Diary of The Travelling Seanchai :-
Living the impossible dream for a week!
2007-04-20 to 2007-04-27
I am accustomed to overnight boats and 22 hour bus journeys but when my mate Laurie picked me up in his Mercedes convertible SLK, I couldn`t help but feel a tinge of guilt for my fellow travellers! I was picked up in Poitiers and we took the drive (top down of course) to Montmorillon, my base for the next few days.
Laurie has `retired` to here, in his beautiful house with it`s garden backing down to the local river. I threw my bag in and we set off to explore the town via some of the local watering holes (always the best landmarks I find!). We went on a pub crawl with a difference in so much as Laurie walked in and kissed all the men inside on both cheeks and then we would leave without paying… ok, allow me to explain!
It does take a little getting used to to see everyone greeting each other with two kisses. Perfectly natural and comfortable for all involved but I felt that I didn`t want to overstep my welcome and extended a firm Irish handshake. The same applied when I referred to all and sundry with the terribly formal `vous` instead of the normal `tu`, but thankfully they knew that my french had come straight from a text book.
The other difference to our pub crawl which took considerably less time to get used to admittedly was that each bar ran a monthly tab for Laurie so we never had to pay! Highly dangerous practise with me around but it showed how well integrated he was with the locals and how trustworthy the country life is in France. Maybe it still happens in the outback of Australia, the darkest bogs of Ireland or the Deep South in America but I applauded the sentiment whole heartedly.
It`s such a quaint little town, where everyone knows everyone. I was instantly admitted to the inner sanctum of local gossip and the latest relationships, and I couldn`t help feel that this place was perfect for an Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot murder mystery!
I have never really been a connoisseur of wine but everything that got served up to me was among the best I had ever tasted. The French take the serving of food and drink to an exaggerated level in my mind but you have to admire their dedication. `Aperos` was the French (and lets face it, fancier) word for pre-drinks and that could start at any time of day. The French do have fancier words for most things, our `gangs` are their `entourages` for example. Much nicer term on the tongue but I fear it loses it`s intimidatory affect!
With my batteries charged, I was ready for the South of France. My French had a really good workout and contrary to the stereotype, everyone had been so patient with me and appreciated my efforts. In fact, I was universally informed that the only people who wouldn`t have time for my stuttering staccato French were the Parisians, they really aren`t liked by the country folk but that is the case for most capitals world wide really.
Laurie had kindly agreed to drop me down to the South of France but on a whim decided he would stay the week and then drop me to the airport on the Friday! Fantastic, sorry, fantastique! It really made a huge difference on the bank balance and on having to keep speaking French. Because it didn`t take me long as we drove to Montpelier, (over the simply breathtaking Massif Central where we were cruising consistently about a kilometer above sea level) and then along the Mediterranean that this was a place that not too many backpackers frequented.
I was glad we were in such a flash car because we were surrounded with affluence as we drove. We had avoided two near crashes, I had pulled off an amazing catch of Laurie`s registration and insurance papers that had flown out of the glove compartment when I was changing CD`s and every time we got lost, we found ourselves impossibly exactly where we had wanted to go! So we were feeling really good about our chances of getting a place in St. Tropez when we arrived.
It was expensive there and I got in touch with my mate Benjamin (from Koh Tao fame a few months ago) and he said he lived in St. Maxime, the next town on and he could get us a discount on a hotel room of a friend of his! This backpacking lark is just too easy I tell you!
The next day, we set off for Monaco. My mother often told us that when she was young she was always being complimented for looking like Grace Kelly (the actress), so Monaco had always held a fascination for me as she had gone on to become Princess Grace of Monaco. The drive from St. Maxime was amongst one of the most beautiful I have ever been on. Winding roads with the clear blue Mediterranean on one side and the cliffs dropping down to it on the other. Hundreds of cyclists impeded our progress but we weren`t in a rush, taking in the literally thousands of boats moored along the Cote d`Azur.
This is not how the other `half` live let me tell you, it`s how the fraction of half of one hundredth of a percent live. Structurally remarkable houses balanced on the sides of the cliffs in earthy, autumnal colours, where access can only be possible via a helicopter.
Monaco was truly amazing. After coming through a series of tunnels (and equally as many toll booths) we began our descent into the principality. It almost seemed magical, this tiny country at the bottom of the hill, steeped in history and now a haven for opulence and grandeur. It was a different world to anywhere I had been before. We parked our car (this is not a town where you would dare drive into with a Ford Cortina for shame!) and then took a walk by the huge international boats, moored here while their owners take a few days away from their stressful lives. They will be on these boats for only about 3 weeks a year if they are lucky but still the crew must be ready to sail them all over the world.
We had lunch by the marina and I had to pinch myself that I was here. I have become accustomed to (and to be honest I am a lot more comfortable with) the poorer countries that I have visited but this was a ridiculous indulgence! No more so than when we drove to the Monte Carlo Casino, passing the construction of the seating for the upcoming Grand Prix. We didn`t even think we would get in in our shorts, T-shirts and thongs (flip flops!). There were hundreds of tourists just standing outside looking at the people going in like it was a film premiere! We chanced our arms with our haughty airs of `we`re so rich we don`t even need to dress up to try and convince you`!
Fortunately we both had our passports, our names were checked off a database and we were admitted. Have you seen Casino Royale, the latest Bond movie?! Well even during the day, that is what it was like. Ludicrous splendour greeted us, the dealers in tuxedos, the rich tycoons hogging the table, the beautiful women hovering with intent, the mirrored doors, the huge murals, the big cigars, huge tables with rakes for the money, the highly evident cameras (prevention is better than cure clearly!) and but for the gaggle of tourists like us walking around mouths agog, it all seemed so decadently realistic!
Literally thousands of dollars were being bet on red or black and for one of the only times in my life I wanted to be stupidly rich, so I could sit with them all in my shorts and nonchalantly suggest that we `up the ante`! After winning three times in a row at Roulette I would be asked, discreetly of course, `if Sir would like to come with me, there is a high rollers game about to start in the Main Hall` to which I would leave my chips behind and bid adieu to all in 6 different languages.
Ok, enough of the dreaming, knowing my luck, I`d have been taken into a back room and given a complete pasting by 6 security men (all in tuxes of course) and kicked out the back door! But it is fun to dream because that is what it you buy into when you come to the South of France. We all buy into the excess of it all, a fleeting taste of extravagance, the wastefulness of absolute wealth, the having your pie AND eating it too!
People were happy here, the staff in the shops and the waiters, (God knows where they lived and how far they had to commute to this place) because they were facilitating this dream world, this real life Disneyworld.
I had to find the Rose Garden, dedicated and erected for Princess Grace who tragically died in a car crash in 1982. I am not into horticulture in any way (my Mam will testify to that!) but I was really impressed with it. At least 10 full time gardeners attended to it and I wandered around, more impressed with their names than their colours. There was a statue of the Princess and although it was a exquisite from the waist up and really captured what a beauty it was, I was puzzled by the bottom half which looked like she had been hewn from a pile of cabbages. That`s artists for you I suppose.
I felt sorry leaving Monaco but it wasn`t a place where you could stay. This was a transitory place, an ephemeral middle ground from one actual reality to another. Back to St. Maxime we went out with Benji and eventually found a little bar where two of his friends were jamming and I got to play on a guitar that Eric Clapton had signed last year, I wish I could have done it more justice! Still, the number of countries I`ve sung in now is getting up there!
Next day we set off for Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful town north of Marseilles which is a typical, tough industrial town. Much like Limerick is to Cork really! It`d been a big week and we happily sat and people watched for the afternoon. It is a university town so there was a great mix of people for our digestion and commentary!
We went for dinner and I was introduced again to the small portions you get in France. Dining is more of an experience than a necessity here and it might explain why there were comparably less obese people in France.
Another thing that I noticed was that with 5 months to go to the Rugby World Cup, I hadn`t seen one flag, poster or bunting, `Blasé` must be a French word! But all in all, it has been a truly wonderful experience in France. Between my Lourdes trip, BBQ`s in a small town in the heart of France, driving in a great car over the Massif Central and then cruising along the French Riviera, this was not a typical backpacker experience.
At the airport in Marseilles, there were two options for those dropping off, `parking` or `kiss and fly`! This was a bit awkward for Laurie and I because, as close as we had got during the week, we thought this might be somewhat excessive. But it was a last snatch of French-ness, something that truly can`t be replicated. They are a country that you want to really dislike for their snobbery and pride but you can`t, similar to the boxer that is so arrogant but you find yourself secretly rooting for him! Or the football manager that is so big headed but you can`t help but find him fascinating!
Next on my travels are Italy, Greece (for the Champions League final) and then Eastern Europe, back to some hard core graft for me!