Published: February 14th 2012June 14th 2010 Southern France
1 Bimont Dam
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It took just four hours to travel from Le Mans to Aix-en-Provence. I was not used to this type of train service. It was a double decker and the seating was comfy the ride gracefully smooth.
On arrival the Lady was there to meet me. I had not seen her for a while. We talked for hours. She showed me around Aix. It is a beautiful town. The grandeur of the past is clear in every building. It is a spa town, dating back to the Roman era. Loved throughout the centuries it has withstood time. There are fountains strewn across the town. All unique and intricate. The weather and landscape both notably different to the rest of France. The town is surrounded by jagged rocky hills and mountains. The plan would be to visit Marseilles and then Monaco before I return to the UK. I spent the evening hanging out with some friends which had also spent time in the UK..
The following morning we set off for Marseilles. Marseilles was very similar to Aix, only much larger, with a port, and to my knowledge a nightmare to drive in, I did not drive there
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but deduced this from not seeing a single car without some form of dent or scratch. We decided to take a trip out to the island of If, where upon it stands Chateau d'If. This was originally built as a fortress but was later used as a prison. It also featured in Alexandre Dumas' The Count Of Monte Cristo. It appeared to be in very good condition. The island is more of a rock, jutting up out of the Mediterranean. It was an obvious spot for either fortress or prison, this due to its geographical attributes, the waves crashed hard against the rocks, the walls of the fortress were high, without permission to enter or leave it would’ve been almost impossible to invade or escape. The boat we were on pulled alongside what looked to be the only possible way of getting onto the island. There was a steep narrow embankment with steps running up through an archway, with a large gate. The view from the top was spectacular, on one side, a small island located nearby that was reasonably inhabited, to the other sides were Marseilles, across the water and the open Mediterranean. The sun bas vibrant and the
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air calm and still. The visibility was perfect all around. We spent a few hours on the island then returned to the mainland, where we boarded a bus back to Aix.
That evening we looked into the possibility of visiting Monaco. I had dreamt about visiting since I was a child. Why? I had no real idea why, what I knew was that the Monaco Grand Prix race had always fascinated me, seeing it on TV it looked so spectacular. Now that I was so close nothing would stop me. Well, initially I was concerned as my funding had been dropping rapidly over the past week. Monaco known for being a playground of the wealthy in my mind would not be cheap. We quickly realised that a hotel within Monaco was a crazy idea, but in the neighbouring town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin was a different story. We easily found accommodation at half the price of that of Monaco. I was a little disappointed as it meant we had to travel out of Monaco in the evening. This however, was not too much of a worry after all, once I had checked the location of the hotel, I found it to
4 Grand Hotel 3
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be just 2.5 km away from Casino, the heart of Monaco. Our plans were almost complete when the Lady's father came in. He had some bad news, there had been terrible weather further up the coast between us and Monaco. There had been flash floods, there had been fatalities with several missing. It appeared that the train lines were littered with debris and so transport did not seem possible. We hadn’t booked yet so we decided to wait one more day.
He suggested a trip, so the three of us spent the next day in the hills north of Aix. We started in a village called Vauvenargues. It is here that there stands a castle, Château de Vauvenargues, it is also known as Picasso's Château and is the final resting place of Picasso himself. The surrounding countryside was amazing, the rocky hilltops disappearing into the clouds, the valley floor was awash with shades of green and vibrant flora.
We headed out of the village further into the mountains where we visited the Bimont Dam. There was forestry above and below but the region directly around the Dam was incredibly dry and dusty. The water held back by the
5 Grand Hotel 2
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Dam was of a perfect turquoise shade. My friend's father explained how the area is susceptible to forest fires. With all that water held there, how could it be so dry?
When we got back to the house, the news wasn’t as bad as we had believed. The clean-up was under-way and trains were running, well, a few trains were running, but that was enough. We booked tickets and prepared for Monaco. My adventure was soon to be over. Just a few days before my flight home.
The train journey to Monaco was long and slow, this was due to the problems caused by the flooding. At one point we were stationary for nearly an hour! Our journey took us through Cannes and Saint Tropez to Nice, where we changed trains. It was late afternoon when we arrived at Monaco train station. We left the cool air conditioned underground train station out onto the street above. It was just as it looked on TV, just the buildings were much bigger, buildings were crammed into every possible space, some appeared to be teetering right on the edge of the cliffs running up from the harbour, other were built into
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the cliffs. From the harbour looking up it was clear that Monaco went up the hillside further than it went across the coast line. It was a busy bustling place, but it was also so clean and tidy. It was noticeable that we were not in France any more, there were some subtle differences but some were in your face, like the names of designer fashion shops, or the large tobacco adverts. I could not wait to have a wander, this was priority to me, to finding our hotel, the Lady on the other hand was concerned about finding the hotel. I won, we went for a wander.
With excitement I pointed out anything I recognised, I explained every inch of the Formula One circuit. I could not believe how it is transformed for the race event. Of course I had only ever watched the race on TV but where the pits and start/finish line are positioned was actually a bustling main road across the harbour front with several wooden shacks selling food and drink. The other insight I had was to how close to the water the track went. We walked the harbour and I explained how we were walking on part of the track. The area that is usually used to offload and board luxury yachts, was only a few meters wide, yet on race day is part of the circuit, with what must be a precarious drop only inches away from the drivers, though in this day and age, a large barrier and fence is constructed to ensure no drivers find themselves going for an unexpected swim.
From there we went to one final spot, the Grand Hotel hairpin, this to me was an iconic spot of the race, I had said to friends back home that I would try get a shot of me sitting there. The Lady, using her camera, stood on one side of the road, and I darted through the traffic to the apex of the hairpin, she was able to capture a good picture of me between the traffic. I then agreed that it was a good idea to be heading to the hotel. We boarded a bus and paid the small sum of 1€ for a ticket to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
The hotel was quaint. It didn’t look much from the outside, it was obviously family run. After a few minutes waiting a friendly, smiling, French lady appeared. She checked us in and showed us the room. I had not expected it, but the room was perfect. It was clean and smart, but the best part was the balcony. It was more like a garden terrace, that overlooked the Mediterranean. The view was stunning. We freshened up and headed back into Monaco.
It was decided that we would go for dinner and take in the atmosphere by night. I secretly feared the costs involved in this but felt it wasn't something I could control too well and it would be silly to be here and not do anything. Well to my surprise we found a small Italian restaurant that served us a delicious and well presented meal, one of high quality ingredients and had definitely been prepared by a professional, for the small price of around 50€ for everything, that was easily bearable. During the meal we discussed our plans for the following day. It was decided that we would head up to see the palace, and then to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. After eating we left and headed down to the harbour. It was here that I was happily surprised once more.
The final corner of the Grand Prix Circuit is a tight right hander around a restaurant/bar called La Rascasse. Approaching the establishment we passed many of the luxury yachts in the harbour, there was a buzz of people all looking rather well off, dressed in smart suits, dinner dresses clad in expensive jewellery with perfect skin and physique. I did not feel like I fitted in. The atmosphere was calm yet lively, not too quiet not too chaotic. We took a seat at a table outside in the cool evening air. I looked at the drinks menu, 14€ for a cocktail! 9€ for a beer. They even had a Nebuchadnezzar of champagne for 2000€. I thought, to hell with it, just get a few drinks and let alcohol help me forget the cost. We ordered a cocktail and a beer. The barmaid returned, I opened my wallet to see I had 25€ I had enough for this round. I looked at the bill, it said grand total 11€. What? I’m confused, gladly confused but still, what? It was then that the Lady pointed at a comment on the menu, it said 'Happy hours 21.00-23.00, it was 22.10! I thought back to Le Mans, there I had been paying 6€ a pint. Yes in my whole adventure I bought the cheapest round of drinks at La Rascasse in Monaco, who would've thought? As a result we drank some more and stumbled back to the hotel in the early hours.
It was our final day in Monaco. After eating breakfast on the balcony looking out at a leisure yacht in the Mediterranean, we headed back into Monaco centre. We got to the foot of the hill leading up to the palace around lunchtime and the air was dense. Climbing the steps to the top, we looked out across Monaco, from here you could really take in the scale and scope of the engineering that has gone in to constructing many of the buildings that litter the cliff face, every single space had been exploited in some way. From outside the palace the view was again spectacular, much higher up than I had thought. From there we visited the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. The aquarium calm and quiet, a cool retreat from the blazing summer sun. As expected, the range of aquatic life there was broad, from small tropical fish to sharks.
Afterwards we ascended to view a collection of sculptures and other artwork by Damien Hirst, this included several of his pickled animals. It was interesting to be able to pass through the centre of some, revealing their biological make up. They appeared frozen in time, eerily real. There were further pieces on the rooftop.
When we first stepped out onto the rooftop, the afternoon sun was blinding. After a few seconds of adjustment the familiar sight of Monaco and its surroundings were once again revealed. One of the sculptures located on the roof, was a scaled up (artificial) slab of skin including the lower tissue and hair follicles, the other a rather large sculpture of the human torso and head, but with the chest flesh missing, revealing the inner organs.
We left from there in search of food, where we ate in front of the harbour before catching our train back to Aix.
A day later I said my farewell and boarded a flight back to the UK.
On returning I sat alone in my room for a few hours. Though what I had done was not exceptional to man, it was, to me, a memorable achievement. I had spent some time away, organised it all myself, though I thought I would spend most of the time alone, it turned out that was not the case, I had met some interesting folk. I had fresh confidence, and most of all, I looked forward to my future, I felt like I could achieve things if I put my mind to it and importantly, enjoy it.