“You’re going to Monaco on a budget trip?” my friend asked incredulously. “Don’t people just go there for yacht parties and to gamble in casinos? What on earth will you do?”
There was still a chill in the air at 07:30AM as I stood on the promenade behind the Opera House, remembering this conversation. I regretted not bringing a thicker jacket – I was too ambitious for a December morning. The sky was just beginning to transform. Perched by a ledge, I was overlooking Port Hercule from high above – Monaco’s deep water port that’s been in use since Roman times. As the port was slowly flooded with golden light, it revealed what could have plausibly been the set of a soap opera called ‘Playground of the Rich and Famous’, suitably dripping with opulence. Suddenly it was easy to understand why Monaco was the Super Yacht Capital of the Mediterranean. After all, one in three residents is a millionaire. But I knew there had to be more to Monaco than this.
These three jolly chaps from Grenoble in France, came to Monaco to do improvement works at the jazzy Port Hercule. After I heard them laughing, I went up to them for a chat in my broken French. They were highly excited that I wanted to take their photo and beamed while I fumbled on my phone. Monaco is as much about millionaires as it is about these gents that keep it sparkling. The ones that enjoy a simple joke, a cigarette break while watching sunset and happily pose to get their photo taken by a stranger.
Monte Carlo: where vodka martinis are shaken, not stirred
There’s a periodic hum of engines. Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Ferraris pull up at the entrance. Bond (played by Brosnan) meets the deadly assassin, Xenia Onatopp, inside the casino. After beating her at a game of Baccarat, he orders a vodka martini at the bar for them both. The tension is electric. I’m dying with suspense as to what comes next.
This classic Bond scene from the movie GoldenEye takes place in the Monte Carlo Casino. Perhaps one of many reasons why the second smallest country in the world (it’s only 60% the size of New York’s Central Park), is surprisingly well known.
Casino de Monte Carlo was actually the brainchild of Princess Caroline – the business-minded wife of Prince Florestan I – to save the ruling Grimaldi family from bankruptcy. After a few initial hiccups, it did so extraordinarily well that the Grimaldi family stopped collecting income tax from residents in 1869. This casino became the primary source of income for the country. Needless to say, a steady stream of wealthy tax evaders soon started flocking here – from Formula One drivers to business magnates. Some banging nights have gone down in Monte Carlo – the French actress Sarah Bernhardt reportedly lost 100,000 Francs in a single evening!
La Marché de la Condamine
A traditional market in the heart of Monaco, it’s been open every morning, every day of the year since 1880. The market brings bright colours, smells of fresh fruit and vegetables and a glimpse into local Monégasque life. There’s also an indoor area where I (together with many retirees who were reading the morning paper) had a leisurely coffee and tried a local Monégasque delicacy – pissaladière: a pizza-like treat of thick bread dough topped with caramelised onions, black olives and garlic.
I found a kind lady in Nadine, who lives 10km across the border in France, and comes here every day to sell fresh produce at the Richard Primeur stall. After we got chatting she showed me her perfectly shaped Noix de Grenoble (walnuts) and juicy clementines; an unlikely combination but were delicious together.
Christmas vibes at Port Hercule
“I’ve been working with the French Police for nearly 7 years,” said Antoine* after he inspected the bags of a family with excited children who headed into the New Orleans-themed Christmas Village. “I was on holiday, so took up some part-time work here as a Security Officer. I live in Nice, so it’s not that far at all,” he explains with a smile.
His colleague Étienne* was equally warm. “I live on the border, so have been working in and around Monaco for the past 3 years while studying and training to pass my officer exams,” Étienne told me as Antoine took over the security checks. The two of them were incredibly welcoming and friendly, while looking after security in the Christmas Village – helping to keep safety in this 40,000 person-strong country at the highest level.
The conversation reminded me of the numerous times we’d get stopped by army officers while growing up in Sri Lanka during the war. My unconventional mother would deviate from the usual routine that most favoured (monosyllabic responses) while ID’s were being checked. “They’re people too – what’s the harm in having a chat or smiling? I’m sure they’d love it,” my mother used to say. I’d usually be the first in the car to wail with trepidation before she’d roll down the windows – I guess she’s rubbed off on me more than I dare to admit.
I weaved past excited children burying their faces in candy floss, beer-sipping parents guarding possessions as their offspring shouted from the merry-go-round, and walked past chalets selling Christmas gifts before coming across a crêpe stall. Instincts dictated I had to queue up for one.
While waiting, I got talking to Natasha – an entrepreneur who runs a restaurant in the French Riviera. She came to Monaco to run the Pti Cabanon Chalet at the Christmas Market and perhaps thought I was her strangest customer when I mentioned I was visiting Monaco on part of a journey to visit every country in the world, taking photographs as I go. After watching Natasha make Poffertjes (Dutch mini pancakes), I immediately regretted not ordering a portion. But given I was about to devour a Nutella and banana crêpe, I knew it would have to wait until next time. Seeing someone walk past with a mug of steaming mulled wine, I knew what I was going to look for next.
Old Town – The Rock
There’s no better place to escape the bubble of Monte Carlo with its glitzy sports cars and glamorous designer accessories than the Old Town (also known as “The Rock”). Overlooking Port Hercule on the left and the new neighbourhood of Fontvieille (built entirely on reclaimed land) on the right, it’s quite simply a maze of alleyways perched on a rocky promontory rising steeply from the sea on both sides.
Having contemplated the different options I chose the steep climb up Rampe Majeure, a 16th century staircase, to reach the Old Town. “I probably am the only person roaming around Monaco in hiking boots, so why not put them to good use?” I thought. The panoramic view of the harbour is a welcome bonus from the top. This immediately leads you to Palace Square where the changing of the guard takes place every day at 11:55AM in front of the royal family’s official residence.
With no agenda or map, I set about further into Old Town on the uneven cobblestone streets to absorb its medieval charm. While many people would have gawped at the French and Italian architecture, the town hall or even the cathedral, the biggest smile crept on to my face when I saw the sign for Chocolaterie de Monaco. Suitably awed by their royal credentials (they are the official supplier to the Palace), it was a welcome pitstop to buy some milk chocolate that I slowly savoured as I continued getting lost in the colourful side streets of Old Town.
Monaco Cathedral (Saint Nicholas Cathedral)
This Roman-Byzantine cathedral is a living symbol of the rebirth of Monaco into the very wealthy and independent country it now is. In the late 19th century, the parish of Monaco was separated from the Diocese of Nice after protracted arguments, and it was decided to build a new cathedral. This coincided with the time when Monaco’s fortunes were taking a turn in the prosperous direction with the new casino and the opening of the railway line. So funds were afoot to invest in an impressive cathedral, which was built after demolishing the old 13th century church.
Inextricably linked to the royal Grimaldi family, the high profile wedding of Prince Rainier III to American actress Grace Kelly took place here in 1956, and several royals are buried here. I sadly missed the choral mass sung by “Les Petits Chanteurs de Monaco” (happens every Sunday morning at 10am), but it’s something to look forward to if I visit again.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” I began dramatically orating from the centre of the stage, reliving drama classes I attended as a teenager. The only difference was that I was right in the middle of Fort Antoine. Once a military fortification at the end of Old Town high on a rocky promontory, it’s been transformed into an outdoor theatre. Luckily for me on this December morning there wasn’t another living soul in sight, so I pretended to be an actor on stage and yelled random lines, much to the amusement of the seabirds around. A range of outdoor performances takes place in summer in this stunning theatre – it must be quite magical to sit under the stars, on a rock jutting into the sea and watch a drama unfold.
I knew Monaco had its beach resorts, where I’m sure the glitterati indulged in free-flowing champagne, cocktails and exotic culinary creations. But that wasn’t what I was looking for. I also didn’t want to engage in a competitive sport to find a spot on the beach. The answer? La Crique des Pêcheurs, a small, secluded (at least in December) cove-beach just below Le Rocher (Old Town).
This pebble beach is only about 20m, but it’s rarely visited by anyone. I had the luxury of having the whole cove to myself as I sipped a post-lunch coffee and leafed through my crime fiction novel in the 15°C afternoon sun as waves lapped at the shore. A true hidden treasure where you can see the Mediterranean Sea extend for miles in all directions.
#Info: If you’re struggling to find this, there’s a steep staircase leading down to the beach from the Chemin de Pêcheurs Parking area.
The Japanese Garden
Roaming about Monaco one morning in the rain, I came across the Japanese Garden before it had opened for the day. Being the only person there (a running theme on this trip in many places I visited…) made it seem even more of a tranquil oasis. Carps swam slowly in the pond fed by gently flowing waterfalls and framed by well-manicured shrubs. This work of art is the result of close collaboration between Japanese and Monégasque gardeners. Looking closer, you’ll see that while the bamboo hedges, stone lanterns and wood are distinctly Japanese, the plants are mostly Mediterranean (pine, olive, pomegranate). They’ve just been pruned to give them a Japanese appearance.
I thought nothing of the neighbourhood that bordered the garden apart from the fact that it appeared more modern than the rest of town and had quite a few high-rise buildings. It was only later in the evening I found out that adjacent to the Japanese Garden is Avenue Princess Grace – the most expensive street in the world. A jaw-dropping £73,000 per square metre on average!
Chemin des Révoires – the highest point in the country
One activity that is always on my agenda wherever I go is to find my way to a vantage point. I don’t quite know how this tradition started. Maybe it was because I’m a fan of heights, or perhaps it helped me get oriented better (those who know me can vouch for my non-existent sense of direction – as a teenager I once directed my mum by telling her to “go upwards” at a T-junction).
In Monaco, that took me through the winding roads up the slopes of Mont Agel (whose summit is actually on the French side) to a narrow path called Chemin des Révoires. The France-Monaco border is not marked. At some point along the road you switch countries (if only all borders could be like this), so I’m sure I zig-zagged through France when I got lost in the dark before I found my way to the ideal spot. I stared for a good half-hour at the view over Monaco with its luminescent skyscrapers and moving cars appearing like pin-pricks of light with the sea disappearing into a blanket of black velvet.
Turns out the vantage point did little to remedy my poor sense of direction on the way back. I found a path that looked like a shortcut to get back down – only it was through forested hillside. “No problem, ” I thought. “Monaco is one of the safest places – what could go wrong?” Turns out my phone blinked ominously at 10% battery and suddenly switched itself off minutes later. “This doesn’t seem promising,” I remember thinking as my eyes adjusted to the blackness of the trees around me, making a mental note to buy a new phone when I got back. Trying to move downhill, I walked in the dark towards a faint light in the distance. After what must have been several loops in the wrong direction, I finally found myself on a marked footpath leading into the town centre. Hallelujah. Time for a celebratory jig.
#GettingThere: The easiest way to get to Monaco is to fly into Nice. From there you can either take a bus or walk (only 15-20 mins) to Nice Saint-Augustin station where there are regular trains to Monaco Monte Carlo station (~35 mins). Just for kicks, I checked out the helicopter transfer service from Nice Airport to Monaco: one-way transfers are about €150-200 (which coincidentally was my budget for the whole 3 day trip including accommodation!) and take 5-10 minutes.
#StayingThere: Hotels and Airbnbs in Monaco could start from hundreds of dollars per night. Since I was on a budget, I knew I had to find another way. Turns out the answer was literally 20 seconds away from the France-Monaco border. Since the border is invisible, you don’t notice that you’ve changed countries when you walk a few steps down the same road. However, there is a marked drop in the price of accommodation when the postcode changes to a French one.