Monte Carlo, Monaco

Travelogue French Riviera 4: Monaco


21 June 2019

Hopping across from Nice to Monaco is very simple with buses and trains that run regularly and inexpensively, but since we were short on time (only having allocated a day for the flit across the border), we opted for a guided walking tour to make the most of the experience.

We booked online, paid our 20 Euro (that included the return train ticket) and met our guide outside the Nice train station at 10.20 as instructed. We were allocated to Lily, an exchange intern from Slovakia, who was delighted that we were a small group of only 10 people.

It was soon easy to see why as shoulder season leading into summer, the trains were already packed on the obviously popular route. We managed to cluster ourselves in the open area by the doorway and a little up the stairs (it was a double-decker train) so it must be a proper mission with a big group to try and keep everyone together.

Lily used the time to acquaint with the group – parents and 2 teenage boys from Germany, a couple from Italy, a couple from Guam and us.

Alighting in Monaco, the opulence hits you even as you walk to the escalators to the exit; a massive glass window that overlooks a harbour of glimmering yachts. With not a soul among them, it was quite stark contrast to our sardine-can transfer!

In outlining our route for the day, Lily described to us how small the little principality of Monaco is. It is the 2nd smallest country in the world (behind the Vatican) at 2 square kilometres, has 38000 people and a third of their population are millionaires (largely because it’s a tax haven). The people and language are known as Monagasque but, seeing as the locals make up only around 20% of the total population, French is also widely spoken and, being part of the Eurozone, the Euro is the currency.

Our walking tour started with a trundle down through Monte Carlo down to the world famous casino.

In the 1860s Charles III hatched a plan to open a casino to save Monaco from bankruptcy. His original casino failed because it was in an awkward location that had no feeder roads, no support facilities and no marketing. But a new casino – the one that is now so famous – was built in a better location, had the most luxurious hotel and cafe to support it and investment was made into both marketing it and establishing easy transport options to make transferring to and from the casino effortless from key European destinations. Finally, the area was renamed from The Caves de Monte Carlo (Mountain of Charles) to be suitably grand and – voila! – the rest as they say is history.

The iconic building and setting seem so familiar, having seen them in movies like James Bond Golden Eye and in the scenic shots during the Monaco Grand Prix, which has been an event synonymous with Monaco since its inception in 1929.

Winding in and around Monaco, the GP sees the drivers negotiate the 3km circuit 78 times, through narrow city roads, a tunnel and a hair-raising hairpin bend. Many experienced drivers have become croppers on the grueling course and a couple have ended up skidding off the road and into the water!

By now we’d walked away from the casino and we’re making our way along the harbour as Lily told the story. It was quite an experience to be IN the story, walking and talking among the iconic landmarks and decadent setting.

We stopped at The Church of Sainte Devote, probably most famous for being the first corner of the Monaco GP track, but also tribute to the patron saint of Monaco, who was a young Corsican woman martyred in the 300s for her devotion to Catholicism. Her body was ordered to be burnt but was saved by some Christians who sent it off on a boat headed for Africa such that it could be fittingly buried. The boat hit a massive storm in the Mediterranean and apparently a white dove flew from within her corpse body and guided the boat to safety on the Monaco shore. The white dove was assumed to be her spirit and confirmation that she was a saint.

So, the fisherman that found her built a church in which to bury her, which was has been maintained and enhanced by various benefactors over the centuries and which was restored and renovated after being damaged by bombings in the Second World War. She also gets a celebration day on 27 January, which is a massive deal for the Monegasque and involves the Prince setting a boat alight in the harbour in commemoration.

Sounds like a tall story. And like travelling with a white dove might be a good back up plan if you don’t have medical insurance.

Lily deposited us at the local market with information on local delicacies and which stalls were best for what. Armed with that knowledge, we entered the market and bee-lined for the Barbagiuans. Little pastry pockets with finely chopped chard, rice, egg, cheese and ham. Very nice, but only tickled the appetite so we followed with socca, which is a sort of crepe made from chickpea. Nice enough, but a bit boring. So we rounded off with a massive tuna baguette to share, to ensure we had enough sustenance to see us through the afternoon.

The tour then took us up to the palace, where the flag was up indicating the Royals were in town. This palace has been the Grimaldi homestead since Francesco Grimaldi seized it in the 13th century after he led a sneaky mission to infiltrate the previous owners by having himself and his band of merry men dress as monks, knowing that the deeply Catholic residents would open up and welcome them in. They were given food, shelter and ultimately the keys to the kingdom, when they slayed the previous owners and declared it Grimaldi Palace. Not quite the romanticism of a white dove, but effective nonetheless.

Also possibly why most of the stories focus on the more recent Royals. The fairytale story of Rainier and the aptly-named Grace, his Hollywood Princess, and her tragic untimely death after a car accident with her daughter, Stephanie.

And Albert and his African bride, who he met at the Olympics and with whom he has twins, providing an heir prince to take over the throne after him. Although, with Prince Rainier having reigned for 56 years, perhaps little Jacques has quite a ways to go before that becomes a thing for him to have to do.

We got the most wonderful panoramic pictures from the palace, as a perfect vantage point. Being such a small country, it’s possible to see France in both directions and even Italy in the distance because it’s so close to the border.

Our tour concluded at the Oceanographic Museum. Since our train tickets were open, we didn’t need to return with the group, and we were motivated to see all there was to see. Lily was kind enough to get a city map out to help us to plan the rest of our afternoon’s solo adventuring.

We decided to walk back to the beach, which we figured must be perfect seeing as it was constructed as part of a land reclamation project.

We took an alternate route to the one we’d walked up, right down along the water at the harbour. Those yachts are even more impressive up close. And so few occupied. It’s unfathomable how it makes sense to spend so much buying and maintaining these boats, let alone docking them in Monaco, which must cost a fortune.

The path also took us through the Japanese Gardens; a very Zen and lush little enclave, with beautifully manicured beds and a pond with bridges on which tourists were posing.

Not far beyond was the beach. We bought our way into a private section, investing in a small granita (glorified Slush Puppy) in return for the lounger and shade, which was welcomed after spending all day in the sun.

Ready to return, we walked up through the shopping district, which meant we had seen most of Monaco in our day trip!

While Monaco is very opulent and impressive, its limited size and positioning within the bowl of mountain make it feel more like Hong Kong than France. Nice for a day, but nicer to be returning to Nice.