Saturday 20 August 2016

Monaco is expensively cheap - Nice is nice - Vermiglia is heaven

I spent two days in Nice on my way to England to check out the reasons for the massacre there. There were several more killings by Muslims in Europe before and after I arrived.

Nice is enchanting, even though seaside resorts usually repel me, but I missed the opportunity to go to the public housing areas or talk to enough people about the massacre that had taken place so recently. Flowers piled up at the grandstand at a memorial for the dead. My waiter at the Hotel Negresco was traumatised by seeing children killed before his eyes as he served guests in the garden beside
the Promenade des Anglais

What did I expect to learn?  It seemed the France of films, books and paintings. Some women in headscarves. Not very many. I was told Muslims do not live in a specific part of town. I should have found out more but I was on holiday and it was very hot.

Nice is cheap to get to and its gracious early nineteenth century architecture is exhilarating. A great, quick and very beautiful train ride takes you along wonderful coast to Monaco, Menton and Italy.

Monaco I had been warned was awful and it is dull and ugly, slightly like Durres in Albania, but with less interesting people. A friend who grew up in Monaco told me it was
ruined in the 1960s by Arab money. Arabs in Monaco are rich, while those in the South of France are poor.

A nice, elderly British couple I met on the bus, who have lived there since 1968, also told me that Monaco had been spoilt. 

The husband had captained Aristotle Onassis's yacht. Just so you know, Jackie Kennedy, whom they only met once, was pleasant but the wife didn’t understood why Onassis could have been interested in her after Callas.

Their children hated the place and escaped at the first opportunity. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to live there, but Sir Philip Green says he likes it, not because it is a tax haven. but 'for the schools'.

As Logan Pearsall Smith said, it is the wretchedness of being rich that you have to live with rich people.

By accident I wandered into what is a famous hotel, the Hotel De Paris, old mahogany and money, where food in the bar is reasonably priced and, I am told, is wonderful. I didn't like the ambience on a sunny afternoon. As in Dubai, the action goes on in hotels. And in the Casino.

I had assumed Monaco was a relic of the Holy Roman Empire, like the long gone principality of Orange, but in fact it is the tiny rump of an Italian princely state that got lost. 

An old bound volume of the Cornhill Magazine of 1864, that I later picked up in a charity shop in England, filled me in on her history. Atrociously misgoverned and over-taxed by the House of Grimaldi, who were absentee landlords, the little country rebelled against them in 1848 and they were left with only the sliver around Monte Carlo, where dependants of the princely house lived. 

The rest of what had been Monaco ended up in France. The little rump of Monaco, independent of Sardinian protection by the time Napoleon III took Savoy and Nice, as his payment for enabling Italian unification, remained independent. 

The Casino became the Prince's source of income and he abolished taxes. A tax haven was born.

My great anti-hero Sir Basil Zaharoff, who rose from being a fireman and, probably, thief in Constantinople to being the richest arms dealer in the world, later bought the Casino and effectively the little country. He paid the prince a salary. 
In the Great War, Zaharoff owned the largest arms manufacturing firms in Britain, France, Austria and Germany and was knighted for his efforts. 

Sydney Reilly, on whom Ian Fleming modelled James Bond, also loitered in Monte and it figures in many Edwardian detective stories, as well as the famous song, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. I hoped it would have some charm left, but it didn't.

The old bits of the little town are Disneyfied and the whole place seems like Benidorm for money launderers. People watching is probably the best reason to go - if you want to see rich crooks and Romanian starlets. A rich Romanian friend complains that it is teems with politically connected Romanian gypsies. She nevertheless goes back and loves the place.

It has the attraction for the East European rich that, like cigars and cravats, it part of the Communist caricature of plutocracy. And the attraction of raw, offshore money has a sexual vibe for some women. It is nouveau riche, cheaply expensive. A sunny place for shady people.

Materialistic Romanian girls are decorative. That is the point of them. And most have fled Romania, but the species can still be observed in Bucharest. As they grow older and marry they can be frighteningly proper, but often remain fun and nice to look at. But people spotting is not my thing and, anyway, a night time activity. 

I looked round the hideous nineteenth century cathedral, glanced at the outside of the palace and was relieved to get back to the station, my work done.  

And took the train - again a wonderful journey - to Ventimiglia, on the advice of a friend who said that, because of migrants massing at the border, the  train station there seems like a Mogadishu slum. 

Not so. I saw only the few African street vendors who add unexpected colour to the scene in every Italian  town these days, like the black king in paintings of the Magi. I was told they stopped massing near the frontier a year ago, were somewhere in the woods and had rarely been seen. And there were only about two hundred of them. A couple of days later, though, the BBC published stories about the place becoming the new Calais.

Monaco is the sixty-second country I have visited, unless you count Transnistria, which I don't, or South Africa where my plane picked up passengers. Counting countries, an increasingly common hobby these days, like all collecting, is a form of madness. It's a middle aged male thing. Specifically, as Wilhelm Stekel said, it is a sublimation of the desire to possess many women.

Sybille Bedford said rightly that France and Italy are the two classics of travel. They really are and from Nice both can be enjoyed. But it is Ventimiglia that I want to revisit, not the elegance of the French riviera. 

Ventimiglia is quite wonderful, old, beautiful, unglobalised for now, not elegant, Italian. Decayed, slightly. It has style, which means it is itself. Unlike Monte Carlo.

Nietzsche, when he lived in Nice, hated the place except for the Italian quarter, which no longer exists and which he loved. I understand his preference. Italy is much more the real thing, even in our less interesting age.

Though with massacres taking place across Europe and African migrants massed somewhere close to the Franco-Italian border, I suppose our age is as interesting, in its way, as his.


  1. If you count Monaco you should count Transnistria. It has borders and a currency

  2. "like the black king in paintings of the Magi" - nice image! Caroline

  3. David in Banja Luka22 August 2016 at 14:52

    "... South Africa where my plane picked up passengers."

    Where were you travelling to/from?