Wednesday, July 19

A Nice Weekend in Monaco

I've been meaning to write for the past few days, but as tomorrow is the last day in Toulouse, there has been plenty of work to do. On Monday a final presentation to work on, Tuesday, statics problems, tomorrow a final. It's coming down to the end and it came fast. I'm blogging now as a break, a little later and some more studying. Then on Friday morning we're taking the train to Paris to get on the Eurostar that goes to London. I think we're all looking forward to that.

Last weekend, after seeing the Tour de France on Friday, early Saturday morning, right after midnight, we got on the sleeper train to Nice. It was the sleeper seats, not the couchets, luckily. I managed to drift off to sleep. A few hours later I was awoken by the screams of a little kid who, from this point on, will be referred to as 'it'. It started crying, no, wailing, "mama" at about 3 am. Instead of being considerate and picking it up and walking to the noise area at the end of the car behind the soundproof sliding doors (they were sitting just a few rows from it), its parent(s) just tried hushing it. Finally, after at least 5 minutes of this and after everyone who had previously been asleep was ripped from their slumbers, it quited down.

After that episode, I wasn't able to get back to sleep. Oh, well. France at night looks pretty much the same as the U.S. at night: black darkness interspaced with orange lights every so often. We then arrived at Nice at about 9 am, if I remember correctly. After waiting in the train station for a little while a person got her railpass, we went out to find the hostel. The 'Hotel Trocadero' was a block over and a block down. We dropped off our bags and then ventured out to find some lunch.

Nice is located in the extreme southeastern corner of France next to Italy and about 325 miles east of Toulouse. Its main attraction is the ocean so the town is very touristy. We walked around the downtown looking for some food. The buildings didn't look out of the ordinary for southern France. There were more Asian restaurants in Nice than I've seen in the rest of the places to which we've traveled. After wandering around for a while, we finally found a restaurant with decent prices. It happened to be German-themed.

After our meal, we headed back to the hostel to get ready to go to the beach. It was quite hot out, especially in the sun. We made it to the beach. Nice is on a giant bay with the whole boardwalk thing. The beach is four miles long. I was surprised to see that the beach was rocky. For the most part, the stones were as big as a hand but they were well weathered. As it turned out, a rocky beach wasn't that bad. One doesn't get covered in sand, just a little chalky, but it's hard to sleep because it's very lumpy.

After spending the afternoon at the beach, we headed back toward the hostel. We stopped a block away from our place at a nice little Chineese restaurant for dinner. The whole time we were there, we were half of the guy's business. I felt bad for him because it was a nice restaurant and the food was good. We gave him a big tip.

We then walked the several hundred yards back down by the ocean. It was getting dark and things were really starting to get going. There was one band playing some kind of accordian/maritime/rock music and another hundred yards down, there was big band dance music. We walked for a while to the end of the beach. In the middle of Nice's coast, there is a big rocky hill. There used to be a castle, but it was destroyed and now is a garden.

a monument in the side of the hill

Most of the people stayed on the beach part, so the sidewalk became nearly empty and darker. The ocean is a little creepy at night. You can hear it slosh and lap down there, but all you can see is darkness. I guess it's strange because one's senses aren't all detecting the same thing. It's kind of similar to that green ketchup they sold a few years ago. You taste and feel ketchup, but it's green! On the other side was the harbor. We walked around that, past the big yachts and the cruise ship docks, and up the hill out of town. The road wound up the side of nearly a cliff next to the ocean. There were houses on the side of the hill above the ocean. Eventually, after walking quite a ways (past a seaside restuarant where the reccomended dish that costs 80 euros), in the direction of Monaco, we stopped to look at the map in a bus stop. We weren't anywhere near it so we turned around and headed back. We took different roads and I got back first.

Although it was called a hotel, I booked it on a hostel website. I still can't decide which one it is. It's called a hotel and has two stars, according to the French ministry of so and so sign, yet only a hostel would have four beds in one. I guess there are just some mysteries not worth thinking about.

In France all of the hotels have a certain number of stars, awarded by some kind of government thing. Each hotel has a plaque next to its door with how many stars it has, ranging from 1 to 4. The hotels even advertise the number of stars they have on their big signs. Walking around Nice, it's funny because some hotels have a star on their sign covered, others have empty space awaiting a star.

On Sunday, after sleeping later that usual, we got up and dressed up (a little), for we were going to Monaco. Monaco is that tiny country on the side of a hill with the casino in Monte Carlo. We took the train to get there. After a short, less than half an hour, ride, we pulled into the Monaco train station. Quite expected, it was nice. The walls were more than bare concrete and there were ample escalators. We ascended to the top; the train station is built into a valley in the side of the mountain.

We emerged to daylight. Walking around, we quickly discovered that Monaco is literally built on the side of a mountain. All 481.9 acres of it. It is quite steep and the buildings are built into the side of the hill. Nearly 40,000 people live in a narrow strip less than 2 miles long.

the train station is the thing in the middle looking in the opposite direction from the previous picture
We walked down the hill. It is so steep that Monaco has public elevators. Although maybe it's because they've got so much money. We ended up at the intersection of some roads that looked like the main roads and decided to go up the Rock of Monaco to the castle. The rock is the oldest part of the country.

some views of Monaco from the path up the rock
looking east
you can tell where the boundaries are by where the tall buildings stop
We made it up to the top. There was a castle type thing and a bunch of tourist shops. We didn't go in the castle because Frommers only gave it one star. We think we saw the changing of the guard.

I guess I just now realized that I didn't get a good picture of it. But you get the idea. We got dressed up to look good for Monaco, but it was insanely hot. Luckily, I wore shorts. We had been expecting a giant air conditioned glass dome over their country. Just because it's Monaco. We walked around a little trying to find the way to the gardens from the palace. We tried the signs but they went in a dead end so we gave up and walked down by the harbor.

There was the usual flock of tourists surrounding the very expensive parked cars. And a slushy in a plastic cup cost about $4, whereas I can get a huge one in the huge cup at a gas station for $1.50 at home. Just now I was trying to figure out a way to describe how big the cup was, but I can only think of sizes in terms of liters. I remember how much a cup is, though, I think. Oh and the gallon; just think of a milk jug. I still think of temperatures in F, and weights in pounds, but I think in both miles/feet and km/meters. Time is the same except it's 24 hour time. I like 24 hours better. And the ground floor is floor 0 over here. My room is on the French 5th floor whereas in America I'd be on the 6th, I think (it's getting fuzzy).

The path of the Grand Prix winds along next to the harbor and then in the tunnel. We walked along its route by the harbor. There were big expensive yachts, most of which seemed to be flying the British flag, and a cruise ship or two. We gave up trying to find something to do, so we continued on to the casino. We walked past the famous one, the Monte Carlo casino, I think it's called. There's a total of three casinos in Monaco, I'm pretty sure. We found/went to the one that doesn't have a charge to get in the door. I was told that it was tiny by Las Vegas standards. The tables wouldn't be open until later in the afternoon so we walked over to the slot machines. After watching other people play, I surrended 5 euros to the one armed bandit.

We left, walked down the corridor, and sat watching the sea. They taught me how to play blackjack and we got in some practice. We then went back by the harbor to have some lunch. Besides Chinese food and fast food, the most consistent thing to eat in Europe is pizza. All of the restaurants serve it the same way: uncut on a big plate, thin crust style. Also the price isn't bad, it seems like in Europe, a normal casual meal at a sit-down restaurant is going to cost you at least 10 euros, I would say between 10 and 15, with the pizza and a drink at the low end of that spectrum. On the bright side, for the most part, a service charge is included in the price, so there's no need to tip, although tipping varies by region. For instance, in Germany: round your bill up to a nice number, France & Spain: no tip, Austria: 5-10%, Swiss: very little.

By the time we came back, things had started to get going and the tables were open. We headed to the 10 euro minimum bet; they had a 250 table. Dave and Mike played blackjack right away. They both got up, at least double what they started with (eventually losing it all). There was a guy at the end of the table who would pull out another 100 euro bill every couple of minutes. Eventually, I got in. Mike gave me 10 euros worth of chips for a 10 bill. Like lightning, I went above 21 right away with face cards. I left the game. After watching Dave and Mike lose their money, I felt inspired to try it again. The 100 euro guy was still there, other people would be pulling out 50's, I put a 10 on the table. The dealer said very sarcastically, in French, 'change for a...10'. In a flash the same thing happened again! I was done. Enjoy my 25 euros Monaco!

That was my first gambling expierence. In hindsight, gambling is a waste of money; if you buy overpriced stuff, at least you get something, with gambling, it just dissapears. I think the best business would be to open a casino. You don't even have to give any products or services, people show up expecting to be seperated with their money. Think about it, the casinos only do games for which they have the odds. I, personally, give props to Monaco. It's brilliant to run a country off of three casinos. I mean, they've got nothing else, yet they're extremely successful.

We found our way back to the train station and headed back to Nice to pick up our stuff from the hostel. After going to the grocery store, we had stocked up for the sleeper train home. Leaving Nice at 9 pm we'd arrive in Toulouse at 5 am on Monday. On the train, two Spanish guys sat behind Mike and I. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but, and this has happened at least 3 times so I can confidently draw a trend, the Spanish (people from Spain) talk loud; I know that generalization is usually reserved for the 'Stupid American Tourists'. Whereas Latin Americans talk very rapidly, the Spanish speak really loud even when they're sitting next to each other on a sleeper train and the lights are out. That's just my observation.

After a long train ride, we made it back and I jumped into my bed.

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