#23 Monaco: A day in the fairytale land of the rich and famous

Let’s pose the inevitable question first: is Monaco a country? It seems to have quite a confused status as, variously, an independent principality, a city-state, a constitutional monarchy, a microstate, the world’s smallest (or second smallest) country … Google it and you’ll soon see the complexity! Yet it appears in the UN’s official list of member states, so I’m counting it as such. With that out of the way, let’s move onto what Monaco’s like. Rich. Gleaming. Grand. Gloriously sandwiched between the fringes of the Alps and the glittering blue waters of the Mediterranean (it’s not called the Côte d’Azur for nothing), its location could hardly be more picturesque, or more perfect for the flocks of yachts moored in its marina.

Did I mention that Monaco is rich?? The Principality (or country!) has the world’s lowest poverty rate and the world’s highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita. Its main sources of income include tourism, banking, cosmetics and biothermics. In amongst the graceful stucco buildings, their pastel colours displayed like sugared fondant cakes frosted with sunlight, nestle wealth management offices galore. Helicopters buzz regularly through the sun-drenched air and well-heeled residents and visitors move through the immaculately clean streets and shining designer boutiques with the unthinking assurance that money brings. Not everyone is dressed tastefully, of course. There are plenty of extravagantly garish outfits. And not everyone is rich, in fact most of the people on the streets seem to be tourists. We wondered where all the normal people live. Those who work in the shops and restaurants for instance, where do they go after their shifts? Are there affordable areas of Monaco, or do they commute in from neighbouring France or Italy.

En route to Monaco we stopped at Eze, which I’d highly recommend. The Jardin Exotique is beautiful. Restful, serene and dotted with gracefully ethereal sculptures by Jean-Philippe Richard and with fabulous views out across the Mediterranean this is a gorgeous place to spend some time. The gardens are filled with spiky succulents, aromatic earthy smells, the burble of water over rock and the gentle curves of the sculptures. Stacked on the cliffside, the Jardin Exotique offers tiers of tranquility that tempt you to linger and contemplate quietly. We also hung out in the deliciously lush nook of Deli’ café. Its garden has stone walls draped with trailing greenery, decked out with olive trees, dark wooden barrels and twinkling glass lanterns. And they also serve amazing coffee and olive oil! This is a stunning cafe – as my fiancé described it, ‘possibly the most beautiful place in the world to drink coffee’. I wished we had more time to explore Eze’s maze of higgledy piggledy medieval streets, but we were eager to see Monaco, so we pressed on.

Having rented a small, budget car for the day, we’d expected to stand out amongst the Bentleys and Ferraris. However an unexpected upgrade to a BMW 4 series convertible (thank you Alexander at Sixt!) meant we could hold our windswept heads up high as we cruised in from Nice, where we were based for a few days, my fiancé for a well-earned rest after a gruelling seven days on the Haute Route , me just along for the ride.

Along with the whole ‘Monaco isn’t a country’ thing, I hadn’t realised that Monte Carlo was a district of Monaco, rather than a separate place of its own. Having worked this out, we headed straight there and parked up near its world-famous Casino, which features prominently in the James Bond movie, Casino Royale. We were drawn to ordering a Vesper martini in the Casino’s lobby bar in Bond’s honour but were put off by the gloom inside compared with the brightness outside and by the drifting clumps of tourists snapping pictures. So instead had we had brief swoosh around the ornate entrance hall, which looked like a ballroom from the Louis the 14th’s Versailles, bought the obligatory fridge magnets (in the shape of casino chips, naturally) and retreated to the terrace of the adjacent Café de Paris. While the café has its own casino attached, the attraction for us wasn’t the gaming tables, but a front row table at which to sip our aperol spritz and people-watch the world go by. The café sits opposite the glamorous Hôtel de Paris, snow white and frilled with wrought iron balconies and watching the hotel’s comings and goings and hoping to spot a celebrity or two is great fun. (As an aside, the Hôtel de Paris, the Monte-Carlo Casino and the Monte-Carlo Opera are all managed by The Société des Bains de Mer which manages the Monte-Carlo Casino, the Monte-Carlo Opera, which is Monaco’s biggest employer).

The city is clean and orderly and in that sense felt a bit like Singapore to me. Even the organ pipes in the airy, pristine Cathedral were polished to a gleaming shine. It also has a lot of leafy gardens. Having visited the exquisite Jardin Exotique in Eze, we decided they couldn’t be surpassed, so we didn’t visit Monaco’s own Jardin Exotique, which is reputedly also magnificent. We did stroll through the lovely Jardins de Saint Martin between the Cathedral and the Oceanography Museum in the city’s old town, having marvelled at the grandeur of the Royal Palace.

Having grown up on the coast, seaside towns always have an invigorating pull on me. For our visit, Monaco seemed to have pulled out all the stops. The dazzling sunshine, the calm blue sweep of the Med under equally alluring skies speckled with marshmallow clouds – these you might hope for from any southern European seaside resort. The casinos, the wealth managers, the yachts, the displays of opulence and wealth, the fairy tale palace and a royal history featuring celebrities like Princess Grace and Prince Rainier – a generous dash of these extra ingredients adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the whole place. Monaco may or may not be a country, but it has enough pure glamour to more than make up for any ambiguity of political status.

Highlights

Food & drink

Most of these are in and around Nice, where we were based, rather than in Monaco, which we just visited, but Monaco is so tiny that they’re all pretty close by.

Le P’tit Resto – intimate place on small backstreet of Nice’s old town. Tasty, high quality, well-presented food

La Maison de Marie, Nice– stark white interior, pretty open air courtyard, a halfway house of snug tables under a canopy, a handy open air retreat on the unexpectedly rainy evening we visited. Extensive choice, generous portions, delicious

Epi Beach Club, San Juan de Pins – its strapline is ‘your feet in the sand’ and the location here is magnificent. Our dinner there was straight out of a romantic movie: the sea whispering gently a few metres away from our table, a candle waving in the sea breeze, feet barefoot and nestled in soft cool sand. We sipped aperitifs as the sun dipped down in a blazing flare and ate dinner under the dark blanket of a Rivieran sky. The food was good, the setting was superlative

Cafe de Paris, Monte Carlo. The terrace is in a prime spot just next to the Casino. Smart, busy and offering the perfect vantage point for watching the streams of people drift by. Good pit stop for coffee, pastries, drinks and light meals.

Del’i – Eze. We had the perfect second breakfast of crisp flaky croissants, home made quince jam and smooth coffee. The salads we saw being delivered to other tables looked great too. We sampled zingy olive oil and succumbed to the lure of buying some from the cute onsite shop – I’m sure it will be delicious but I saw it cheaper in duty free on the way back so my tip is to try it at Deli but buy it at Nice airport if you can!

Sleeping

Hotel Nice Beau Rivage – four star place one block behind the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Comfortable, modern, helpful staff and decent breakfast. Matisse lived there for a while and the hotel is dotted with prints and also has a tasteful seaside theme to the deco. I enjoyed our stay but would hesitate to revisit as the insane design of the showers mean they flood the bathroom every time they’re used. And even though I knew the Beau Rivage didn’t have one, I craved a sea view from the moment I checked in! It does have a private beach club where if you manage to snap up one of the front row loungers you will have the perfect sea view …

Chateau Eza, Eze village – I spotted this and promised myself I’d stay there on my next visit …

Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo – if you really want to live it up in Monaco!

Relaxing

Spa 27 at the Hotel Westminster, Nice – my fiancé and I both had an excellent massage here and on our Sunday morning visit, we were the only two using the small but lovely spa area, which made it extra relaxing.

Cultural highlights

Musee Matisse, Nice – when I’d planned my visit to Nice, this was one of the things I was excited about. I have to confess that I succumbed to the temptation of an extra few hours on the beach and never made it there. If you go, please let me know what it’s like! And for me, next time …

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