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.