A trip to Nice - II - a short detour to Monaco

Although we flew to Nice, we were staying really close to the train station there. It’s a striking little building you cannot miss. An excuse to take a train ride presented itself pretty quickly.

Monaco is just 15 km or so away from Nice and is connected by a train. On our second morning in Nice, we procured the tickets and ran to catch the train to Monaco. The tickets were valid for a single use anytime during the day and had to be stamped with the date of the journey before boarding the train. Most stations in Europe have these boxes with a slit, into which you insert one end of your ticket for it to be stamped. The box at the Nice station had a tiny LCD, which on encountering our ticket, kept saying something in French about the ticket needing to be Gauche”. My mind wandered to my college days spent trying to visualise carbon molecules in gauche’ configuration during stereochemistry lectures. The wife, aware of that dreamy, nostalgic look in my eyes, and that of the train’s fast approaching departure time, panicked and grabbed the first uniformed being she saw at the station. The uniformed, officious looking being summoned his most derisive look, took the ticket from me, rotated it, stuck it into the machine and voila! the machine obliged us with the date stamp. Gauche, it later occurred to me, means left’ in French and all the poor machine was trying to tell us was to rotate the ticket anticlockwise by 90º.

15 km is a few kilometres less than the distance I once used to commute in Delhi for going to work one way. The train ride, at a little under 15 km, was the smallest train ride of my life. It was incidentally the prettiest one as well. The train runs along the sea. Pretty beaches and beach towns pass you by. It makes several stops on the way and each station it stops at, stretches the definition of what constitutes a train station.

It was upsetting to see that the glass windows of our coach were badly vandalised with graffiti and scratches. This made it impossible to take pictures of the gorgeous landscapes that unfolded before our eyes during the journey.

The beautiful views were cut short unexpectedly when the train entered a tunnel and arrived at the Monaco station.

We took an escalator to the exit a level above. On getting out, we wondered if we were at the right place. It felt like we were at an old citadel rather than in a city famous for its wealth, glamour and fast cars.

We kept following the stairs and shortly found ourselves in the city proper that we we knew we were visiting.

Wikipedia tells me that Monaco has the highest population density in the world after Macau. Given that India ranks a distant 31st on this list, it was fair of me to expect something akin to the sea of humanity that you’ll find at crossings near Howrah Bridge in Kolkata every evening. To my surprise, we hardly saw anyone on the streets except other tourists like us and a few elderly locals enjoying the crisp morning or walking their designer poodles. Either everyone was recovering in bed from their collective Saturday night hangovers or I was mistaken in confusing population density with crowd. The other telltale signs of this being a densely populated country were there though - the high-rise apartment complexes were built so close together that they all looked like part of a single, large super-structure. A plenty of boats were parked around too.

So yes, it did look a little cramped. Macau, Hong Kong cramped. But you only had to look closer at the nonchalance with which the expensive cars and boats were parked to know that this was a very affluent crampedness that you were looking at.

We weren’t carrying a map of Monaco with us - perhaps to find out if it was possible to get lost in the world’s 2nd smallest country. We walked along the harbour, but the walk soon ended near a parking lot. A staircase nearby led us to another level and brought us to a platform from where one could go swimming into the sea. This being January, the water was still too cold for a swim and a handful of people used the platform for angling. One side of the platform trailed into a road so we continued our walk there. The elevated road had azure sea on one side and a steep cliff on the other.

A cut in the road led us to another staircase which took us down to a small pebble beach. Small waves - their size considerate of the beach’s dimensions - crashed continuously on the pebbles. Not a soul stirred around us and we wished we had brought a picnic along with us. After soaking in the sound of the sea for a few minutes, we resumed our walk on the road above.

The road eventually got us to a huge multi-storied building that seemed to have been carved out from the cliff that been on one side of us. We almost turned back at this point but since a few other people were milling about here, we decided to explore further.

A combination escalators and elevators took us to what turned out to be the Rock of Monaco, which, among other important buildings, houses the Prince’s Palace of Monaco and the Oceanographic Museum.

A few meters from the entrance to the museum was a small terrace, shaped like the helm of a ship, complete with a ship’s wheel and statue of a captain. The illusion of being on a giant ship was very real.

The museum overlooked an apartment complex with a little private harbour packed with yachts.

The area around the museum was a small town in itself. We took lunch at a roadside cafe here.

The Prince’s Palace of Monaco was looked a little plain and unpretentious for a palace. The buildings surrounding the palace had more interesting façades.

A few minutes of directionless walking about, and we found the exit to the ground level”. Monaco is a city that is built on many levels and walking here can be strangely disorienting.

After exploring the royal quarters, it was time to walk around the Monaco of the common man. This being a Sunday, all the shops were closed - including the official Formula 1 shop. There was a touch of irony in the Formula 1 shop being right next to the Diesel shop.

The air around the streets carried a delicate fragrance, but its source eluded us for a long time. While walking close to the orange trees that lined most of the streets here, the wife realised that it was the flowers on these trees that caused everything around us to smell so sweetly. As if being surround by orange trees right in the middle of a city is not surreal enough!

In every European city we have visited, we’ve come across real-estate agencies that advertise the houses available for sale or rent in their office’s show window. The one agency we came across here, dealt in expensive boats and yachts.

I scanned the ads out of curiosity and the cheapest yacht advertised here was a thing called My Labrador that could be rented out for a cool € 16,000 per week. Across the road from this agency’s office, were parked about the only things resembling a boat that we think we could afford. Some tarpaulin thrown in for bad weather, a little food and fresh water and we’d be happy as a clam.

As the evening fell, we realised that we hadn’t yet seen a sunset at Nice. We scampered to find the nearest entrance to the station. The entrance we stumbled upon, clearly bore no resemblance to the exit we had used in the morning. A long corridor lined with mirrors, reminiscent of the last scene from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, led us into another corridor where the marble on the walls administered every visitor a Rorschach test.

Two pigeons at the platform were acting in a strange manner. One of them kept burrowing its head inside a small hole in the ground while the other lapped around it anxiously.

Before I could figure a rational explanation for their behaviour - one that didn’t involve me hallucinating - the train arrived and deposited us back at the Nice station just in time for a beautiful sunset.

The Monaco Grand Prix broadcasts on TV will never be the same again.

August 21, 2012