“Hotel Columbus, aha!” exclaimed my taxi driver to his friend outside the window.
“Hotel Columbus! Ahhh!” said his friend.
They grinned at each other.
My arrival at Nice airport was slightly confusing. For one, I couldn’t see the signs for the train. This, I’d been assured, was the easiest way to get from Nice airport to Monaco - but I couldn’t find it, and anyway, the little piece of paper that I was holding told me to take a taxi - so I did.
I walked out to what I thought was the taxi rank, to find a set of people standing around and chatting. Other people were standing nearby with bags and things, so I thought that this was the best place to wait for a taxi, given that there was a line of taxis here too, with their lights on. This’ll be the taxi rank, I thought, and any minute now, one of the people chatting, who I assumed were taxi drivers, would come over and ask me where I wanted to go.
Anyway, I waited for a bit, and nobody came over. Crucially, nobody was approached - the other people with bags stood and waited for a bit, too.
After a bit, I wondered whether the taxi at the front had broken down, or whether this was in fact the taxi rank at all. Come to think of it, the light on the taxi at the front was quite dim, wasn’t it? And nobody seemed the least bit concerned about the lack of movement. So, I scurried back inside the airport to find a map. I walked halfway along the entire airport, found a map, and studied it closely. No mention of taxis in the index. Ah. But - what’s this? A little picture of a 1940s looking car. Good. With a sign on the top. Better. Saying ‘TAXI’. Bingo. And it was… in the exact place I’d been standing.
So, I went all the way back again and made it outside, to discover that the other people with their bags had all miraculously disappeared, and that the group of people chatting to one another were still ignoring me. I was carrying luggage. I was looking English and confused. Surely, one of them would notice me and let me into their taxi. And yes, they did, after I interrupted their obviously fascinating conversation and insisted that one of them pretended, at the very least, that they were a taxi driver and drive me to my destination.
Which is where the “Ah, Hotel Columbus!” conversation started.
I had no idea why this was, but assumed that it was a nice hotel, and that the driver was looking forward to the drive. But it wasn’t, quite, for that reason that he seemed so overwhelmingly pleased.
“I wonder how much this is going to cost,” I wondered, a few minutes into the journey. We’d been round terminal 2 a fair bit, seemed to get awfully close to terminal 1 which I thought was the wrong way, and seemed destined to leave the airport at some stage soon.
I couldn’t see a meter anywhere, and given that the journey from Nice to Monaco was probably a fairly regular one, I assumed that it was probably a journey they’d done quite often, and there was probably a fixed charge, like there is from Newark airport into Manhattan, and so there’d be no need for a - holy shit, there’s the meter.
Now, I know that the euro is worth less than the pound. But I also know that when you see euros racking up alarmingly as if the car is being filled with petrol, and you “only” have a hundred euros in your pocket, and you just pass a sign that says “Monaco 25km”, you begin to wonder exactly how much it’ll cost.
We sped through what was probably quite beautiful scenery, with valleys and high mountains, roads cut through stunning rock formations, breathtaking drops around sharp bends - incredible views were it not dark. And, while I should have been admiring this inky blackness, the only thing I was admiring was this taxi’s interestingly fast moving meter.
I was treated to non-stop radio Nostalgie, a French radio station seemingly full of “Je ne regrette rien,” and other songs based very closely on it, and more songs sounding virtually identical, and then a bizarre version of “9 to 5” sung in French which possibly improved it, then more “Je ne regrette rien”, each three-minute-thirty song reminding me that I’d just travelled another three-minute-thirty seconds in the world’s most expensive taxi.
Far be it for me to criticize the millionaire driver, but I did spot a few signs for the hotel that he ignored, insisting on taking me a different - possibly shorter, probably longer - way round. I’m not pretending that it was deliberately driving a longer way to ratchet up the price at all; all I knew was that every further Euro that the meter went up I would have to start the ludicrous discussion of “Monsieur, j’ai seulment un cent d’euros” or whatever the French is for “You thieving bastard”.
Well, it costs eighty euro, eighty cents, you’ll be pleased to know. I gave the driver ninety euro, expecting change, but little realising that the driver doesn’t give change, by the looks of things, so it cost me a further six quid more than it need have done, and to cap it all, the driver wrote a receipt for 80 euros, thus meaning that I was, also, out of pocket.
Welcome to Monaco.
Monaco is the second-smallest country in the world. It has 43,000 inhabitants, and its own version of the Euro coin, even though you’ll never see it since the few that were minted are now all with coin collectors, since they’re so rare.
Monaco is probably the only place in the world where you’ll walk down the road past a Bentley, Rolls Royce, another Bentley and an Aston Martin before getting to the Smart car. Amazingly for France, which Monaco of course isn’t, there are no cars with dents in them.
Monaco is incredibly tidy. There is no litter, no gum on the pavements, no crisp packets gently drifting down the street. Monaco has public transport: well, lifts and escalators, which are amazingly a) all working, and b) contain no whiff of tramp urine.
But, at least when I went there, Monaco bore a strong resemblance to somewhere that was actually closed.