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. 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.
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 place du Casino – stripped of many of its tall palms and a major construction site until 2018 – are more casinos, palace-hotels and grands cafés. Though the hotel around it is being part-demolished and rebuilt, 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 will need ID; dress code is rigid, with shorts and T-shirts frowned upon, and jackets are recommended after 8pm. Photography is prohibited and bags and large coats are checked at the door. The first halls are the Salle Renaissance – an anteroom– and the Salle Europe where serried ranks of slot machines stand below ceilings of fin-de-siècle extravagance, while the more subdued Salle des Amériques is devoted to table games – roulette, blackjack and craps. Of the Salons Privés, the giddily opulent Salle Médecin and the Salles Touzet are also devoted to table games; as their name suggests, the Salons Super Privés are more intimate, and you won’t see them on morning tours.