posted 10 March 2005 (updated 17 March 2005)

We've been to Monaco several times now and are still far from having even cursorily visited all its permanent tourist attractions, let alone all the festivals, rallies, sporting events, and whatnot. (We deduce there was some sort of classic-car show over there this week, because a steady stream of such vehicles has been passing through Villefranche--a monster 1950's Cadillac with fins, an early 1960's Dodge (like one of the heaps I learned to drive in), a Plymouth Prowler (purple, of course), and others I didn't recognize.

Monaco consists of several municipalities, all snugly contiguous, and all pretty solidly modern urban high-rise. The parts we've spent most time in are those wrapped around the large harbor (the Port Hercule)--Monaco City on the western side and Monte Carlo on the eastern. Monaco City includes the prince's palace, the cathedral, and the Museum of Oceanography; Monte Carlo has the Casino(s) and all the good restaurants. In between, in the harbor, are some of the largest yachts in the world--David has been to sea for weeks at a time (with full crew and five other investigators) in oceanographic vessels smaller than these boats. Some are from London, but most are registered either in Monaco or in the Cayman Islands. The principality's many museums--antique cars, dolls and automatons, Napoleonic history, Monegasque history, naval history, coins and stamps, the zoo, the botanical garden, the Japanese garden--are scattered all over.

CasinoThe casino, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, stands out, with its ornate stone construction and green bronze dome, from the modern concrete/chrome/glass/steel architecture of its surroundings. Like most of the the casinos of the Riviera, it includes a theatre/opera house as well as gambling halls. They charge 10 euros just to go into the gambling areas, and signs all over the place warn that all hats, coats, cameras, cell phones, etc. must be checked at the door, but on a rainy Saturday afternoon in February, nobody was paying any attention. The rooms are vast and ornate, but I was actualy surprised at how small the gambling operation is--half a dozen roulette tables (two in use), a few blackjack tables (none in use), and some tables for what I think must have been baccarat/chemin de fer (one in use). James Bond was not there, so far as I could tell. The croupiers were the only people in evening dress, and the only people gambling were serious types in ordinary street clothes. They were all keeping careful notes on little scorecards--one even had an elaborate system involving map tacks. We watched the action for a while but often couldn't tell who won or lost or why and could see little point to playing--no skill seemed to be involved except perhaps in remembering what cards had already fallen in blackjack (and maybe in baccarat, though it's played with six decks--maybe that's why they keep notes). A small room off the lobby had some slot machines for people who didn't want to pay the admission to the gaming rooms proper, but a much larger room inside had many, many kinds of slots. We thought the modern blinking, flashing, electronic, neon machines clashed rather badly with their red-velvet-and-gold-leaf surroundings.

On the esplanade beside the harbor is a large outdoor swimming pool, surrounded by bleachers--you can tell that's what it is by the tall, handsome diving tower--but when we've been there, it's been serving as a skating rink; it can apparently be heated or cooled, as needed. Children and Monegasque citizens skate free; others pay a fee. Skates are available for rental. (Monegasque citizens get lots of breaks. E.g., they don't pay taxes. Their rents are subsidized and/or regulated so that they pay about 1/10 of what foreigners do for the same apartments. There are only four or five thousand of them, so they probably all know Prince Rainier personally.) Over the hills above the city hangs a semipermanent cloud of "paragliders," i.e., people using those rectangular stunt parachutes as hang gliders. The principality's only golf course (built in 1911 in response to "friendly pressure" from the local British colony and since upgraded to championship quality) is actually outside the borders, in France, because they didn't have room (let alone anyplace flat enough) for one. Even as it is, the aerial photo on its website makes it look as though it's on about a 45-dgreee slope (you know, two strokes to the green on the 600-yard downhill 12th hole; 14 strokes to get back up the 200-yard 13th). And we haven't even asked how much they charge.

Like most places around here, Monaco is steep. In Monte Carlo, many public elevators have been installed to move pedestrians between streets separated by 20 feet horizontally but 100 feet vertically. After we parked in the vast underground garage below Monaco city, we rode up in several elevators and on several escalators to reach ground level outside the Museum of Oceanography. Prince Albert I (he died in 1922; I figure him for Rainier's grandfather) was quite a respectable oceanographer in his own right and in the course of his long life outfitted and sailed the world on several oceanographic vessels at his own expense. He founded the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco (still going strong) and built the magnificent Oceanography Museum to house his collections. The building itself is worth a visit, but the museum is also fascinating, and the aquarium is among the best I've ever visited. They had to throw us out at closing time. Currently, the museum features an excellent exhibit on the life and science of Albert I, which includes many 3-D photos and movies taken during his voyages. There are no restrictions on photography, so David blasted away constantly with the digital camera, collecting photos for use in his course. As far as I know, the only blot on the institution's record is that the invasive exotic "killer alga" currently taking over the Mediterranean is probably an escape from its aquarium, although the museum has always denied it.

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