Surviving Monaco and living to tell the story


Bonjour my posse.
I have good news and bad news. On the bright side, the studio WiFi connection started working the day after I posted my last story (it was probably me, doing the wrong thing, as I am not known for being a “techie”.) The bad news is I went to Monaco today and I did not like it. Caution: If you like that place, vacation there in the summer every year, or dream of moving there one day, stop reading now. Major spoiler alert. You have been warned. Now back to our story.

Well, it had to happen. Every trip has a dud. Un toquard. Mine was Monaco, and I hit it on my third sightseeing day on the French Riviera. I went there by boat. It takes only 45 minutes to travel from Nice to the famous Principality of Monaco. It was a good and a bad idea. The boat ride was fun, and I got to admire the beautiful Riviera coast and gawk at the magnificent estates, owned by designers, rock stars, and other celebrities. This also means I was stuck there all day and could not get home once I’d had enough, after just a few hours.

A modest abode seen along the French coast today…
Roughing it on the French Riviera…
The Christina O., formerly owned by Aristotle Onassis,
and the most famous boat on the Mediterranean

Not all the day was bad. There were a few [fleeting] good moments. The heat was not one of them. It was brutally hot in Monaco today, without a marine breeze, and the place was suffocating. The boat skipper was also our tourist guide and he explained on the way that there are three main parts to the Principality. If, like moi, you have ever wondered why people seem to refer interchangeably to “Monaco” or “Monte-Carlo” when mentioning that little independent nation, you might find this interesting. If not, scroll down.

The most popular, is “the Rock.” This is where you find the Royal Palace, the cathedral, and the Cousteau Museum (aka “The Oceanic Museum of Monaco.”) They are all located in a very small town named “Monaco-Ville.” It is perched way up there, above the harbor.

The Royal Palace on top of “the Rock”

The second part, is known as “La Condamine.” It is basically the harbor area with some of the most massive yachts I have ever seen (and that includes the Saint-Tropez harbor, west of Nice, or its self-proclaimed American counterpart, Roche Harbor, on San Juan island, in the Pacific Northwest.)

La Condamine – The Harbor

The third part of the Municipality is “Monte-Carlo,” sitting on the other side of the harbor, and on top of another steep hill, directly across from the Rock. Monte-Carlo is well known for its expensive real estate, palaces, and world-famous casino. There is only one beach in the Principality, and one has to go past Monte-Carlo to get there. It is pristine but entirely man-made (new sand is brought every spring so it maintains its good looks.)

Monte-Carlo casino from the water

There you have it. Imagine the picture: Two big, overcrowded hills, and a big harbor ensconced in the middle. This is not a pedestrian-friendly town (and in my book, that’s almost the kiss of death.) There are buses to take you from one part of the city to the other, but I foolishly tried to hoof it at least part of the time. As you enter the harbor on the boat (and it is likely even more shocking from the water,) what you see is something like this. Over-crowded and over-built. Overhyped?

Part of the harbor. Can you say: “Muchos buildings?”

From up close, the harbor had a lot of this:

All of this yacht’s engravings were made in 24 karat gold.
Why? It’s the only metal that does not rust, of course!

Thankfully, I also found some of this (this one’s for Junior, the family’s sailor):

Cuteness attack: The Monaco sailing school is off

When we arrived, I headed straight for “The Rock.” I kept thinking about the Alcatraz escape movie with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. Not a good thing as I was about to visit the place where the Grimaldi family has lived for generations. It was only 10:30 and I knew it would be packed soon. I climbed the hill for 15 minutes (did not want to wait for the bus.) When I made it to the top, Monaco-Ville looked like this:

Two hours later, all hell had broken loose:

Ever the perfect tourist, I visited the Royal Palace (a few rooms are open to the public.) The rooms felt cramped, and I could not help but smile when I walked through “the Hall of Mirrors.” If you have ever seen its namesake built by Louis XIV in Versailles, you would have smiled as well. Let’s just say this version was a bit underwhelming. Like a lot of people, I was interested in seeing the place where Princess Grace (aka Grace Kelly) once lived. It is impossible to travel around the Principality without being reminded about Monaco’s most famous resident. There are buildings, and streets named after her. There are old black and white pictures of her life in Monaco displayed in the streets all over the city.

This picture captures the future princess’s arrival in Monaco
on a steamer, in April 1956

If I had to find a nickname for Monaco-Ville, it would be “the Magic Kingdom.” Is it the buildings’ colors and shapes? The place is pristine. Not a gum wrapper in sight. It looks like Walt Disney was used as an advisor when they built the place. Illustration.

Approaching the Royal Palace 
(the white flag indicates Prince Albert is in town)
The Royal Palace and one of the 80 guards
protecting the castle and the royal family
The cathedral of Monaco
Princess Grace and Prince Rainier were married, then buried here
So perfect, so pretty… so Disney-like

One visit I truly enjoyed while on “the Rock” was Jacques Cousteau‘s museum. It was built by Albert 1st (Prince Albert’s grandfather,) who, like a lot of Grimaldi men, was an environmentalist. That building impressed me a lot more than anything else I saw in the Principality today. Cousteau headed it for over thirty years. Like a lot of French people, I have great respect for “le Commandant Cousteau.” During his 4th grade year, Junior worked on a presentation on the environmentalist’s life and career, and I learned a lot while watching him rehearse for the big day. Imagine a grand building with a gigantic aquarium; a museum featuring ship models, giant whale skeletons, oceanographic research equipment; and a rooftop terrace with panoramic views. Voilà, les amis, some of my favorite finds. Hope you enjoy them too.

Little toddler discovering the big ocean…
Ugliest fish I ever saw: La Rascasse Rose (Pink Scorpionfish)
Favorite fish: Le Sélène. Flat, fast, and hydrodynamic.
Practically invisible in the water! 
The oldest submarine ever built “Bushnell’s Tortoise” (1774):
Was used during the American war of Independence
Favorite room: Dedicated to environmental studies and models.
Check out the giant whale in the back!

Before I left “the Rock,” I decided to brave the crowds and have lunch. Someone at the museum recommended a “decent restaurant.” As I sat there waiting for my order, I indulged in a favorite activity of mine: people-watching. Let me tell you, les amis. In a touristy place like Monaco-Ville, you see the whole [tacky] world go by. Some highlights.

The obnoxious family. They are enjoying a full picnic (complete with Tupperware containers, chips, a giant jug of water, plastic goblets) right on the steps of the Cathedral (the steps are small, so they were hard to miss.) There was a beautiful garden across the street. With benches. With a grassy area. Nope. Not for them. Better to have lunch in front of the place where Princess Grace is buried. [Don’t ever believe what you read on people’s t’shirts. For the record, Obnoxious Family was from Italy.]

The elegant couple. Lost in the midst of gaudy t-shirts, loud families, and miscellaneous headwear, the poor couple seems lost. These two are clearly considering taking off and running for their lives! They stuck it out.

Monsieur “Nicely coordinated.” Too bad he picked the wrong color.

Madame “I-am-ready-for-snow-should-snow-arrive. Well, if that day job does not work out, she can always apply for a position in the Royal Palace’s security team!

Little did I know when I left “the Rock” after lunch that the enjoyable part of my visit was over. I rode the bus across the harbor, all the way to the other hill (the bus was a good call.) The famous Monte-Carlo, home of beautiful and wealthy people (the Principality boasts the world’s highest per capita income,) was even more crowded and stressful. Add car traffic to the hundreds of people walking around in the heat, and you may start to get the picture. It’s always interesting to find out how the other half lives, right? A few shots.

The most famous casino in the world?
Up close and personal…

I realize the Casino (and nightlife) are the big draw for people in the area. I am no night owl and I don’t gamble. To me, the Monte-Carlo casino’s main redeeming virtue was that it was designed by Charles Garnier in 1878. I have always been a fan of the Paris’ Opera House he built for Napoleon III.

Back of the Casino

There were also exclusive designer boutiques (I spotted CHANEL immediately, as you may expect from this French Girl.) There were expensive cars, lined up in front of the casino and everyone (who was not “someone”) was taking pictures of them. Porsche, Maserati, BMW, Ferrari, and even a couple of Aston-Martins.

Dude, nobody is going to think you are James Bond,
even if you pose in front of that thing!

I made myself a promise: If I ever come back to the Principality of Monaco, I will make sure to drive up to the casino in a vintage 2 CV. Wouldn’t that be cool? For those of you who don’t know what 2CV are and why they became so iconic in France, look them up. I wrote an article about them once. In the meantime, imagine French Girl pulling up along the curb in this glorious piece of French engineering:

The much-beloved “Deuche”: The queen of all {French} balls!

Enough dreaming. It was time to leave Paradise and head back to the boat. Lord knows I did not want to be stuck there all night. I walked all the way back, downhill, along the loudest, hottest, most pedestrian-unfriendly road to make it. Once onboard, I chatted with other passengers about the Principality of Monaco and got the feeling other people had been equally overwhelmed. Someone said: “It’s one of those things you have to do at least once.” Right. Consider it done, then. One thing is for sure: When we finally pulled into the Nice harbor, I let out a big sigh of relief. I will be darned. La Belle Nice is starting to feel like… home!

A bientôt!

 Picture of Monaco-Ville and the Harbor way back when… the good old days?
Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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  1. Craig on August 16, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    A fascinating post Veronique. We must be similar souls as we planned to visit MC when we were in Saint Raphael two years ago but on the day we were supposed to go we both said “you know, I just don’t fancy it”. Thank you for confirming this! Have a great time now you’re back in Nice!

  2. Sandy on August 17, 2011 at 8:43 am

    I was only in Monaco for a few hours and i also wasn’t impressed. I thought maybe I didn’t give it enough time…or maybe I was just pmsing. I think i would have liked it better if I had gone to Jacques Cousteau’s museum. I didn’t know it was there! I loved watching his shows growing up.=)

  3. Genie -- Paris and Beyond on August 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Well, now that I have had your very comprehensive tour and assessment, I can just mark this place off my list. I think that I would like a boat ride around it and then just scoot back to Nice!If you want to photograph a place, you need to get up early enough to beat the tourists, unless, of course the tourists are the object of the shoot. The narrow street void of people is lovely.I look forward to your 2CV post! Enjoy your time away!Bises,Genie

  4. Jean on August 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I think your pictures are a really beuatiful. I too found a lot of hoop la over nothing. I’m glad I was there but have no desire to return. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on August 17, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    — Craig — Seriously, what’s up with Monaco? I am sure it looks a lot better at night with all these buildings but still…– Sandy — Loved Commandant Cousteau’s shows as well. I always visit aquariums. There are some fantastic ones in the US as well… — Genie — You should go anyway, then cross it off your list. Come to think of it, the tour boat company did offer a round trip without stopping in Monaco. I think I know why now 😉 — Jean — Thank you for posting. I am glad you enjoyed my pics, taken with a simple “point-and-shoot” camera. 😉 Come back soon.

  6. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on August 17, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    — g — I am glad you threw your two cents in! I was beginning to wonder if ANYONE has ever enjoyed Monaco and gone back (other than a friend of mine who vacations there on a regular basis, of course.) Yes, Grace was a great lady. I like her even more now that I know what a great friend she was to Josephine Baker of course. I am past the disappointment already since i had a fabulous visit in Eze le Village the following day. Story coming up in a few hours!

  7. g on August 17, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    oh v— SO SORRY for the slight disappointment– at least there was some time on the water and the wonderful museum…i would really like that… love the world under water!! now i have to be honest…and admit i am somewhat partial to monaco. i have spent some time there on 2 separate in the hilt of august vacation season and another time in oct./nov.. i think i like it because of the grace kelly association and her philadelphia roots (i passed the house she grew up in very often visiting a friend who lived in that neighborhood)…so the old “local girl makes good” mentality…not to mention her beauty and pose…loved her sense of style…v- I LOVE THE 2CV- SOMEDAY I WILL OWN ONE AS WELL AS THE FIAT 500 VINTAGE- JUST ADORE VINTAGE POCKET CARS cannot wait for this post—- now i am sure tommorrow WILL BE JUST DEVINE…adore reading ALL your adventures-good and not so good-looking forward to part 3! -g (proud to be part of your posse by the way)

  8. Cherie Moore on August 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Your photos of Monaco are beautiful, they bring back fond memories of our day trip there in May 2006. We took the train from Villefranche-sur-mer on a lovely warm day. We took a short train ride around the city and enjoyed our day. You are right about all the bldgs, but the harbor was so magnifique. It was just fun to see how the truly wealthy live. If I was in that league, I would buy a chateau or villa somewhere on the Riviera…sigh.

  9. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on August 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    — Cherie — Merci for stopping by. I agree about the villa. In fact I was not surprised to find out that the two “Sirs” (Elton John and Sean Connery) both own villas above the Nice harbor. Men of great taste, obviously. 😉

  10. Dash on September 17, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Veronique, I am not overly fond of Monaco/Monte-Carlo either, to paraphrase Somerset Maugham, it truly is ‘A Sunny Place for Shady People’. I went years ago and have no desire to return, I had some friends that lived there for tax reasons, they hated it and could not wait to get out. Most people that live there rent as it’s difficult to buy, transient and square meterage is ridiculously overpriced. It’s full of high class hookers, very dodgy people and tourists in a pristine, manicured and pretentious environment which resembles Disneyland more than the South of France. Interesting to think that if the Principality has no legitimate heirs, Monaco will be taken over by France and would no doubt lose it’s Tax Haven status! Those plastic, floating Gin Palaces are awful aren’t they! Give me a good old fashioned sailing boat with wood, brass and sails anyday, there is one of those vulgar things in the port of Saint Tropez, called ‘Don’t Touch’ says it all really. I saw ‘Lady Moura’ a few years ago bobbing about in Calvi port in Corsica, the port was not deep enough to take her, Ahh! Have you been to Corsica? I think it’s the most beautiful place I have ever visited.

  11. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on September 17, 2011 at 9:10 am

    — Welcome back, Dash– Glad it was not just me. Seriously, what a let down that place was. I had always wanted to go and see what the fuss was about. Now I know. I would go back just for the Musee Oceanographique. That place alone was worth the price of my boat ride ticket! Never been to Corsica, nope, but Le Brother and Le Husband have been discussing a plan that involves chartering a sailboat and cruising around Corsica I believe. Will keep you posted 😉 V.

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