Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cruise Day 3: Monaco.

Monaco pictures HERE.

Well, Monaco has come and gone. Though I have of course heard about Rome and Venice since my early childhood, most of the places on this cruise I’ve never really heard of. Monaco is an exception. I’ve followed Formula 1 car racing for close to 20 years now (though not so much in the last couple seasons) and Monaco is the crown jewel race for this series. There are only a couple races on the yearly calendar that have been there since the beginning (in, I believe, 1950). Monaco is one of them and perhaps the most special. It’s certainly the most glamorous and the most anomalous. The race is held on the city streets of the crowded municipality—a tiny city-state, really—and there are virtually none of the safety features that have become required of any other venue that proposes to host an F1 race. Mostly, there is no room for error. If you are off-line, you hit immoveable things—armco barriers or stone walls. There is precious little space to pass another car, and, again, getting it wrong means broken things. It has long been conceded that no one trying to establish a race today would be allowed to consider an ancient mountainside playground for the rich and famous as a venue.

But it was here first, so the race itself has had to adapt over time. Despite a continuous tweaking of the regulations, the cars get faster and faster, more than offsetting the increases in safety achieved in other areas. So cars going 120 mph in this setting, though considerably slower than speeds achieved on any other track, seems INSANE when you see how cramped the track is. Suicidal, even.

I’ve known all this for years, of course. Anyone who watches the race on TV gets a continuous earful about how odd the circumstances are and how dangerous it is to hold a race in this setting. And from that TV coverage over 20 years I’ve watched hundreds of laps around the circuit from both onboard cameras and from general TV coverage. So it’s kind of surreal to show up and experience a thing you already kind of know well. We got off our tender at a pier not far from the center of town (the whole municipality can be walked one end to the other in hardly more than an hour, I’d say) and was suddenly overtaken with a sense of déja vu. I know this place! This place I’ve never set foot upon. Very odd indeed.

Well, I know it, but I don’t know it. There’s still a disconnect between what I’ve seen and what it’s like in the flesh. As it looked around I needed to do a little act of translation. TV plays with your sense of perspective and distance. The actual distances are much shorter than I expected, the quarters tighter, the hills steeper. I’ve listened to laments for years about how cramped everything is, but I wasn’t prepared to practically be able to touch both lanes of the track simultaneously.

Before walking parts of the track, we headed uphill from the tender pier to the oldest part of the city, high on a hill overlooking the spectacular harbor that is the city’s trademark. This is supposedly the old, original city. From there the narrow, winding streets lead to the famous cathedral where Grace Kelly is buried (along with her husband), and from there onward to the Royal Palace. All trés swank. Then one descends down the backside of the hill back to sea level. We went from there to a shopping complex where Susan shopped a bit and I went through the prince’s private car collection, which includes a bunch of F1 cars starting from about 1980 and continuing up to the present day (they had a stripped 2013 Lotus on display). He also has a bunch of older cars from many nations, actually extending as far back as horse-drawn carriages. I especially loved the ‘50s vintage Cadillacs. Fun to see how the American cars competed when we were at the top of our game. Our cars were utterly distinct from anything else being made.

After that, we just roamed the city, mostly following the F1 track. We did a little window shopping (I bought only a Mercedes team F1 hat), we had some lunch, took a boatload of pictures, and headed back to the ship. A really lovely day. There is a fairy-tale aspect to the place, and while I’d love seeing the race in person it doesn’t seem like a place I’d need to visit again. But I’m thrilled I saw it in person.

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