La Grotte d'Observatoire

It seems unlikely - a cave? In Monaco? Why, of course. An interesting, large one, with stalactites and stalagmites in bouquets and a 200,000 year history of habitation. High up on a cliffy crag in the western arm of Monaco, an under-appreciated attraction awaits.
Monaco isn't just a portside huddle of yachts and roulette tables. On either side of Monte Carlo the country takes on a different feel. Buildings in diverse clusters of Belle Epoque and sixties slab cling to the cliffs, narrow streets wind in intricate loops, a culture of quiet cafes and local bars thrives in the upper, shaded neighborhoods. The "maritime alps" drop in a knobby jumble towards the water - it's a vertical city, and it's fitting that the country's biggest cave has its entrance so far above the sea. Near the top of this outcropping, inside the wild-feeling "jardin exotique," the mouth of the grotto opens in a protected nook of rock.
It's visitable only by tour, and it's not a very long experience. The signs outside have been altered, seemingly with a magic marker, making note of the decreased duration. Once a forty minute tour, thirty-five minutes are all that's promised now.
Steep steps - three hundred of them, a man told us pointedly - descend almost straight down. The drop occurring quickly and without comment. At the bottom, we paused for a few minutes in each of two caverns. The laconic guide pointed out a few features and went over a summary of La Grotte's history, then began to lead us back up towards the entrance.
It is not an unwelcome climb, actually, because the cave is quite hot. The constant temperature of sixty-five degrees feels much warmer because of extreme humidity. Sweating, our guide told us that this is the warmest cave in Europe, and one of the hottest in the world. Location plays a major part in the high temperature, as the cave follows a path downward that runs nearly parallel to the south-facing cliff, which catches the sun and traps heat in the cavern. It's the first spelunking we've done where a warning was given about how hot the cave would be, not how cold.
The current climate is quite mild, though, compared with what it used to be like. Before the cave was opened up during construction of the tourist route, circulation was poor and hot air had nowhere to escape. When the first explorers descended into the depths, in the 1940's, the ambient temperature was a constant (and unimaginable) ninety-three degrees, the hottest recorded non-thermal cave temperature in the world at the time.
The construction of the staircases and route was a difficult and fast-paced project, completed only a few years after the first explorations of the lower reaches. Between 1947 and 1949, La Grotte was explored, charted, opened up and fitted with walkways. Prince Rainier III was welcomed in June of 1949, when he expressed his satisfaction and excitement, apparently. The name of the cave was given because of an old celestial observatory that once stood at the top of the cliff.
Although the depths were only plumbed in 1947, the entrance to the cave had been in use for much longer - in fact, La Grotte d'Observatoire is often called "the birth of humanity in Monaco." Pre-Neanderthals, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon man all used a portion of the cavern, near the top, and a trove of flints, tools and animal bones were found there during an excavation between 1916 and 1930. The nearby Musee d'Anthropologie Prehistorique has a concise collection of curios and relics relating to the finds, and is worth a look simply because of it's proximity and loneliness.
The cave enjoys one of the best views in the country - early inhabitants likely considered it prime Monegasque real estate. It's not a popular place to visit because it's a little out of the way and not well advertised. Tourists in Monaco tend to be day-trippers, and attractions like this get overlooked.
It is a little surreal to emerge from underground and feel such an immediate sense of space. The hot wind off the Mediterranean felt cool and deliciously dry, and we lingered for a moment in the sunshine, slightly bewildered.
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