JEWELS OF THE FRENCH RIVIERA:
The Nieuw Amsterdam anchors in Monaco's shimmering blue waters as eager day-trippers board her waiting tenders, impatient to sample the fabled French Riviera. Though we soon dock amid ultramodern skyscrapers, a mix of history and glamour soon delights us.
Local guide Jane introduces the world's oldest monarchy, "Sandwiched between the Alps and Mediterranean, Monaco's tiny Principality covers just 500 acres. Residents here live along tidy streets near elaborate gardens, chic boutiques and even palaces."
Our walking tour begins outside the monumental Oceanographic Museum built 100 years ago by Prince Albert I, founder of modern Monaco. Until 1988, esteemed marine-biologist Jacques Cousteau worked from his extensive laboratory there. Strolling through resplendent public gardens fronting Princesses Stephanie and Caroline's elegant mansions, we indulge in fanciful speculation about who owns countless sleek yachts moored below us.
At St. Nicholas Cathedral Jane says with a twinkle, "A modern-day fairytale unfolded here in 1956 when our handsome Prince Ranier III married American actress Grace Kelly. Their crypt now attracts many pilgrims to this glorious cathedral rebuilt in 1875. And in July 2011, son Albert II continued this fairytale, by also marrying a commoner."
Up in Palace Square, aka the Rock, we gather around an armed monk, a prominent sculpture. "Masquerading as a Franciscan in 1297, Genoese leader Francois Grimaldi seized the hilltop city." Says Jane. "His ragtag companions included cousin Ranier I, his successor," Outlasting turbulent wars and marauding pirates, autonomy came in 1524. And when title 'prince' was conferred in the 17th-century, Honore Grimaldi II converted the old fortress into this lavish palace, installing priceless paintings, tapestries and furniture. Still home to the Grimaldi dynasty after 700 years, we watch white-uniformed carabinieri execute the ceremonial changing-of-the-guard.
Descending a spectacular cliff-side walkway, Jane points out sections of the Grand Prix route looping below. Since 1929 competitors have hurtled at breakneck speeds through narrow streets with tight corners and hairpin turns. Nowadays averaging142 kilometers per hour, racers electrify thousands of Formula1 fans annually!
Adeptly negotiating his own tight mountain highway corners, our driver then takes us sightseeing along the French Riviera's breathtaking coastline. From above Cap Ferrat's forested peninsula, we spy grand villas where the likes of Baroness de Rothschild, David Niven, Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin once lived.
In nearby Nice, pedestrian-only streets lead us past bakeries, cafes and wine shops to the old quarter's open-air flower and fish markets. Between splendid hotels and azure seas along the famous beach, we dreamily wander the Promenade des Anglais named for wealthy Brits wintering under Riviera sun for years.
Visiting baroque Chapelle de la Misericorde reveals golden stucco and remarkable interior paintings. Behind former lavish palaces of the Dukes of Savoy stands beautiful Cathedrale de St. Reparate devoted to Nice's martyred patron saint. According to legend, angels in a small boat guided young Reparata's headless body here from Palestine.
We head next to Eze, one of many 'eagle nests' perched above the Mediterranean. Inaccessible to coastal raids, some lofty villages still feature 14th-century ramparts. Cobblestone walkways lead tourists past several luxury hotels, one overlooking Babylonian-style gardens tumbling toward the sea. Jane smiles and says. "These million dollar views have long lured such illustrious guests as writer George Sand, philosopher Nietzsche, royalty…and now, us!" Inside the medieval gate, specialty boutiques lining the stone staircase tempt me with handmade dolls, wooden toys, exclusive jewelry and one-of-a-kind fashions.
Fortified with French cuisine in a rustic café below, our wondrous excursion concludes back in Monaco at Casino Square. Pastel lights bathing Monte-Carlo's grand casino and cheeky cherubs balancing along swooping neoclassical façades create an ambience of playful sophistication. Mazzerattis, Ferraris and Rolls Royces gleam out front.
Inside, the pink gallery bar and main gaming hall ooze glitz, style and plush glamour. Cigarette-smoking nudes float along the ceiling, racy stuff even in 1880! Amplifying our curiosity, serious blackjack, poker or roulette 'action' happens in private salons.
Alongside one of several illuminated fountains, Jane explains, "Monaco owes its celebrity to Charles III who developed this casino in 1863, a last ditch effort to fund his Principality." Quickly popular among high rollers, Monaco became an upscale gambling destination…and renowned tax haven. Saved from bankruptcy, casino earnings also allowed him to abolish taxes for all citizens!
And magnifying Monaco's storied highlife even further, Ian Fleming set Casino Royale, his first James Bond thriller there and the historic casino itself starred in Bond movies Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye…
Ahh, yes! The Riviera's sunshine, scenery and ritzy extravagance have beguiled royalty, celebrities...and inquisitive sightseers like us for decades.
IF YOU GO:
" Holland America offers European summer cruise itineraries: www.hollandamerica.com
PHOTOS by Chris & Rick Millikan
1. Monaco, the world's oldest monarchy.
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