Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
Tiny, densely populated Monaco is a curious monarchic anachronism in the midst of republican France, and packs in a fascinating mixture of architectural styles that go from royal palace to skyscraper city.
DISTANCE: 7.25km (4.5 miles)
TIME: A half day (allow a full day if visiting the palace and museums with time for lunch)
START: Place d’Armes
END: Casino de Monte-Carlo
POINTS TO NOTE: Monaco is divided into five areas, three of which are visited on this route: Monaco-Ville or Le Rocher, La Condamine around the Port Hercule and Monte-Carlo around the Casino and its seaside extension Larvotto. The principality is tiny but hilly; a useful system of lifts and escalators connects its different levels. Only cars registered in Monaco or the Alpes-Maritimes can enter Monaco-Ville, so leave your car in one of the car parks in La Condamine. Monaco train station is underground; take the avenue Prince Pierre exit for place d’Armes; the square is also served by all six of Monaco’s bus routes. All sights and museums close during the Monaco Grand Prix weekend (late May) when the town is transformed by grandstands and crash barriers.
W. Somerset Maugham described it as ‘a sunny place for shady people’, Katherine Mansfield called it ‘Real Hell’, yet there is something irresistibly absurd about this tiny mini state - the second smallest in Europe after the Vatican - which is famous for its Grand Prix, billionaire residents and tax haven status, and ruling monarchy. Tower blocks fight for space and sea views, dwarfing the remaining Belle Époque architecture and giving Monaco the air of a mini Hong Kong on the Mediterranean.
A car registration indicates Monaco’s status as a principality
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
MARCHÉ DE LA CONDAMINE
Start on the arcaded place d’Armes 1 [map], which is about as close as Monaco gets to everyday life, with its morning outdoor fruit and vegetable stalls and the covered market at one end. Butchers, charcutiers, pasta stalls and a couple of small bars, all with photos of Prince Albert II, reflect the omnipresence of the royal family: although nominally a constitutional monarchy, power still resides with the prince.
Cross over to avenue de la Porte Neuve, which climbs the side of Le Rocher to Monaco-Ville, essentially a handful of streets lined with pastel-coloured houses, which lead to the palace. The street loops via avenue des Pins to place de la Visitation (you can also get here from place d’Armes by bus route nos 1 and 2). After admiring the chocolates in the window of the Chocolaterie de Monaco at the end of the square, fork right into rue Princesse Marie de Lorraine and its continuation rue Basse, a nonstop parade of souvenir shops. For respite, pop into the surprisingly undervisited Chapelle de la Miséricorde 2 [map] (daily 10am-6pm; free), with striped marble walls, white marble sculptures and a painted wood sculpture of the Dead Christ attributed to Monaco-born François Joseph Bosio (1768-1845).
Changing of the guard, Palais Princier
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
The street emerges on place du Palais, where cannons and neat pyramids of cannon balls are aligned in front of the Palais Princier 3 [map] (www.palais.mc; daily July-Aug 10am-7pm, Apr-June and Sept-Oct until 6pm, closed Nov-Mar; charge), a storybook castle constructed around the fortress begun by Genoans in the 13th century. Each day, the changing of the guard takes place promptly at 11.55am, carried out by the Prince’s French carabinieri, accompanied by much marching and drum beating. The constitution forbids the use of Monégasque guards, a precaution designed to prevent a coup d’état. Depending upon the season, the carabinieri are dressed in blue-and-red striped uniforms in winter and white uniforms in summer. The worthwhile palace audio tour includes the frescoed Galerie d’Hercule, one of the palace’s Renaissance embellishments; the Galerie des Glaces, used to welcome guests during official receptions; the Cour d’Honneur, an Italianate quadrangle where Prince Albert II married Charlene Wittstock in 2011 and which hosts classical music concerts in summer; and the Salle du Trône, where he was crowned in 2005. The most appealing room is the Chambre d’York, where the Duke of York, George III’s brother, died. He was on his way to visit a mistress in Genoa when he was taken ill off Monaco. Here, reported Horace Walpole, “The poor Duke of York has ended his silly, good-humoured, troublesome career in a piteous manner.” Still, he managed to choose a bed chamber with a frescoed ceiling, Venetian furniture and a lovely gilt, canopied bed.
Café de Paris stained glass
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Admire the views of the artificial Port de Fontvieille to the west and the original Port Hercule in the Condamine district to the east; east of here lie Monte-Carlo, a skyscraper-studded hill dubbed ‘Manhattan-sur-Mer’ and its man-made beach extension, Larvotto. Have a meal at Castelroc, see 1, or simply take rue Colonel Bellandro de Castro, passing the Conseil National (Monaco’s parliament) and the Palais de Justice (law courts) to the 19th-century Cathédrale 4 [map] (daily 8.30am-7pm, until 6pm in winter). It has a Romanesque-style façade and neo-Byzantine mosaic over the choir, and the side chapels contain saints’ relics as well as an altarpiece by Louis Bréa. Around the apse are the simple slab-like royal tombs, the most recent being that of Prince Rainier II, alongside his beloved Princesse Grace.
Musée Océanographique et Aquarium
From the cathedral, avenue St-Martin leads to the Musée Océanographique et Aquarium 5 [map] (www.oceano.mc; daily Apr-June and Sept 10am-7pm, July and Aug 10am-8.30pm, Oct-Mar 10am-6pm; charge), which hugs the cliffside. Upstairs is an old-fashioned museum largely devoted to the Arctic exploration trips of ‘the scientist prince’, Albert I (1848-1922), which is full of specimens preserved in formaldehyde, whale skeletons and mahogany cases of navigation charts. However, the chief draw is the enormously popular aquarium downstairs, where illuminated tanks, fed by water pumped in from the sea, include a shark pit and living coral reefs populated by brightly coloured Mediterranean and tropical species.
Exit and take the steps opposite back to place de la Visitation, where the 17th-century Chapelle de la Visitation 6 [map] (tel: 377-93 50 07 00; Tue-Sun 10am-4pm; charge) provides an appropriate Baroque setting for religious paintings by Rubens, Ribera and Zurbaran.
Birth of Monte-Carlo
Monaco owes its transformation from obscure olive-growing hill town to gambling capital to the Grimaldis’ loss of Menton and Roquebrune in the 1860s. In search of a new source of revenue, Prince Charles III had the bright idea of opening a casino on the Spélugues hill, creating a whole new district that he modestly named after himself. After an unenthusiastic start, the prince awarded the concession to run it to businessman François Blanc, founder of the Société des Bains de Monaco (SBM). In 1864 Blanc built the Hôtel de Paris to accommodate new visitors, and in 1878 his widow Marie called in architect Charles Garnier, of Paris Opéra fame, to tack a lavish opera house onto the back of the casino to encourage gamblers to stay in town a little longer. The SBM, now majority owned by the State of Monaco, still owns most of Monte-Carlo’s finest hotels, restaurants, casinos, spa, sporting facilities and nightclubs, and old-fashioned principles still apply: no Monégasque citizens or clergymen are allowed into the gaming rooms.
Wealth is everywhere to see
Meander through the gardens beneath avenue de la Porte Neuve, which are dotted with sculptures by Arman of the École de Nice (for more information, click here) and others, and back across place d’Armes into rue Grimaldi. Turn right down pedestrianised rue Princesse Caroline to Port Hercule 7 [map], Monaco’s natural deep-water harbour ever since the Phocaeans established their trading post, Monoikos. The broad terrace along boulevard Albert 1er is a prime spot for the Grand Prix but is also used for all sorts of events, from international showjumping in June to a funfair in August; below, the outdoor swimming pool becomes an ice rink in winter.
Turn right past La Rascasse, see 2, to quai Antoine 1er, for exhibitions in the Salle des Exhibitions and American restaurant Stars ’n’ Bars, for more information, click here.
Return along quai Antoine 1er and from the northeastern corner detour left up to Église Ste-Dévote 8 [map] (daily 8.30am-6pm), dedicated to the principality’s patron saint, martyred Corsican virgin Saint Devota, who is said to have drifted ashore here in the 4th century. Although reconstructed in the 19th century and hemmed in by flyovers, the church has a strong symbolic importance for Monégasques, who burn a boat on the parvis every 26 January on the eve of the saint’s feast.
Return to the port, following quai des États-Unis, where ogling the swanky yachts is a favourite pastime, to the new counter-jetty, part of the port’s recent expansion. Now take the footpath that winds round the huge 1970s Les Spélugues complex, a series of overlapping hexagons, containing hotel, apartments and the Auditorium Rainier III congress centre, which juts out on concrete stilts into the water.
Casino de Monte-Carlo
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
You emerge on avenue Princesse Grace, where the pretty Jardin Japonais 9 [map] (daily 9am-sunset; free) provides an oasis of oriental calm, with streams traversed by stepping stones and wooden bridges, Shinto shrines, raked gravel and trees trimmed into sculptural forms. Behind it is the polygonal glass and copper Grimaldi Forum ) [map] (www.grimaldiforum.com), a busy congress, concert and exhibition centre overlooking the sea. It is worth going inside to check out the big summer art show or for a drink or meal at chic bistro Café Llorca, for more information, click here.
Nouveau Musée National de Monaco
Located in exotic gardens across the street, the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco ! [map] (www.nmnm.mc; daily June-Sept 11am-7pm, Oct-May 8am-6pm; charge), which is housed in the peaches-and-cream Villa Sauber, could hardly be a greater contrast. This is one of two locations of Monaco’s national museum (the other is in Villa Paloma at 56 boulevard du Jardin Exotique, which focuses on art and territory), whose collection is based on the themes of art and performance. Exhibits include a magnificent collection of costumes from the Principality’s opera and ballet companies, plans and models of Monaco and temporary art exhibitions.
To the east along avenue Princesse Grace is the Plage du Larvotto, Monaco’s man-made beach, but to continue this walk take the lift next to the museum up to boulevard des Moulins. Turn left (west) past elegant antiques dealers and clothes shops.
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Place du Casino
Just after the Tourist Office (for more information, click here), the manicured fountains and herbaceous borders of the Jardins Boulengrin provide a fine vista down to place du Casino, the ensemble that encapsulates the Monte-Carlo myth. To the right, Rolls-Royces and Ferraris line up outside the Hôtel de Paris, first and still grandest of Monte-Carlo’s grand hotels. On the corner, Cartier heralds the jewellers and couture boutiques that lead up avenue des Beaux-Arts to the palatial Hôtel Hermitage.
On the opposite side of the place du Casino, the terrace of the Café de Paris, see 3, is perfect for observing the comings and goings on the square; within, its slot machines are busy from early morning and a notice at the entrance to the brasserie tells you to check your fur coat into the cloakroom. For a cheaper pit stop, take avenue des Spélugues for Le Tip Top, for more information, click here, where photos of important customers hang behind the bar.
Finish your walk at the legendary Casino de Monte-Carlo @ [map] (www.casinomontecarlo.com; daily 2pm-late; over 18s only, ID required). Even if you are not a gambler, the ornate confection still has an aura of glamour. Inside, roulette and black jack are played against a backdrop of allegorical paintings and chandeliers, and across the foyer the Salle Garnier opera house, designed by Charles Garnier, has been painstakingly restored right down to the five different shades of gold leaf. Guided tours are available (charge) from 9am to 12.30pm.
Food and Drink
Place du Palais; tel: +377-93 30 36 68; Mon and Sun L only, Tue-Sat L and D; €€
This institution, with a cheerful, frescoed dining room and elegant conservatory overlooking the palace, is the place to try Monaco’s Italianate specialities, such as stocafi (stockfish).
2 LA RASCASSE
1 quai Antoine 1er; tel: +377-93 25 56 90; www.larascassemontecarlo.com; daily D only; €€
A two-storey club that serves ‘finger food’ such as Tex Mex chicken and hosts live rock bands at night, with a grandstand view of the famous Rascasse bend.
3 CAFÉ DE PARIS
Place du Casino; tel: +377-98 06 76 23; www.casinocafedeparis.com; daily L and D; €€€
A faithful recreation of the original Belle Époque bar and brasserie, next to the casino. There’s great people-watching on the pavement terrace, plus a restaurant with 1900s decor and its own casino with car-themed slot machines. The crêpe suzette was invented here. Serves all day.