Sitting next to my husband as we drove along the sensational coastal road on a long-promised trip to Monaco (our first venture ending abruptly after a freak hailstorm crushed my dream and my husband’s motorbike) I felt as though we could almost have been Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, To Catch a Thief – I am, after all, a native Bristolian, as was Cary Grant, and my husband has beautiful golden curls that blow in the breeze, as had Grace Kelly. Luckily we were accompanied by a backseat chaperone, whose incessant whingeing ensured that any unnecessary and indulgent romance was duly stifled.
To Catch a Thief is one of my favourite films. After a wave of high society jewel-thieving hits the French Riviera, Cary Grant, a retired cat burglar, sets out to catch the villain and clear his name, whilst being pursued himself by both the police and wealthy socialite ‘bait’, Grace Kelly, who believe him to be back to his old habits. Although set predominantly around Nice and Cannes, certain scenes were shot to include the rugged coastline around Monaco, which were just as lovely for us this April as they were back in the 1950s. The Mediterranean was reassuringly azure, mirroring the sky above; violet wisteria, which grew everywhere, flashed out from behind bends in the road, surrounded by curtains of greenery; luxury villas perched jauntily, if slightly precariously, on precipices, determined to claim a sea view; the air smelled of lemon blossom. It was heavenly.
Although Monaco is tiny (under a square mile in size) it can be surprisingly difficult to access, and took us two attempts to visit. Do not plan a holiday to coincide with any of its glamorous spectacles. On the morning of our first essay a screaming Chou had resulted in our leaving the apartment a full hour and a half later than planned. Managing, somehow, to miss the main turning we ended up driving over the top, through the neighbouring French commune of Beausoleil, and arrived in Monaco from the opposite direction. It was a mistake that was well-worth making for the spectacular scenery – I believe that one of the viewpoints accessed by this route was used as the location for the film’s picnic scene, where Grace Kelly’s future home can be seen basking in the background. Monaco was bursting at the seams. We had not realised that an annual tennis tournament, The Monte-Carlo Masters, was underway and that Rafael Nadal was limbering up to play his match whilst we were unwitting competitors in a monumental game of our own, with the rest of the monégasque stragglers, in the search for the last unoccupied parking space. The first car park we reached was marked ‘complet‘: fifteen-love, Monaco. So was the second: thirty-love. This continued for some time. Despite hunting down every parking that we could find, luck was against us – there was no available space anywhere in Monaco that morning. We had no choice but to admit temporary defeat, mutter the usual grievances of sore losers and return to head-quarters in Menton, in good time for lunch and the calls of the beach. We took the scenic route back, first along the famous Formula One track and through Monte-Carlo, and then via the ‘Avenue Princesse Grace’ and past the country club. Game, first set: Monaco.
That afternoon, determined to step foot in foreign climes, we headed East and hopped over quite a different border, to spend a pleasant few hours paddling in the Italian sea at Ventimiglia. It was, surprisingly, an entirely different experience from that at Menton, with large waves and a healthy breeze. On a ‘soft’, cool day my husband might even have imagined himself in summery Ireland. We came back, happy and fortified, and ready for a second set against Monaco.
We laid our counter-plan carefully, studied the geographical locations of every underground car park* and set an early alarm. As day dawned the following morning we started out for Monaco, optimistically armed with a borrowed map and two cameras. We repeated our fabulous drive through leafy Cap Martin and Roquebrune, went over the top (as before) and entered surreptitiously through an unassuming, unmanned border. Where previously we had hurtled through a modern feat of engineering to reach the centre – a helter-skelter masquerading as a tunnel – this time we zig-zagged down on the surface of residential Monaco, apartment blocks teetering over us on every side and shutting out the sun.
Our plotting paid off and we parked the car on our first attempt, in Monaco-Ville. Game, second set: us. Our Chou’s little legs, the effective closure of the harbourside in preparation for the upcoming Formula One race and the impossibility of re-parking meant that, in a manner probably similar to that which so famously baffled Robert Frost, we had had the vexatious task of choosing between the casino at Monte-Carlo or the Prince’s Palace in the old town: “Two roads diverged in a [concrete] wood, and I – I took the one [no] less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. A walking tour of the charming vieille ville was our reward, and, aside from unintentionally misdirecting two American tourists from one of the two enormous cruise ships moored in the harbour (we had neither of us any definite idea of how to reach the palace except for a vague notion of “It must be that way” and, in our defence, they refused to wait for us), the morning passed without incident.
Our Chou, having just learned to jump, entertained passers-by with our slow progress and his joyous shouts of “Na, goo, gee…..Nup!” at each and every step we came to during the not-inconsiderable climb to the top (and back down again). The view was breath-taking, the sun fierce. The historic palace and surrounding narrow pedestrian streets seemed worlds away from the modern maze below. One quiet and unassuming passageway led us quite suddenly to the cathedral, which, begun in 1875, seemed curiously young in comparison to the twelfth-century origins of the palace. In the square outside a photograph of Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier III is still proudly displayed. I was delighted to see it there. Not wishing to try our luck by further testing our toddler’s patience, we decided, albeit reluctantly, to leave the rest for another visit. There was only enough time for us to bribe him into good behaviour for the homeward journey and for him to launch another charm offensive – this time a commentary on how he was a ‘lucky boy’ to be eating ice-cream at eleven o’clock in the morning.
Game, set and match to us.
*Mythical on-street parking is reserved exclusively for permit-holding residents.
Mots du jour:
Monégasque – a person from Monaco; relating to Monaco or its inhabitants complet – full parking – car park vieille ville – old town