30 September 2011

Views of the Sea

Monaco faces the sea. It seems simple, but it's essential. In fact, I'm not sure if Monaco could exist without the sea. Opening up to the water, the place can breath where it would otherwise suffocate. There is space where only density might exist.
It's a joy to watch the changing water, the slow crawl of ships, the light changing color. As a way of wrapping up Monaco, here are some pictures looking outward into the less solid elements.
The color of the Mediterranean is beautiful when calm, but it's hue changes more than any other sea I think I've seen. From green to deep blue and from black to steely-grey.
There is a sign near this "beach," cautioning against swimming when the water is rough. When the waves pick up, they crash against buildings and rock in a very rough, frightening line of spray.
During the Monaco yacht show, port Hercule's displaced boats anchored all along the bay in a white swarm.
The shore here, if not for hundreds of years of alteration and development, would be mostly rock, exposed directly to the wind and waves, with none of the famous sweeps of Côte d'Azur beach that exist further west.
The city meets and overhangs the water as it creeps slowly out to sea. It's a process that the government likes to call "reclaiming land."
From our apartment, just across the French border in Beausoleil, we never watched the same sunrise or sunset. Every morning and each evening we were captivated.

28 September 2011

A Grander Scale

What does anyone know about Monaco? Maybe something about the casino or Grace Kelly, tax evaders or fancy cars. But probably the best known thing about Monaco is that it's tiny. That it's so small that the buildings are stacked on top of each other like Lego bricks. It's true. As a nation, Monaco is microscopic. But for a city of thirty thousand people? As a place? It's huge!
As the smallest real country in the world (forgetting the Vatican for a moment), it could be excused for being nothing more than a geographic oddity. Instead, it's an alive and interesting city, much bigger than we thought.
Monaco is a place that has met its boundaries completely, probably the only place in the world where this can really be said. The limits of its space have been pushed up and scooped from below as the city continues to grow. It tumbles from the French border some four hundred feet above to an abrupt meeting with the water. This drop seems even more precipitous all the time, as the buildings grow taller and the constant construction packs more mass into the crowd of concrete. Standing above, the view is reminiscent of the top row of a sports stadium, where everything suddenly appears steeper, and the people below seem ready to fall in an avalanche.
Verticality is the most pronounced thing about the city. Walking around, the landscape is more three-dimensional than two. Elevators and staircases connect parallel streets, roads and tunnels cut down into the rock. From north to south, one is always descending. Built almost directly into the clifflike slope, the streets and alleys of Monaco twist and climb on top of one another, meaning that to move forward is to look up or down, searching for a route between levels. Often, two sidewalks look to be touching on a map - in reality, they may be six stories removed from one another.
Because of the crush along the coast, the beaches are functional more than alluring. The space allotted for them isn't much, slotted in between banks of highrises. At the eastern end of the country, Plage de Larvotto consists of a few manmade bays, softened with annually-dredged sand and populated by a slick of greased bodies. The crescents are subdivided into public and private beaches. The private beaches are run by little cabana clubs, where waiters slither through tightly-packed sun chairs with bottles of champagne and iceberg salads; the public beaches are equipped with nothing but sand and a few showers.
Nearer to the western end, a stair-like series of platforms juts out from one arm of the harbor. Here, the bronzing and swimming is more democratic, with all emphasis gone from placement and more given to athleticism.
In the national cemetery, the dead are piled in sunbaked rows, their tombs climbing huge walls behind porticos or set out in dry, bristling lines. Grace Kelly's friend Josephine Baker is buried here, alongside a collection of counts and magnates. A marble-white Lamborghini was in the parking lot one day, one of the only cars we ever saw there. The view towards the sea is impressive.
It takes about an hour of brisk walking, if you know your way, to travel from one end of Monaco to the other along a relatively flat route. It’s a complex enough place to explore that we were still making discoveries after two weeks, and we hadn’t even done most of the touristy things. In fact, the tourist hubs around Le Rocher and the Monte Carlo casino really feel very contained. There are more interesting stretches of cafes and clothes hung from balconies, cheap sandwiches and hard-hats, supermarkets and opticians.
It's a hive of a place, with distinct districts and insular existences. Like in any place, there are likely people who never leave their neighborhood except to travel far away, perhaps making the trip across town only once a year. There is room for scads of cultures - at a cafe, a group of British women might sit next to an old Scandinavian couple near a family of hereditary Monegasques - all residents, all traveling within narrow societies.
Already bulging with the highest population density in the world (it’s more than twice as dense as Singapore, which is second on the list), the country’s thirty-three thousand citizens are joined each day by nearly as many foreign workers and an average of ten thousand tourists. The days feel cyclical, with a swelling and slackening of people and activity. The tourists mostly leave by dusk, departing on their cruise ships or busses; the workers head home to Nice or Menton. Restaurants that were busy at lunch emit only gentle burbles of conversation. The countless construction sites lie dormant. At night, Monaco is almost peaceful. The quiet and darkness make it seem larger and less sharp-edged.
When we first got to Monaco, on a sweltering, bright day, we parked our car high up on the mountainside across the French border, and sat on a ledge in the breeze. We looked down at the spill of concrete below and realized very suddenly that we weren't arriving at the same city we'd pictured. It was a grand, powerful sight. Unrecognizable, almost, as anything manmade, the country looked more akin to a coral reef than a nation. Leaving, two weeks later, climbing back along the same ridge, we talked about that feeling and about how unique Monaco is. Instead of being anxious to get out into the wider world, we were already missing it.

Grace Grimaldi née Kelly

Grace Kelly made eleven films, won an Academy Award and then retired from acting to become Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco. Her husband, Rainier III, was dubbed “The Builder Prince,” so it’s no surprise that after her tragic death, he erected shrines to his late wife all over the principality. This was undoubtedly done in tribute and as a way for Monacans to remain connected to their princess – but I would be shocked if he wasn’t also thinking of the tourist draw. The Princess Grace rose garden, where this statue stands, is perhaps the prettiest Grace Kelly attraction.
There is a 'Princess Grace Trail" set up around the country, marking significant locations in her life as princess with large information panels and photographs. Where she was greeted by 20,000 people upon arrival for her wedding. Where she cut a ribbon at the opening of this or that. None of them are terribly interesting or offer any incite into her daily life in Monaco, but they are a draw nonetheless. Tour groups walk from one point to the next, snatching up postcards with photos from her Hollywood days - something that’s pretty ironic, considering that her movies are banned in Monaco, a law set into place by Rainier right after the wedding and which remains in place today.
Her grave is the third biggest tourist attraction in Monaco, after the palace and the Monte Carlo. Tourists circle around the very pretty cathedral near the palace, waiting for their glimpse of Grace Kelly. For a lot of people, she’s the reason they even know that Monaco is its own country with its own royal family. If Grace Kelly had married the prince of Liechtenstein, I’m sure more people would be able to point to it on a map. But that was the whole point. Most people believe that Prince Rainier chose her to increase tourism to his little-known and (at the time) cash-strapped country. Mission accomplished.
To free her from her MGM contract, Prince Rainier gave the movie studio exclusive access and distribution rights to their wedding. Like I said, that Rainier was a thinker. The only acting work she was allowed, once princess, were narrations of charity documentaries and the basic theatricality of her royal duties. Nonetheless, a theater was named after her, as well as a foundation to support emerging artists. The Princess Grace Theater is one of the quainter buildings on Port Hercule.
For the record, Princess Grace never actually changed her last name to Grimaldi. She remained Grace Kelly until the end. No matter how hard Prince Rainier tried to erase her former life from her public profile, she remains Grace Kelly, the Hollywood icon first and foremost and The Princess of Monaco, secondarily. Even if she did provide Monaco with the heir it needed in order not to fall back under the French rule (true fact), it simply is not her best known role. But glamor is part of Monaco's cachet, right? And what could possibly be more glamorous than a movie star princess.

Microstate Microbrewery

Who woulda thunk that Monaco would have its own microbrewery? Well, it does, the aptly named Brasserie de Monaco. The outdoor patio, right on Port Hercule, fills up for lunch and overflows during Happy Hour. The dark, sleek interior hosts parties at night and a DJ is almost always on hand. It's exactly what a place called Brasserie de Monaco should be - a local spot that reflects its locals instead of trying to do their best impersonation of a Belgian beerhall or British pub. It 's such a welcoming place that when we popped in and asked for a tour of the operation, the brewmaster stopped his hectic routine on a dime and brought us back into his shiny, steamy lair.
Brasserie de Monaco was opened in 2008, under the encouragement of Prince Albert II, who thought it was high time that beer was brewed in Monaco again. You see, there's actually a beer making history here. A successful brewery existed from 1905 all the way until 1975 and then was closed inexplicably. So, the owners of Brasserie found out as much as they could about the old process and applied a lot of it to the new one, which utilizes some pretty spiffy stainless steel equipment from Germany. Their white, blond and amber ales are made with organic malts. They are unfiltered, unpasteurized and flow directly from the brewing tanks to the bar's taps.
Like I said, the brasserie itself is this wonderful combination of style and substance. I don't think I've ever been to a bar/lounge/restaurant ("brasserie") that brews their own beer, serves only local food (slickly dubbed the "zero kilometers" menu) and also has designer furniture, black and white leather everything and ceiling high flat screen televisions. It's a fantastically Monegasque mix. And the beer is really good, too.

Castle Hunting: Le Rocher de Monaco

Le Rocher, or "The Rock," is the historic and current heart of Monaco - really, the reason for its existence. Jutting up from the sea, it is topped by an ancient fortress and palace that has grown over the centuries to include a little village and a slew of museums and giftshops. This is the site of the princely palace and the seat of government, right in the center of Monaco's amphitheater of highrises and yachts. It's one of the more unique castles we've been to.
Le Rocher has been inhabited for millennia - long before recorded history, the natural harbor it creates on one side (now called Port Hercule) attracted ships and traders. The Romans occupied the area in 122 AD, and set up a military base that displaced a long succession of Greek, Phoenician and native peoples in the surrounding mountains and along the coast. About a thousand years later, in 1191, the first real fortress was erected by the Genoans - by 1215, some semblance of the current outer walls had taken shape, originally consisting of four towers and a thick curtain wall.
The interior pallazzo, which began to be defined in the middle of the fifteenth century, evolved in tandem with the outer walls. Although the two structures eventually merged and became essentially part of one whole, they should really be considered two entities. It's opulence isn't immediately evident from the front, but the Princely palace is actually quite large, stretching quite far along the ridge. The low-slung design was intended to keep it protected from cannon fire aimed from below, and the relatively plain facade is a function of its earlier defensiveness.
In 1297, a nobleman named Francesco Grimaldi - the distant ancestor of the current prince - gained entry to the castle disguised as a monk. He killed the guard and opened the gate for his waiting troops, who sacked the fortress.
The present Grimaldi employs a few guards of his own - their duties are mostly ceremonial, of course. Every day at noon, a too-popular changing of the guard plays to a huge crowd's thirst for princely ceremony. It's the absolute worst time of day to visit the fortress.
Although the castle is difficult to attack directly because of the natural protection of the cliffs, Le Rocher became vulnerable as gunpowder weapons became more sophisticated. It's position, flanked by higher peaks and with its back to the sea, had once been ideal. As the range of cannons increased, though, the mountains behind became a liability and the castle began to be attacked directly from the water. Naval assaults heavily damaged the walls and towers many times, especially from the end of the fifteenth century onward. New gun platforms were added in the 16th century, and a series of subterranean passageways allowed for protected movement between the bastions.
In the end, Monaco's survival was dependent more on diplomacy and its varying alliances than on its walls. Long aligned with Spain for protection against the Genoans, Venetians and French, the Princes eventually did the inevitable and became allies of France (though not forever). This provided some relief at the rear, but didn't help the Monegasques much on their seaward side. France's relatively weak navy concentrated little on the Mediterranean, and Monaco found it necessary to keep its defenses intact much longer than other, similar cities did - right up to the beginning of the 19th century, in fact.
This need for protection is part of the reason why Le Rocher is so well preserved, despite the age of its walls. The other reason is that the Grimaldis didn't have room in the country for other, newer fortresses and needed to renovate rather than move on. In other places - even in other, tiny Principalities like Liechtenstein - rulers and noblemen could let one castle fall into ruin and build another. In Monaco, there's only one big rock, and the Princes had to make do.

27 September 2011

Blue Carpet Report

Most people attending the Monaco Yacht Show strutted their stuff like the carpet beneath their well-heeled shoes was a different color. What else can be expected from a place like this, where there are more places to buy a designer handbag than a gallon of milk? Though, it is still a trade show, which gave the scene an almost anachronistic mundane vibe. The entry lanyards were worn like letterman jackets, an accessory that declared belonging and defined status. There was JV (Visitor) and Varsity (VIP) and, of course, Coach and Staff (Broker and Exhibitor).
Fashion in Monaco is all about accessories. Even the most unfashionable tourist emerges from a docked Carnival cruise ship with a flower pinned in their hair or a scarf thrown around their neck. This man models the two most popular accessories: cell phones and small dogs on leashes. Both make walking through the streets of Monaco a little difficult, but navigating around the "runways" of the yacht show even trickier. But, hey, why buy a yacht and then find out your dog doesn't like it? Better to bring 'em along.
Sunglasses and attache cases packed the right power punch. The day was grey and sunless, but the shades (and floppy hats) remained. Even if your accessories are rendered unnecessary, it's difficult to remove them and still fit into the Monagasque scene. Take this man, for example. The removal of his sunglasses would have instantly switched his look from Casual Bowie to Dude with Blonde Hair.
The color scheme was mostly dominated by white, though this woman did an impeccable job at matching the carpet. Head-to-toe white was ever present and most of the models manning the welcome podiums near the yachts wore uniform t-shirt or polo shorts with white shorts and white baseball caps. White pants were the most popular choice for men, followed by pink, purple and fitted jeans. Khakis were a no-no, but shorts appeared to be acceptable as long as you were under 40.
The brokers were some of the most dressed up people at the show. It was difficult to tell some of them apart from the strategically attractive hosts and hostesses. This is their big event and they were the ones that really needed to impress. Men wore sharp suits and women wore some of the highest heels I've seen in the country, a benefit of staying on carpeted, level ground all day, as opposed to steep concrete.
You could not count on your shoes to make your look, though. If you boarded a boat, you were barefoot or slippered. Now and then, a couple would be walking around with their shoes still in hands, which I thought was pretty brilliant. It's a way to say, "I'm touring so many yachts, I don't even have time to put my shoes back on!" while inwardly thinking, "This is so much comfier - we should definitely have broken in our new Ferragamo before the show."
Monaco is filled to the brim with dapper dans and décolletage, with people that are primped and plumped and meticulously matching. There's the gold, white and navy, blonde and gelled hair and tans that you would expect, but there is also a definite trend toward bright florals and colorful breeziness. The female under thirty crowd definitely favored gauzy jumpsuits, flowing dresses and ballet flats. So, comfort may be the wave of the yacht show future. And that's this very amateur fashion correspondent's final note. Take it away Joan Rivers.

26 September 2011

Monaco's Other Harbor

Everyone who visits Monaco can't help but experience port Hercule and all its lascivious, lavish elements. It's megayachts and cafe-filled piers are the city's focal point and pride. But just around the castle rock, tucked in below the cliffs, there's a second harbor - the smaller and more friendly Port de Fontvieille.
Fontvieille's name and a few ruined-looking buildings make it seem old, but it's actually Monaco's newest district. Built between 1966 and 1981, the buildings around the marina rest on "reclaimed earth," which strikes me as a strange term. Before Prince Rainier III began construction on Fontvieille, there was only a scrabbly stretch of sand and rock between the castle and Cap d'Ail on the French border. A sharp increase in demand for space in Monaco drove the project, and it seems likely to spark a second expansion - a further fifteen acres of land are to be "reclaimed" by 2015. The marina guardhouse, above, was built for effect.
On a weekday, it's a quiet place to walk around. One might hear music drifting out from one cabin, or see a few sandals on the dock beside a boat, but the restaurants along the quay aren't full and the boats tend to be dark and empty. There's a familiarity about the place, like a little neighborhood or small town, and the atmosphere is more reminiscent of fishing villages than central Monaco.On the weekends, more owners arrive and the complexion of Fontvieille changes - motors are gunned, boats are taken out, the sleeker restaurants fill up. Though the crowd is more relaxed than at Hercule, a certain showiness still prevails. Fontvieille's waters aren't as deep as its sister port; the boats are correspondingly smaller, but still very big. Vessels as tall and crowded as rowhouses bob and creak on their lines.
Gerhard's Cafe, on the waterfront, is likely the most popular of the local spots, filling up quickly after work and staying busy long into the night. A strange mix of yachters and dock men stand around the bar, looking out at the boats and the cliffs behind. English is the language of choice, perhaps because there are so many British boatowners, but probably because it feels the most comfortable to the most people. The drinks are stiff and simple, the prices are surprisingly cheap. We watched a heated game of backgammon one night, a couple of sorrowful yacht brokers another.
It's a long way from our apartment in Beausoleil to the Fontvieille piers, but we've found ourselves making the trek quite often. Because it feels like a forgotten part of the country, the harbor seems so welcoming - even on crowded weekend nights. The sense of discovery and isolation makes the marina feel wilder, as though Monaco had turned it's back on the revelry.

Gypsy Kitchens: Soup de Poisson

Soup de poisson is an essential part of the French riviera, as Provençal as sunshine and lavender fields. We talked about making it every day in the region, but never had a kitchen that could handle it. Now, in Monaco, we have the time and the space. Here is our take on a classic - livened up with lots of citrus, made simple and very easy.
The process can take as long as you're willing to give it, with a minimum of about an hour and a half. It's a two-step soup. Step one is the broth making, which can last for a half hour or all afternoon, depending on time investment. The more time the soup simmers, the more fish essence will be dragged out of the bones. The second step focuses on adding a final punch of flavor, where a different fish is cooked and blended into the broth.
The essential flavors are saffron, tomato and fish. It should be noted that this isn't conventional soup de poisson - in fact, locals along the shore would consider it heretical. We like the lightness of the citrus flavors though, and the ease of the cooking process.
Essentially, you buy different types of fish for each step. First, bony, head-on, broth-making fish like red snapper, mackerel, sea bass or trout. Second, boned filets of something a little more delicate and large, like halibut, flounder, dorade or even salmon. It's not necessary to buy expensive cuts; the thing about making this soup is that a lot of fish is going to get boiled and thrown away. Even the filets will get mashed up and incorporated.
Keep the filets in the fridge until later and start with the smaller, bone-in fish. Either buy them cleaned or gut them yourself, then cut them into chunks about two inches long, starting behind the head. Keep the heads, tails and fins.
Because this recipe uses a lot of citrus rind, make sure to scrub your fruit under hot water to get off as much wax and pesticide residue as possible. Grate (don't micro-plane or finely-zest) a few tablespoons of lemon peel and cut one clementine or tangerine into thin slices, including the rind. A small half of an orange can work too. De-seed and chop one very large, ripe tomato (or two smaller tomatoes, obviously). Mince about two tablespoons of ginger and four cloves of garlic, then set it all aside.
The broth begins with the hardier elements. Saute onion, leek, fennel and celery in a large pot with the ginger (preferably a stock pot - we don't travel with one, but they're handy). When everything is nicely softened - maybe even a little browned, but not much - reduce the heat and pour in a generous shot of pastis and all of the bony fish (about pastis: see video and note below), then cover and let simmer for a few minutes. Don't be squeamish about the heads and fins! There's a lot of flavor locked inside and you won't actually be eating them.
Add the tomato, garlic, lemon peel and orange (or clementine/tangerine) to the pot and cook until a little juice has accumulated, then add a cup of white wine, a bay leaf and as much saffron as you can afford (not more than a bare 1/8 tsp.). Cover entirely with cold water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Add as much water as you can cook off. If you plan on leaving the pot to bubble all day, put in a lot. If you only have a half hour, add not much more than a quart. The goal is to reduce the stock to about a quart's worth of liquid, so imagine how much will vaporize over the span of cooking and try to pour accordingly. It's always better to err on the low side, as it's easier to add water than to boil more off.
To the broth, add about a quarter cup of tomato paste and about half that of anchovy or sardine paste. When the stock is as done as you can make it, strain it into another container. Cheese cloth would work great if you have some lying around - we used two stacked colanders, but a sieve is the obvious choice. Just make sure not to let any bones or fisheyes get through. Extrude as much broth from the solids as possible, pressing on the leftover mash with a spoon before discarding it.
Next - and we don't have a picture of this - saute your fish filets in the stockpot (or whatever you have that will fit everything. Use a lot of olive oil, some onion, a few delicate herbs if you'd like. Just make sure to cook it hot and to let it break down. It's nice to overcook it slightly, so that it falls apart easier. When it's done, mash it up with a spatula or fork, juice one lemon into it and pour in the broth. If you have an immersion blender, you can make it quite silken, as is generally the Provençal style. If not, don't worry too much about it. It will either be chunky or smooth, but it won't matter too much in the bowl. Heat up the soup to a bare simmer, then let cool for five minutes or so before serving.
Soup de Poisson is typically served with a little grated cheese, a few toasted baguette rounds and a "rouille," which is essentially a spiced mayonnaise. Feel free to use mayo if you'd like. It's delicious.
We used, instead, a mixture of sheep yogurt, tomato paste, lemon juice and garlic. It's easier than cooking egg yolks, it's healthier and the flavor is brighter. Do it the traditional way: spread the rouille on the crouton and float it in the soup until it's absorbed some broth and softened, then scoop it up and eat it.

Here's the recipe:
Soup de Poisson
1 pound whole, head-on, smallish fish (red snapper, mackerel, sea bass or trout, to name a few possibilities)
1 pound boned and filleted larger fish (halibut, flounder, dorade or salmon, for example)
2 medium leeks, washed, tops discarded and chopped
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 fennel root, chopped, top discarded
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large tomato, de-seeded and chopped
1 lemon, scrubbed vigorously under hot water and coarsely zested enough to yield 1-2 tablespoons
1 clementine or tangerine, given the bath and scrub, cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds
2 tablespoons diced ginger
4 cloves minced garlic
1 pinch saffron
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/8 cup anchovy or sardine paste
1 glass white wine
1 shot pastis
Olive oil
Salt to taste
Water to boil

- After chopping and preparing everything, saute ginger, onion, leek, fennel and celery in a large pot. Cook over high heat until more than slightly softened. Pour in a shot of pastis and throw in the cut-up whole fish. Cover and let sit for three minutes or so.
- Add the garlic, tomato, orange, saffron and lemon zest. Let cook until juicy, then pour in one cup of wine and the bay leaf.
- Cover with enough cold water and bring to a boil before reducing to a hard simmer. Cook for 1/2 to 4 or 5 hours, adding water if necessary.
- Strain the broth from the solids, being careful not to let fish bones escape into the stock. Discard the solids.
- In the cooking pot, sear the fish fillets over high heat in olive oil and some onion until they are done, then mash with a fork or spatula until mostly broken up. Juice the lemon into the pot, pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and let mellow for a few minutes before serving.
A note about pastis: if you've been to the south of France, you've seen old men drinking cloudy glasses of pastis at sunny cafe tables. It's widely considered a morning/early afternoon beverage, despite being a full ninety proof. The spirit is distilled using green anise, and has a bitter licorice flavor, like a more interesting sambuca. By itself it's brownish and clear, but mixed with water - the way it's normally served - it acquires a milky, yellowish haze.