Monaco is the world’s second smallest country after The Vatican. Home to a population of 37,000 people and their toy dogs (a must-have accessory for ladies wot lunch it would seem) these inhabitants, pets and their luxury cars cram into just two square miles of real estate on the northern Mediterranean coast. Monaco is the most densely populated country on Earth.
Despite its diminutive size, the Principality ruled by a constitutional Monarch (currently Prince Albert II) punches well above its weight in world fame as home to one of the world’s most challenging and glamorous Formula 1 races, the world-famous casino and Cafe de Paris on the Rock and the legacy of Princess Grace, the original Princess Diana, her magical wedding and her tragic death. As it is only 13km away from Nice where I was recently staying I knew that I could not come so close to this ‘playground of the rich’ with out a visit so I caught the train from Nice-Ville station to Monaco-Monte Carlo.
The journey takes about half an hour in impressive double-decker rail cars hugging the shoreline with the view annoyingly frequently interrupted by the many tunnels. Monaco is not the final destination of the train which is actually on its way to Italy but the station is impressive like a giant marble vault carved beneath the city. On arrival there are two exit routes to the station – either up a number of escalators plus a high-speed elevator or down one escalator to the lower exit. If you plan to go, take the lower exit as it will lead you straight to the finish line of the Grand Prix race, which all visitors want to see. I and the very many others took the upper route…only having to walk all the way down when we got there to get to the same finish line.
First impressions were how subdued everything was. Around 90% of all the shops were closed, which surprised me. I thought Monaco with all those millionaires living there or on mega yachts in the marina plus all the incoming tourists would be a 24/7 party town with people splashing the cash almost as long but no. Monaco of Millionnaires observes the Sabbath and the only shops open were the eateries and souvenir shops and, of course, the Casino. The lack of commercial hubbub gave the place a very eerie feel not helped by the brooding mountains which crouch around the tiny Principality with their heads shrouded in low hovering cloud.
Once down in the Marina, you can then take a view back up at the city and my immediate thoughts were that this is the Hong Kong of Europe and not in a good way. With only two square miles of land to build on it was inevitable that Monaco had to build both up and down to house its increasing population so it has become Europe’s high-rise capital. But they are building down and out too. Only one-third of the new convention centre here is visible above ground. They are also reclaiming land from the sea spreading the city eastward where a whole new district has been built in the last 40 years.
The other thing that made the place feel odd was that they are preparing for the Grand Prix next month and so the wire fencing to protect the spectators is up all over the place making it hard for newbie visitors to navigate around – very frustrating. It also gave me a sense of being caged in. Monaco starts preparing for the race two months ahead of time when believe it or not the population of the place increases from 37,000 to 100,000 for a week. Though there are no borders or passport control when you enter or leave I felt somewhat claustrophobic after taking the 1 hour bus ride around that left me with the impression – is that it? I’ve seen all there is to see in an hour? What about all those towering suburbs up the mountains? It’s then that you realise that when you look up from the Marina to the sprawling districts high up that these are actually in France, not Monaco and so I got to feel even more claustrophobic. If I felt this way in Monaco, I wonder how I would feel in Gaza?
I must admit that while I’m no fan of Formula 1 racing, having ridden around much of the course on the tour bus I can’t believe that a race actually happens there at all or at such speed. The roads are not exactly broad and the famous tunnel and hairpin bend defy logic that men would race around them at such velocity. Needless to say I will, for once, tune in to at least a few laps in May.
There is no litter in Monaco. No graffiti, no scruffy people, no ugly people (apart from economy tourist peasants like me) and no beat-up vehicles. If I didn’t know what the ‘Jet Set’ was before I came I do now only they’re not just the Jet Set but the Mega Yacht Set, Mega Sports Car Set and Glamourous Ladies with Toy Dogs Set. I have never seen so many people out and about dressed up to the nines just so others could look at them.
I didn’t bother with the Casino apart from outside photos as I was afraid I might be barred from entering because I was not visibly wearing a designer brand. Same with the Cafe de Paris which was rammed with beautiful people eating at beautifully inflated prices. Even the shopping mall here was lit by crystal chandeliers for goodness sake.
Sounds like hated Monaco doesn’t it? That would not be true. Thanks to the presence of the royal family with a heritage and history dating back to the Middle Ages there is a sense of refinement and culture here. Compared to the most brash and brazen place I’ve ever been – Dubai – Monaco is Baluga Caviar to Dubai’s diamond-encrusted breaded fish cake with pickles on the side. It was well worth a visit to people-watch in the Playground of Millionnaires but it was also good to get back to the warm, relaxed hospitality of Nice, which I found still dangling its toes in the slowly warming Med with a greeting as if to say…”I told you so.”