Wise Woman Travel

Exploring the world from a female perspective

Monaco reconnaisance
Villefranche-sur-Mer, France

Villefranche-sur-Mer, France

The name is Young. Pam Young. Today’s mission? Surveillance of Monaco, to collect information that will inform the possible movements of other agents for whom the principality may one day be a destination.To maintain a low profile, I am dressed in vacation attire and travelling with the locals on public transportation. Accompanying me is my most engaging companion, Mr. Moneynickel

We catch the train from our headquarters in Villefranche-sur-mer among a crush of Spanish cruiseship passengers. Ten minutes later, we’re in the gleaming Monaco train station, and then on a bus to the old city. We arrive just in time to catch the changing of the guard ceremony outside the Grimaldi family’s Palais Royale. The taut jawlines of the young carbinnieres remind me of my youth, and I stand a little straighter as I admire their military precision. After a perfunctory review, the regiment wheels away, the pageantry is finished, and two freshly alert guards are installed on either side of the palace gate. Like young men everywhere, one is a little forgetful. He has no sooner come to attention in the guard house than his commanding officer re-emerges from the palace and discreetly hands him a pair of sunglasses.

After the parade, we tour the palace’s estate apartments and the neighboring Museum of Napoleon Souvenirs. No photos are allowed in either place,and no shops carry any postcard images of what we saw. I curse myself for forgetting my fountain pen camera. However, the official palace website offers a few snapshots of the palace rooms, which His Serene Highness Albert II and his family still use for official occasions. The chambers are a study in opulence – gilt-trimmed furniture, richly colored silk brocades, portraits of the Grimaldis, past and present, and centuries worth of gifts from other royals and near-royals. The Museum of Napoleon Souvenirs contains over 1000 items related to Napoleon and other Grimaldi ancestors, including an impressive display of weapons, a scrap of the robe worn by Louis XIV during his execution, and Napoleon’s bicorn, Mr. Moneynickel was in military history heaven. It was a good thing most of the explanations were in French, or we might still be there.

Just in case we are left with the impression that the Grimaldi fortune is tied up only in historic memorabilia, Albert II has amassed a collection of vintage vehicles that is also open to the public. Low-slung, Formula One racecars sparkle under hushed spotlights, next to Rolls Royces, Jaguars, Ferraris. I follow Moneynickel at a discreet distance, wiping small patches of drool off the cars’ hoods. I eye up one or two models for my personal use. However, I’m disappointed that the Prince has been unable to garner an Austin Martin DB5 like the one my esteemed colleague over at MI5 has made so famous. Those forward machine guns and tire slasher hubcaps would come in very handy when Moneynickel and I compete with the Mercedes and Audis for parking back in Villefranche.

The Grimaldis’ shows of wealth set the tone for the sights that dazzle us for the rest of the day. The official Monaco Yacht Show is not until September 25, but the marinas are still a waterfront spectacle.

Architectural showpieces leap up from the downtown core. But the piece de resistance is the Casino de Monte Carlo. Decked out in 19th century elegance,she is surrounded by fountains and palm trees, her entrance guarded by black suited men wearing earpieces. Two women with slim pink shopping bags sweep out and nod discreetly to the chef du parking, who provides the keys to their black Bentley They place their shopping in the trunk, lower their sunglasses, and disappear across the courtyard. A Ferrari shrieks in as they leave. A tanned, grey haired man gets out of the driver’s seat, and a slender young woman in platform sandals and a body-hugging fuschia dress emerges from the passenger side. “Ciao, bella,” he says, giving her a distracted kiss on each cheek, before galloping solo up the steps into the casino.

Damn the casual disguises Moneynickel and I are wearing for this mission.We have no hope of being admitted to the casino dressed as we are, much less to the private gambling rooms where we might have broken the bank. Even the white-gloved doorman of the neighboring Hotel Paris is on alert for fashion faux pas, turning away those in shorts and sandals who think they’ll slip into the lounge for a quiet pastis.

There is one other place during our visit from which we are barred admittance – St. Nicholas Cathedral, the site of Prince Rainier’s marriage to Grace Kelly, and their final resting place. Our appearance is not the problem this time. A funeral is underway, a reminder to wealthy Monagesques that although taxes here are not a certainty, there is no escape from life’s other inevitability .

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