiglia and Monaco was memorable for two reasons. Firstly, it reminded me of the journey by Dawlish (the tracks are right up against the sea, only less violent than at Dawlish and for much longer on the Riviera). Secondly, at Menton, a full brigade of French Gendarme invaded the length of our train in search of miscreants and migrants trying to escape the joys of Italy. Back at Monaco Station, the platform was so busy we had to fight to disembark. Clearly the day’s day-visitors were heading out of Monaco and to cheaper accommodation out west towards Nice.

For our final night in Monaco, our hotel moved us (somewhat un-smoothly) to our much awaited and desired Sea View Room. It had the perfect view from the 9th floor, with the old Vista Palace in the background (now the Maybourne Riviera after a major USD100m refurb), and a huge improvement on the should-be-renamed Circus-Tentside Room.

For our return to Nice Airport and our flight home, we decided to go green and to take the bus. However, neither the bus timetable, nor the electric bus tracker, nor a bus driver, nor the nearby hotels were informed enough to tell us what we finally concluded after 30 minutes of waiting past the due time. Because of the massive construction project opposite our hotel and the resultant road closures, the 110 Nice Airport Bus was no longer running in this part of Monaco. So green went by way of Larvotto Beach and the Med, and we caught a taxi instead. At the airport they started boarding well before the aircraft was ready and we cooked in the sun trap that is Nice’s jetways (no AC, no shade, just lots of people sweating profusely in close proximity to each other). We circled the East End a couple of times before landing at Heathrow. It was very busy, again. This time with mourners and queue enthusiasts for the Queen’s Lying In State no doubt.

We returned to a somewhat thoughtful nation. A new Prime Minister, a new sovereign, Brexit, C19, galloping inflation and Ukraine. How much can a small island in the North Atlantic cope with all in one go? At least there was some good news, Ukraine had pushed back on the Russian advance, thanks to HIMARS and a lack of rocket-proof balconies. Our new PM and King were not the only ones with new jobs. Prince William had become Prince of Wales and Prince Andrew found a new role for himself as the high-profile Royal Keeper of the Corgis.

As the persistent buzz of security helicopters over our home in London fades away, a few final thoughts. As the most famous person on Earth, it was no wonder that Heathrow was busy and the streets of London packed with welcome tourists and dignitaries. Queen Elizabeth II was a phenomenon, the like of which I will never see again. What with all the travel and workshops, I missed much of the build up to the big day. That said, after a very poor 3/10 Eggs Benedict at 10 Trinity, I did happen to walk past the Royal Exchange whilst they were setting up for the Proclamation. I also managed a very last-minute quick walk around Green Park to see the floral tributes before the VIPs and Heads of State went to Buckingham Palace for drinks and nibbles and all the nearby streets and parks were closed. I never saw the Queen in person and so my fondest memory will be of Her Royal Highness taking tea and having a ball with Paddington Bear. Photo below was taken at Paddington Station where Elizabeth opened her Line just a few short months ago. Long live the King!

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