Sunday, October 1, 2017

MONACO: a Gambling and Racing Coastal Paradise

If Vatican City (completely enclosed by the city of Rome in Italy) is the smallest country by land area in the world, then the Principality of Monaco is the second smallest at about four times the Vatican’s size. Located on the French Riviera coast not far from Italy, it is also the most densely populated nation on Earth, which is quite understandable. After ball, Modern Monaco is a paradise of the wealthy, with its majestic location and a powerful economy thanks to being the world’s second highest GDP thanks to its industries in tourism, banking and gambling. There is also the fact that the country is a tax haven.
Looking through history, it can be mind-boggling to think that this mighty microstate, home of one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world (and country of origin for two well-known female characters on Japanese fighting videogames) arose from rather humble beginnings. One story for the origin of its name comes from the Ancient Greeks, who recount in their mythology how Heracles (Hercules) travelled to that area in his adventures, leading to a temple called Monoikos (lone dweller) being built there in his honor.
But the real historical meat came in 1215 AD when the Italian republic of Genoa founded a colony on the site. Eventually that colony came under the control of the Genoese House of Grimaldi, who in 1419 bought the colonial territory as their own domain, with the house heads becoming Princes of Monaco. The tiny realm was alternately a protectorate of either France or Sardinia, and then began to accumulate great wealth when the princely house opened a casino during the 19thCentury. Gambling revenues grew to a point that the Princes stopped collecting income tax from their subjects.
The famous Monaco Grand Prix race was started in 1929, with the cars racing down the streets and along the harbor of the ward of Monte Carlo. During World War II Monaco was occupied by Italy, and then Nazi Germany, forcing the state to deport its Jewish population to the concentration camps. The principality would enter the international scene again when in 1956 Prince Rainier III (reigning since 1949) married the popular American actress Grace Kelly. By this point the combination of the casino, the racing circuit and the tax haven status of Monaco has changed the country into its present form.
Today, Monaco finds itself trying to squeeze the memories of the old with the best and latest of the new. With a land area of only 2.02 square kilometers, getting everything in is no easy task. It can be cramped going at times for the principality’s population of 32,000, a majority of which are foreign residents who tend to be really rich. Native Monegasques average only about 8,000, but they have special privileges from their Prince, currently Albert II, son of Rainer III and Grace, like price-controlled housing and assured employment. Monaco is one of the most expensive countries to live in without such guarantees. That of course means it has the world’s lowest poverty rate.
Tourists travelling to Monaco are one of the sources of its economic muscle. Whether they are taking in the sights, trying their luck at the Casino de-Monte Carlo (opened in 1863), or trying to catch the Grand Prix for the year, the country has all their wants and desires covered. It is interesting to note that most of the leading hotels, sports clubs, nightclubs, eating places and the casino are all owned by a public company wherein the Royal Family has a majority controlling interest. Imagine that.
Speaking of which, one of the top tourist stops in the country is the Prince’s Palace, which has stood on its site at the Rock of Monaco in some form since 1191. The Rock, a natural fortress, is part of Old Town in the capital ward, Monaco-Ville. Since it is an active residence of the Prince and his family, only a few areas are open to the public, and it is guarded by security personnel of Monaco’s only military forces. The rest of Old Town on the Rock retains an olden-time aesthetic with narrow medieval lanes.
Not far away is the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which also serves as the burial place for members of House Grimaldi. Most frequently visited are the graves of Prince Rainier III and his consort Princess Grace. Next on the list would be the Oceanographic Museum, founded by Prince Albert I in 1910. It has an exhibit on the history of oceanography and 90 tank aquariums filled with aquatic life.
As mentioned, the other major destination in Monaco is Monte Carlo ward, home of the country’s world-famous casino and Formula 1 race. Those who would want to see the inside of the casino would need to follow a jacket-and-tie protocol, and no wearing of sneakers. As a rule, under-18s can only mill about in the morning until 2PM. The Grand Prix is an annual event, and visitors could count themselves lucky to arrive when it is being held.
When one can look beyond the crowds of the well-heeled, the high-stakes rollers and the pleasure-seekers, a visitor is sure to find in little Monaco an interesting portrait of a nation whose culture is a blend of its prominent powers. In a way, the principality is a mini-Europe, and getting to spend a few days there can feel like a tour of the whole continent itself already.
Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

LUGANO of the Lake

It is a lucky group of towns and cities that get the honor and pleasure of being founded right on the shores of a freshwater lake. Even fewer then are the lakeside communities who come off looking perfectly beautiful on account of their geography. The city of Lugano is one of these. As the capital of the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, close to the Italian region of Lombardy, Lugano holds the distinction of being the largest city with an Italian-speaking majority outside of Italy itself. Its two namesakes of the lake and the surrounding mountain ranges give Lugano a supreme atmosphere that of course is a hit with the touristy crowd.
The variety of names by which Lugano has been known by in history (Latin “Luanasco”, Germanic “Lowens”, Lombard “Lugan”) illustrates the inconstancy of which territory Lugano has been part of. First mentioned in historical records as a market town, it became a minor battleground in the days of conflict between Italian city-states loyal to the authority of either the Pope or the (Germanic) Holy Roman Empire. By the time of the Renaissance Lugano was under the feudal control of the Duke of Milan, but eventually became a Swiss dominion.
Following the conquest by Napoleon, the city was made capital of its own Canton in the Helvetic Republic of 1798. When the Swiss Confederation as it now stands was born in 1803, Lugano canton was merged with its neighbor Bellinzona to form the present Ticino canton. The character of the city changed slightly after World War II with the increase in banking institutions. Today, despite not quite being up there with the list of the most easily-recalled major cities of Switzerland, Lugano is firmly entrenched as the country’s third financial center behind only Zurich and Geneva.
Travelers to Lugano would understandably be surprised at the incongruity of a city that is a banking center when it is right next to a picturesque lake and surrounded by the peaks of the Lugano Pre-Alps. Its lakeside location also led to some quirks in expansion; currently there is a quartier (neighborhood subdivision) of Lugano that is separated from the city proper by the crescent-shaped lake, being on the east shore while most is on the north shore. A separate municipality, Paradiso, is in turn nearly enveloped by the larger city to form a semi-enclave. Its position close to the Alps gives Lugano a subtropical climate wherein the hottest month, July never goes over 30°C in temperature.
Switzerland is most often characterized as having a blend of French and German culture with the native Helvetic, but Lugano is a vibrant reminder that there is some Italian in the mix as well. Its residents are Italian-speakers, and the place-names are in that language. It stands to reason then that the arts, architecture and culture in general have prominent marks of its southern neighbor. The Inventory of Swiss Heritage Sites lists no less than 17 sites in Lugano that are classified as nationally significant sites, many of them historic structures that remain in use.
The best way to kick off a tour of Lugano is by starting at the city center, the Piazza della Riforma. Bonus points if you are there on Tuesday or Friday morning, because these are designated open-air market days. Tourists will get to see what products and goods the city has to offer at first glance; then they can duck into the 1844 Palazzo Civico (city hall) to admire its neoclassical styling.
A prominent museum in town is the one dedicated to German poet-writer-painter Herman Hesse, who was born in Switzerland and lived for a time in Lugano. His personal effects and some of his watercolor works are put on display here. Bookworms will also appreciate the chance to browse at two major libraries, the canton’s main Biblioteca or the Biblioteca Salita dei Frati.
Holy sites include the 15th Century Cathedral of San Lorenzo which stands on a view that catches both lake and mountains, and the churches of San Rocco and Santa Maria degli Angioli, the latter with frescoes by Bernardo Luini. Other quirky museums to check out are the Schokoland chocolate museum (with shop) and the Swissminiatur amusement park that features scale models of no less than 120 attractions throughout Switzerland. Notable palazzos are the Palazzo e cinema Corso movie-house, three different Riva Palazzos and the Villa Favorita.
These are but the manmade attractions to be found in the city of Lugano itself, but the surrounding nature and landscape are masterpieces themselves. The twin peaks of the Lugano Pre-Alps, Monte Bre and Monte San Salvatore, offer commanding mountaintop views of Lugano, the lake and a great portion of the surrounding canton. Monte Bre has been described as the “sunniest spot in Switzerland.” The Lago de Lugano is also a magnificent boating spot, with visible boat traffic the better to commute with the city’s eastern shore neighborhood.
The city of Lugano has long been familiar to other Swiss and neighboring Lombards from Italy, thanks to its breathtaking locale. National interests have also gathered in the city due to its status as a financial center. Now, with the recent opening of a major cultural center at the Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana (MASI), Lugano is steadily making itself known internationally as another must-visit location in beautiful Switzerland, making it one of the best lakeside-mountainside communities all around.
Photo courtesy of Youtube

NICE: City on the French RIVIERA

The south of France has been synonymous the world over for some of the best beaches to soak up the sun and swim in. And the best area for that in France’s significant Mediterranean coast is the southeastern part known as the Côte d’Azur (Azure Coast), though it is also known in English as the French Riviera. This stretch of coast and the communities that dot it are considered to be one of the first historical modern resort locations. And the largest French city in that area is Nice, fifth overall in France and second largest after Marseille on the Mediterranean side.
Known by the nickname “la Belle” (“the Beautiful”), Nice like all cities of note in the Inner Sea that is the Mediterranean, has a weight of history where it stands. In fact in their case it goes even further back into prehistory, as Nice contains within its city limits an archaeological site, Terra Amata, which may well be one of the earliest places in Europe where primitive men learned to make and use fire that did not come from nature. It entered into historical times in 350 BC, when Ancient Greeks from the colony of Massalia (modern Marseille) founded a settlement there that they named after the Goddess of Victory, Nike.
Nikaia became a trading port that remained prosperous even as it was incorporated into the Roman Empire. This was even after the Romans built their own settlement next to it, Cemenelum. That town would eventually be destroyed by barbarian invasion, but its ruins remain in Cimiez, a district of the modern city of Nice.
Nice managed to survive the turbulent times of the Middle Ages by joining with whichever Italian city-state would lend it aid. First they allied with Genoa as protection against the Muslim Saracens. Then they sided with Pisa against Genoa. The city briefly came under the French Counts of Provence, and later the Counts of Savoy to defend against the Corsair pirates of the Barbary States since 1388. After a series of territorial exchanges, by 1860 the city was added to the territory of France and it has stayed there ever since.
The vogue of Nice and the rest of the French Riviera as a vacation spot for the affluent started as early as the latter half of the 18th Century, with the upper-crust families of Great Britain. Upon learning of the natural beauty in the Côte d’Azur as well as the gentle Mediterranean weather, British citizens who could afford the trip would head over to Nice in December, seeing it as a better place to pass the winter than back home.
As of the 19th Century this image was only strengthened by the celebrity status of the people who went on holiday there, like Queen Victoria of the British Empire herself. They were joined by writers and artists like Picasso and Henri Matisse. With the parallel development of the nearby Principality of Monaco to the east, just 13 kilometers apart, the French Riviera area became cemented in popular culture as a getaway for the rich and famous.
Travel and tourism to Nice lately has been somewhat guarded, following the tragedy during Bastille Day of 2016. But one unfortunate incident should not be enough to sour the experience of this coastal Mediterranean paradise for interested people. Travelers would most certainly be drawn to the most iconic feature of this resort city, the Promenade de Anglais. This paved walkway was built in 1822, paid for by English tourists of the time. The promenade has since been expanded with a dedicated lane for bicycles, and skateboards, and there is a Segway rental to quickly get around the 4-kilometer stretch.
Just as iconic to Nice as the Promenade de Anglais is the old quarter of the city, or Vieux Nice. Its street and building layout has been preserved since the 1700s and is centered on the busy Saleya market square, with three “F’s” as its regular offering to customers: food, flowers and flea (market). Other establishments in Vieux Nice are restaurants, bars, delis and clothing boutiques.
Historical structures within the old town include the Palais Lascaris mansion which has an 18th Century pharmacy, and two churches: the city’s Cathedral dedicated to their patron Saint Reparata, and the smaller Chapel of Misericorde. At the edge of the old town is a high wooded outcrop that has had some building or other built on it since Roman times, as well as a 16th Century tower that is all that was left of a castle destroyed by the French king Louis XIV.
Nice also has an abundance of museums, mostly showcasing the history of the city as a Riviera resort getaway. The Musee Massena and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art document the foreign tourist and expat community of Nice in their exhibits.
Artists Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, who both lived in the city, get their own dedicated museums showcasing their various artworks. Matisse’s collection is housed in a Genoese-style villa with an olive grove, while his grave is in the cemetery just across the nearby park. The Chagall museum, which he opened while he was still alive, is the largest collection of his work.
Last but not least, lest we forget that this is a resort city, Nice has its famous beaches that have captivated sun-seekers for centuries past. The most popular patch of seaside is directly opposite Vieux Nice, with plenty of sunbathers and beach-volleyball players about. The sand is generally judged to have more pebbles than most, but it has never stopped tourists from going there again and again.
While often perceived as a playground for the wealthy, Nice is actually accessible and approachable for every tourist of means that would come over there for a spell. With its bright and sunny weather, old-town flair, inviting sand and surf (and close proximity to the shops, casinos and racing circuit of Monaco), Nice is just about the proper way to experience the French Riviera, and a must-visit for any global traveler.
Photo courtesy of