It’s the playground of the mega-rich and famous, and down at street level Monaco is refined and unpretentious, and a great romantic getaway.
It’s barely 4pm and already the sun is dropping behind Mont Agel, casting a warm yellow hue over the Prince’s Palace and down into the habour where the scores of mega-yachts line up side by side on their moorings.
It’s an early sunset of sorts, but only because the steep and dramatic escarpment behind the city at over 1,000 metres is acting as a shield and it provides a backdrop which makes Monaco one of the most recognisable placesin the world.
First impressions is that it looks as though Manhattan or Hong Kong cruised past and tried to squeeze itself into the tiny 1.2 square kilometres that Monaco sits on right up against the Côte d’Azure.
The Principality of Monaco is the second smallest independent state in the world (after the Vatican) and is the epitome of wealth and glamour. Ferraris, Maseratis and designer clothes and accessories are commonplace, as are multi-million dollar yachts manned by private staff.
This is how the “other half” lives and it’s unashamedly unconcerned by its outward ostentatiousness. On the surface, Monaco and its main city Monte Carlo appears like one great big exclusive club, and many people feel that at any stage they’re likely to get tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave.
But the reality is that as long as you dress well, the local Monégasques are happy to share their city with visitors and are nowhere near as snooty or dismissive as you’d expect. It is a playground for the rich and famous, and it’s quite okay to go and have a look.
It’s a city that’s famous for the annual Formula One Grand Prix, and its Casino, but there’s more to Monaco than those two icons and the only way to get around is on foot. Because the Principality is basically cut into a very steep mountainside, there is some trekking involved and there are seven public escalators and elevators which make the exploration easier.
Every day at 11.55am, the Palais Princier (Prince’s Palace) in old Monaco-Ville has a changing of the guard which provides a bit of colour and movement. West of Monte Carlo this is where the Royal Family resides and the magnificent building which sits on top of an area simply called The Rock. First built in the 13th century, it has been added to and enhanced over the centuries.
Guided tours of the Palace run most of the day, and this is a great spot to take in the magnificent view of Monte Carlo Harbour on one side and the Mediterranean and the newer harbour district of Fontvieille on the other.
The Rock is an old fortified town and within a few hundred metres of each other there’s also restaurants and shops, a Cathedral, City Hall, and museums including the Musée Océanographique - which perches dramatically on the edge of a cliff right on the Mediterranean.
Inaugurated in 1910 by Monaco’s modernist reformer Prince Albert I, the impressive building took 11 years to build and used 100,000 tonnes of stone - for those lucky enough to sail into Monaco, the Museum is the first thing most people see from the ocean.
Inside and the museum features a remarkable collection of sea life including seahorses, turtles, jellyfish, sharks, rays, lobsters, crabs, eels, urchins and sea animal skeletons. There’s also maritime objects such as model ships, tools and weapons used in warfare. In all there are more than 4,000 different fish and 200 families of invertebrates.
Heading down off The Rock and into the Harbour, this is the place where you’re likely to spot someone famous as they step off their super-yacht for a night of gambling. Some of these yachts are quite unbelievable in their size and opulence and equally amazing is the numbers that fit into a small harbour.
Perhaps the most famous of all the tourist attractions in Monaco is the Casino which is located in one of the most beautiful parts of Monte Carlo. Entry into the Casino is 10Euro and a strict dress code of jacket and tie is enforced for men, but the cost of entry is worth it just to marvel at the architecture inside which includes lavish marble and golden ornaments, stained glass windows, paintings and sculptures.
Access to to other gaming rooms also incurs additional costs, and it’s here that you’ll find stern looking men gambling in near silence with thousands of dollars as a minimum, and the smell of expensive cognac and cigars hanging in their air.
This is the snapshot of decadence that sums up the essence of Monaco, and it’s a surreal and fun way to become a part of the Monte Carlo set - even if it’s just for a day or two.