The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Steep Paths and Artificial Passages, or, Monaco Can Suck My Toe

Wednesday, April 29

While staying in Marseille, we decided to take a day trip over to Nice and Monaco. We took an early train to Nice, which was about two hours away. Our plans for the day were still a bit fuzzy; Daniel really wanted to go to Monaco (and I really wanted to get credit for visiting another country), but we weren't sure what route to choose. It was only a few kilometers from Nice, so we considered taking a bus or even walking (which we might have done had we been sure of a an established path) but in the end the train won out as the most convenient (or so we thought.... but I'll get to that).

We arrived in Nice in the late morning and walked around the old city center for a bit, then wandered down to the beach. The water was even more blue than in Marseille, and the waves rolled onto the rocky beach in a rather languid fashion, as if they couldn't be hurried. I don't think anything on the Riviera is hurried (especially the trains). It was sunny and beautiful, and I enjoyed just walking around in the lovely weather while he filmed things. We made no attempt to educate ourselves, and instead chose to simply walk around looking for pretty things.

As is our custom, we soon located the highest point, which in this case was the "Colline du Château" or "Castle Hill." The climb began with an uphill hike through the streets as we made our way east to the hill, then stairs, then winding uphill paths which got greener and greener. Before we'd gone up too far, we came upon a Jewish Cemetery. As this would have been an educational opportunity, we were a bit reluctant to go in. The wind was really strong, and the open space of the cemetery left us even more exposed to the gusts. As we stood just inside the gate, trying to decide whether to explore the place, a twisted piece of metal, about 8 inches long, suddenly smacked me in the ankle. It startled me but didn't really hurt much. Nevertheless, I decided that the spirits here REALLY didn't like us and wanted us out. For this, I would be called an anti-semite for the rest of the trip.

A little farther up, we found a man-made waterfall. It would have been a nice place to stand for a moment and look out over the beach, under normal circumstances, but the wind was so strong that no matter where we stood we found ourselves sprayed with water droplets. The climb (as well as the perilous escape from angry ghosts) had left me a little over-warm, so I was glad for the refreshment. I think Daniel was a little less pleased, because he ran away much more quickly.

We eventually made it to the top and took our obligatory Stunning-View Photos," all the while being abused by a flock of overzealous zephyrs. The poor souvenir vendors on the summit were having quite a time with their postcards and tchotchkes. We enjoyed the views a bit longer, then backed down from the summit. On the eastern side of the hill, sheltered to the west by the summit, things were a good deal calmer and we explored several other lookout points and alcoves. When hunger had finally got the best of us, we descended back into the town and bought a couple of less-than-impressive sandwiches. We were trying to be frugal that day, and it wasn't really paying off. At least we had free entertainment, because on the other side of the square there was an outdoor stage with a garage band. They were mostly incompetent, but they *did* play a rather interesting cover of "Paper Planes," which made me dance, so I liked them okay.

We made our way to the train station, where trains ran to Monaco every half-hour, unaware of the headache that awaited us. We waited on the platform for our train to arrive, only to have our platform changed just before it was supposed to arrive. Then it was late. Then they told us that there was a problem with the train, so we should switch to another train on a different platform. Then they told us there was a delay with *that* train, so we should get on the (scheduled) *next* train, which would actually be departing before the last train... all in all I think we sat down on three different trains (going up and down stairs to switch platforms in between, of course) before we finally found one that would actually transport us to Monaco. Daniel was a bit miffed, but as usual I didn't care that much, as I usually expect things to go wrong, and am even mildly surprised when they don't. Anyway, it's the South, so I don't know what he expected (poor boy wasn't used to continental Europe yet).

The train ride itself *almost* made up for the delay, because the tracks went right along the coast, and we got to see a lot of the Riviera from our window. I think the ride was less than a half hour, and we were soon deposited in a sleek tube of a train station. We wandered through a marble labyrinth for a while, and I think that was where my bad attitude started. I could feel myself starting to bristle at the idea of a country where the train station looked like the bowels of a resort hotel. We finally found the light of day, at the top of an elevator, no less, and promptly found ourselves disoriented. We had no map, and no idea of where the train station was in relation to the rest of Monaco, and furthermore very little idea of where *we* now were in relation to the train station, after our over-polished wanderings and the elevator ride to reality.

We wandered, uphill. We found a sort of map at a bus station. We wandered some more. The chief difficulty of Monaco is that it is basically built vertically; this means that maps are a bit hard to read, and the territory is even harder to navigate, both mentally and physically. We decided that going downhill was probably a safe bet, since that should, logically, take us to the ocean. Going downhill was not as easy as it sounds, as we kept having to go through layers of buildings whose affiliations were unclear. Private property? Public pathways? The uncertainty made me uncomfortable, and I kept looking over my shoulder, waiting for a shouting man in a white uniform to appear and chase us off with a broom.

I had this feeling almost the entire time I was in Monaco, and slithered around sheepishly in my worn-out chucks and urban-grunge-chic saruel (harem pants, which btw Daniel hated). I have a natural disdain for the grotesquely wealthy, and the idea of being looked down upon by people upon whom *I* look down galls me enough to fear a confrontation with their rejection. I loathe places that create an exclusivity based on wealth; the very idea turns my stomach. I suppose I can't hate them entirely, because at least they keep the rich locked away from the rest of us, so we don't have to suffer them ourselves. Monaco has long been one of their strongholds, however, so the whole place was littered with evidence of them. I couldn't get a decent shot of the bay that wasn't besmirched by row after row of blindingly white yachts. Oh well. At least I got to check another country off my list.

It was while we were on a jetty of sorts at the port that Monaco's fate was sealed in terms of my opinion. We were taking photos, and I was sulking about how *industrial* everything looked (concrete everywhere! straight lines and angles!), when a seagull decided to drop its payload on my cardigan. It could have been worse, it was rather small, but still. That was the last straw. With a pout affixed firmly to my lips, balled up my fists and marched, head down, back to land. I went a bit over the top with it all, for comedic purposes, but it really was the last nail in the coffin for any meager love I might have borne Monaco to begin with.

I spent the rest of the day following Daniel up and down hills. There were parts of that place that looked like an M.C. Escher drawing, and it was just about as logical. We wandered up to the Monte Carlo casino and Daniel took a peek inside while I sat petulantly across the street. When he returned, we found another, less-fancy casino next door. I hadn't ever gambled since coming of age, and thought it would be a cheap thrill to drop a coin in one of the slot machines, so we went in and tried to figure out how the darned things worked. We found several machines that said "5¢ play," but to our deep confusion, we could not figure out where to drop the coin in. Daniel finally found a slot and shoved my 5¢ piece in, only to find that it was somehow jammed, and the machine still wasn't working. It took us a few more moments to realize that you had to go to the window and buy credit on a ticket in order to use the machines, and furthermore the slot into which he had unknowingly thrust my hard-earned coin was actually for a credit card. As amusing as this was, I thought we should make a quick getaway before we were arrested for vandalizing a $100,000 slot machine or something. After that I felt a bit more upbeat, knowing that a) I could now say I'd dropped some coin on gambling in Monaco and b) we'd just jammed a credit-card slot machine, which was the closest I was going to come to sticking it to the man.

After some more uphill wandering in the sun, while quoting "My Fair Lady" at length and arguing over the happiness of the ending (me = for, him = against), we found the old quarter, the palace, and anything else otherwise worth seeing in Monaco. We'd finally found the charming part of the country, and arrived in front of the palace just in time to see the changing of the guard. We also found the church where Grace Kelly is buried, and ambled down a few narrow alleys.

We arrived back in Nice with just enough time to eat before our train back to Marseille, so we popped across the street for a bit of Chinese. It was greasy and filling, and kept us full on the long ride back. There was a little boy sitting in front of us trying his best to be as annoying as possible, and we played "I'm going on a pick-nick" until we were cruelly separated by seat reservations. Well tired-out by the stratified microstate, we slept soundly that night.


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