www.officedutourismedemonaco.com. The tiny principality of Monaco – just 3 km across – has been linked with the Grimaldi family since it was purchased from the Genoese in 1308. Having survived all manner of internecine family feuds, fratricide and foreign occupation, the present dynasty regained independent sovereignty from France in 1861. With little in the way of natural resources, and several poor citrus crops in the 1850s, the Grimaldi coffers were particularly low until an earlier Princess Caroline came to the rescue. In the hope of luring Riviera revellers to Monaco’s rocky cliff-top, the former German showgirl advised her son, Prince Charles, to open a casino. He was so enthusiastic about the idea that he gave the chosen hill-top site his name, hence ‘Monte-Carlo’, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mind you, history is not the first thing that comes to mind as you face the grubby muddle of rail tracks and concrete on the way into town along the N98. It is not a pretty sight. A conurbation which cannot expand sideways must, necessarily, grow upwards or downwards, thus serried ranks of sky-scapers jumble the skyline and the hammer of pneumatic drills is a permanent blight. Monaco is not a recommended stop for tight budget travellers, though Princess Stephanie has had a youth hostel named after her near the station. Prices are astronomical, and visits to several of the more splendid sights, such as the Casino and Hôtel de Paris, are uncomfortable if you do not look the part. Bare feet, bare chests and swim-suits are illegal off the beach.
Monaco’s twin poles, the Old Town of Monaco-Ville and the grand l9thC Monte-Carlo, are divided by the port and business district of La Condamine. To the west, the new suburb of Fontvieille has a marina; while the eastern district of Larvotto has its beaches topped up with imported sand.
Prince Albert II occupies the Palais des Princes built into the cliff face in Monaco-Ville. Although its origins lie back in the 13thC, the predominant Italian Renaissance style is redolent of toy town, but the views are good. The State Apartments and Throne Room are open to the public, there is Empire memorabilia in the Musée du Souvenir Napoléonien in the West Wing, and the Changing of the Guard takes place at 11.55am daily. (Monaco’s tiny army is notable for its dashing sartorial style.)
Past the great white whale of a l9thC Cathédrale, built of stone from La Turbie, Albert I’s excellent Musée Océanographique, avenue Saint-Martin, was founded in 1910. This is a far more interesting royal legacy with an amazing basement aquarium, zoological hall, shell collections, and the laboratory from Albert’s ship crammed with curiosities amassed during his nautical expeditions. You can get a drink and a great view on the museum’s roof-top terraces. Monaco’s beautiful gardens owe much to the influence of Princess Grace. Just north of Monaco-Ville, in the Monegetti district, the Jardín Exotique offers a spectacular collection of succulent plants and surreal cacti clinging to an arid slope above a series of limestone caverns.
In 1875, Charles Gamier, architect of the Paris Opera House, was commissioned to design a new Casino, place du Casino, in Monte-Carlo. Set in beautiful gardens overlooking the Mediterranean, and operated by the prestigious Société des Bains de Mer, this lavish salute to Belle Epoch extravagance should not be missed. Despite the oodles of gilt and slightly risqué painted ladies cavorting around the ceiling, few eyes wander from the tables once the action starts. Entrance is free to the salle américaine with its slot machines, craps and blackjack; for something a little more stylish you have to pay a small fee to get into the salons privés. Another jewel in the crown of the Société des Bains de Mer, and just across the square, is the magnificent Hôtel de Paris (see Recommended Hotels); and you can mingle with le tout Monaco in the smart Galerie du Metropole mall opposite.