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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Monaco: A Small Pleasure

Quick!  What’s the smallest independent country in the world?  Come-on, you Roman Catholics, speak up!  The Vatican, of course, at .17 Square Miles (.44 Square Kilometers)

Ok, let’s keep it going.  Second biggest?  Monaco at .75 Square Miles (1.95 Square Kilometers).  This summer I spend a wonderful afternoon on the gnarled, cobblestoned streets and wide avenues that stretch along the aqua water’s edge.

Our ship docked in Monte Carlo, noted Riviera playground of the famously famous and fabulously wealthy.   Mind numbing questions plagued me as I strolled past yachts, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris.  Would a world class blond love me for my charm and wit?  Would my wife be content with our credit card limit?  Could I afford a beer?

 Monaco is a rolling, sun-bleached hillside of a country. Yachts only slightly smaller than Manhattan are strewn like toys on the deep blue water.  Clusters of white limestone buildings climb the hills. 

I call Monaco a jewel in the sun. Not only because it’s right on the area known as The Riviera.  It’s also the face of elegance. 

Who hasn’t heard of the fabulous Casino de Monte Carlo?  Hollywood certainly has.  Quite a few movies filmed there, including a couple of James Bond thrillers (1983 and 1995) and Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.  Go in and take a look around for 10 Euros.

The Casino at Night

...and during the day.

Odd things about Hitchcock’s movie.  Not only did Grace Kelly go on to marry Prince Rainier III, Monaco’s former ruler, but there’s a scene in the movie where she drives too fast on one of Monaco’s mountainous, seaside roads.  Years later, she met her demise doing the same thing.  The Casino was built in 1878, same year as the Cathedral where Princess Grace and her prince are buried.

Inside the Royal Cathedral

Princess Grace's grave

Why build a casino here?  Takes you back to 1861.  Monaco was broke.  France grabbed the land where Monaco’s money crops, citrus and the like grew.  The casino wasn’t an immediate success, but the railroad changed all that.  The operation moved a few times and ended up where is it is now.

Many folks tend to think that Monaco’s wealth (per capita income of near $190,00 in 2011) is due to the casino.  Not true.  Banking and business being in 75% of the money, with tourism accounting for another 15%.

Lots of famous folks inhabit this paradise.  Ringo.  Bono. Gina Lollobrigida. The list of tennis stars, racecar drivers, and business moguls goes on.  If you want to be their neighbor, bring your checkbook and a good line of credit.  Apartments sell for upwards of $55,000 a square yard (about .83 square meters).  One reason the rich live here:  It is a tax haven.  For individuals, there is no income tax.  Well, that’s for most residents.  If you’re from the U.S., tough luck!   The United States government still requires you to pay.

Lots for the rich to do besides camp in their apartments and stare at their yachts.  Once a year is the ever-famous Monte Carlo Gran Prix, which next takes place 21-24 May 2015.  You can buy tickets online:  A two day ticket will run you from $300 for the cheap seats to upwards of $3500.

 William Grover-Williams in a Bugatti- the first winner of Monaco Grand Prix on April 14, 1929.
How about the rest of us.  I took a bus and walking tour, ambled past the government house, the oceanographic museum (see below), wandered the streets, stood outside the Royal Palace, and settled in a restaurant nestled in a narrow street, for an exceptional local brew and a sandwich. 

The aquarium and oceanographic museum are world famous.  Too much to describe about this center of all things that live in the sea.  But, here’s a tidbit:  On average, there are ten deaths per year from shark attacks.  The tiny mosquito accounts for 800,000 deaths per year.  And, you’re afraid to go in the ocean?

How about some basics?  Population of Monaco is only 33,000, but because the country is so small, it’s the most densely populated area in Europe, ranking only behind Macau, China world-wide.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem so crowded. Monaco is graced with profuse tropical flowers and palm and fig trees. They seem to lessen the impact of the teeming multitudes in the streets.

So, is Monte Carlo (Mount Charles) the capital Monaco?  Nope.  Monaco is the capital of Monaco.  Monte Carlo is one of the four sections of the country, although they’re so packed together, I defy anyone but a native to know exactly when you cross from one to the next.

What about the government?  The Grimaldi Family rules (and has for seven centuries) and the current head of state is Prince Albert II.  It’s a constitutional monarchy, but with a twist.  The Prince is the Chief Executive.  He appoints a Minister of State, who presides over a five member Council of Government.  The Minister of State is French, although that is not mandatory.  There’s also a National Council, with elected deputies, and a Communal Council, which takes care of city affairs.  How well does this work?   Two items to mention:  the streets are clean and the country is debt free.

Interesting relationship between Monaco and France.  French is the official language.  The French Army provides defense for the Principality and also the guards outside the Royal Palace (which you can visit).  Check times for the Changing of the Guard ceremony.  However, the Prince hires his own bodyguards.

The Royal Palace

A French Army Guard

While not a member of the European Union, Monaco does share several agreements with the E.U., such as the Euro currency, and open borders/customs with E.U. countries.

The agreements are important, especially for those work in Monaco, but don’t live there.  I was curious about that.  How can so many shop clerks and waiters, who obviously are not rich, afford to live in one of the most expensive places on earth?  Simple.  They work in Monaco, but live in France, or Italy.

I liked the general attitude and tempo of Monaco, but I couldn’t afford to live there either.   Put me in the shoe clerk category.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Well, Smack My Lips: Couple of Small Charmers in Charleston

When it comes to regional food, I thrive on Americana.  Off the beaten path.  Smaller the better.

Pop into a big name chain and grab something raised in Montana, processed in Chicago, shipped frozen to the distribution center in Southern California, and finally flipped on a bun in Rocky Junction?  Not this kid.  To paraphrase a long-time friend, why eat when you can dine.

Before you let the word ‘dine’ throw you for a loop, let me clarify.  I’m not talking about a place that can take your two-week paycheck in a single bite, or…on the other end of the spectrum…a greasy spoon adjacent to a major highway.

I’m talking about real Americana, a place highlighting simple dishes that take on complex flavors because somebody in the kitchen gives a damn, knows what they’re doing, and isn’t relying on speed and cheap meat to make a living.

How can you tell the good from the bad?  Small and slightly frayed at the edges.  Down a couple of little side streets.  Food so unexpectedly delicious and atmosphere so comfortably special, any little travel inconvenience makes no difference.  Ya, just gotta go there to scratch that itch.

I’ve found a couple of those in Charleston, SC.  Usually a line outside.  Normally, a mention in the newspaper or flyer that this wayside spot you’ve never heard of has won awards year after year.  Maybe a friend steers you in the right direction.  If he’s excited and presses you to let him join you, you’re onto something.

Moe’s Crosstown Tavern

Burgers and beer.  Find that anywhere, you say?  Not on your life.  Eight years running it’s won awards.  Why?  Things like a perfectly done burger, made with prime beef, slathered in melted blue cheese and dressed up with crisp lettuce, tomato, pickles, and a pile of home made onion rings?  If you’re not a burger fan, there’s plenty more to pick from.  And the beer on tap?  Some old favorites, but many are small town and haven’t made a name for themselves except among beer lovers.  Undecided?  Ask.  These folks know their beer.

You park down the street.  Amble into a small building that hasn’t had a facelift in awhile.  The Tavern is mildly dark, like a cloudy day in the evening.  Lots of dark wood.  Long, well worn, inviting bar.  But, you’re a party of four and op for a booth.  Your friends are telling…no begging you to order this and order that.

The waitress is patient.  You order an appealing beer, but it doesn’t do any good for me to slide the name past you.  Moe’s changes handcrafted beers with the tides.

The burger comes with fries, but of course your friends insist on an order of hand battered onion rings.  Yeah, well, force me.

The meal isn’t just filling, it’s everything a burger and fries should be, washed down with a dark brew that sails lightly on the tongue.

You walk away, wondering if anybody would object to coming back tomorrow…

I’m just sayin’, if you’ve ever in Charleston…

The Early Bird Diner

Sunday morning.  Yeah, you could just go home after church, or head to one of the many, jam-packed chains for breakfast.  Why in the world would you do that when The Early Bird Diner is right down the Savannah Highway?  Yep, it’s gonna be packed, but this small, eclectic touch of charm is worth the minor inconvenience of a wait.

Biscuits are delicious.  Fried chicken and waffles make your eyes dance and your stomach start to gallop.  Yes, that combination is THAT good.  Or, you can do what I did and settle for a low country favorite, shrimp and grits.  These shrimp and grits are anything but bland.  Dark red, rich gravy.  Creamy grits.  Fresh-off-the-boat shrimp cooked only until they are exactly done.  Succulent.

Want to try something simple and simply delicious?  Go for the grilled pimento cheese sandwich.  Crispy, crunchy, creamy.

Sorry, chain restaurants, but you’re never going to serve a breakfast this good.  Just ain’t gonna happen.  The Early Bird Dinner just may make you want to get to church more often.  Praise da Lawd and pass the biscuits.

Just a bit more about Charleston restaurants in general.  There was a time, when they were just ordinary.  No longer.  Charleston has developed into a foodie haven.  You can spend a little, or spend a lot, but wherever you dine, the bar has been raised.   I’m talkin’ “Look out New Orleans, Charleston is catching up.”

Moe’s and The Early Bird are leading the charge.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ajaccio, Corsica and Napoleon and so on

The Port of Ajaccio, Corsica

Ever been to Corsica?  Me either.  Up until a cruise took me there in July. The ship docked at the port of Ajaccio, pronounced Ah-ya-cho.  Ajaccio, the Capital of Corsica, is a city of near 65,000 people, on the west coast.

You don’t hear much about the island, other than your high school European History class when Napoleon Bonaparte was mentioned in passing.  Yep, he was Coriscan-French.

Fourth largest island in the Med, the top three being….go ahead…take a guess.        

Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus.

Corsica still feels raw and open, without the neon flash of tourism.  Take a trip back into the hinterland and you’ll find yourself in mountains, and small villages, with narrow roads in between.  Family businesses spring up here and there.  Honey. Essential Oils.  Wines. Nougat factories.  These are small, proud affairs, nestled back in the trees, true to the centuries, and eschewing the twin vices of modernity:  Faster and Cheaper.

The Nougat factory was not much larger than a couple of living rooms in an American house.  The owner and four people worked there and had been turning out confections for fifty years.  One lone machine churned up the sugar and fluffed the egg whites.  On a couple of long, stainless steel tables, slabs of tan or white nougat, flavored with pure vanilla or brandy, and embedded with nuts, or candied orange, were hand cut and hand packaged.

The owner said he was contemplating his own version of Nutella.  Why?

“The original was wonderful stuff, but they’ve gone to using 60 % sugar, instead of the 20% it used to be.  That changes the flavor and the texture.  I like it the way it was.”

With all the wild flowers and herbs, you’d think Corsica would be a center for perfume.  You’d be right, sorta.  There is big business in essential oils and the perfumers buy a lot of it here.


Corsica is often called ‘The scented isle’ because of the abundant flowers and herbs.  The rugged mountains of the interior are splendid with color and fragrance.  Napoleon said he could smell Corsica far out to sea because of the redolence of the Chaparral plant.  A dozen varieties of wild herbs also spill out over the higher elevations.

With the hilly countryside, much of the plant-life demands to be harvested by hand.  In the essential oils factory I visited, great bags of fresh flowers sat in rough burlap bags, awaiting the extraction machine, which works through pressing and steam distillation.  You need lots of herbs.  For example, it takes about 11 pounds of lavender plant to make a jigger full of essential lavender oil. 

Pickers go out every morning and trek the steep hills for hours.  Everything is seasonal and mornings are the right time to pick.

What more is Corsica known for?  Wine.  Went to a winery and tried a few.  The reds were forgettable, but one of the whites was quite nice, in a slightly sweet, summertime kind of way.

Bacchus as a child?

Down below, along the water’s edge, lie long stretches of unblemished sand, including Palm Beach, close to Ajaccio.

But, let’s get down to Corsica’s favorite son.  Was Napoleon really French? That could be a complicated answer, or a simple one, depending on if you just want to know, or have a round at the bar riding on it. 

The year before Napoleon was born, 1768, Genoa ceded the island to France.  So, in his birth year, 1769, the year (his birth year has been much disputed) the island was French and so was Napoleon.  His birth name was Nabulione Buonaparte.  Detractors aside, 1769 seems to be dead on.

Of course, Europe has changed with the tides and we could discuss all sorts of other complications.  Citizenship or Nationality was a matter of which King was in control.  Nationhood was a bit different than it is today.  Italians weren’t Italians yet.  Germans weren’t Germans.  Genoa was powerful. So was Pisa.  Ah, we could go on forever, but let’s leave it uncomplicated:  Napoleon was French.

But, as with most of the rich and famous, Napoleon’s fame is a mixed bag.  Corsican, but he also returned to the island to lead French forces in putting down a rebellion for Corsican independence.  See, even his legacy is a bit complicated.

But, in the end, business is business.  Statues to the Little Corporal are everywhere.  By the way, under modern measurements he stood 5 feet 7 inches tall (170 cm) and at the time, the average height for a male was 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm).  Under the old measurements (I’ve been told), he came in at 5 feet 2 inches, hence the vertical misunderstanding.

The house where he was born is now a museum and the place where he played as a child is now Place d’Austerlitz.

A little trolley from the main market square will take you past his house (now a museum) and on up the slope to Place d’Austerlitz.  Big open space and steep stone steps that lead up to a statue.  The steps recount all the General’s victories.  Waterloo isn’t mentioned.

But, don’t rush.  The market square still has a very nice market.  Lots of cheeses and smoked meats and wines and fruit preserves.  I sampled a few.  The ham compares favorably to those of Italy and Spain.  Also tried the fig preserves and wish I’d brought a case back with me.

Corsica is one of those places you know little about, which makes for a reluctant visit.  Then you step ashore, mingle in the marketplace, wander the streets, go into the mountains, sip the wine, see how unspoiled the island is, and find yourself asking:  Now if I came back, where would I want to stay?