Tiny Monaco – not just about big money

A bird's eye view of tiny sovereign city-state Monaco
A bird’s eye view of tiny sovereign city-state Monaco from the botanic gardens
Changing of the guard, Princely Palace of Monaco
Changing of the guard at the Princely Palace of Monaco

Even on Google Images there’s only a handful of pictures showing the interior of the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. Tourists are forbidden to take any photographs so I take the flash off and quickly snap one before the security people peek around the corner. The opulence is jaw-dropping:  chandeliers the size of small planets and enough gold gilt to solve the debt of a third world country. The other picture in the collage is from a photographic exhibition dedicated to the life of Princess Grace, in the historic village of Les Baux de Provence.

Princess Grace and inside The State Apartments

The late Princess Grace – Hollywood royalty long before she became European aristocracy – redecorated some of  The State Apartments, the only palace section open to the public at 8 euros a ticket. Access is through the Mirror Gallery, where visitors can adjust their tiaras before sweeping into the Red Room furnished in the flamboyant style of Louis XV, and featuring paintings by Flemish painter Jan Breughel (1568-1625).

Also open to the public is the Blue Room where royal receptions are still held, the Yellow Room of  Louis XV, the York Room (where the Duke of York, brother to King Charles III, died after falling ill in 1787), and the Throne Room which displays a large painting of Grace with daughters Caroline and Stephanie in the idealized style of romance lit nobility Mills and Boon. No joke. Breughel sure didn’t paint this one. And I know, I won’t be invited to dine at the palace any time soon.

Princess Grace was killed aged only 52 when the car she was driving plunged off the top corniche between Monaco and Nice, on September 14, 1982. It’s thought she suffered a stroke. For years afterwards rumours persisted that Stephanie, then a teenager, had been at the wheel. St Nicholas Cathedral (short walk from the palace) is where Grace married Prince Rainier III in 1956 and where she is buried alongside other Grimaldi royals. It’s a poignant reminder of how much she was loved to see her tomb adorned with fresh flowers daily. Australian actress Nicole Kidman stars in the forthcoming movie Grace of Monaco, which extensively covers her life just after she married Rainier. The palace, apparently, is not amused, even though it did initially contribute research material and opinions for the film.
Just another Maserati in Monte CarloThe Principality of Monaco is only 2.2sq km, and with 36,371 inhabitants is the most densely populated country on the planet. Only Vatican City is smaller in size. Prince Albert II rules, with South African born Princess Charlene at his side. It’s steeped in history. The House of Grimaldi has reigned, mostly, since 1297. A tax haven – no income tax and low business taxes – in recent years it has become a banking centre. Over 500 police protect its uber-rich residents, which makes it the largest police presence per capita, in the world.

OTHER PLACES TO VISIT IN MONACO:

The Royal Botanic Gardens in MonacoRoyal botanic gardens: Also a few minutes walk from the palace (everything’s a short walk), where the whiff of scented pine mingles with salty air. Dazzling views of the hillside sovereign city state out to the Mediterranean and overlooking the harbor and yacht marina. The elegant and graceful garden paths are a peaceful retreat from the clutter of high-rise buildings and condensed urban landscape.
View of hilly MonacoMonte Carlo: Tourists in shorts and t-shirts mill around the front of the casino or drape themselves over Lamborghinis, Maseratis and Ferraris parked in the square, and take selfies or get fellow travellers to do the snapping. I stroll down Boulevard Princesse Grace de Monaco and Rue Princesse Caroline pedestrian mall. I go into a boutique and try on 1,000 euro shoes and 5,000 euro jackets, and walk out with a catalogue. Shopping is off the Richter scale.

Tourists and fancy cars outside Monaco's casinoBrasserie le Café de Paris: Watch the Maseratis roar by, inhale their petrol fumes as you sip coffee and lick ice cream from this famous place (on the left below, slightly obscured by a dawdling tour bus). Prices are premium, but what do you expect? It gets average reviews on TripAdvisor. Place du Casino, 98000 Monaco, France ‎ +377 98 06 76 23
Brasserie le Café de Paris on the leftCasino in Monte Carlo (2)Oceanographic Museum: From the massive aquariums (where tiny sharks swim aggressively among more whimsical fish) to the meticulous displays of natural history and collections of art, this has something for everyone and is my favorite spot of the day. I find the installations of skeletons enveloped in flames a bit weird. But it’s better than watching the specimens in the goldfish bowl that is Place du Casino. Avenue Saint-Martin – Monaco-Ville. +377 93 15 36 00. Tickets are 14 euros for adults and 8 euros for children. Family passes available. Open every day except Christmas Day and when the Monaco Grand Prix is on.
Sealife at the oceanographic Museum in Monaco

*I visited Monaco as part of my two-week tour of Provence and the French Riviera with Back-Roads Touring

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