Trip to Europe: Day 13 – Pisa and Monaco

16 June 2012. I was super excited for the drive as I’d finally be seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the French Riviera, and, most importantly, Monaco. They were 3 things that my mother had spoken of for years, and I couldn’t believe that I’d finally be seeing them in person.

We left pretty late compared to usual – at about 9. We had quite a long drive to go, at least until we got to Nice. Pisa isn’t far from Florence at all, and we reached there around 10:30am.

Pisa is a sleepy little town that seems to be hidden away from civilisation. I don’t think we saw the actual town centre at all, because we just got there, parked, and had to walk for about 15 minutes along a quiet, dusty road through a little residential area until we got to a flea market type place that was the entrance to the Leaning Tower. The flea market area was on either side of the road, and again, there were so many Indian men selling stuff. They’re everywhere! We walked through them until we got to a large white arch built into a high brick wall that marked the entrance of the area where the tower was. The wall seemed to

We had to wait a little while as Steve organised our tickets. I have no idea how much it cost because it was part of our tour. In the meantime we loitered in the vicinity. I was feeling a little peckish and since it was our last stop in Italy, only one thing lingered on my mind: gelato. I knew we’d get time to grab a  bite later so I quickly cast it out of my mind and waited a few more moments for Steve. It wasn’t long before he appeared and we followed him through the white arch and into the wide open area where the Leaning Tower sat.

Whenever I saw the Leaning Tower in pictures, I always thought it was alone, wherever it stood. I don’t know how I missed the other large, round building next to it. Perhaps I didn’t take as much notice of it because it wasn’t the Leaning Tower.

It was really funny seeing all the tourists trying to do the typical pose of appearing to hold up the tower. I knew I had to get one of myself taken in that position, too, as cheesy as it was. Its just one of those things you have to do. I waited a little for Renae and Ronnie to take their photos before I asked Renae to take the photo of me. The first couple were good, but I also wanted to take one where I was doing something stupid, like “kicking” the tower over. Needless to say, that photo was a total and utter disaster. So  I ended up choosing this one as my favourite:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

We didn’t have much time to linger around the area (an hour from the time we entered through the white arch), so I decided to was time to go and get a bite to eat. My group was scattered all over the place but I could see some of them trying some strange things when taking photos. Jye, probably the youngest person on the tour, was trying to do a handstand with his legs apart as 2 girls (Coralie and Kiara?) held his feet, but he struggled getting the timing right as so many other tourists kept walking passed and disrupting his efforts. I’m not sure how that photo eventually turned out, but I think he got the result he wanted, in the end.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to eat and I knew I couldn’t have just gelato for lunch, so I ended up going with a slice of pizza since it was also the last time I’d get to have real Italian pizza. I hung out a little with Elliot, Tijana and a couple other people, who were also eating. When I was done, I knew I had to rush to get some gelato. Some people had already gotten theirs. Obviously, I didn’t regret it. I was still eating my gelato when it was time to go. I took one long last look at the tower before following Steve back to the bus.

I was looking forward to the drive because I knew we’d be going along the coast, and I had an advantage because we were behind Driver Steve, as usual, on the left side of the bus i.e.: the side that the ocean would be on. It was such a beautiful day and we were about to enter the sunny French Riviera that hugs the Mediterranean. I couldn’t sleep, and was enjoying the open road in front of me. I decided to sit myself down on the step between Steve and Driver Steve, so that I could enjoy the view that they were seeing.

We made a service stop after about 2 hours, before making the final stretch to Nice, which we reached around 5 pm. After arriving at the Kyriad Hotel, we had a little time to fetch our keys and get changed for dinner in Monaco. There was real excitement in the air. I couldn’t wait to go to Monaco, even though I was already battling to walk in the new leather boots that I had bought in Florence.

We had a little less than an hour’s drive to Monaco, most of which appeared to be uphill. We were actually going back east, the direction from which we had come from earlier when travelling from Pisa. As we got higher, we got glimpses of the French Riviera in between the trees and rocks. We really were high up.

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When we were almost there, Steve was up to his old tricks again of making us look like complete idiots. He had told us before arriving in Nice that when we go to Monaco, we must take our passports with us because we may need them, so of course, not wanting to get into any trouble, all of us made sure we had ours.

Steve said that Monaco has a very sophisticated border control. Monaco is its own independent state, so I guess we thought of treating it like Switzerland (at least, I did) since Switzerland also has its own border control unlike the rest of Europe.

When we were about 10 minutes away, he asked us all to get our passports out, and explained how border control was going to work. According to genius Steve, all we had to do was hold our passports against the window, and the hidden cameras (that should have been the warning light) on either side of the border entrance would take the photo of our passports. All of us were skeptical, naturally, but after he made such a big deal of it, and when we saw him taking out his own passport, we all finally did it since it was our passports and we didn’t want to risk getting into trouble. The whole time I watched Driver Steve though, and he was just merrily driving without bothering to take his out, which confirmed my suspicion that something wasn’t right. I also closely watched the interaction between Steve and Driver Steve, but didn’t really see any kind of grinning or mischief.

As we approached the corner that supposedly had the cameras, Steve shouted “Now! Now!”, and off went the whole busload of dumbasses holding their passports against the window. Steve was in stitches, and gave us this “You’re all bloody idiots” look. I’ve never seen that many people look as stupid as they felt. I’m sure some people wanted to smack him. It was definitely well played though – that he managed to con so many people in one go. Never again, Steve!

Within minutes of passing the “border”, we started to see all the expensive cars – Ferraris, Aston Martins, Bugatti Veyrons. Monaco was already exactly what I had heard it was like. We went through some narrow, winding, spotlessly clean roads with beautiful, well-maintained buildings. It was like a scene from a movie. I was in awe. Its so small that I forget that we were specifically in Monte Carlo.

The first thing on our itinerary for Monte Carlo was dinner, so Driver Steve took us as close as he could, which was an undercover parking lot. We could either take the lift or the escalator up. I chose the lift, since I was one of the first people to get to it. When the lift opened, we just a had a few metres walk before we were outside.

I was dying in my shoes because it was the first day I was wearing them and they needed to be broken in to. My slightly swollen feet from my galavanting in Rome didn’t help ease the pain, either. It got worse when we had to walk uphill. I ignored the pain a little when we approached the Monaco Cathedral, the church in which Princess Grace got married. It was beautiful and serene, but we couldn’t stop and really admire it as we had to go to dinner.

We walked another agonizing 150m or so through a narrow street until we got to the restaurant. While we were waiting outside, I was looking around and to the right of the restaurant, a little further down the road, stood the unmistakable Royal Palace. I began to get jumpy and was confused as to whether to go there immediately or wait until I got a table. I decided to wait for the table instead, since the palace wasn’t going to be going anywhere.

I got a table with Seeta, Shelley, Chloe, and two of the American girls Emily and Jenny, right next to the window. There were 2 levels, and the restaurant was quite small so it was a little bit of a squeeze. I guess the restaurant had to be patriotic towards the small country that it was in in some way!

Outside the Royal Palace, Monaco

Each of us had 4 glasses in front of us, and the first thing that was given to us was some champagne, which was delightful. Before we could really finish it, we were given a choice of red or white wine. I was never much of a wine drinker before this trip, but by this point I had had so much that I knew that I preferred white over red, unless it was rosé, which technically isn’t red wine (I don’t think). To make sure, I tasted the red, and it just confirmed my dislike for it. Too bitter for my liking! I decided to savour the champagne.

We had a choice of a few dishes, and at least 3 of the girls at my table went for the salmon. I chose the chicken. After our entree and main, some of us decided to go outside to see the Royal Palace and take some photos. On my way there, I passed a little souvenir shop and I knew I just had to stop by there before leaving to get some sort of souvenir. I had made a pledge to get at least one thing from every place I went to, so I kept that shop at the back of my mind.

When I came out of the narrow street, the palazzo, if you can call it that, opened up in front of me. What struck me was that even though this w__utma=214977736.2006115678.13622C there were no security guards arounds. Neither was there a tall fence. It was all open, and it looked as if you could go as close as you wanted to. I got Renae to take some photos of me (since Travis, my new designated photographer, wasn’t around).

Dessert could wait a bit, so I went to the right of the palace where there was a balcony. In the middle stood a few piles of canon balls, and an old canon. The view from there was breathtaking. Elliot stood on top of the canon balls to take the photo – his balancing act caused some amusement.

The view of the yacht club, Monte Carlo

After taking a few group photos with the girls, everyone went back to get dessert. I first stopped at the little shop I had seen a few minutes before to see what I could get, and found the perfect little souvenir that represented Monaco so well. It even had a little red Ferrari on it.

After dessert, we had to walk back down the hill we had come up earlier to the undercover parking lot to where the bus was parked. I have never felt that much pain in my feet before, and I think it only made the swelling worse. I thought I wasn’t going to make it to the bus without being forced to take off my boots, but I pushed myself forward until I finally reached it. I was so relieved after sitting down.

Our next stop was the casino, and it was not long before we got close enough to jump off the bus. The problem was that there aren’t any (legal) places for a bus to stop, at least, after a certain time, and there were cops around, so Driver Steve took a big risk by stopping where he did. He only did it because all the girls had heels on and he knew that a lot of us were in pain, so he wanted to minimise our walking distance as much as possible. What a sweet guy.

We disembarked as quickly as possible because there were cops very close by, and they could see everything. We practically ran into the park next to the Tourism building, even though trying to remain hidden was a futile effort. Some of us stayed and watched as the cops went up to Driver Steve to reprimand him for his stop, and we got quite worried about it and hoped he wouldn’t be getting arrested or something, but thankfully, all was ok. After our few minutes of anxious waiting, Steve joined us and lead us to the casino. It was a relief to hear that Driver Steve was ok and that he’d be joining us soon.

The cars outside the Monte Carlo casino

The casino was a grand building and the path leading down to it had 2 large fountains in the centre. Everything was so well lit and beautiful, everywhere I looked. The fountains added to the grandeur of the place, and the closer we got, the more stylish the people seemed to become, and the more expensive cars we saw. All the men entering the casino were in black suits, and many were young guys between 18 and 26 or so. Steve told the girls that if they want to find a rich husband, the casino was the place to go! I had no interest though, and didn’t want to spend €10 just to go inside (I definitely wasn’t going to gamble) when my time in Monaco was limited as it is.

Rachel, Alli and I separated from everyone and decided to walk around the area. Steve told us where the bus was going to be so we headed in that general direction so that we wouldn’t have to walk too much. I couldn’t, anyway.

We walked alongside the casino towards the waterfront, taking in the sights and the richness of the place. When we got  to the “bottom”, we were next to the long staircase that lead up to Buddha Bar, which was clearly an exclusive hot spot. On our left, however, was the famous Grand Prix bend.

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As we walked alongside it, we saw so many expensive cars going passed, but we didn’t linger. We carried on walking further down to where there appeared to be some sort of club. It was strange that no one was there though so it wasn’t 100% clear that it even was a club.  Also, the entrance was below ground level.

We came to a long walkway that allowed one to have a spectacular  180° view of Monaco and the waterfront. My feet were killing me by then, but I tried my best to forget it, though I did mention it to Alli once or twice. There was a very long staircase next to that walkway which would take you all the way down to the waterfront. Rachel decided she wanted to go down, but Alli and I thought about the walk back up, so we didn’t go. Alli and I spoke while waiting for Rachel to get back.

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When she did get back, we went back to the Grand Prix bend and sat down on the little wall outside Fairmont Monte Carlo, a rather lavish-looking hotel with multiple Ferraris parked outside it. Some of the other girls had also come down there and chose the same wall to rest on.

We sat not to people-watch, but to car-watch. I’ve never seen that many luxury vehicles in such a short span of time. We sat there for at least 15-20 minutes, and in that time I saw at least 5 Ferraris, 4 Bugatti Veyrons, 5-6 Aston Martins, top-of-the-range Mercedes Benzes, and a good number of Jaguars and Porsches. In fact, Mercedes Benz seems to be the poor man’s car in Monte Carlo, and so is a Porsche. There’s just too many of them. Must be for those poor souls who earn less than €1m a year.

The Monaco Grand Prix bend

We saw a lot of our group along the staircase of Buddha Bar, and some of them told us to come there, but we knew it would be pointless since we’d be coming back to that exact spot; so we waited for them instead.

Finally, we saw Steve leading them down to where we were. Once they caught up with us, we had to go down that tremendously long staircase that Alli, Rachel and I had seen earlier. Thankfully, it wasn’t too long a walk to the bus. My feet were pretty dead by then, though. It was time to say goodbye to Monaco.

Even though Paris was still on the way, I felt fulfilled that I had seen one of the places that I always wanted to see. Its too bad I couldn’t have tea with Prince Albert as my mother did with Princess Grace, but hey, being that close to the Royal Palace was good enough.

I’m sure my feet thanked me when I took those boots off and went to bed.

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