Saturday, December 15, 2007

Postcard from Monaco

There's an advertisement in Nice Airport which sums up the ethos of that part of France.

It is for YachtsOnly insurance, a Swiss-based company that specialises in protecting the favourite toys of the super-rich.

Even in Celtic Tiger Ireland you wouldn't have seen its likes in Dublin Airport -- an airport where, incidentally, a few hours before, a mediocre breakfast for two with coffee from machines that didn't work properly had set us back more than 25 euros.

Yet, on the harbourside of Monte Carlo, playground of the really super-rich, a properly brewed tasty coffee will only cost you 2.50 euros, and a main course to go with it maybe 6.50 euros.

Thing is, the French, and the Monagasques, don't let anyone rip them off. Sure, it'll cost in the Cafe de Paris in the same town, but that's paying for the splendour. Dublin Airport doesn't do splendour.

Anyhow, if you ever get to Nice, a spin along the Corniche coast to Monaco is well worth the visit. You can choose between three routes with views, the Grande, Moyenne and Basse Corniches, or the boring but efficient A8 motorway.

We went by the Moyenne and came back by the Basse. A short time in the little principality's capital, not even enough to buy that good value coffee, revealed a couple of gems.

The first was transient but quite special. Because we drove in within a week of Christmas, there was a 'Fete sous la Neige' Christmas Fair set up on the harbour front. All wooden kiosks with everything from cake decorations through cakes themselves to jewellery as well as plenty of eat-on-the-hoof food stands. A seasonally-decorated ferris wheel, and the harbour swimming pool converted to a skating rink. And in the middle of it all, a really festive-friendly recreation of Santa's Kingdom.

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We were in Monte Carlo, where the shops on the parallel street were all at the Prada level, and the fair stalls were charging accordingly. Right?

Nope. Prices ranging from two to 30 euros would get you things that would cause no cringing at the Christmas Day post-dinner presents opening.

But that wasn't even important on the day. The unexpected presence of the spirit of winter's most important festival was one key to a very special couple of hours.

monacochristmas4555.jpgThe other was the Christmas Crib in the tiny votive chapel that looks out on the harbour of millionaires. Dedicated to St Devote, the principality's patron saint, it is the simplest of religious structures, dwarfed by the expensive apartment blocks all around. One could say it looked out of place in its surroundings, but in fact it seemed that all the other buildings were the ones not quite in sync.

The inside is also beautiful in its simplicity, a place to stop the turbulent world for a few precious minutes, whether a religious believer or unbeliever or anything in between.

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The crib was, like all of its kind during Advent, waiting for the day of the birth of the Redeemer. But along with the Wise Men and the others we know from the traditional story, there was a long retinue of other figures representing all the crafts, professions and simple working people. Waiting to pay homage. To look for guidance. To ask for forgiveness for any transgressions, major, minor and unwitting, and to find peace. To give thanks for being alive and being able to care.

After that the walk back to the car park through the Christmas Fair might have been expected to be anticlimax, even banal. Except that it wasn't. Now it was twilight rapidly dropping to darkness, and the magic was intensified.

Back at the car, trying to pay for time, another little piece of magic. In Monte Carlo they give you an hour free in the undergound car park before charging, and then charging moderately. We'd been there close to a couple of hours, but the ticket still came out 'gratuit'.

Heading back in the quickening night through the small towns along the Basse Corniche, each with their own magical Christmas lights ablaze, we reflected, and concluded that somehow, in Bert's Celtic Tiger, we've either missed out on, or lost, something in our small westerly outpost of Europe that has become Ripoff Central.

You don't have to break the bank at Monte Carlo to feel very rich there indeed.

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