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What to see on a day trip from Nice to Monaco

The Principauté de Monaco (the Principality of Monaco) is a world, literally, unto itself: An independent microstate, with, among other things, its own license plate and area code. One of its appeals is that the Monégasque – the residents – generally pay no taxes. French residents with less than 5 years residency must pay taxes according to French law. The money laws are quite complex for individuals and businesses. Most of Monaco’s revenue comes from tourism and gambling, and the principality is one of the most desirable addresses in the world. Its location also adds to its success: Nice lies 9 miles west while Italy lies only 5 miles east.

In terms of security, France also has an agreement with Monaco that it will defend the Principauté, should it come under outside attack…a much deeper relationship than just economic or cultural.

The mild Mediterranean climate certainly adds to Monaco’s appeal, with annual temperatures of 61 F (16 C) and about 60 days of rain. The monthly low temperatures range from 50 F in January to 75 F (24 C) in August.

Monaco appears like a mirage when you approach from Nice. Glass, sandstone, marble and concrete buildings rise out of the harsh, dry hillside that flow through the crystalline air down to the rich, blue-green harbor. Luxury yachts, cruise ships, sailboats and power boats dominate the water. The apartments, condos, hotels and convention centers grow upward out of the sea and land, many with balconies displaying a variety of flowers, adding to the almost unreal feel of this fabled city.

There are four sections, or quartiers, to Monaco: the town of Monaco, or “the Rock,” the old town. La Condamine, the business district with a natural harbor. Monte-Carlo, which includes gambling casinos. And Fontvieille, in which modern light industries are located as well as a well-respected park, zoo and the Princess Grace Rose Garden.

Monaco as we know it today was a deliberate and recent creation, begun in the 1850s when Charles III, a relative of Albert II, the current Prince, opened the first casino on a rocky promontory overlooking the bay. It was later named Monte-Carlo. His Majesty was in need of revenue, but he did not want to increase taxes on his people. So, he ordered the construction of the first casino, in 1856. Profits soon became so high that Charles abolished all direct income taxes on the populace. The casino quickly became the mecca for European aristocracy to play and indulge their every whim. And the principality re-created itself to cater to those needs.

The capital city is Monte-Carlo, known throughout the world as a playground for the rich and famous, as well as a tax haven and cultural center. Monaco’s image was enhanced when American actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier in 1956. Over time though, the decline of the aristocracy and the changing nature of travel and wealth brought more money from celebrities in the arts and sports worlds.

The city is spotless, the buildings washed and cleaned, painted and meticulously maintained and the streets are empty of any litter

We drove up a short rise, leaving the heart of Monaco behind, and entered the Place du Palais (Plaza of the Palace), an expansive open area before the Palais Princier (the Palace of the Prince). That Royal Residence, designed in the Italianate style, occupies one side of the square. Across from it, you’ll find the Castleroc, a popular restaurant where visitors can rest in the shade of overhanging pines and enjoy the splendor of the Palais and the solitude of the hilltop.

At 11:55, precisely, la Relève de la Garde (the Changing of the Guard) begins. Only five minutes long, it is striking and fanciful, as the armed guardsmen, in crisp white uniforms and pith helmets, perform a carefully choreographed dance, with one group of eight replacing another. The ritual is much like the city, carefully planned and executed, designed to give a sense of tradition.

With my daughter and my friend Frank I sat at the Castleroc and enjoyed Monegasque cuisine including anchoiade, (a purée of anchovies and olive oil), and stockfish. As we ate, my daughter read from a guidebook, sharing the history of the Grimaldi family’s origins in 1297 when Francesco Grimaldi – known as Frank the Rogue – disguised as a monk, seized the fortified medieval town, le Rocher (the Rock). He was aided by supporters, also disguised as monks. With a minor break under Napoleon, from 1795 to 1814, the Grimaldis were in residence ever since; they are the oldest reigning family in Europe. The current ruler, Prince Albert II, van trace his ancestry to Otto Canella, born in 1070, although the Grimaldi line began with Francesco Grimaldi, a great-great-great-grandson of Otto.

Palace and museums

We took a tour of the Palais, passing through spacious rooms, each sumptuously appointed with rich fabrics and tapestries, heavy and ornate furniture, and gilded with gold leaf, in some cases excessively so. We were taken to the Throne Room where Prince Albert II conducts official state business and receives dignitaries. It is here that his father, Prince Rainier III, married Grace Kelly in a civil ceremony, in 1956. We were guided through the spectacular Hall of Mirrors where light brilliantly reflects from the walls, the bedroom where King George III of England died, and past massive portraits by Holbein and Brueghel, among others. Everything inside the Palais is done on a grand scale, creating the impression of size and importance, but also of excess and decadence, reminders of a time gone by.

Next we visited the Musée des Souvenirs Napoloeoniens, the Museum of Napoleon Memorabilia and Archives Museum, to the left of the main entrance to the Palais. It contains documents from the First Empire, but is dedicated primarily to objects relating to Napoleon: His tricolor hat and scarf; assorted memorabilia from the Napoleonic wars, including cannonballs from the battle of Austerlitz and the Battalion flag from the island of Elba, one of the two islands to which he was exiled.

Then on to the Cathedral where Grace Kelly married her prince. From the Palais it is a ten-minute walk, along well-maintained avenues, lined with attractive and inviting cafés, galleries and specialty stores in stately buildings.

The Cathedral is rather dramatic. A white stone structure built in the late nineteenth century, it dominates the block, with its multicolored granite and porphyry pillars. The high altar at the far end of the interior is made of Carrara marble. Inside the church lies the tomb of the Princess and many leave flowers.

Oceanographic Museum of Monaco

We emerged into the sunshine and wandered along well tended paths lined with sculpted floral gardens. There are magnificent views of the harbor, brilliant in the light shining off the blue water; white luxury cruisers and yachts reinforced the image of wealth and power. We made our way to le Musée océanographique de Monaco (the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco).

Founded by Prince Albert I in 1910, the museum is closely associated with Jacques Cousteau, the world-famous undersea explorer, who was its director from 1957 to 1988. The low, neo-Classical white stone building is both a world-class marine research center and an educational institute. It contains several conference rooms, specialized exhibits on all phases of marine life, and a large theatre. The feature that we most enjoyed was the Aquarium. The designers reconstructed many of the world’s sea beds inside and there are almost a hundred tanks with a variety of aquatic life including morays and giltheads from the Mediterranean Sea, a coral reef from the Red Sea, and sharks from the Pacific Ocean.

The Harbor

Monaco Harbor is full of yachts from relatively modest thirty-footers to mega yachts several hundred feet long with helicopter pads. It is a sight not to be missed in the kingdom of Monaco.

The Opéra de Monte-Carlo

 The magnificent Opera House is part of the Monte Carlo Casino. In the 1870s, with no serious major cultural activities in Monaco, Prince Charles III, along with the Société des bains de mer, decided to add a concert hall to the casino. Conveniently, Charles III’s private entrance was on the western side while the public entrance to the hall was from the casino. Opening in 1879, it became known as the Salle Garnier, after the architect Charles Garnier, who designed it. He also designed the Opera Garnier in Paris.

The intimate Salle Garnier, seating 524, was constructed in only eight and a half months. Its ornate, gilded style – with strong gold, marble and glass elements – was heavily influenced by the Palais Garnier. Although the Monte Carlo theatre was not originally intended for opera, it was so frequently used for that purpose that, in 1898-1899, its stage area was remodeled to support operatic productions. The hall was inaugurated in January 1879 with a performance by actress Sarah Bernhardt dressed as a nymph.

The Casino

The exquisite gardens leading to the Casino give a hint of what’s to come. They are beautifully sculpted and well-tended, green and luscious with a central twenty-foot-wide fountain

To the left of the Casino is the Café de Paris, a Belle Epoque, late nineteenth century brasserie. We couldn’t resist a quick flutter! Most of the celebrities and serious gamblers arrive in the evening. The afternoons were for the tourists like us, with rules of dress relaxed until the evening, but with limited access to the interior: the first main hall, the Cyrano Shop and a café.  In the evening it’s jackets, shirts and ties for men and cocktail dresses, formal pantsuits or evening dresses for women. One rule, curiously, is that residents of Monaco are not permitted to gamble at the tables; only guests or visitors are allowed!

The expansive foyer is decorated in an opulent style with paintings and murals covering the ceiling and walls, and large skylights filling the room with the soft light of afternoon. Before entering the Salon Americaine, part of the casino, we had to show our passports and pay a nominal entrance fee. We had already had to give up our phones and cameras which are not allowed in the casino. It’s an elegant space, very belle epoque and splendid. Needless to say, by the end of our visit, we didn’t come out winners, but it was a fascinating visit.

You can pack a lot in on a day trip to Monaco from Nice!

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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