Here’s Jan’s journal days 17 to 21. This is the Nice/Monaco F1 leg of our journey.
Wednesday was travel day. Our train departed Nimes at 9.49am. Being a regional train there was no allocated seating and we were travelling second class. We got a good seat with a table, sharing with a lady who was already on the train, but there was ample room for all. Our train terminated in Marseilles so we disembarked and looked around, with no idea where we had to go next.
The logical stop was the information desk. The queue was long but I waited patiently. It was worth the wait. It turned out that, because of track work, our connecting train was cancelled and we had to take a train to Toulon and change there to the Nice train. The Toulon train was leaving in 10 minutes so we hot-footed it to Platform 3.
This train was more like a commuter train and became progressively more crowded with every stop. Our bags were sitting at the end of the carriage and were taking up valuable sitting space. I felt guilty because we were sitting in seats while other people were trying to fit around our bags. I half expected someone to turf them off at one of the stops, but I guess they were too bloody heavy. I went back and offered up our seats and we would sit with the bags, but was refused. Perhaps they didn’t understand me, or perhaps this is just the way it is on these trains with chronic overcrowding.
Toulon is a regional station and undergoing renovations so the lifts were out of action. We had about a 40 minute wait for the Nice train and the departure platform wasn’t allocated until about 20 minutes prior to departure, so we decided to stay put until the platform was allocated to our train. There was a 50:50 chance we wouldn’t have to move.
We were lucky, we had arrived on Platform ‘E’ and were departing from Platform ‘D’. YAY! Sadly, within minutes the platform allocation disappeared from the screen and was replaced by the message “Retard 1h00”. Our train was delayed by one hour.
We again decided we were better off staying put so we took turns to go to the loo and stretch our legs along the platform, and waited patiently for the platform allocation. Should only be another 40 minutes or so. Our revised departure time was 2.19pm. 1.59 arrived, and no platform allocation. 2.04 came and still no allocation. I envisaged a last minute dash to another platform with our 80+ kgs of luggage so I headed for the information desk, just to check.
Nope, no further insight there either. As I arrived back on the platform the allocation was made. Platform ‘E’. YAY!
Only 10 minutes to wait!
2.19 came and went, and still no train. Then an old looking train that had been parked at a siding down the end of the platform the whole time we had been there started making its way towards us. I thought it may have been just getting out of the way of our train. Nope, it pulled up on our platform. This was our train to Nice.
Providentially the door stopped right where we were standing and we climbed on. It might have been an older train, but it was immaculate inside. It was just like the first class trip from Barcelona.
Half an hour earlier a TGV train bound for Nice had pulled up on another platform. We had debated whether to try to get a seat on that train. Other passengers off our train were getting onto it. We decided not to. Our ticket was for a TER train, not a TGV. Our decision was rewarded by the relative luxury of our journey from Toulon to Nice. And despite its age, the train travelled at 160 kph.
There were no renovations at Gare de Nice; it never had lifts to start with, so we had to negotiate the stairs down from our platform and then back up to the street. Paul did most of the heavy lifting. So much for my policy of “If I want to pack it, I have to carry it!” I consoled myself with knowing I am carrying all the toiletries and food for both of us. Never mind Paul is carrying the charging gear and kitchen stuff. I’m sure the toiletries are heavier!
We headed down to Gare Thiery tram stop to buy a ticket to Garibaldi Square. A young fella approached us at the ticket machine and guided us through the process of buying the ticket. He was dressed in civvies and I didn’t think at the time that I should have given him the change from our tickets (it was less than €1) to show my appreciation. I’m not sure if he expected it, but a fleeting look over his face made me think perhaps he did. It had been a long day and his help was exactly what we needed then. I made a vow to pay it forward.
We disembarked at Garibaldi and stood pondering which direction to go in when Simon, our host, turned up. I had kept him informed of our movements so he had a pretty good idea when we would arrive. He guided us around the corner to our digs.
Paul carried both the large bags up the 107 stairs to our top floor apartment. The apartment was small, clean, and quite tastefully decorated. From the balcony at the back we looked over and above the rears of the surrounding buildings, with the backdrop of the Parc de Colline du Chateau that overlooks Nice.
Our first order of business was the Monoprix supermarket on the square. We had a gnocchi pesto for dinner and then headed out for a night photo shoot at the harbour.
Like much of the region, Nice was first settled in the BC period, first by the Greeks, who named the colony Nikala. Apparently ‘nike’ pronounced ‘neekee’ is Greek for ‘victory’; in Greek mythology, Nike was the winged goddess of victory. After the Greeks the Romans came to Nikala. Nice formally became part of France in 1860, and during the 19th and 20th centuries it became a winter holiday destination for English aristocracy, and then, when paid holidays were introduced, it became a summer holiday destination for the French.
The wealth of some in the region is apparent, and Monaco’s harbour, while famous for the multi-million dollars of pleasure craft, doesn’t have the monopoly on luxury vessels. Luxurious motorboats ranging from really big to bloody huge (both technical terms for measuring boats) line the western and northern edges of the Nice marina. Smaller boats occupy the central berths, and moored down the eastern side were a colourful array of small, timber, motorised sailing boats. It is an eclectic mixture.
Moored in the harbour were a 76 metre Dutch clipper, ‘Stad’. Randstad were partying on board as we were photographing the complicated rigging that supports the ship’s 29 sails. On the other side of the mooring was a cruise liner, the first of three that we would see moored there.
With our heads full of luxury craft, we filled our tummies with crème glacée in Place Garibaldi on the way home.
Thursday looked quite bleak, but we headed for the Parc de Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill Park) for a look over Nice. We took a circuitous route to the top up the eastern side of the mountain, looking down over the harbour and its expensive array of boats.
We joined a large group at a lookout overlooking the harbour and before long had the place to ourselves. While we stood looking around a local beggar woman came along. With a small exclamation she bent down and picked up a ring. She held it up, questioning us. “Non”, we said. She tried to put it on; it was a big ring, but her fingers were larger. It wouldn’t go past the first knuckle, so she put it on one of my fingers, and then promptly held out her hand for some money.
I fished around for some change and gave it to her. Naturally she protested that it was not enough, but I sent her on her way. Paul protested that it was a scam.
When she left I took the ring off my finger and on closer inspection found it to be an 18k plain gold men’s ring – possibly a wedding ring. We walked all over the mountain looking out for people who seemed distressed. We also went to the café and left a card with our contact details. I felt bad, being quite expert at losing things (most recently my tablet the previous Sunday), I know how it feels.
We finally descended the western side of the mountain to the beautiful esplanade, the Promenade des Anglais. We headed into Vieux Nice and the Cours Saleya markets and bought a couple of snacks to tide us over to lunch.
We were heading for the Hotel Massena where we would spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and took a leisurely meandering route. The sky ranged from promising to clear to threatening to storm.
While we were in the Place Massena it started to spit and just as we got to the shelter in the Jardin Albert 1st Park the sky opened with what is, I guess, the Côte d’Azur’s version of a summer storm. Luckily no wind, but there was rain, lightning, thunder, and finally, hail aplenty. We waited out the storm in the comfy individual slat chairs under the expansive shelter.
Hotel found, and confirmation we could leave our luggage in the morning granted, we headed home for lunch and a siesta.
That evening we went back to the hotel and collected our race tickets. We were set for our Monaco weekend.
Friday dawned sunny and warm. We packed and cleaned the apartment and headed back to the hotel to deposit our luggage. We tossed up heading to Monaco or taking a further look around Nice. We opted for the latter.
We walked back up to Parc du Chateau to better appreciate the view of Nice under the blue sky. The water was a deep blue. Closer to the beach it was a pale aqua. With no sand to disturb and make the water turgid, it was crystal clear. The beach is a mixture of stones and pebbles made smooth and round by the constant roiling of the sea.
Today it was easy to see where the name Côte d’Azur came from. While the Anglo name is the ‘Riviera’, I think ‘azure coast’ is more apt. We walked around the southern, coastal base of the Parc du Chateau to take a different perspective on the harbour and marina, then retraced our steps to lunch along the Promenade des Anglais.
After lunch we wandered west for a while, taking in the cafés and restaurants on the beach charging up to €15 for a deck chair, umbrella, and towel; the myriad people strolling, cycling, rollerblading, or sitting in the many chairs along the esplanade; the hotels and casinos ranging from 19th century to modern architecture; the green spaces dotted among the hotels and street cafés; and the large Jardin Albert 1er with its 18th century carousel and the shelter where we had taken refuge from yesterday’s storm.
We decided to join the Grand Prix Tours group for the afternoon’s excursion to Monaco. We were the sole Aussies in the group of South Africans, walking between Johan up front with his South African flag, and his wife Marie bringing up the rear with her flag.
The people in the group were lovely. They ranged from older to younger couples, but as you might expect, the group was dominated by men. There were a couple of father and son combinations, one of which had won a Red Bull hospitality package that included flights, accommodation, and corporate box on the pit straight. There was also a group of 12 blokes celebrating a 40th birthday with a trip to the Monaco F1; most were just along for the weekend and had no idea about formula 1.
As Paul often remind me, I hate being told what to do, and I’m not a fan of group travel so we parted company with the group as soon as we got to the track.
The pit lane was open for the afternoon so we followed the crowd into the ‘lesser’ end of the lane, and our first encounter with celebrity. Max Chilton was signing autographs and posing for photos so I got both. He is a thoroughly charming young man and he scored another fan with his pleasant manner.
I’m also a fan of Kamui Kobayashi so I was pleased to get a picture with him too, though he was far less engaging than Chilton.
Adrian Sutil was also out, though busy talking, so no autograph there. While I stood watching him I noted the impact of the new weight restrictions on the drivers. The minimum combined weight of the car and driver has increased from 642kgs in 2013 to 691kgs in 2014 (up 49kgs). The problem with that is that the weight of the car and power unit (engine and energy recovery systems) has increased by more than this, so the drivers have all had to become leaner. Adrian Sutil is 180 cm tall and weighs 75kgs. He is stick thin. Being one of the taller drivers, he has been disadvantaged by the weight restrictions. To put this in perspective, that is around 20kgs lighter than Paul, and Paul isn’t carrying that much excess.
As we progressed to the more ‘popular’ end of the lane the throng of people made forward motion virtually impossible, and at 5’2” I was never going to see anything so we backtracked and headed off for a slow lap of the Monte Carlo circuit.
Monaco is hemmed in by mountains and ocean so space is at a premium. It is precisely for this reason that Monaco is so up close and personal. To a degree, plebs like Paul and me get to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, when they deign to take to the streets to rub shoulders with the common folk.
Those who aren’t shy to get out there are the owners of flash cars. I lost count of the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Porsches, Bentleys, Rollers, Maseratis, and even a McLaren! Some of these people were on their way somewhere, but most just wanted to take their supercar for a lap of the famous Monte Carlo F1 circuit. Having to share the track with all the foot traffic meant they really couldn’t give their high-performance cars a chance to perform.
One of the benefits of walking a race track is that you get a real sense of the tightness of corners, and the gradient of the inclines. Monaco is both tight and steep. I now have a far greater appreciation for what a bastard of a circuit it is to race on; yet it remains the pinnacle of the F1 season.
We walked up the hill to Casino, where we would be sitting for the race. This climb is a lot steeper than it seems on TV. As the name suggests, this corner is at the famous Casino de Monte Carlo, so, plebeian as we were, we paid our €10 each, checked our bags, and went inside for a look around the world’s most famous gambling den.
The casino opened in 1866. We entered through the atrium and into the Salon Europe. The interior is sheer opulence, bordering on decadent. Onyx columns rise to ornate ceilings from which hang huge crystal chandeliers that apparently weigh 150 kgs each. This is the only part of the casino that our €10 ticket granted us access to, but it was worth it. There were private rooms and restaurants branching off from the main gambling area, and it is clear from the number of gaming tables, that the main action doesn’t happen here. The casino wouldn’t make a fortune with such a small number of tables, even with a maximum bet of €2,000. Sadly, the pokies detracted a bit from the overall ambience, but what den of iniquity would be complete without the modern computerised version of the good old one-armed bandit?
While Paul was in the loo I engaged with one of the cashiers. I figured the worst he would do if I talked to him would be to ignore me or fob me off. He did neither (after all, they’re people too). He even sold me a €5 gambling chip. I made no pretention of being a gambler, or in the league of other people who might patronise the casino, but now Paul has a memento (the cheapest one I could buy) of our brush with Casino Royale fame.
We rounded out our visit with a drink, relaxing in one of the luxurious couches (or is that ‘divan’?) in the pokie room, and watching the other, mostly commoners like us, go by. Tick that one off the bucket list.
We continued our somewhat relaxed lap of the circuit, heading down the hill to Formula 1’s sharpest corner, now named in honour of the Fairmount Hotel that is located at its apex. This is a place for daring passing manoeuvres, when they come off, or moments of complete brain failure when they, more often than not, end in grief.
After the Fairmount hairpin are the famous Mirabeau and Portier right turns that lead into the tunnel. The TV makes the adjustment from exiting the tunnel into daylight appear to be akin to being struck by blinding light. But in reality, the tunnel is extremely well lit, and the human eye’s capacity for adjustment to changing light is far quicker than the camera lens, so most drivers will attest to this being a non-issue.
The biggest issue on exiting the tunnel is the tight chicane only metres from the exit, meaning the cars have to decelerate heavily as they go from one of the higher speed parts of the track to one of the lowest. Usually at least a few cars don’t make it successfully through this chicane during the race, and drive straight through it, which isn’t great for a car with only a couple of inches of ground clearance with the bumpy ripple strips that define the outside of the corner. This is the best spot for, mostly failed, passing manoeuvres of the Monte Carlo circuit.
This next part of the track follows the marina and through the swimming pool complex. It is here that we had our next brush with fame. This is where the luxury motor yachts, backed in to the marina berths, host parties for the more well-heeled race goers to watch the cars on one of the faster, and more picturesque parts of the circuit.
On this day, sitting on the back of one of those yachts, was Mark Webber. We resisted the temptation to sing out and say “G’day”, he was talking and while I’m not usually backward in coming forward, it would have been just rude to interrupt. I didn’t think it too rude to snap a few shots of him though, and my pictures of him this time are far better than the ones I got at Brisbane airport when we shared the flight back from the Singapore F1 last year (sadly, he wasn’t back with the masses in cattle class).
Further round, towards the famous Virage de la Rasscasse, the second last turn before the final run down to the start finish line, the track was lined with a series of bars with mind-numbingly loud music and dancing girls. Party time! But not for old farts like us. As much as I’m sure Paul would have enjoyed the spectacle of the dancing girls, even they weren’t good enough to tempt him to endure the thumping music. The officials would have their hands full cleaning up that mess in preparation for Saturday practice and qualifying sessions.
Our lap of the Monte Carlo F1 circuit took about 3 ½ hours longer than the average F1 car, but I think we had a lot more fun. It may be the most prestigious race on the calendar, and the drivers will all say publicly how much they love racing here, but privately, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t rank as a race track. The lap record for Monaco is 1:14.439, set by Michael Schumacher in 2004, (most records are from 2004 when the engines were larger, and the tires softer, and many are held by Schumy).
By the time we got home, after walking all over Nice in the morning, and Monaco in the afternoon, we were exhausted, but exhilarated by being at F1’s most iconic race.
Saturday was another glorious day and we hit the track early. We had bought tickets to sit in Antony Noghès Grandstand. This stand is between Rasscasse and the final corner, the Virage Antony Noghès (named after the founder of the Monaco Grand Prix). It is one of the slower parts of the circuit, and also overlooks the pit entry. A good place to sit for practice and qualifying as the cars are constantly going into the pits during these sessions.
A couple of things surprised me. (1) No-one checked our bags as we entered the track; and (2) in our third row seats we were less than five metres from the cars. The lack of bag checks I put down to a combination of the ‘class’ of people who might be expected to attend the Monaco F1, and the sheer logistics of getting people into and out of the circuit on thoroughfares shared by both foot and vehicle traffic.
The close proximity to the motor cars is also a matter of logistics, the consequence of geography and topography of the circuit. There is no room for run-off areas.
Behind us was Monaco’s equivalent of ‘the hill’. Blaring air horns gave us advance notice of anyone of interest arriving in pit lane and we were able to ready our cameras to catch shots of drivers, team principals, and other important members of the F1 glitterati.
It wasn’t a great spot for photographing the cars in action, but the atmosphere made up for that.
As is our custom, we went out to dinner that night. Nice has street after street of al fresco dining. We selected a restaurant with a friendly bloke out the front and no-one smoking, and shared a salad and a pizza, washed down with a few wines.
We took advantage of the extended twilight and walked along the Promenade des Anglais before making our way back to the hotel. The day was a warm mid-20s, but as the sun went down, so did the temperature and we were glad of the warmth of our hotel room when we returned.
On race day we left the hotel about 30 minutes later than the previous day, and it was telling. The queues waiting to get into the train station were 100 metres long, but it was well organised and flowed well. The time in line gave us the opportunity to meet new people and we met a father-son combo from Australia as well as Monika and Claudia, two Londoners out for the weekend.
We were ushered up and down the platform but there was simply no room for us on the train, so the four of us (we had joined up with Monika and Claudia for the train trip) waited patiently for the next train. It was rather fortuitous because the next train was only 10 minutes away, and we were the first to board and got the pick of the seats. Again, waiting for the train was worth it.
We headed straight around to our grandstand, this time, at the top of the hill on Casino corner. Our seats were excellent. Once again, third row, but with a virtually unimpeded view of the cars coming into our corner. Sadly, with the delays at the train station we had missed the Porsche race so after a coffee I embarked on a mission to find the only official Monaco F1 merchandise store, over the other side of the track, in Rue Grimaldi. I discovered when I asked for directions en route that the proper pronunciation is with the emphasis on the “Grim”, or was it the “di”, but definitely not the “al”.
It took me nearly two hours, up and down stairs, through back streets, backtracking, and even going through the train station, but it was worth it. I got some great exercise, and also scored a couple of authentic ‘Automobile Club de Monaco’ F1 shirts for Paul.
I missed the driver’s parade which, from what I saw on the telly was pretty lame compared with Barcelona or Melbourne. With the plethora of supercars in Monaco, the best they could do was to herd all the drivers onto a flatbed truck.
Typically a difficult circuit for overtaking, the race was a bit of a procession, though Adrian Sutil kept us entertained with some daring passing manoeuvres, until he tried one too many. Daniel Ricciardo started third on the grid, but with a shocking start, lost two places to Vettel and Räikkönen.
Räikkönen got a puncture which dropped him down the field, and Vettel retired with turbo trouble so our Daniel finished on the podium behind the Mercedes’ of Rosberg and Hamilton.
As expected there were thousands of people trying to catch a train out of Monaco so we took a leisurely stroll back to the station via Rue Grimaldi. Time for a Heineken moment!
Our first ever Heineken moment was on our honeymoon in 2004. We were leaving the F1 track at Monza along with thousands of others. The exit to the station was near the camping area where there were stalls selling rip-off merchandise and others selling Heineken (among other things). We looked towards the station and the throng of people waiting to get onto the platform and opted for a couple of Heinekens instead. We sat on a gutter and had a leisurely beer while doing some people watching. When we’d finished our beers we stood up and surveyed the crowd.
Nope, still too many people.
So we bought another couple of Heinekens and resumed our seats on the gutter. And so the Heineken moment was born.
This time we found two chairs in a crowded bar in the Formula 1 Experience area at Monaco and sat down to a pint of Heineken for Paul and a wine for me (my stomach couldn’t handle that much beer nowadays). We shared the table with an English Mum and son and had a good old chinwag with them while we waited for the crowd to clear.
By the time we finished our drinks the street leading into the station was still packed, but moving at tolerable intervals. I’ll give the organisers credit, they managed the flow of people at the Nice and Monaco ends very well. We joined the throng, and before long, were on a train heading back to Nice.
This was our first ever Monaco Grand Prix. I hope it isn’t our last.