Thursday, 22 April 2010
So on a wonderfully sunny day, we hopped on a train from Nice and within half an hour we were there. Emerging from the station we were immediately reminded that it was indeed Grand Prix time, with temporary stands being set up all around the major streets and foreshore. The big race was only one week away and there was plenty of activity to be observed. We immediately decided to walk the racetrack, something we were very familiar with from those telecasts, only to find that what television doesn’t quite convey is the steepness of the terrain. Our admiration of those drivers went up a notch when we saw first hand the narrowness of the streets and the tightness of the curves. We headed past the famed Casino Royale and down the hill toward the coastline and the familiar motorway tunnel that runs parallel. As is tradition at this time of the year in Monaco, they hold a Classic Car Grand Prix as a warm up event for the Formula One race so we were able to walk down toward the pits to watch the owner/drivers preparing for their weekend race. Unlike for the F1’s, the public are quite welcome and despite the fact that we are not at all ‘petrol heads’ we quite enjoyed inspecting their wonderfully expensive toys as if we knew something about racing.
Over at the marina it is similarly busy, with boats from all over the world taking up prime positions. Well, they were not really boats in the normal sense, more like floating mansions; often several stories high and complete with jacuzzi. Each seemed to have a large crew either polishing the brass or hosing down the deck, with many from Australia, judging by their accents. The owners and guests were easy to distinguish by their white trousers, suntans and lavish display of jewelry. This seemed to be quite a common look amongst the ‘beautiful people’ of Monaco and as we walked around, admiring the countless exotic cars, it all seemed disturbingly perfect. There just didn’t seem to be too many ‘everyday’ folk living here, everyone appeared to have either just stepped out of a glossy magazine or off the set of a James Bond movie!
For a broader vantage point, we again headed upward, following a rocky ridge to one of the highest spots in Monaco that provides the best view of the city and marina. Not surprisingly it was the location of the Royal Palace, which is not an overly grand building, but nonetheless had all the usual trappings, including large cannons and immaculately dressed guards complete with sky blue pith helmets. Here the main parade square was lined with traditionally styled colonial buildings that appeared to have been painstakingly restored. Upon closer inspection, there seemed to be a sense of ‘manufactured oldness’ about them that gave the scene an almost theme park quality. Much like many of the local residents, it all looked a little too perfect to be true. Although being quite beautiful in itself, we felt that the area surrounding the Palace didn’t look historically believable. Perhaps, the angles were simply too straight, the windows were too much in alignment or that there wasn’t a crack to be seen! Monaco had turned out to be pretty much what we thought it might be, a very beautiful and picturesque playground for the rich and famous! However, what had really surprised us was our reaction to it. Rather than being envious of their lifestyle, we felt distinctively out of step with it all. It was not just the obvious wealth, but rather the apparent superficial nature of life there. To us it had tended to lack much of the character we had found in many of the towns in France. While Monaco appeared to be perfect, the truth is that the rest of the world isn’t. We had realized that sometimes it is diversity, age and the imperfections of life that create the unfathomable characteristics that make a place unique. It's something that simply can’t be bought.
Tuesday, 20 April 2010
The airlines are grounded due to the huge volcanic eruption in Iceland, but that won’t affect us, as we are off to Toulouse by train. Toulouse, or to be more specific the nearby town of Albi, is the birth place of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who has been the topic of many a history lesson in my art classes. Leaving Montparnasse station it only takes us a few hours to arrive at the ‘pink city’ as Toulouse is often referred, due to the frequent use of pale red terracotta brickwork on most of it’s early buildings. One of the most prominent buildings is La Basilique Saint Sernin, which is conveniently opposite our hotel and provides a spectacular view particularly at night when it is lit up like a Christmas tree, which just happens to be similar to it’s shape. There are many other wonderful buildings here that date back to the eleventh and twelfth century. The city itself is a lovely place to wander the narrow lanes that lead to a wide flowing river. There you can see structures such as Pont Neuf and Dome De La Grave, which are very reminiscent of Italy…great for drawing. There is also Foundation Bemburg, which is a fabulous private eclectic collection of art, housed in a beautifully restored residence. Our aim is to eventually get to visit the town of Albi but although we have dodged the plane disruptions we can’t avoid a typically French phenomenon…the train strike! This, compounded with me catching a heavy cold, sees us restricted just to Toulouse, but that is fine as it’s a nice place to just sit in the plaza (or place) and watch the world go by.