Viewed from a distance, there’s no mistaking the cluster of towers that is Monaco. Postwar redevelopment rescued the tiny principality from economic decline but elbowed aside much of its previous prettiness – not for nothing was Prince Rainier, who died in 2005, known as the Prince Bâtisseur (“Prince Builder”). This tiny state, no bigger than London’s Hyde Park, retains its comic opera independence: it has been in the hands of the autocratic Grimaldi family since the thirteenth century, and in theory would become part of France were the royal line to die out. It is home to six thousand British expats – including Roger Moore and Shirley Bassey – out of a total population of around 36,000. Along with its wealth, Monaco latterly acquired a reputation for wheeler-dealer sleaze. On his accession in 2005, the US-educated Prince Albert II set about trying to get the principality off an OECD list of uncooperative tax havens, declaring he no longer wished Monaco to be known – in the words of Somerset Maugham – as “a sunny place for shady people”.
The oldest part of the principality is Monaco-Ville, around the palace on the rocky promontory, with the Fontvieille marina in its western shadow. La Condamine is the old port on the other side of the promontory; the ugly bathing resort of Larvotto extends to the eastern border; and Monte-Carlo is in the middle.
One time not to visit is during the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix in May – no viewpoint is accessible without a ticket and prices soar to ridiculous levels.