Ah, the glamorous South of France. Casinos. Blue sky. Azure coastline. A terrifying approach to Nice Airport during which you think you will be landing in the Med.
I have given this article some thought in the weeks prior to sitting down to the writing of it. As your local friendly Chels features writer, using a pseudonym, how much of oneself does one give away?
Well, I think it fair at this stage to warn readers of a nervous disposition that I am, in fact, what Herr Flick of the Gestapo would describe as “a female of the opposite sex”. Yes, whisper it quietly, but I’m a girl(ish). Hence my choice of a rather softer nom-de-guerre than you’d get from your average Chelsea blogger. And being a girl was in fact one of the reasons I ended up in Monaco.
Just before our previous away European trip to Stuttgart, I’d started going out with a guy who was a Chelsea fan. No names, no pack drill, but for the purposes of this column I’ll refer to him as The Former Mr Baby (TFMB). And shortly after the draw for the semi final was made, he phoned me up and said he was going to Monaco, and did I fancy going with him? I certainly did.
However, there was as usual the issue of funds to meet the extortionate airfare and the tickets we could lay our hands on. I simply didn’t have the cash, and I don’t ponce on men. So I did what any self-respecting Chelsea fan did at that time and borrowed it from the Bank.
Thus it was we set off from London City Airport for Nice via Zurich. I don’t know how familiar readers are with LCY, but the runway is so short that the take-off is practically vertical; it’s virtually a jump start. And readers will recall that I’m bad at taking off and landing so ended up with TFMB’s hand in a vice-like grip. Lovely flight though.
The weather was exceptionally fine for mid-April and we flew over Paris, where the skies were so clear we could see the Champs-Elysee. Unfortunately we’d taken off slightly late, so on arrival at Zurich we literally had about 5 minutes to make our connecting flight, resulting in history’s fastest loo stop (not the same loo, of course).
After negotiating the hairy decent into Nice Cote d’Azur, the first thing that hit us when we got off the plane was the heat. It must have been about 25°C. The next thing we had to do was meet our man with the tickets outside. Let’s be honest, this was on the old marché noir, as were half of the Chels fans on that trip. We handed over a staggering amount of money and promised our associate we’d see him in Monte.
After that it was a quick taxi ride into town to check into our Ibis-ish hotel, not far away from the railway station. Then we went into the Old Town and had dinner in a lovely cheap Italian restaurant and spent the rest of the evening in the Irish bar opposite.
After the world’s worst hotel breakfast (TFMB doesn’t really do breakfast) we headed off to the railway station to catch the train to Monte Carlo, stopping off en route to drop one of the extortionately priced tickets to a mate staying in another hotel.
At the train station we ended up stuck in a huge queue of people none of whom were capable of asking for what they wanted (“deux allez-retour” is a phrase which might come in handy for some of you in Marseille) and we made the train by the skin of our teeth. I hadn’t really realised until that point that you could get double-decker trains, and although the upper deck was 1st class only, I was still thrilled by the novelty.
The train route from Nice to Monaco hugs the Cote D’Azur, and the spring sun sparkled on the Med as we passed. The journey only takes about an hour, and once off the train we found a little local bus which took us down to the harbour, where we were meeting a mate who was coming in on the day trip.
By this time TFMB was starting to feel a bit hungry, so we went to a café on the harbour, just where all the boats were parked. Croque Monsieur for me, a pizza with an egg in the middle for him (he was so charmed by this that subsequently he got into the habit of frying up an egg and bunging it on his pizza at home).
I was facing the harbour, and whilst we were eating, two men appeared, and sat down at the table in front of us. One of them I didn’t recognise, but the other was none other than Carlo Cudicini, who had made the trip to Monaco in spite of being doubtful with injury. This was an opportunity to get the low-down on whether he’d be playing, and an autograph too.
Carlo was very charming, introducing me to Stewart Bannister, who had taken over as kit-man from the legendary Terry Byrne, and signed a couple of autographs. I asked him if he was going to be able to play, and his little face nearly crumpled as he said no. He wasn’t the only one gutted, this meant we’d have to play the less than reliable Marco Ambrosio.
He’d obviously been given the rest of the day off until it was time to watch the game. Whilst it’s always lovely to meet a player, it’s important not too intrude too much, so I thanked them and said bye and went back to TFMB, autographs in hand.
Carlo and Stewart departed after their coffee, and after TFMB and I finished our meal, we went off to meet our friend, just down by the start line for the Grand Prix. As we were walking along, we bumped into our ticket associate, who had had an unfortunate evening at the Casino, losing £2,000 (probably ours amongst it). We had a quick chat with him, met our friend on the daytrip and repaired to a pretty local bar to catch up on our respective trips. We then decided to wend our way up the hill to have a look at the Casino, passing many designer shops along the way. “Pop in there and get yourself something!” urged our friend. Not at those prices, I demurred.
The Casino in Monte Carlo is a huge baroque-style building, in the same square as the legendary Hotel de Paris, with its nearby café, and the gorgeous Jardin Exotique. We entered the Casino to be met by a sign advising there was an €8 entrance fee and decided not to bother.
However, our friend experienced a wish to visit the (free) lavatories to see what they were like, so he and TFMB popped to what they described as very lavish “Gents”, and I visited the disappointingly mundane “Ladies’”. It happened to be my brother’s 40th birthday that day, so I telephoned him from the steps of the Casino to wish him a happy birthday, and then we decided to have a drink in the Café de Paris.
Two beers for the boys and a coke for me. €24. But at least they threw in some nibbles. And we got to meet England cricket legend Alec Stewart, who was passing by.
After the civilised drinkies, we had a wander round the lovely (and thankfully free) Gardens and had an ice-cream. By this time it was nearly 4pm, and we found an English bar called Flashmans. I’d been a good girl all day, only drinking Coke, but TFMB now decided to put his foot down. “Darling, it’s four o’clock. You’re having a drink”. So I had a drink. And another. And another…
And then it was six o’clock and I’d appeared to have had rather a lot of drink (the Continental Measure strikes again). And besides, it was nearly time for the football. So we had the bar call us a taxi, which thrillingly drove us through probably the most famous part of the Grand Prix circuit, down the hairpin and through the tunnel, out by the swimming pool (I have a vague recollection of sticking my head out the car window at this point, it was certainly quite dark in there).
The taxi driver dropped us near the ground and we had another little drink outside a bar with other friends. We were getting a bit nervous by this stage about our not-quite-kosher tickets, and decided to make our way round to the designated gate. The Police started waving us round towards another gate and I explained in my schoolgirl French that no, the tickets were definitely for this gate, but they were most insistent. We thought “oh well, better do as they say”, and you can imagine how delighted we were when we discovered that what we had been told were tickets for the “neutral” area were in fact next to our away support!
Unfortunately the game that followed will live long in the memories of those of us who were there, and probably everyone watching at home too. A goal down after a poor start, we clawed our way back into the game with a first half equaliser from Crespo, and Frank Lampard gave what was probably the best 45 minutes of his Chelsea career thus far. In the second half, two inexplicable Ranieri substitutions, with Robert Huth playing up front, completely threw the rhythm of the team, and Ambrosio’s disastrous error resulted in a 3-1 loss.
To add insult to injury Makalele’s booking ruled him out of the second leg. Most of us stood there during the lock-in, too stunned to do anything except talk quietly amongst ourselves. To be fair, they didn’t keep us back long, and we faced the trek back to the railway station, with the train to Nice not due until just before midnight. TFMB was distraught. He really, really loves Chelsea (indeed a number of our friends maintain that he remembers the 1905-1906 season), and the joyful beeping of Monegasque car horns was too much for him. With some decidedly off-colour language he started threatening to kick their rear lights in. I told him bluntly that such behaviour would end in him returning to the hotel on his own.
We eventually reached the train station, and there were some really hideously sun-burnt fellow Chels fans lying on the ground – one acquaintance, a redhead known as Kiwi Paul, was literally the colour of a carrot. We’d been lucky – a girl will usually have a little bit of sunblock on a sunny day, and the boys had made good use of it. It was a very long wait, and the train was 15 minutes late.
Everyone simply pushed on and TFMB and I managed to get upstairs into first class where there was one seat left. So he sat on the seat and I sat in his lap. Happily, he was in a slightly better mood by this time, having got over the initial disappointment of the game. And I can’t remember how it was he ended up singing “Jilted John” quietly to me in his melodious voice on the train as we passed the coast again.
We ended up back in the Irish bar in Nice till they closed at 2am and didn’t get to bed till late.
The journey back to London was uneventful, except that in what can only be described as a taste of security checks to come, TFMB got absolutely turned over by Customs at Nice. Bovver boots off, the lot. He wasn’t a happy bunny. I thought they were going to unpick his jumper at one point. The good thing about flying back through Zurich was this time we had a chance to visit the excellent duty free.
The South of France is absolutely fantastic. A really beautiful place. You don’t have to stay in Monaco, and if you can get a cheap no-frills flight, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. And I would really like to go back, albeit this time it wouldn’t be with TFMB. And I know that there’s a window of opportunity.
We just have to win the Champions League first…
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