Saturday 21 June 2008

Greetings from the suite

Is 13 euro too much for a beer? It certainly would be if you were drinking a few, but we can perhaps allow the suite winner the exception of one. Our four days in Monte Carlo was enjoyable, more for the break and the company than the location itself. Sharon coming out on top and clinching the sumptuous 750 euro-a-night suite certainly eased the "pain" of having to spend so long in a tax haven where the local shops were either selling Cartier or Ferraris.

We met up in Jury's Inn at Hatton Cross last Wednesday night, Sharon having had a great time meeting up with Katherine for the first time since just after the Athens Olympics. After a decent kip we headed to Heathrow and met up with some of the other Level 3 achievers who were flying out to Nice. The transfer to Monaco brought the first glimpses of the Principality. It is very built-up and much steeper that I thought, especially for somewhere that hosts a Grand Prix. We wandered round the block on arrival and found a cafe for the first of several (tinned) tuna nicoise salads (as we discovered in Grenoble, French cuisine may be much lauded but gluten-free food seems to be a challenge they haven't risen to). As we checked in back at the Hotel Hermitage, the receptionists muttered amongst themselves and went to fetch Vanessa, Denny and Chris who led us to the suite amidst much excitement.

The suite was quietly situated down in the basement with a spacious private terrace. The only downside was the lack of a view but given the two large cranes between the Hotel Hermitage and the harbour, this was no great loss. The suite was very tastefully decorated in creams, limes, browns and purples, with a large sitting room, bedroom and separate changing room and bathroom. But no bidet. The terrace proved to be ideal for relaxing before dinner, especially once Sharon asked for the mini-bar to be cleared and we re-stocked with wine, olives and garlicky octopus from a local supemarket.

Cafe de Paris was the venue for the first evening, rooftop drinks overlooking the famous Monte Carlo casino being followed by an excellent meal, the highlight being a sea-bass fillet with broccoli risotto wrapped in a parmesan crisp. After a brief look at some of the fancy cars parked out front we headed to bed early. Bars and nightlcubs hold little appeal at the best of time these days: even less so when they are charging a fortune for a drink. The following morning we caught the train along to Ventimiglia in Italy for the Friday market, an extensive affair featuring all the usual fakes, tablecloths, old-men trousers, shoes, household goods and so on. As ever, the best bit for us was the food market with a splendid variety of fruit and veg - courgettes with wonderful flowers; round, plump aubergines; fat fennel - and some fish stalls that would bring a tear to a glassy swordfish eye. The variety of squid and local fish and shellfish makes you wonder why, as an island nation, we really have to seek out the few places that sell quality seafood. After a leisurely mushroom risotto lunch we returned to Monte Carlo to greet the second wave of arrivals, which featured two of Sharon's team, Morven and her husband Gordon, and Sarah. Lesley, who was also there, had made Level 3 and was with us from the start, along with her husband Paul.

That evening we entertained the Scottish crowd (mostly) on the terrace before we all bussed along to the Beach Resort, a palm tree fringed sun-deck arranged around a 50m pool in the east of Monte Carlo. The increase in numbers from 80 to 300 meant a more boisterous atmosphere and correspondingly poorer fayre but no-one ended up in the pool which was an achievement in itself. The open-air setting for the meal was quite spectacular as the lights came on in Monte Carlo.

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