What better way to start August than with a trip to Monaco? Happily it is just a 20-minute train ride from Nice to the principality. I have been there before when I was about seven years old but unfortunately, rather like my last year at university, I don't remember an awful lot about it. I mention my university days because I have just found out today that Hedonism, the old nightclub we used to frequent on Monday nights (student nights, beer prices that would make the residents of Nice and Marseille's eyes water) has been damaged by a fire. I don't think it was a nightclub anyway, but now it looks like it won't be very much of anything. It's virtual gutting is....well....gutting as the place has so many humorous and frankly unprintably embarrassing memories. Still it has put me back in touch with a couple of old friends via Facebook. But there we go......
Back even further in the mists of time and to my 1980's trip to Monaco then. My dad tells a story about how he carried me and my chair up 4,875 steps to get to somewhere or other only to find that there was a lift that he could have used. I have some sympathy with him about how this could have happened as we will see later. For now I'll just explain that there are a series of lifts which help people with mobility problems get around Monaco, which is not so much hilly as utterly mountainous. You might think that this is rather more fun on the way down to the marina than it might be on the way back up to the train station. Not necessarily. Stopping yourself careering down the steep hills is an equal physical challenge and a good deal tougher on the hands. I do have brakes, but as most wheelchair users know using brakes isn't an option if you want to keep all of your digits in place. Which is especially important if your legs aren't doing their job.
We share a pizza for lunch in a café bar half way down one Everestian mountain. It's all very pleasant except for one tiny terrier shrieking its head off at everything and everyone in its path. Then we crack on down the burn and blister inducing paths toward the marina. We pass through the famous tunnel which makes up part of the famous race track where the Formula One Grand Prix takes place. I have to be honest and confess that I don't watch Formula One. If there was some grass growing or paint drying on another channel, of an endless loop of old Keith Chegwin quiz shows, I would opt for that over the latest endeavours of entitled rich boys fucking around in their over-sized penis extension go-karts. Yet as you see the traffic pass under the tunnel in both direction it does leave the mind to boggle somewhat at how they go about racing down here at 180mph. Overtaking must be an adventure to say the least.
Having almost but not completely worked out the system of lifts we reach the end of the tunnel and find that the tour bus picks up from a stop just off the marina. Or at least it would do if it were not for some temporary work going on. As the bus pulls up the driver gestures to us to get back out on to the main road before coming to a stop. Tour buses are the only buses in France in our experience which have genuine wheelchair access, so I am spared the help of the French public and instead board the bus in the manner for which the automatic sliding ramp was intended when it was added.
For a while we sit back and let the bus do its work. It takes us further on the Grand Prix circuit, offering stunning views of the landscape on the way up through the mountains. We get off the bus at a particularly scenic spot just by the palace. Or Palais Princier de Monaco. Monaco is the second smallest sovereign state in the world after Vatican City but is all the better because it is not home to God bothering paedophiles masquerading as moral crusaders. The view of Monte Carlo from the top of the road where we have been dropped off is breath-taking. So much so that I am at a loss to describe it again, so here is a photograph;
Some other fun facts about Monte Carlo;
As well as Bore-mula One it also hosts world championship boxing matches, the Grand Final of the European Poker Tour and the World Backgammon Championships.
The Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament,regularly hoovered up by Rafa Nadal, is not played in Monte Carlo at all but in the neighbouring town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin which still belongs to France.
The Monte Carlo casino featured in both Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye.
Ringo Starr, Bono, Shirley Bassey and Paula Radcliffe all have homes in Monte Carlo.
We move on over to the palace, which looks a strange pink-ish colour with perhaps a hint of yellow. How should I know? I'm a man and we're all colour blind to some extent. It's an impressive piece of architecture, home now to Prince Albert following the death of his father Prince Rainier in 2005. He was married to 1950's actress Grace Kelly, subject of Mika's God-awful song, who met an untimely death in 1982 when she had a stroke and lost control of her car while driving on these narrow, highly dangerous looking mountain roads. I remember hearing this tale of woe when I was here as a child and becoming convinced that the coach we were on would soon career over the edge and wipe us all out. What I didn't know then that I know now is that she'd had a stroke.
Just like at Buckingham Palace, Palais Princier de Monaco is manned by smartly dressed statuesque guards. And as with Buckingham Palace tourists are somehow compelled to gawp at the guards and take multiple photographs of them in their shiny white garb. You can just make out the tiny figure of one of them if you click on this photograph which is admittedly far more focused on the building itelf;
We get back on the bus and the real fun starts. We can see that a bus goes from Stade Louis II to the train station, so we decide to get off the bus there, have a quick look around or maybe even take the tour before heading back. It takes us several minutes to find the entrance to Stade Louis II (which will become a theme). The stadium is, among other things, the home of Monaco FC. They are notable to English football followers only because they used to be managed by Arsene Wenger who had, among his charges, one Glenn Hoddle during the late 1980's. Despite claiming to be independent of France they play in the French league in a kit that is red and white split diagonally from bottom left to top right. They reached the final of the Champions League in 2004 where they were roundly gubbed 3-0 by Jose Mourinho's FC Porto.
Unfortunately the tour is off the agenda for the day. The players are training at the stadium for a Champions League qualifier this coming Wednesday against Galatasaray. If nothing else that does at least spare us the prospect of being spoken to about football history in French and trying to decipher any of it. We get back on the tour bus instead of taking the public bus to the station at this point. There's more of the area to see and we still have a bit of time now that we won't be spending it at the stadium tour. The idea was to eventually find somewhere we recognise to allow us to make our way back up to the station, hopefully by-passing most of the massive hills and mountains. We go one better than that (or so we think) as we discover that the tour bus stops at the train station. It's odd. It feels a bit different, not like the place we arrived at from Nice this morning, but a train station is a train station so we get off and start looking for a way back to Nice.
As we enter through the main entrance there are screens displaying train times and destinations. This may look more like a public lavatory than a train station but it is definitely the latter. We take the lift up to the next level which brings us out at the end of a long corridor. Half way up on our right are signs for the platforms with escalators leading to them. Further on at the end of the corridor are a set of lifts which we quite reasonably believe will take us up to the same place as the escalators. They do not. Instead they take us to another level on which there are two more lifts and another escalator. We try both lifts. Both lead back outside with no sign of anything resembling a platform. Not quite believing any of this we try all of the above again.
We meet one lady who advises us to go back outside the lift and travel up a very steep road where, she assures us, we will find the accessible entrance. What we find is a couple of Italian men who speak little or no English, and another man who does speak English but has absolutely no clue where the accessible entrance to the station might be. He assures us there is no way around on this road which has come to a dead end. We can see the railway bridge and the platforms above us but there is no way to get there. Finally, we go back inside, taking all the many lifts once more before Emma goes up the escalator to find out more.
While she is away I am approached by two people who speak English, both of whom ask me if I am ok and where I need to go. All of which reminds me of the many times as a child that I would be approached by strangers in town who thought I had got lost because I happened to be waiting outside a shop or something.
"Are you lost?" they'd ask.
No. I'm not fucking lost. There's 47 flights of stairs in this shop that sells Commodore 64 games and all of my mates are in there looking for the latest edition of Barry McGuigan's Boxing.
I convince everyone that I will indeed be ok, which just leaves me as the only person yet to be certain of this. I have been at the bottom of this escalator for some time now and Emma has not re-emerged. Finally she comes out of the lift, telling me that she thought I would be meeting her on the floor below. It's all very confusing when you are in an unfamiliar building which has a huge array of lifts leading to precisely nowhere. Emma confirms that the platforms are at the top of the escalators but that there is no lift to get us there. That's escalators. Plural. There are three of them, she says. When I was younger and away on basketball trips I saw several of my team-mates negotiating escalators in their wheelchairs with the minimum of fuss. They just placed their front wheels on a step and hung on. What could go wrong? I never had the cojones to have a go myself and never felt the need. Everywhere we ever went had lifts and if you took the escalators as a wheelchair user you were just showing off. The wheelchair users equivalent of doing the Grand National. Not the famous Aintree horse race, but jumping over the garden fences outside every house in your street until you fall flat on your face and break your nose. However, in this situation what choice do we have? We take the escalators. All three of them.
With Emma there to help it isn't that difficult. She just has to stand behind me to make sure I don't fall backwards as I hang on to the moving rails. If she falls backwards well then we're both fucked, but fortunately she has the ability to stand upright for long enough to get us to the platform. When we get there it still looks like a different station. Everything here is underground. We ask the lady on duty about trains to Nice, and about booking some assistance and she just tells us that she doesn't know if she can arrange it for the next one which is due to arrive in 10 minutes. By this time it is about 5.45 in the evening. When it arrives she has done nothing to assist us, so in the spirit of everything else that has happened in this station so far we attempt to get on the train unaided. The problem is that there are two steps up to the carriage, and they are as steep as anything we descended in Monte Carlo this afternoon. There is no way we are getting on there, especially not with hordes of people barging their way through. It's organised chaos.
The lady comes back from wherever she has been and we try to explain our predicament. We need assistance or else we are not getting back to Monaco by train. What is more, if we do have to find another way home it could mean descending those escalators to exit the station. They might not be so easy to negotiate on the way down as they were on the way up. Only then does the lady inform us that there is a lift. She has been telling us to go back downstairs to organise assistance and we have been trying to explain that there is no lift, and that we had to take three escalators to get up to the platforms. She insists that there is a lift and points in its supposed direction. Unconvinced, we follow her instructions more in hope than expectation.
And she's only right. It must be 200 metres away from the escalators, not remotely visible from where we have been waiting and trying to get on trains, but it exists alright. It takes us down to the information desk and as we exit it we realise that we are actually in the same station we have been in this morning. Interestingly, we were to meet a couple in Nice airport on the way home who told a similar story of how they had been to Monaco by train but could not find the accessible entrance to the station when they returned to it. It's like the island in Lost, some fucker has moved it in the struggle to provide credible material for that 834th series.
The drama is still not quite over. We queue patiently at the information desk (we already have return tickets so no need to worry about that this time). When we get to the desk we find the one helpful person in all of France, who tells us that it will be fine, she will organise the assistance and we just have to wait there for them to meet us. But while I am in the toilet it transpires that our friend from the platform has been back down to see us, taken our tickets and promised to return. In the meantime, the helpful lady at the information desk has given up for the day and shut up shop. So we are completely in limbo now, relying on a hugely unreliable member of staff to come back with our tickets and someone who might reasonably be expected to be able to operate a ramp.
It happens, but the train we board is the 7.10 having arrived at this unendurable station at around 5.30pm.
And there the story ends. I had hoped to tell you all about Cannes, Antibes, and about the man from Tahiti who entertained us at Akathor. But I won't because...well.....you're not there any more. Either because I don't have the requisite talent or because you're sick of being offended by my views and my tone. When you sift through 'Other People's Blogs' and see how greatly they are outperforming yours it is perhaps time to knock it on the head. It has been fun and I did try. Thanks to Rob for reading the French stuff, and to Mark and Anne for trying to convince me that this shit is worthwhile. I shall of course continue to write for Redvee which I enjoy hugely, especially since there are a great many people who are actually interested in it and regularly interact. The same, sadly, cannot be said of Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard which is taking an indefinite break from......now.