Andrée and Michelle

Monegasques Andrée and Michelle outside the palace in Monaco Ville. Photos: Nancy Heslin

To celebrate National Day on November 19, Andrée and Michelle – the “Mamies of Monaco Ville” – share their stories about growing up on the Rock and how Covid has impacted the community.

Andrée and Michelle are sitting on a bench outside the palace, nearby the marble statue of tribute from foreign colonies presented to Prince Albert I on the occasion of his 25 years of reign in 1914.

“When I was a child, I used to climb that statue,” Andrée points. “Everything has changed. This used to really be a square.”

“Well, it was different,” says Michelle. “When I was younger, we would bike and roller-skate in the square. You know, the other morning, there was no one here except for a few kids from the painting school (Pavillon Bosio Visual Arts School) who were sitting in front of the palace on the sidewalk with their papers and pens, and the teacher was there. I saw a Carabinier approach and tell them they had to leave. The gentleman said he was a teacher here in Monaco-Ville and the students wanted to draw the palace a little. The Carabinier replied, ‘No, it’s out of the question.’ I found this completely absurd.”

“When I was young and in the month of Mary (May), we would all go to the Cathedral. There are arches at the top of the church tower and you can see there is a floor. There was a door and so we would go up and look at the choir sing. Now, you have to show your credentials everywhere. It’s not like before.”

These days, Covid also makes life different for the two women. Before the health pandemic, Andrée and Michelle would usually meet with friends every day for coffee. “We would meet up every morning at 9 at the San Remo bar,” says Michelle. “Before Covid, Monaco was far more lively. I think that with lockdown, we realise that apart from tourism, there’s not much on the Rock. Even people from Monaco, they are not going to come here to buy souvenirs. Although, some have come in a stand of solidarity.”

“In our day, it wasn’t like that,” shares Andrée. “There were grocery stores, a stationery shop, florists, a cobbler … we had everything. Souvenir shops practically did not exist. But it changed in the Sixties, they took away all the stores.”

Michelle agrees. “Monaco-Ville used to be a village but it gradually changed and is now essentially touristic. I’m going to tell you the honest truth. At the time, we were a bit fed up, because you couldn’t walk in the street in the summer, in the middle of August. Between the restaurant’s terraces and the groups, going out was really annoying. Frankly, we were bothered by this but when you look around now, it’s obvious that it is dying with sadness.”

Andrée adds, “I think, there is going to be a reversal. It’s necessary for the souvenir shops to do something else.”

“But some can’t close because they have big management,” Michelle remarks.

Village Life

“Before, all the families used to all know each other in Monaco-Ville. Now we no longer do,” says Andrée. There are many foreigners who have bought as secondary residences.

“The old grannies would take their chairs,” Michelle describes, “and bring them in the street and they would be in front of their doors, chatting. I remember that.”

“I can see them now,” recalls Andrée, “with their aprons, and they would shell peas or beans…”

Michelle remembers how the women would wash laundry. “You’ve seen the Parking des Pêcheurs? There was a lavoir there. I saw women who would leave their house with the thing on their heads and they went to wash their linen there.”

“Not my grandmother,” says Andrée, “because we had the bassine on the terrace.”

“Well, Claudie, with her sister, who are roughly my age, they would go there,” Michelle responds.

Andrée adds, “Not so long ago, some people still didn’t have toilets at home, they would still go wash to the washhouse. And there was a lavoir at Sainte Devote church, you know where the stairs go up behind, there were toilets there. They removed them, and there was a washhouse.”

Michelle says she sold her 3-bedroom apartment on Boulevard des Moulins to buy another apartment on the Rock for her son “because I couldn’t see myself living at Palais Miramar. For me, my stronghold is here.”

“My neighbour can see me in my bed,” Andrée, who has one daughter, laughs. “It doesn’t bother me, it’s been like this since I was born. Where I lived before, my neighbour was Madame Augusta,  and when I opened my windows, there she was. ‘Hello Madame Augusta,’ I would say … My grandfather bought the place I now live in 1921, I have the deed. I wanted to leave because I had back pain and I have four floors. But at my age, I couldn’t picture myself moving.”

“I don’t have neighbours opposite,” says Michelle, who has a son and daughter. “I have a view of the mairie. It’s my grandmother’s house and I was raised there, so were my children, and even my grandson. My grandparents used to live near Sainte Devote, at villa Lilly Lou, I think it’s still there. And they sold it to buy here on the Rock, a house with two floors. They bought the second floor first, because the first floor was rented. And I remember that later when they bought the first floor, there were always two apartments. I was raised in one of the apartments with my grandparents.”

Andrée, with Michelle, in front of the Palace statue she used to climb as a child.

Living With Lockdown

During the first lockdown, the women say they only did what was authorized, like went out to do shopping or a morning walk in front of the Carabiniers or around the garden and then home.

Andrée admits, “Confinement didn’t bother me the first time.”

“I have a terrace with the sun, I have a view on the mountain … there is worse,” Michelle says. “We are very privileged in Monaco. Even if things have changed, we are privileged, really.”

“You know,” says Andrée, “you have to be born in Monaco-Ville, because there are a lot of people from Monaco who tell you they would never live here. I can’t leave.”

“Things never change here, and never will,” says Michelle. “Except that they repaired houses but otherwise, you can’t touch Monaco-Ville. When we look at the old photos, it was a bit old-fashioned. Now, when you look, it’s all perfect. It’s all redone.”

Michelle adds, “Everybody dreams about coming to Monaco. It’s the only place where you can go out with your jewellery and not worry about your purse. Let me tell you something. We are all happy, even those who complain, in Monaco, everyone is happy. And everyone would like to live there. Aren’t I right?”

Andrée nods in complete agreement. “If you only knew how I hear from friends because we are less locked-down than in France.I don’t know, it seems that people are jealous,” says Andrée. “There is good and there is bad, it’s a bit like life.”

“I can’t stand when people criticise Monaco. I can’t stand it,” admits Michelle.

National Day

“The fête nationale in Monaco is something close to our heart,” says Andrée. “Every time we come to the square, there is a party. I was born on the Rock, really, and I’ve never seen this before.”

Michelle agrees. “We come to the square with a flag, we wait until the Princely couple stands at the window. This year it’s sad because it won’t happen. There will be a speech on television. They are doing the Te Deum but with distancing and that’s all. For the Prince’s Day, everything has been cancelled.”

Typically, in the days leading up to the National Day in Monaco, which has been on November 19 since 1952, there are rehearsals for the parade in the Place du Palais and the ambience is festive. As we sit near the Place du Palais two days before the big event, there is little activity. This year, there will be no military parade or symbolic wave from the window by the prince and his family. Mass at the Cathedral and the ceremony in the Cour d’Honneur will be broadcast live on Monaco Info.

“Every year, the Princely couple would stand at the window, sometime’s the whole family even,” Michelle points out.

“It was a family holiday,” says Andrée. There were two different days, on Wednesday and Thursday.”

“Back in our children’s time, they would have all the games at Place du Palais. There were things for children all day long.” Michelle says warmly.

I ask the ladies if they saw Prince Albert as a child at the window, and they admit seeing all three young siblings – Caroline, Albert and Stephanie.

Michelle recalls the birth of Princess Caroline. “I was at school and I must have been in 6th grade. I remember, with the teacher, there were cannons fired.”

“… to know if it was a boy or a girl,” Andrée chimes in.

“And then, after the cannon shots,” Michelle relives, “we all left school and came here to the square with flags, shouting. It really came from our hearts. We were kids.”

Andrée and Michelle say that before Princess Grace, “Monaco was not much.” For Michelle, “Grace is the one who brought about the renewal of Monaco that led to making Monaco known all around the world. The whole world was invited to Monaco. There were parties, there were galas, and it was sumptuous. Sumptuous. Even now, it’s not the same anymore. It’s not the same thing, it was a different era.”

Andrée adds, “At the time there was Le Bal de la Rose at the palace or on the square … we would see all the artists pass by, I saw Charles Aznavour.”

“In the morning, we would always see Princess Grace bring her children to school,” Michelle reveals. “We would meet them in the streets. One day, I was walking down the ramp and there came the Princess, such simplicity. She had a small scarf, flat shoes. You remember Andrée?”

“Yes,” Andrée replies. “We would often see them. I also remember her with Stephanie, and their dog, the little poodle.”

“We had the most glamorous period of Monaco,” Michelle says. “We were very lucky because we had a time, I think, no one will have again. It was the time of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. It was magic.”

Words cannot express my gratitude to Andrée and Michelle, two characterful ladies who provided a rare glimpse into a very private world in honour of National Day. They only removed their masks for photos.

I wish I could organise a Rediscover Monaco-Ville day to encourage Monaco residents to explore and support the old town, to eat at the restaurants and buy some gifts and souvenirs for a Very Monaco Christmas. But alas, I cannot. So I will continue to share stories of real people and maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference together.

Francis Wright

Francis Wright at Remembrance Day spot on Avenue Grande Bretagne with bust of Sir Winston Churchill behind.
Photo: Ed Wright Images.

As a Remembrance Day tribute, Francis Wright shares his story about growing up in Monaco in the 1930s and when Italy declared war on France.

Born in Monaco in 1927 on what is today known as National Day (see “It’s A Date!” text below), Francis Wright’s childhood consisted of walking from his home at Rue de la Source to Lycée Albert 1er up on the Rock, every morning, lunch and evening.

“We had homework to do over lunch which he had to recite at 2 p.m. Punishment was having to go back to school on a Wednesday, our day off, for one to three hours. I was punished once and had to write what the teachers told me,” says 93-year-old Francis.

When the weather was warm, Francis and his older brother, Peter, would swim early in the morning in the Condamine harbour, where Ubaldi is now, and then walk up to the Rock for classes. “That was our joy. Before the war, there were no parks or reserved places for children to play in Monaco. We weren’t even allowed to walk around the Casino in shorts, you had to wear a tie and proper clothes,” he reminisces.

In those days, men went to work, women looked after the house and the children, who were left to their own devices to entertainment themselves, like playing football or marbles in the street. Shopping was a daily occurrence. “There were at least four épiceries along rue des Roses. There were no Frigidaires at the time, so butter would melt at times. I don’t remember milk.”

His father came to Monte Carlo in 1924 to set up a garage to service the cars of tourists who drove cars from England and through France to Monte Carlo on gravel roads. In the lead up to the war, his father’s garage, British Motors at 5 Rue de la Source, had fewer and fewer customers as there were no cars from either Great Britain or tourists and his business collapsed in the Thirties. “He took on a job as driver for Madame Westmacott, which took him all over France and other places. Mother looked after us alone, and that was hard.”

Francis says he will never forget June 10, 1940, the day Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. “My two brothers and I had already been badly treated by the Italian scholars because we were British, but the mood worsened, especially after Mussolini’s shouting speeches on the radio, and we weren’t welcome. The school closed that day and it was a frightening scene as the Monaco police – there was no military – rounded up all the fascists, including the baker, who were all taken to Fort Carré in Antibes.”

Francis describes, “It was the first day we had air raids. Sirens went off as a warning as Italian warplanes passed over Monaco flying to Cannes and elsewhere to do some bombing, I suppose. We would hide in the garage, others hid in their caves.”

Then came the phone call.

Fleeing France: 1 ship, 900 people, 2 toilets

On June 16, which happened to be Peter’s birthday, Francis’ father received a phone call from the British consulate advising the family leave the country as the Nazis had entered Paris. He explained that there were two ships leaving Cannes for England at 8 a.m. the following morning. “They had to make the decision then and there,” says Francis. “I remember mother and father sitting around the table and it must have been a hard decision for my father to make, to leave the garage, leave the home … we had to give away our Siamese cat.”

They were allowed one case each (the boys packed a few toys for the long journey)  and the only clothes they took were the ones they wore. And so, the next morning, 12-year old Francis, Peter, 15, and their parents fled Monaco being driven by their neighbour in their old Citroën. (Francis’ oldest brother Alan had joined the Royal Air Force in 1938 and in 1940 escaped France via Cherbourg during the Dunkirk operation.)

“It was hot and we had a trunk full of sardines,” recollects Francis about the drive to Cannes that morning. “My father had thought of escaping the Italian invasion by driving into the middle of France somewhere and mother had said the best food to take would be cans of sardines, which were in the back of the car. And so we took with them on the ship, which was a good thing. The only rations on the ship were a couple of slices of corned beef, slices of bread, and biscuits.

Picture of the ship Francis Wright, along with his brother Peter and his mother and father, embarked on from Cannes to Liverpool as the Nazis invaded Paris.

On the ship Salterscate, there were only two toilets for 900 Brits and no washing facilities. “We didn’t wash until we got to Gibraltar. We were going to disembark at Oran, but the captain said we could not land there because ‘France had capitulated and we are now in French Algerian waters, enemy waters.’ Francis in fact saw the British fleet leave Gibraltar and later discovered they were, in fact, part of Operation Catapult, which helped defeat the French fleet in Oran so they ships would not fall into the hands of the Germans.

Historian Maureen Emerson comments: “Francis’ memories of the journey to freedom echo those of Somerset Maugham, who took the same journey on the same ship.”

In Gibraltar, they were able “to freshen up” the hospital served as accommodation and the passengers were served a meal of bacon and eggs. “It was the best meal I’ve ever had, I’ll always remember that. My father fell ill with the dysentery and we thought we’d have to leave him in Gibraltar. But he recovered and on the City of Cairo ship, we had a cabin for the four of us. We left the cabin to mom and father and Peter and I slept on the deck. We landed in Liverpool on July 14 or 15.”

“When we left Cannes, my mother had a lovely full head of brown hair. When we arrived in England three weeks later it was white.”

The family stayed briefly Liverpool, and then headed to Pinner in Middlesex outside of London where an aunt lived. “My mother took me to Lewis, the men’s shop for trousers, and it was the first pair I’d ever owned. I still remember that because I had always worn shorts in Monaco.”

Francis’ father found a job in Warrington, as a transport manager to an air drone base, which would become one of America’s biggest bases in England. “The airplanes would arrive in crates from the U.S. to be assembled at the Burtonwood air depot, like toys being put together.”

Peter went to night school and eventually joined the RAF and Francis attended grammar school in Farnworth. “I didn’t like it at all. I was nicknamed ‘Froggy’ because of my name. It was big change and I stayed until age 16.” He spent a month in hospital having contacted pneumonia and pleurisy, and at one point he was placed on the dangerously ill list for a week. “I remember my father came to see me every night and I appreciated that very much.”

Once he “got over that,” he began to work at an aviation company, working on Barracudas, where he gained great insight of airplanes and the air force.

Meanwhile Warrington was having air raids every night. “It was worse when the full moon lit up the Manchester ship canal which if German Luftwaffe followed would guide them to the Burtonwood air depot. Liverpool got a packet during the war.”

There were no restrictions on movement or curfew and “the rationing was just about adequate, we didn’t starve. But the worst thing was the blackouts in the winter, you couldn’t see anything, not even cars and buses. I remember a blackout so intense once that biking home from work after work, Peter ended up on the main railway station platform in Warrington.”

The return home, or what was left of in, in Monaco

Post-war, Francis moved back “home” early 1949. “There was nothing left of the apartment in Monaco, it was an absolute disaster.”

His dad had returned in 1947, alone, travelling by train all the way back to Monaco and found his garage business empty, the cars stolen by the Germans, who apparently “left a note saying something like ‘when the hostilities were finished we’ll hand them back to you.’” (Francis still has the note.)

“There was nothing left in the apartment, the cupboard with my toys had been emptied. We had to sleep on mattresses on the floors. And we stared work on the garage.”

Francis has lived through three reigning Prince’s in Monaco. “I was too young to remember Louis II but Rainier had a pretty good relationship with the people, and decided that buildings built during his reign were not to be more than 13 floors high, except the Millefiori.”

As Rainier had a Rolls Royce, Francis met him through the garage. He and Peter (who returned in 1948 after leaving the air force) were also the ones who collected Princess Grace’s Rover from Paris to Monte Carlo to check for any faults to sort out before Monte Carlo.”

“Princess Grace brought the Americans here and Monte Carlo changed completely, she put Monte Carlo on the map because the Americans loved her marrying a Prince. Americans wanted to come and see where was this place Monte Carlo.”

One of the first things Grace did was to stop the live pigeon shooting, which took place at a range above the train station, where the Fairmont is now. They substituted real pigeons for clay but ended up packing the whole thing in. “They turned the shooting range into an open-air cinema, but if two people in the film were talking quietly and a train went past, you couldn’t hear.”

Monaco then and now

For Francis, Monaco is just “a town like every other town” with commerce and workers commuting in. “It is the press, not the people, that created the image that Monaco s full of glamour, cocktail parties every night, champagne everywhere, and full of rich people. Monaco is a working town, there are lots of people that are poor, lots of people better off, and some are struggling more than others.”

Looking back on 93 years, Francis feels fortunate but admits that living in Monaco was a career choice, coming back after the war to work with his dad at the garage. Their customers were ordinary people (although Sean Connery did bring his Rolls Royce in for service. “It was successful but we made it successful because we worked damn hard. Peter and I would do all the paperwork on the weekends.”

General Motors was big seller in the 1950s and the American car company set up in Monaco, across from where the Marché U is now, on Boulevard Princesse Charlotte “Peter saw their showroom window and said that would be a dream to have. Then business slowed down because of space in Monte Carlo and GM went caput.”

For Francis, there are too many buildings in Monaco and not enough green spaces. “Everything is concrete now, which gives it too much heat in the summer. The Hotel de Paris had the Camembert garden/roundabout, then they got rid of it and it is just concrete. Why not have a little green space instead of a building?

The other standout memory for Francis is when the relationship soured between Prince Rainier and Charles de Gaulle (France celebrated the 50th anniversary of his death on November 9) because of French companies evading taxes by having offices in Monaco. “There were plaques of French businesses on buildings, like the Victoria, and they didn’t pay any income tax. De Gaulle came down and sorted it out with Rainier. Suddenly Monaco had frontiers. Margare, my sister-in-law, would look out the window and see the old women carrying their baskets up the public steps leading up from rue de la Source, where French gendarmes were checking to see if they had anything to declare.”

Remembering and Remembrance

For Remembrance Day commemorations, Francis and two brothers often laid wreaths on avenue Grande Bretagne or were flag bearers at the war memorial in the cemetery in Menton.

“For me, Remembrance Day is about the pilots during the Battle of Britain. If we had lost, that would have been the end of it all. The Germans would be in England, the Americans could never have come over to create a base in England and it would have changed the direction of the war in the German’s favour. There would never have been a D-Day.”

He always thinks back to getting on that ship in Cannes in 1940. “It was the biggest event in my life getting on that ship, crossing the Atlantic as a convoy, all night the horns would blow, which meant changing course in a zigzag formation to confuse any U boats.”

Francis says it’s “not really fair to compare” Covid to a war. “Covid is an illness that I don’t think will ever go away properly and it is unfortunate you can’t go home, or go to France, but you just have to accept it and live through it.

“It’s like during the war. We didn’t like it but we had to live through whatever they threw at us.”

A heartfelt thanks to Ed Wright for assisting in the interview of Francis Wright, which I couldn’t do in person due to Covid restrictions.

It’s A Date! Monaco National Day

Photo: Nancy Heslin

Since 1857, Sovereign Day in Monaco typically coincided with the day of the ruling Prince’s Patron Saint. Prince Louis II broke this tradition when he ascended, however, as Saint-Louis day was on August 25, during summer holidays.
He instead chose January 17, the day of Saint Anthony the Abbot, the Patronal Feast of his granddaughter, Princess Antoinette.

When Rainier took over, the feast day of Patron Saint Rainier d’Arezzo fell on November 19, and so this date was consecrated National Day in 1952. Prince Albert decided to keep the same date as it also marked the second part of his investiture in 2005 when he was enthroned at Saint Nicholas Cathedral.

Philippe Verdier

NFL’s Philippe Verdier. Photo: Nancy Heslin

Geologist Philippe Verdier first came to Monaco in July 1995 to develop Gramaglia Assurances, which specialises in corporate risk.

Over the past 25 years, Philippe has become a widely admired personality in Monaco for creating the popular fundraising event, No Finish Line. For each kilometre a participant runs or walks over the 8-day event, his non-profit association Children and Future donates one euro to support disadvantaged and sick children through various projects.

For 58-year-old Philippe (who shares his birthday on Halloween with his twin sister), benevolence has played a part of his life since junior high when for seven years he was a Sea Scout in Rouen. “Being a scout taught me to show solidarity and how to set up projects for groups of five or six friends.”

And although his family wasn’t particularly sporty, in school he did everything from ping-pong and handball to windsurfing and sailing, becoming an instructor in the latter in St Vaast la Hougue (Normandy). In fact, growing up Philippe dreamt of sailing and being a skipper of a boat from his hometown of Rouen in the Tour de France.

At the age of 30, he did his first marathon and finished with a time of 2:49. This would launch his passion for mythical ultras – UTMB (6th,), Marathon des Sables (15th), Badwater USA (4th), 100km Ventoux (1st) – completing around 60 with 80% podium finishes by scratch or category.

Combining the two elements of sport and solidarity, Philippe put on the first No Finish Line (NFL) in Monaco in 1999. His original idea was to have one person at all times on the 1-kilometre circuit over eight days. But in 2002, a bank sponsored the event for €20,000 and 18,000 km were completed, which lead to the concept of a sponsor donating one euro for every kilometre. This has been the formula since NFL 2004.

“The NFL concept is simple and can bring together all types of personalities – runners, walkers, athletes or not, children, elderly, pets – all for the soul purpose of helping sick or disadvantaged kids. Even those who are not athletic walk 400 km, with some taking a week off work or others hitting the circuit every night.”

Philippe says he is most pleased when he sees groups of friends or business associates coming together every day on the course, chatting while walking or running, while they help to change the world.

In the year of Covid, it would be impossible to maintain social distancing for the hundreds of participants on the 1.3-km circuit in Fontvieille. So the 21st edition from November 14 to 22 will be virtual. “The show must go on! For this first connected NFL Monaco, I would be happy with 4,000 registrants and 200,000 km. In post-containment Paris in June, we had 3,000 registrants who completed 123,000 km.”

It’s only €12 to participate and individuals can register online until noon on November 22 but teams need to do so before November 11. You’ll need to then download the ZAPSPORTS app and register for “No Finish Line Virtuelle” and start the stopwatch. All the kilometres you run or walk 24/7 from November 14 at 3 pm to November 22 at 3 pm will be automatically saved.

Super important to note also is the NFL Toy Drive at Fontvieille Big Top from Saturday, November 14, to Saturday, November 21. This is to collect as-new condition toys for the kids affected by Storm Alex (some of the NFL proceeds will also support this cause.)

Since 1999, NFL Monaco participants have covered a total distance of nearly four million kilometres (3,799,042) to raise more than four million euro (€4,018,092) for various charities, including the Cardio-Thoracic Centre Monaco, Aviation sans frontiers/African Rencontres, the Chaîne de l’espoir, Maison de vie Carpentras, and the Monaco Red Cross.

From the get go, Philippe has said he would love to see one NFL event for every week of the year. “I know 52 NFLs is hard to imagine but it’s what gets me out of bed every morning.”

In addition to Monaco, there are five 5-day NFL fundraisers in Europe –Paris (2015), Oslo (2016), Athens (2017), Nice (2018) and Bratislava (2019, where a connected edition takes place this week with at least €30,000 donated) – which have raised a combined total of €874,259. Philippe hopes that 2021 will see new NFLs outside of Europe.

Children & Future was founded by Philippe in 2001 to promote the protection of children’s rights around the world, and to finance projects that improve their condition, education, health and lifestyle. In addition to NFL, “NFL Danse,” a friendly dance competition in Monaco, was launched to also support the cause.

For Philippe Verdier, the dedication of his association and all the volunteers who all give so much during the week of No Finish Line is well rewarded. “One year, a child who was operated on and recovered only a few days earlier at the Cardio-Thoracic Centre Monaco, came to the NFL start line and was then carried by the winner of the 8-day total distance during his last lap. Every one of us was crying seeing the smile on his face.”