I should love the French Riviera.
I should be awestruck by the exotic blue water and the wallpaper of colourful buildings etched into the hillside above. Should be envious of the tanned bodies basking in the illusive sun, and the plumped lips poised over Pina Coladas. I should be celebrating the rows of little bars, gracing the water’s edge. Wallowing in the exotic playground of the rich and famous; in my presence among the stars.
Instead, I find myself skulking down the Menton promenade, wallowing in my abhorrence of all things ‘big city’ (or medium city as the case may be). Perhaps it’s the change of pace from the past six weeks, or maybe the legacy of last night’s Airbnb disaster that left us bed-less, wifi-less and directionless after twelve hours on the road. Maybe it’s my sudden concern for safety – memories of pick pockets and drink spikers jolting back. Whatever it is, I look out at the hideous grey beach and struggle to see beyond the beautiful people . . . hiding insecurities bigger than my own behind forty foot yachts and Maseratis . . . the wannabes lying shoulder to shoulder on the pebbled shore, gazing out at the pretty blue dumping ground beyond. I stare up at the imposing mountains over the city and start counting the hours ‘til I’m out of here.
Needless to say, when Colby suggests a day trip into Monaco, I am less than enthusiastic. We’d left behind our own material wealth in search of something bigger, so the last thing I want to do is wander around ogling the possessions of others, unwittingly feeding their over-inflated egos.
My bad attitude continues as the bus winds down the hair-raising switchbacks, jerking and swerving and narrowly missing the fearless drivers who fly up in the opposite direction. I stare absently down at the bustling centre of Monte Carlo, drawing closer with every turn, a thin panel of guardrail and a long drop the only things separating us from it. I have little desire to spend the day wandering around a haven of pretentious high flyers . . . and paying exorbitant prices for the pleasure.
But from the moment I step off the bus, my prejudiced resolve begins to flail. Monaco is the second smallest, and most densely populated country in the world, yet there is an infectious vibe that resonates through the pristine streets, and the peaceful green park which funnels us towards the casino and opera house steals my world-hating lament away. Mesmerised by the intricate façade of the hundred-year-old Casino, I shuffle past the line of armed guards, loosening my grip on my handbag (and my prejudgements) just a little. With millionaires making up almost 30% of Monaco’s population, it’s little wonder it has one of the highest police presences in the world.
A red Lamborghini rolls into the cobbled plaza and I glance back, half expecting to be pulled aside and pointed roughly toward the pleb district, but we garner not the slightest attention. Tourists sporting North Face jackets and hiking boots pose for selfies in front of the calved marble entrance, as women in high end ball gowns saunter past on the arms of their partners. People picnic on the manicured lawns looking out on the marina, nibbling on pre-packaged salads and baguettes. A dog shits in the flower bed. There is nothing pretentious about this place at all. It is simply wealthy, clean and safe.
The promenade of five star hotels and VIP clubs drops dramatically into the sea, caught by the marina, it’s wealth of luxury yachts sparkling like gold in the afternoon sun. A line of ‘rich kids’ in tiny sailing boats is towed out between the million dollar launches – a far cry from Auskick and Nippers. Every pen is occupied, crews hard at work polishing their charges to perfection for the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix and for a moment I pause to admire the skippers who manoeuvre these million dollar vessels into millimetre perfect position.
Eyes glued to his phone, Colby gives commentary to it all. “This one’s owned by a Russian billionaire . . .” he says, nodding towards a hideous timber grain veneer. “ . . . made his fortune from reading glasses.”
A moment of enchantment flickers across my eyes. This is so far from how I’d ever want to live, but for a moment I yearn for a taste. One day. Maybe just for a while. Fuelling the fantasy, we press our faces up to the real estate window and I’m impressed to learn that I could pick up a two-bedroom apartment for little more than I’d pay for a penthouse in the centre of Perth. Even the cafes in central tourist-ville comfortably compete with Perth prices.
Solace from the constant hubbub comes in the form of several parks scattered throughout the city, my favourite the Japanese garden on the edge of town. Flanked on one side by high rise buildings, the Mediterranean coast on the other, almost two acres of prime real estate are dedicated to the sanctuary. Having paid nothing to enter, sitting amongst the perfectly trained bonsais is a meditation, the stillness broken only by the shrill whistle of a guard warning wayward visitors to stay on the path.
Monte Carlo may have it’s share of penis extensions and half-baked cod faces, but I rank it among one of the most pleasant European cities I’ve visited. It has somehow dissolved my sad bout of world-hating and filled me with a fresh hunger. But I’ve moved on from my short-lived fantasy of living the high-life. I stare out the bus window and smile as Monte Carlo, and Monaco, shrink slowly back to the world at the bottom of the mountain.