Monaco is the place to get a glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich
Wed Jan 8, 9:54 PM ET
By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press Writer
MONTE CARLO, Monaco - Having free fun in Monaco is as easy as crossing the road.
The princely Mediterranean principality is, of course, home to one of the world's great automobile races, the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. But outside that annual racing weekend, pedestrians rule.
Put just a toe on a road crossing and Monaco's impeccably polite drivers — even the many who glide around in Ferraris, Rolls-Royces and other luxury mobiles — invariably stop and wait, engines purring, for those on foot to saunter across.
Having hugely expensive cars make way for you is one of many little pleasures to be had cheaply in Monaco. While the tiny territory is best known as a haven for the famous and mega-rich, with sumptuous casinos, a royal family, discreet bankers and luxury boutiques, you don't have to be a millionaire to visit.
In fact, one of the most fun things about Monaco is seeing how the other half lives. If you've ever wanted to glimpse millionaire lifestyles, this is the place.
Marvel at the luxury yachts neatly moored in Monaco's main port.
Some are so big they have helicopters on their top decks. On summer nights, their owners have candlelit, waiter-served dinner parties on board. Tourists gather at dockside to watch them eat and take photos of themselves with the yachts as backdrops.
The car park at the front of Monaco's famed Monte Carlo Casino is worth gawking at, too. On most nights, automobiles waiting there are collectively worth millions. Porsches, Bentleys, Aston Martin Vanquishes that cost 250,000 euros (US$250,000) each.
Watching tourists watching the cars is a laugh. Some, often young men, film them wistfully with videocameras. Others peer in through the parked cars' windows, cupping their hands against the glass, to gape at the luxury inside.
The casino itself, an opulent jewel built in 1878, costs 10 euros (US$10) to visit. Well worth it. The magnificent gaming halls' walls and ceilings are decorated with carvings and paintings. The atmosphere is hushed, but thrilling. Kings, princes, writers and industrialists have gambled here.
"Faites vous jeux," ("Lay your bets") croupiers announce as they spin the roulette wheel. Then, as the ball rattles to a stop, they declare: "Rien ne va plus!" That means no more bets.
You don't have to play. Merely studying the faces pulled by sweaty-palmed gamblers winning or losing is enjoyable. So, too, is watching the dexterous ballet of croupiers dishing out and raking in chips with lightning-quick flicks of the wrist.
The casino requires that visitors dress decently, be over 21 and show identification — a passport will do.
Because Monaco is so compact — just 197 hectares (486 acres), smaller than New York's Central Park — it's easy to get around on foot.
Walking the whole coastline, just 4.1 kilometers (2 1/2 miles), requires a couple of hours tops. A stroll from the casino past the harbor to the royal palace takes around 30 minutes.
The palace is perched on a hill, offering views of Monaco and the French and Italian coasts beyond.
Every day at 11.55 a.m sharp, royal guards parade onto the palace's front square, some with swords drawn, others shouldering rifles with bayonets. To the beat of drums and blowing trumpets, they change the guard and march off as the palace clock strikes midday. They wear black uniforms in winter, white in summer. Visitors can watch for free.
On the square's west side is an enchanting children's playground, shaded by pine trees and perched on the edge of a cliff covered with tenacious cacti. It overlooks the Mediterranean, with moored luxury yachts and mewing seagulls wheeling below.
From there, follow the path along the cliff top. It snakes past a white marble fountain, a head with water jetting from the mouth. The trail continues past an old red brick watchtower with arrow slits overlooking the sea and ends in front of Monaco's Cathedral.
Princess Grace, the movie star Grace Kelly before she married Monaco's Prince Rainier III in 1956, is buried there. She died in 1982 from injuries in a car crash.
The Cathedral is built of white local stone and topped with statues of a winged bull and a winged lion. Princess Grace's tomb is marked by a simple white marble slab.
A bone said to be from Saint Devote, Monaco's patron saint, is housed in a golden glass-enclosed case in one of the Cathedral's arched alcoves. "Virgin and martyr" says a plaque to Devote.
The first tight right-hand corner of the 3.370-kilometer (2.094-mile) Grand Prix circuit, which runs through Monaco's narrow streets, is also named after Devote. It's the site of frequent crashes.
Visiting the Cathedral is free; guidebooks are 2 euros (US$2).
Behind the Cathedral, check out the small ceramic tiles inlaid into the red brick path, or the exquisite statue of Saint Nicolas, patron of children. Monaco is full of enchanting details like these — proof that it has plenty of money to spend on making life pleasant for its 32,000 inhabitants.
Houses in Monaco's old quarter around the Cathedral are painted warm beiges, yellows and fleshy pinks. Their window shutters are a tasteful green or off-white.
In the exotic garden in front of the Cathedral, small signs label plants brought in from all over the world: a cherry laurel from Japan, cacti from the Canaries and big-leafed Indian elephant ears — which look like their name sounds. The garden is dotted with benches tucked into quiet niches — perfect for whiling away an afternoon looking out to sea.
Then, enjoy a well-deserved meal. You don't have to spend a fortune to eat well in Monaco. Bistros, eateries and restaurants are spread all over town, most serving French and Italian cuisine. Expect to pay around 9 euros (US$9) for a steaming bowl of fresh mussels cooked in white wine, accompanied by crunchy french fries. About 10 euros (US$10) buys a plate of freshly made spaghetti bathed in seafood sauce.
Monaco's small size can make it quickly feel claustrophobic; it's not the sort of place you'd want to spend weeks in. But it definitely merits a stop.