The Formula 1 circus is gathering on the Cote d’Azur for the annual shindig around the streets of Monaco. For most of the people on this planet, Monaco is the epitome of glamour and they say that even the bushmen in the Kalahari know that the Principality is famous for a car race. Some may think that it is a sunny place filled with shady people (as Somerset Maugham famously described it) and it is fair to say that there are more than a few bling-infested barbarians, with mountains of money but no class nor education. And yet, try as you might to hate the place, it is impossible to deny that this is a beautiful part of the world, albeit rudely over-developed and spectacularly over-priced. In recent years folk from Russia have infested these shores, just as 100 years ago, the White Russians came, fleeing the Bolsheviks. Perhaps they lack the gentility of the aristocrats back then, but as we know from John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bernie Ecclestone, money really does makes the world go around… The prices at Grand Prix time are today designed for oligarchs and computer nerd squillionaires and I long ago gave up lodging in the Principality. For a while I hung out in Beaulieu, but the prices got sillier and so I began renting apartments and villas.
I’ve stayed in some spectacular places in recent years and, because one rents from Saturday to Saturday, one gets a few days off before the Grand Prix begins. And so we left Paris on Friday and stopped in an undistinguished hotel in an undistinguished town in the Rhone Valley. On Saturday morning we hit the sunshine not far from Montelimar. We passed by an insignificant place called Lapalud, where the great Emile Levassor (of Panhard and Levassor) crashed on the Paris-Marseilles-Paris in 1896, swerving into a ditch to avoid an errant dog. He hurt himself so badly that he died early the following year. Over on the left is Mont Ventoux where there was an insane hill climb from 1902 onwards, won by some of the sport’s greatest names. Ahead is Avignon, home town of Jean Alesi, and from there one crosses the Durance, skirting the delightful Luberon, and passes Cavaillon, the capital of the melon. Ahead on the right is the airbase at Salon de Provence and just beyond it, the old autodrome at Miramas, briefly the home of the French GP in the 1920s. It’s still operating today, as a BMW test track. All along the coast from there to Monaco there are motorsport stories to tell, from Paul Ricard to Hyeres, Gonfaron to Mont Agel, La Garoupe to the Col de Turini. The region pervades the sport, not just with the Monte Carlo Rally or the Monaco Grand Prix but in more subtle ways as well. In 1898, for example, the Austro-Hungarian consul Emil Jellinek opened a dealership in Nice to sell Gottlieb Daimler’s automobiles to the rich and famous who were wintering on the Côte d’Azur. He competed in racing events, using as a pseudonym the name of his daughter Mercedes. Two years later he commissioned a new automobile from Stuttgart and this was the very first Mercedes.
This year’s accommodation is in La Turbie, which was the finish of the world’s very first hillclimb race in 1897. It is the village on top the hill above Monaco and a stunning place. It is on the Grande Corniche, the highest (and the most spectacular) of the three coast roads and this stakes a very decent claim to be France’s greatest piece of road, ducking from ridge to ridge. From up here one can look down about the palaces of the rich and famous.
I will go down to the stews of Monaco later in the week but for the next few days I’m going to simply enjoy looking down on the world below from a terrace (one of two!) from where I can see the Mediterranean, surrounded by a garden filled with cherry, lemon and olive trees with a mighty vine providing a little shade.
Another bottle of rosé? Churlish not to..