Monte-Carlo without going bust

Want to soak up the royal wedding festivities in Monaco without breaking the bank? Simon Calder shows you how
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The Independent Online

The way you choose to reach Monaco depends on your travel personality. Adventurers who relish the journey as much as the destination will breakfast at London St Pancras, lunch at Le Train Bleu at Paris Gare de Lyon, whizz to and through Provence at 186mph, then trundle beside the Riviera as the shadows lengthen. Pragmatists fly to Nice-Côte d'Azur airport and climb aboard bus No 110, which reaches Monaco's Place d'Armes in 40 minutes. Show-offs will overtake everyone by hopping from plane to helicopter, breezing in from Nice airport in seven minutes flat. I hitch-hiked.

As a friendly Italian chap named David whizzed me towards the Grande Corniche that swerves above the strange capitalist geography of Monaco, the number of cars showing "MC" stickers increased. This is, of course, the international code for the tiny principality of Monaco (of which, incidentally, Monte-Carlo is only a still-smaller fragment). And it was also the acronym for my mission: Monaco, moins cher. Can the traveller with a mere handful of euros enjoy a nation designed for maximum consumption by the wealthy and glamorous? This is the one part of the Riviera where Formule 1 is a race, not a budget hotel chain.

Today, Monaco's glamour index is set to increase. Just when you thought Britain had earned the global franchise, in perpetuity, on royal weddings – up pops Ruritania-on-Sea. If all goes according to plan, Albert II and Charlene Wittstock will today be joined in the eyes of God between the mountains and the deep blue sea. Yesterday's civil ceremony will be sealed by a religious ceremony at an absurdly flamboyant royal palace atop a thrust of rock that soars above the Mediterranean. He is Sovereign Prince of Monaco, the 21st-century representative of the House of Grimaldi – still in the royalty business after seven profitable centuries. She is a South African Olympic swimmer, and is about to become Her Serene Highness, Princess of Monaco.

The swimmer faces quite a challenge as she seeks to keep her head above water: the sparkling shoes she steps into belonged to the actress Grace Kelly, the previous royal consort and Albert's mother. Until her tragic death – she suffered a stroke while driving on the spectacular but precarious Grande Corniche above the Côte d'Azur – Grace Kelly epitomised the jet-set glamour of this Riviera playground.

This pimple on the rump of southern France has long provided the rich and famous with a discreet hideaway for themselves and their cash. Exactly the sort of place, you might imagine, that has no time for the budget traveller. Yet even if you have no financial surplus to invest, Monaco has a wealth of attractions – starting with the aesthetically profitable views available from the many high points around the principality. The Palace Princier, venue for today's ceremony, predictably has the finest panoramas.

Turn your back on the Disneyesque façade of the palace to explore the narrow streets of Monaco-Ville, the Old Town – decked out in the regulation Côte d'Azur colour scheme of terracotta, tangerine and honey. The cafés, too, fit the tourist's idea of how life should look and feel in this part of the world – and cost, too – an espresso is €1, even on the terrasse.

This is possibly the world's best location for the sport of people-watching (and, incidentally, poodle-watching). The principality is a giant zoo, where exotic humans wander free. Some, notably the cruise excursionists, are in herds; but the more interesting species are notable for their designer sunglasses, elaborate outfits and accents – not difficult to audit, since everyone seems urgently to be issuing instructions into a mobile phone, in French, Russian or American.

A network of free public elevators eases the burden on your feet as you wander deeper into this moneyed maze. The congested Place d'Armes is the closest that "Monaco-bas" gets to a main square, and is also equipped with a plausible produce market. If you lack the jacket (obligatory) and tie (recommended) for the absurdly opulent Louis XV restaurant at the Hotel de Paris, not to mention the €140 for the set lunch, pick up the makings of a picnic, and go to the nearest boulangerie for a fresh baguette – price, €1.

About the last thing you could say about Monaco is that "everything's a euro", but that also happens to be the cost of the principality's water bus that cuts across the harbour – or billionaires' row, as the fleet of superyachts indicates. At water level, it is evidently length, not height, that counts when keeping score with the next oligarch. One of Monaco's many absurdities is that these sleek craft are hydrodynamically designed to sail the seven seas, yet spend much of their time moored in the equivalent of a car park.

Survey the wasted opportunities for exploration as you waft across towards the quarter of Monaco that everyone knows: Monte-Carlo. It is perched on the Plateau des Spélugues, for which 150 years ago, the orange orchard and olive grove were cut down in favour of a more fruitful enterprise. Prince Charles III created the casino, which has been enriching the principality ever since.

Settle down in the park opposite with your picnic, and watch the parade of people rich in cash and time, but not necessarily taste. In the homeland of ostentation, the hardest currency is bling. Budget visitors on the right side of the dress code (no shorts) can nip inside the handsome entrance hall, visit the well-appointed washrooms and steal a glimpse of the impressive trompes l'oeil on the ceiling (of the hall, not the loo). Card tricks cost extra, with a €10 admission fee to the main salon to ensure only serious gamblers, rather than low-budget tourists, enjoy the wheels of fortune.

In the unlikely but happy event that you break the bank at Monte-Carlo, there is no shortage of places to deposit your winnings. Indeed, our familiar high-street banks are represented, but with a difference. HSBC adds the suffix "Private Bank", while Barclays bolts on WEALTH.

If your capital is looking low, aim high. Track down Monaco's only railway station, and you can quickly find a lift that takes you hundreds of feet to the Avenue du Jardin Exotique, an expensively and imaginatively engineered road. Play supercar cricket (Ferraris count as singles, Lamborghinis score 4...) as you follow the contours, each curve revealing more vertiginous views of a tiny nation on the edge. The finest prospect is from the gardens of the Villa Paloma.

Now all you need to do is make your escape. Having thumbed my way to Monaco, and survived on a handful of euros, I fancied an upgrade on the return journey to Nice airport and my flight home. How much for that seven-minute flight? The man behind the counter at the heliport, scrutinising my backpack with what, perhaps oversensitively, I detected as some disdain, said the fare was €110 – coincidentally the same as my flight home to Heathrow. Surely, I asked, you must offer standby tickets? "Sorry, sir, only for airline staff."

I walked out of the heliport, and the principality, feeling enriched, not impoverished by my experience of Manhattan on the Med. As I re-entered France, and real life, I turned back to check the welcome sign. With a twinge of disappointment, I noted that it did not read "Monaco: twinned with Money".



To watch Simon Calder in Monaco, visit independent.co.uk/monaco

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