[Continuing the shameless recycling of my “Don’t Go There” series while I drink wine and sleep late, the Monaco installment was written after an October 2003 visit where we were made to feel like lepers, criminals and gypsies.]
I’d heard stories about the nonchalant, frittering of millions of dollars in Monaco for years. Though I’m not normally a supporter of raging materialism, I was nevertheless excited to see the effects of a little wretched excess in the form of fast cars, faster women and yachts so big that their helicopters had helicopters. I never imagined that I’d rate on the Monaco Welcome Scale just above gum on the shoe and just below an elevator fart (as if anyone farts in Monaco).
Our Monaco visit started out on a giddying high note. The first thing my hostel companions and I saw after exiting the lavish, marble festooned train station was a Ferrari that looked like it was about five minutes old. The guy apparently saw us staring because he laid extravagant rubber when the light turned green and gunned the car for a rip-roaring 50 meters to the next stop light. “Four inches” one of my companions muttered.
In the next five minutes we saw two more Ferraris, three Aston Martins and a sea of Mercedes and Porsches. It was flabbergasting and exhilarating. Sadly, Monaco’s allure wilted from there on out, sinking to tedious and then plummeting to tragically hateful with startling speed.
As we were quickly losing sunlight, we hurried to the top of the 60 meter high crag overlooking the two main harbors to take pictures of Monaco’s not-so-remarkable castle and laughably recent charm-starved 19th century cathedral which, if it weren’t the final resting place of Grace Kelly, probably wouldn’t even earn an honorable mention in any reputable guidebooks. Anything that is less than 200 years old in Europe might as well have been built yesterday. After you’ve seen countless breathtaking, 800 to 1,000 year old structures in multiple European cities, seeing a 200 year old dull dud of a cathedral is about as extraordinary as seeing a four hour old bagel. This “medieval” part of Monaco was very anti-climactic, but the panoramic views of the harbors and million dollar yachts from the top of the hill at dusk momentarily redeemed Monaco’s repute.
Having exhausted the “sights” around the castle in exactly seven minutes, we limped across town to Monaco’s famous Monte Carlo casino. Rumor had it that the casino had a dress code that could tighten the asshole of an aristocrat. After a long, hot, punishing day of touring the French Riviera by train and foot, my extravagantly hungover companions and I looked fractionally better than a pack of dogs with mange. We were, of course, dressed like backpackers. Most of us were admittedly in need of a county jail-like hose down after we’d spent four hours earlier in the day completely saturated in sweat, impulsively climbing a spirit-crushing mountain rather than patiently wait 45 minutes for a bus to take us up. That compounded with all of us being recently alcohol-poisoned, dehydrated and sleep deprived, we were probably the scariest looking people in town.
I was the worst of the group, in my usual ratty shorts and a t-shirt that hadn’t been washed in two weeks. My appearance was drawing constant stares on the streets, which isn’t that unusual because I got me an ass that don’t quit, but these stares had an unfamiliar, repellent edge to them. Rather than the longing “may I please fondle your buttocks?” allusions that I’m accustomed to, these looks were more akin to “the Prince’s illegitimate child escaped from the dungeon again.”
Needless to say, the Monte Carlo management and security goons trained their telescopes on us while we were still halfway across the harbor and started to mount a joint contingency effort to keep us off the casino premises at all costs.
The first hurdle was the dress-code. We skirted this easily as they had forgotten to throw a cloth over a sign saying that the code didn’t actually go into effect until after 9:00PM. Then they demanded that we hand over our bags and passports to the baggage-check people for some bizarre reason. The bags were no problem, but I was not in possession of my passport at the time, competitive pick-pocketing being what it is in the south of France, so I was refused entry and I wasn’t all that disappointed. The others coughed up their passports and were allowed to move to the next security ring within the casino by the increasingly reluctant and desperate guards.
About 30 seconds later, they returned. Apparently, in a final, panicked fit of organized discouragement, the guards insisted that everyone pay 10 euros (US$12.50 in 2003) each to simply enter the casino. For the typical budget backpacker, 10 euros can fuel about four grocery store meals and none of the others were going to part with that kind of dough just to take a momentary look inside a mostly empty casino. They begged and pleaded and the most audacious member of the group actually tried to jump into the doorway to just get a peek, but the guard was ready for her and dove in front of her like a Secret Service agent taking a bullet for the president to keep her from even getting a glimpse.
On the way out there was a small altercation at the baggage-check desk. The three women manning the counter first refused to speak English as everyone collected their bags, though we had just conversed with them in English a few minutes earlier. Then they started to conspicuously deride the hiking boots worn by the female member of our group. Even though it was all done in French which none in our group understood, their pretentiousness clearly showed through their looks and gestures. Picture three women who are, let’s not forget, doing a job normally occupied by a single, teenaged, half-wit, coated in thick layers of makeup, emitting a near visible cloud of perfume stench, dressed as if they were heading out to a royal wedding reception and clearly feeling very majestic in their illustrious and self-important positions as bag check girls in the richest city in Europe. They were the personification of Cinderella’s three evil sisters, except with more eyeliner and no agreeable people anywhere in their lineage. We were lower than regurgitated worms in their eyes.
I couldn’t help but notice that while these women were gripped with a passionate fixation over things like foot apparel, they were obviously less concerned about other customarily essential details in life, like oral hygiene. One of the women had quite obviously not seen a dentist since her permanent teeth came in and she had a smile that could make a puppy wet itself.
After being brusquely shooed out of the Monte Carlo we happened by a small exhibit of classic race cars that appeared to be on display in the street for no reason other than bragging rights. Perhaps Prince Rainier had once crashed them. Two guys in our group happened to be zealous car enthusiasts and they examined the cars closely. The entire time that this was going on a street cop hovered almost preposterously close to us, with one hand alertly poised on his weapon in event that one of us were to dare breath on the vehicles in an unacceptable manner. Feeling increasingly put out, we decided to move on, muttering caustic remarks at conspicuous volume levels.
Rumor had it that Monaco’s Musée Océanographique had 90 seawater tanks and was the first and last word in European aquariums, but our escalating cynical attitude compounded with the ambitious 11 euro entry fee precluded our desire to drop additional money into the ballooning Monégasques economy.
In the space of less than two hours (closer to one hour if you subtract the walking time between the castle to the casino), we had exhausted all that supposed, mighty Monaco had to offer. With absolutely nothing else to keep us occupied, our unwillingness to drop five euros on a hotdog at the harbor fun park and the general unwelcome vibes we were being subjected to, we opted to make a prudent run for the train station.
We retreated back to Nice feeling defensively ornery and spent the rest of the night drinking $3 wine and trash-talking the soulless people and contrived atmosphere of rude, overpriced, contemptuous, materialistic, boring, pointless Monaco.
Don’t go to Monaco.