Tuesday, October 24, 2023

France 2023 - A Quick Trip to Italy and Monaco

We are in the car and headed east just as the sun is peeking up from the ocean, giving us enough light to enjoy the spectacular views from the high road cut into the mountain sides. We are driving along the French coastline, the Cote d'Azur, towards Italy and we pass by towns below us - Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Eze, Cap d’Ail. Soon, a coastal city appears and we see skyscrapers, tall hotels, densely packed apartment buildings, and roads somehow weaving through at all - Monaco. We continue along the winding road and pass through beautiful Menton, which sits right on the eastern French border, then we drive through a set of tunnels and bam, everything changes! The French radio stations we were just listening to seem to have all instantly vanished. And now I can practically feel the hands and fingers reaching out from the stereo, waving in front of my face, as the announcers pepper us with rapid fire Italian. It is pleasantly jarring.

We drive into Ventimiglia and it looks different than the French towns - it's a little more beaten up, the people don't look quite as fancy, and we don't see any ancient buildings. It takes forever to find parking and we finally score a spot in what feels like the edge of town. It is raining quite heavily so we pull out our umbrellas and walk back along the coastal road towards the center of town. We pass an old Italian man who says “Buongiorno!" and we reply with the same. The shop windows display Limoncello and Martini instead of Pastis and red wine. Signs are in Italian. But the density of cars and buildings is the same.

An Italian café awaits us. We sit down and order an americano and a cappuccino. The drinks appear almost instantly and they are delicious. Makes me wonder what all the hubbub is with baristas in Canada, seems like the Europeans can foam milk in their sleep. We watch the Italians coming and going as the town slowly comes to life. Ana checks out a few shops and reports that stuff looks to be generally a bit cheaper here than in France. I step into a tobacco shop and note you can get a pack of smokes for five euro, which may help explain the proliferation of smokers we’ve noticed here and in France.

Because distances are short, we dip into Italy a bit further, to the larger town of Sanremo, and find a parking spot near the city centre. There we browse a market and I’m tempted to buy an enormous brick of Parmesan cheese for ten euro but I change my mind as I don’t want to commit to babysitting fromage for the rest of the trip. A street vendor see Ana browsing purses and descends on her with a huge bag of knock-offs and they do battle. He doesn’t stand a chance – she knows her prices and he’s asking way too much.

The restaurants are all opening for lunch and we decide on a small one in a narrow walking street with only a couple of outside tables. The chef appears and explains each item on the day’s menu with care and detail. I decide on the rabbit ravioli with mushroom sauce and Ana goes for the truffle tagliolini. The food is delicious and the red wine she suggested (actually, insisted on) goes perfectly with my dish. This is Ana and my first lunch in an actual Italian restaurant and I hope there are more to come in our future.

On the way back to the car, a small boat docked in the marine catches my eye. It has a fancy colourful sign like an ice cream shop, but when I get closer I see they sell fish cones. Their most popular appears looks to be the sardine cone, which looks just like it sounds. Hey, I like sardines and I like cones, but that combo just doesn’t sound that great. Thankfully the boat is deserted so I’m not forced to try it.

With our Italian sojourn complete, I point the car back towards France and we drive to Menton. Along the coastal road are a series of gorgeous buildings painted pastel yellow, orange, and pink. If I were to translate the palette of my most amazing dreams to reality, this is what it would look like. Ana and I walk through the narrow and hilly passageways of the old town, mesmerized by the antiquity of it all, the colours, the cobblestones, and wonder what it’s like to live here, in this medieval setting, with Amazon delivery. We visit the Basilique a Sainte-Michel and are stunned by the ancient beauty of it, so much so that we sit in a pew for a while to take it in. I don’t remember ever being inside a church this beautiful.

After cruising the fancy shops for a while and realizing this town’s specialty must be lemons (lemon soap, lemon deodorant, lemon gelato) we decide this stop must include a food break so we grab a table at the Chez Lina Snack Pizzeria and order a chorizo and jalapeño flat bread. It is deliciously spicy and cut into perfect rectangles to make it easy to share. A pack of near-elderly Americans sitting next to us have brought their corn hole game on extended vacation and they toss bean bags around on the boulevard. They are joined at their table by a few other English speakers - this must be the local ex-pat hangout.

The day is winding down but we have one more stop to make. Monaco is a tiny, two square kilometer city-state and hangs off a tip of the French coastline. It has been politically independent in various forms for hundreds of years and is a famous tax haven as it levies no personal income tax on citizens. Because of its unique properties, Monaco lands on the “number 1” list in many areas:

- highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita in the world

- second smallest sovereign state in the world

- most densely populated sovereign state in the world

- world’s shortest coastline

- highest GDP per capita of any country

- world’s lowest poverty rate

- world’s most expensive property

- has the world's most difficult Formula One racetrack

When Ana and I first met she gave me a small world Atlas in which we made a list of the places we’d like to visit together. At the top of the list was “South of France” and Monaco was always discussed as the one place in that region we needed to visit. And here we are. Deep underground in a parking garage changing clothes in our rental car. I couldn’t even get my pants off while sitting in the driver’s seat so I jump out of the car to switch into my fancy red slacks, hardly mindful of the cameras everywhere. Ana hides at the back of the car with the trunk open so nobody can see her change. High class, all the way.

The cool evening air smells of money and status and we walk right through it, towards the Monte Carlo Casino but are sidelined by the luxury shopping area next to it. Every single luxury brand I have ever heard of (and many I have not) has a classy storefront here. Ana may have wet her pants a little bit as she stood there dumbfounded, surveying the scene in front of her. The classy people walking around proudly carrying designer bags, the luxury Italian and French shops, the glass and steel condo towers, the expensive vehicles passing by. She admitted to me that this place makes the rich areas of New York look like homeless shelters in comparison.

We stride into the immaculate casino then stride right back out when we realize it costs 18 euro just to get onto the gaming floor and we weren’t planning on doing any gambling anyway. Ana finds a Zara store and buys a belt, just so she has something to show for this Monaco visit. I have a feeling she will treasure it, always. As I wait for her I see a fancy lady with pumped up lips, jacked up breasts, stretched out face, and fifty grand worth of clothing yelling at her phone for somebody to get his ass over here and pick her up. A short while later a sheepish man arrives in a sports car and whisks her back to Never Never Land.

There isn’t much else to do here besides walk around, so we do just that. The streets are surprisingly quiet. We even have trouble finding a place for a drink as nearly everything is closed except for the casinos and hotels. The waiter at Nona Maria brings two beers for us and we sit at a bistro table on the sidewalk looking and listening. An electric garbage truck passes by and the workers toss in bags from the street. One of the men at the table near us tells his friends how he met both Putin and Trump in Russia. This is an unusual place.

I drive our Peugeot back to Nice like I’m James Bond on the run from a villain. And still, suicidal French motorcyclists are passing me on the left and right. It’s a fun end to an extraordinary day. It’s not often that dawn to dusk affords you sufficient time to visit three countries.

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