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.

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