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.Read More
Monte-Carlo is where the real money is flung about, and its famous casino demands to be seen. Adjoining it is the gaudy opera house, and around the palm-tree-lined place du Casino are more casinos, palace-hotels and grands cafés. The American Bar of the Hôtel de Paris is the place for the elite to meet, while the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Hermitage has a beautiful Gustave Eiffel iron-and-glass dome.
Entrance to Casino de Monte-Carlo is restricted to over-18s and you may have to show your passport; dress code is rigid, with shorts and T-shirts frowned upon, though most visitors are scarcely the last word in designer chic. Skirts, jackets and ties are obligatory for the more interesting sections. Bags and large coats are checked at the door. The first gambling hall is the Salons Européens where slot machines surround the American roulette, craps and blackjack tables, the managers are Vegas-trained and the lights are low. Above this slice of Nevada, however, the decor is fin-de-siècle Rococo extravagance, while the ceilings in the adjoining Pink Salon Bar are adorned with female nudes smoking cigarettes. The heart of the place is the Salons Privés. To get in, you have to look like a gambler. Rather larger and more richly decorated than the European Rooms, the atmosphere is of intense concentration.