Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Imagine some lumpy green hills overlooking an emerald blue Mediterranean Sea, covered with seven story rectangular crème-colored hotels and apartment buildings, all lined up in straight little ranks like soldiers atop staircase mountain ridges rising gracefully to the north and ending with the snowy Alps; then crown the mid-ranges with wispy white cloud scarves that follow the hilly contours, and you have Cannes, and pretty much every other town along the Côte d'Azur, or French Riviera.
Cannes is nestled in the Bay of Cannes and the Vieux Port harbor is filled with giant sailboats and yachts – mostly Brits and Aussies – and fish farms, supplying fresh fish for the local restaurants. 

The underlying geology is white Limestone and is mirrored everywhere you look by the architecture.  The ornate boxes with their orange tiled roofs cover every hillside like white and orange lava.  It is a very dense and vertical world.

The new home of the Cannes Film Festival sits by the water’s edge and stands out amidst the balconied boxes by flashing the very latest in cruise ship architectural design.  It's the only modern building along the beach and looks like a white ocean liner.
The town has a population of 70,000 people which swells to 200,000 each May during the Film Festival.  The town lives for the movies.
We had booked our very fist Royal Caribbean shore excursion in Cannes.  Each excursion we would be taking on this voyage involved a lengthy bus ride to our destination and we didn’t feel comfortable just winging it like we always did down in the Caribbean.  You see, when they said that the Vieux Port stop included Cannes, Monaco and Monte Carlo, what that really meant was that we got off the boat in Cannes, but Monaco and Monte Carlo were about an hour away up the coast.  And given that you absolutely, positively had to be back at the dock in Cannes before the ship departed at its appointed hour – 6:30 sharp that same day – we couldn’t play games and hope we got the transportation right.
So, we went with the 7-hour-long “Discovering Monaco and Monte Carlo” shore excursion for $89 per ticket, leaving the dock at 9:45AM.  And they guarantee to have you back on time.
Royal Caribbean provides a very helpful and informative Shore Excursion Guide that tells you what each offering will get you.
“You'll go to both landmarks of the Principality of Monaco, Old Monaco and Monte Carlo. In Monaco (the Rock) you'll enjoy a guided walking tour of the old town and some free time to explore its colorful arched streets. In Monte Carlo you'll see the outside of the world famous Grand Casino and get free time to explore the area on your own. The drive from Cannes is made via Nice and the very scenic Lower Corniche road along the coast.

Discover the paradise of the world famous Principality of Monaco. Following your arrival by tender at Cannes' harbor, your coach will depart for about one and a half hour's scenic drive to the Principality of Monaco via Nice. At the Rock of Monaco, an ancient wall city overlooking the sea, your guide will escort you on foot through the Old Quarter where you'll have time to explore the vaulted passageways or visit the Prince's Palace Square and the 19th century cathedral.

En route to Monte Carlo, your coach will travel along a portion of the Grand Prix Motor Race circuit to the Grand Casino. Arriving at Place du Casino in Monte Carlo after an extensive necessary uphill walk, your guide will escort you on a short walking tour of the area and give you free time to explore the landmarks on your own. Those wishing to visit the inside of the Grand Casino (only when this tour is operated in the afternoon) and quickly try their luck may do so on their own during that time (entrance requesting 18 years of age, proper dress code and a valid picture id). There are many snacks and restaurants in Monaco and Monte Carlo for you to make your own arrangements for lunch.

- The Casino is only open for gambling in the afternoon, and guests wanting to go visit it on their own (if timing of tour allows it during free time) must be over 18 years of age, properly dressed, and carry with them a valid picture ID if they want to gamble. Guides are not allowed to accompany groups inside.
- Lunch is not included in this tour but there are many snacks and restaurants available in Monaco for guests to make their own arrangements.
- Access to the Principality of Monaco for coaches is very strictly regulated and limited during most of the month of May due to the Grand Prix being held in town (Formula 1 Grand Prix on Sunday May 26th, 2013,.with trials the whole week prior). As a result no tour to Monaco can be operated from May 23rd till May 27th included, as tour buses are not allowed there. Prior to that, tours to Monaco can normally be operated but guests must take a public bus shuttle service operated by the Principality. Royal Caribbean International is taking charge of the extra expense involved, but can unfortunately not control the frequency or travel duration of that shuttle service which depends entirely from the Monaco public transportation services at the orders of the Prince’s government. All guests must be aware that there are high risks of large crowds, long waiting time standing up, and slow traffic at that particular very special time.”

The luxury tour bus was packed with mostly grey-haired couples, but the guide was friendly and knowledgeable and the sights outside our broad windows were endlessly entertaining and far different than anything we were used to in the U.S.
In Cannes we passed the opulent villas of the rich and famous all divided by nationality into the English section, and the Russian section, and so on, like a mini Earth for the fabulously wealthy.  Birds of a feather, and all that rot.
Leaving town we headed east up the twisty coast highway, paralleling the high speed train line toward Nice.  The area was incredibly lush with vegetation, supporting a rich diversity of trees and lots of different cacti – the latter being super popular as landscaping ornamentals.
At each crossroad there was a roundabout, usually with some eye-catching artwork in the center or snappy directional signs and the seaside towns were quite hectic, even on a Sunday; but unlike America, the drivers understood the lane rules and traffic flowed fast and efficiently.
Interestingly, the oldest towns were spread across the back hills and not near the sea, because in the old days, the attackers came by boat.  As things got safer, people moved down toward the water, and, these days, the real estate values along the Mediterranean are incredibly high – in the millions.  And when you buy a house, the value is pegged to the view – the sea, mountains, snow – the more you can see, the more you pay.
Every town we passed was exactly the same – crème-colored boxes – almost like the color and design were required by law.
The first big town we came to was Nice, sitting on the Bay of Angels.  With a population of 400,000, it is France’s fifth largest city.
We skirted the outskirts of Nice and headed due north toward the A8 motorway, climbing into the majestic Alps which still had snow on the highest peaks.

The big highway into Monte Carlo had multiple tolls ranging from 1.50€ - 2.30€ at each stop because the roads are privately owned and expensive to run, given all the mountain passes and long tunnels.  The motorway was well-maintained and attractively manicured with colorful cactus pots hanging from the retaining walls.  And I’m not sure how they managed to pull it off, but there were no backups at the toll booths.

We exited the motorway at the Monaco exit and found ourselves on a twisting, narrow road filled with tour buses.  Houses and small businesses hugged the road like a security blanket.  We pulled off at a busy visitor center above our destination and got out for a pit stop and to look around.

We were all standing at a magnificent overlook with a view of two cities.
 On the left, there was the New Monaco awash in high-rises – property values are sky high and space is very limited with the sea on the front steps, the mountains at the back door, and Italy at stage left.  Even from a distance, the city screamed, “MONEY!”
And on the right, sitting atop “The Rock”, was the Principality of Monaco, a sovereign and independent state perched above the Mediterranean Sea like a triangular fortress.  Monaco is the world's most densely populated and second-smallest independent state on earth, right behind Vatican City.  It has a population of 36,000, occupying a mere 0.75 square miles (485 acres).  It’s a sardine can existence for millionaires with an army of gaping tourists traipsing by your front door every day of your life.
Monaco was founded in 1215, and has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi since 1297. You see the Grimaldi shipping line freighters and ferry boats in every harbor.  They have their hands in a lot of different pies.

I’m a geology guy.  After living for fifteen years at the Grand Canyon, I guess you could say it’s in my blood.  For me, the bottom line is always the ground you are walking on.  So, here’s a little Geology 101 about the Mediterranean.
The African plate is riding north and relentlessly pushing against the Eurasian plate which sits under the Mediterranean Sea.  The pressure exerted by the African plate causes the Pyrenees, Alps and Carpathian mountains to steadily rise.  These mountains are made of Limestone, the remnants of long-gone sea critters that died and then piled on top of one another, making skeletal mountains under the ancient Tethys Sea.  The African plate came along and started pushing them up out the water, making new land where the people of the region now reside.  And in between the two scraping continental plates, there lie several small remnants of other planetary plates, like seeds caught between grinding teeth.  And this constant gnashing produces volcanoes, like Vesuvius.

Monaco sits atop the Monaco-Ville, a rocky Limestone promontory about 200 feet above sea level.  Only 6,000 of its inhabitants are passport-carrying Monocasts.  It’s like the world’s most exclusive club and gated community.  The rest of the residents service the royal elite and their friends, along with the hordes of tourists.  Monaco has zero percent unemployment.  And Monocasts enjoy a life span of 98 years, the highest in the world.  They also have the most expensive real estate prices.  But you can't buy a house in the old city.  You have to marry into residency.  Prince Albert rules the principality from his elegant palace and there are no income taxes.  The Great Recession never hit this area because there was no industry to feel the crunch and the residents are filthy rich. 
Monaco is strictly regulated.  The city sets a limit on how many tour buses can come in.  They are required to park in an expensive underground garage where their arrival and departure are monitored closely by computers.  In order to drive a car up onto the mountain and into Old Monaco you need a Principaute De Monaco license plate. 
Monaco is a fairy tale country that still worships Princess Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.  Chauffeurs pick up their employer’s kids at school in limos and many of the residents prefer helicopters to get around.  There is an immigrant service class that takes a bus into the old city each morning, does their job with a smile and a curtsy, and then leaves at the end of the day.
The first things you see when exiting the cavernous bus garage are a bank of red and white Coke machines.  Then you join the tourist throng, taking an escalator up to the cheesy gift shop/snack bar, which leads to another escalator, and finally to a crowded elevator that drops you at the top, right next to Jacques Cousteau's Yellow Submarine that is parked in front of the Musseu Oceanographique.
You can’t just wander around the teeny town, but must be accompanied by a guide, who takes you on a scripted walk, each tour group following the other like camera-carrying herds of cows.
It doesn’t take more than about an hour to walk around the city, but if you are incredibly lazy, you can hop aboard one of Monaco Tours’ red and white Choo Choo trains that haul the smiling tourons around the perimeter of the city like something you might find in some small Pennsylvania coal town.

Our first stop on the short walking tour was the church where Grace Kelly is buried.  This is by far the biggest draw in town.  People are absolutely enthralled with the Grace Kelly story, which I refuse to repeat.  Google it.
Then they take you to the Royal Palace which is framed by a beautiful square and surrounded by gilded royal buildings of buff limestone.  It really is quite spectacular.
Monaco has no army, so the French provide the security force.  And if you are really lucky, you might catch the changing of the guard each hour.
After they tell you about the palace, the guide cuts you loose to eat, shop, or just wander for about an hour.  That’s plenty of time.  Inna and I walked around the outside walls, looking down on the new city of Monaco where we were heading next.
The new Monaco is all steel and glass high-rise with glitzy marinas filled with mega-yachts.  Space is very limited so they use rooftops and below ground for things like play areas, garages, and roads.  They even have roundabouts in the subterranean tunnels, like an underground city on a far flung planet.  The modern Monaco wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but people will spend as much as 35 million euro for an apartment there.  Go figure.
Before departing the old city, we checked out the little gift shops along the narrow Medieval stone streets, the restaurants packed with tourists pounding drinks and downing bland-looking chow, and then our group met back at the yellow submarine, we sang a chorus of the Beatles song, and then it was time to hop on the bus, leave old Monaco and go check out the new city.
Monte Carlo (Mount Charles) is the administrative heart of the Principality of Monaco, has a permanent population of about 19,000, and is the home of the world’s most famous gambling center, the Monte Carlo Casino.  Surrounding the grand casino are the world-famous Place du Casino, the Hotel de Paris, the Café de Paris, and the Salle Garnier Opera House.
As we climbed the steep steps from the underground parking garage, we were greeted by black storm clouds barreling toward us down the coast.  A minute later, the skies opened up and everyone madly dashed for the front doors of the casino.  It was a total mob scene which I wanted nothing to do with.  Our guide had told us we had an hour before we had to regroup in front of the nearby Chanel store, so while Inna checked out the eye-popping casino, I went for a walk in the pouring rain.  I had good rain gear and it was warm; so other than the occasional lightning blast, it was actually a good time to be out and about because everyone else had run for cover and I was the only one on the street.
I checked out the seemingly out of place vineyard in the middle of the square and then watched the rich folk make their grand entrance at the casino in their snazzy Ferraris and Lamborghinis – mostly bored and arrogant Russian men, looking to throw their money around and show off their mean women.
I noticed a small park on the far side of the square.  It was the Jardins de la Petite Afrique (The Gardens of Little Africa), lined with humongous baobab trees and other African delights.  The park was empty and I felt like I was walking through the Garden of Eden.
There’s something about walking in warm rain that is very soothing.  The air smells sweet and everything seems to shine.
I strolled across the Avenue des Spelugues and entered an unnamed wooded park, following a paved trail that wrapped around the back side of the palatial Opera House, leading to a sculpture garden overlooking the angry Mediterranean Sea where waves crashed a hundred feet into the air and mimicked the thunder that was moving off to the north.
I checked out the life-size erotic sculptures adorning the well-kept garden as I slowly made my way toward the back side of the casino.  By now, the rain had stopped and I took off my poncho.  The sun broke through the clouds and the casino sparkled like a wet jewel.  There was not another person around; which was sort of weird because on the front side of the building, there were probably thousands of people snapping pictures and dreaming of being rich.
After rejoining the tour group our friendly guide led us back into the bowels of Monaco where tour buses were parked in diagonal rows and Chinese tourons walked in long, single file lines toward the light of day like animated zombies.  As our bus left the cavernous garage and climbed the steep hill out of town we entered the tunnel mountain above Monaco and came out on the other side of the rabbit hole.
Monaco is certainly interesting and attractive in a sort of picture postcard way.  But it doesn’t seem entirely real.  I can’t imagine actually living there even if it is considered by the world’s richest people to be the place to call home.  It definitely has all the bells and whistles for those who live to see and be seen, but it’s really just an opulent fish bowl.

We returned to the ship a little after five and the Serenade of the Seas departed Cannes precisely at 6:30.  It was already starting to feel like home.

Next stop:  FLORENCE


  1. Fun educational journey,Steve! Thanks! Hope to repeat the same steps some day on my own throughout this beautiful land!

  2. You brought back some fond memories of Monaco. Driving the coastal winding road with the ocean popping in and out of view was awesome. Finding out that wearing a jacket and slacks do not qualify as 'properly' dressed to enter a casino. Also watching an older French lady freak out because she happen to be in my frame as I filmed some scenic vista. Fun stuff and glad you were able to experience it too!
    Paul T