Destination: Côte d’Azur (Part II – Monaco)

No self-respecting motoring enthusiast (or not) on holiday on the Cote d’Azur can possibly justify not driving a few extra kilometres, or extend his stay by a day or two, to experience Monaco at first hand. One cannot miss out on the 25 km stretch of coastal road that links Nice to Monte-Carlo. During the whole of the 30 minutes drive along the coast one can experience breathtaking views of marinas with huge yachts and beautiful houses, old and new, dotting the hillside that encases the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea.

Monaco, an ancient principality steeped in a rich and colourful history filled with barbarians, kings and even a movie star, is considered by many to be Europe's most fascinating country. Though the Principality covers only two square kilometres, it stands as a proud monarchy with his Serene Highness Prince Rainier III as its Head of State. The city is full of the some of the finest, most beautiful and stylish architecture yet to be seen.

But leave your car for some time, and stroll around the principality’s three principal areas: Monaco-Ville, the old fortified town, with the Prince's Palace, the ramparts, the gardens, the Cathedral and the Oceanographic Museum; the Condamine, the harbour area; and Monte Carlo, created in 1866, in the reign of Prince Charles III who gave it its name, with its internationally famous Casino, its great hotels and several leisure facilities.

The Grimaldi ascent began one night in 1297, when François Grimaldi, known as Malizia, seized the fortress of Monaco from a rival Italian faction disguised as a monk. Over the next few centuries, Monaco prospered as an important port in major maritime trading routes. Prince Rainier III ascended to the throne in 1949 and later caught the world's attention with his fairytale marriage to actress Grace Kelly. Today, Monaco still stands as a proud monarchy with H.S.H. Rainier III as its Head of State.

Monaco, the capital of the Principality, stands proudly on a rock jutting out to sea some 140m above sea level and is overlooking the bay. It is dominated by the 13th century Palais Princier which has been the residence of the ruling Grimaldi family ever since. Every generation has left their mark on the place. It was originally a fortress and remained so for nearly 400 years. Its character as a fortress in those times was essential for developing its defences due to the fact that Monaco was coveted by enemies resulting in many conflicts with the Genoese, the French and the Spanish.

Towards the middle of the seventeenth century, Prince Honoré II took the first steps to transform it into a palace. The military structures were retained but the interior was completely altered. It now houses superb collections of paintings by famous artists, tapestries and precious furniture. A great gate, which opens to the Court of Honour, and still exists today, was constructed some fifty years later. A double staircase in white marble leads to the Hercules Gallery, considered as the old central part of the fortress despite modifications carried out over the years. This gallery is adorned with 16th century frescoes. Some battlemented towers remain standing till today.

The Court of Honour is paved with over three million white and coloured pebbles forming immense geometrical figures. This palace is worth a look inside but if one is pressed for time one can at least witness the ceremony of changing of the guard. This takes place everyday just before midday and lasts about two minutes.

Walking through the quaint alleyways of this pretty town one cannot miss the neat little eighteenth century houses with their salmon-pink façades. A short distance away from the Prince’s Palace is the Cathedral of Monaco. This neo-Romanesque, completed in 1884, was built with white stone on the ruins of St. Nicholas church and is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. It houses three naves and an ambulatory where the sepulchres of past Princes, including the one of Princess Grace, are to be found. At the entrance to the ambulatory is the altarpiece of St. Nicholas. This Cathedral has held several important ceremonies including the wedding of HRH Prince Ranier III and former actress Grace Kelly.

Cross the road to the St Martin’s Gardens, and savour the glimpses of the sea through lush tropical vegetation and shady walkways. The Oceanographic Museum, an architectural masterpiece just off the gardens, is entirely dedicated to the study of the sea and houses an exceptional collection of marine fauna and its world famous aquarium.

Monaco owes its renowned principality to its Grand Casino. It was established in 1856 by Charles III to save himself from bankruptcy. The first casino was opened in 1865 on a barren promontory (later named Monte-Carlo in his honour) across the harbour from Monaco-Ville. The Grand Casino was designed in 1878 by Charles Garnier, the same architect who designed the Paris Opéra. It comprises several sections with the oldest part facing the sea and offers magnificent views of Monaco. Inside the gambling rooms are sumptuously decorated featuring stained glass windows and admirable decorations and sculptures, paintings and bronze lamps. Opposite the Casino are magnificent flowerbeds and impeccably maintained green lawns interspersed with ponds. These gardens, embellished with pools and fountains, slope gently upwards in the direction of the main shopping area of the town. A definite must when visiting Monte-Carlo is a brunch (or even a dinner) at the Café de Paris. Just next to the Grand Casino, it boasts spectacular interior fittings and magnificent windows and its décor is deliciously old-fashioned in style.

La Condamine is Monaco’s commercial district stretching between the Rock and Monte-Carlo. It houses the Port Hercule and is skirted by a broad terraced promenade and crowded with luxury yachts. Prince Albert I had commissioned its building in 1901 when it became apparent that the Principality needed a harbour that was able to accommodate the large number of boats and yachts that visited the Côte d' Azur and to help open up the commerce of the area.

But who says Monaco says motor-sports. The Principality permeates with motor-sport heritage and tradition, several mementoes of which adorn its junctions, not least the life-size tribute to Juan Manuel Fangio. The Grand Prix de Monaco is a dream for the Formula 1 enthusiast and the fact that one can drive along the roads composing the actual track on any other day makes it even more compelling. That famous tunnel, that hair-pin bend, that stretch along the port, set instant goose-pimples onto any warm-blooded driver. And yes, Monaco’s fabulous streets do indeed host the highest concentration of sports and luxury cars – our typical jaw-dropping day brought out any number of Ferraris (including the coveted Enzo), Bugattis, Porsches, Aston Martins and Bentleys. That’s stuff that dreams are made of …