The sun glistening on the calm surface of the Mediterranean, the sloshing of the water on the piers and the background chatter of patrons in the ubiquitous al fresco restaurants – the scene could be taken straight out of a travel brochure. Except that this is Monaco, a place that requires little introduction, and whose job of attracting tourists and travellers is left to its reputation, rather than the tourism board (which, I am told, does exist).
It’s easy to dismiss the Principality of Monaco as a playground for the rich, a crammed, glitzy showcase of supercars and even more super yachts. Quite obviously, the opulence of the place is the first thing that strikes you as you walk out of the main train station (can you ever be TOTALLY desensitised to Lamborghinis, no matter how many you see in a short time? Thought so.) , but there’s more to Monte-Carlo and its siblings than just luxury. Scratch the surface and beneath you’ll find a world of tradition, history and pride in this small country that makes every visit to Monaco worth it.
I like walking. I find it the most thorough way to explore a new destination, getting to know its real essence in a way that stimulates all senses, away from the insulating shell a car window provides. With its narrow streets, pedestrianised alleyways and the maze-like mess of one-way avenues and tunnels only locals can truly master, Monaco lends itself perfectly to explorers on foot (provided their calves can take a beating – the gradients can be quite steep). Escaping the glitz of Port Hercule, the postcard-perfect harbour, boats bobbing along the quays where the tourists mingle with off-duty crews, the quieter wards of the city offer a different perspective, with a distinct atmosphere that reflects their residential status: it’s where small grocery stores survive alongside newsagents and launderettes; it’s where a small-town feeling persists even in the urban sprawl that extended to every last constructible patch of land (often reclaimed from the Med) in the country.
It’d be easy to head up the Rocher, straight to the Prince’s Palace. The climb up the hill is rewarded with a gorgeous view of the whole of the bay, up to Roquebrune, on the east side, while looking out over the west cliff you can see Fontvieille and the immaculately picture-perfect stadium, venue of the athletics Diamond League and, recently, the Champions’ League semifinals. The Rocher, however, is a natural draw for tourists, and while the narrow cobbled alleys come to life when full, the place acquires a surreal peace as the darkness sets and the streets empty. This is when I love to come up here, taking in the sight of the Palace’s cream façade lit up in pink floodlights and enjoying something that, in Monaco, is normally in very short supply: silence. It’s in absolute quiet that you can roam this deserted maze, taking in the Oceanographic museum that stubbornly clings to a cliff and the Saint Nicholas cathedral, with its romanesque beauty almost hidden among the old buildings. It’s in quiet that you can discover the Monegasque language, a variant of Ligurian that locals defend passionately and is the language of choice for street signs. It’s in quiet that you can look out to the Mediterranean, where the lights of countless boats emerge from the darkness, like fireflies in a field at night.
Instead, while the sun is still high, I head east past the beaches at Larvotto, past the edges of town and the swanky Monte Carlo Bay hotel to take the Promenade Le Corbusier, a long coastal path that snakes around the Cap Martin, all the way to Menton. Following the way through the Mediterranean bush, plenty of discoveries await me: hidden beaches only accessible on foot, small paths leading up to villas or exclusive restaurants. Its eight miles of sun-baked glory are a great way to spend a day, all in sight of the medieval Roquebrune castle. I am grateful I remembered to bring sun cream – even if it’s only late May, I feel my skin toasting in the sunshine and, by evening, there’s a healthy glow to it (I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a tan, but at least I avoid the burn).
For all my love of independent travel, sometimes a little bit of luxury is needed in everyone’s life. I am lucky/charming (delete as appropriate) to blag my way on one of the yachts in the harbour one evening. I’m still feeling the 20k I walked today in my legs, but I can’t say no to the ultimate Monaco experience: it’s a chilled night, some light jazz is playing in the background (hopelessly drowned by the electronic dance cacophony blasted in the air by our mooring neighbours) and there’s chatter behind me, but I excuse myself from the conversation to look out from the bow over the star-lit harbour. Beyond the boats lined on the jetties, well-lubricated party-goers revel in the streetside bars, dancing until the small hours on the same tarmac on which racing cars zipped by only hours before, and onto which they will race when morning comes. It’s like a dream and I don’t struggle to see the reasons for Monaco’s enduring charm – for both motorsport fans and not.
Off the yacht, having regained my shoes (clean, new socks are a must in Monaco as the amount of time you’ll spend on deck without footwear is considerable), I head up the hill for one last treat. Whilst Monaco definitely still holds something for the independent, off-the-beaten path traveller, a visit to the Principality wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Casino. It’s the last night in the country and, while I am no gambler, nothing beats the jamesbondesque feeling of donning a suit jacket and heading to the Belle Epoque institution that has come to represent the Principality to the world. Whether it’s yacht-hopping in the harbour, glass of champagne in hand or exploring the local bakeries to try the traditional chickpea flatbread, socca, Monaco is Monaco and tonight, more than ever, I am feeling lucky.