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.
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 the central district). It also happened to be 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. The previous Serene Highness was the actress Grace Kelly, her new husband's mother. The Hollywood heroine's plain tomb – in creamy marble, strewn with flowers and engraved Gratia Patricia – occupies a corner of the cathedral. 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 a 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 little 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. From here, you can see the way skyscrapers jostle for supremacy as they claw their way towards the serrated coastal ridge.
Turn your back (literally) 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 fit contentedly in the tourist's scheme of how life should look and feel in this part of the world – and cost, too, with an espresso on offer for a single euro, even on the terrasse.
As the sunlight dapples this most agreeable moment, it becomes clear that this is possibly the world's best location for that always-rewarding sport of people-watching (and, incidentally, poodle-watching). The principality is a giant zoo, where exotic humans wander free. Some, notably the cruise day-excursionists, are in herds; but the more interesting species are notable for their designer sunglasses, elaborate outfits – and accents, which are not difficult to audit since everyone seems urgently to be issuing instructions into a mobile phone, in Italian, Russian or American.
A network of free public elevators eases the burden on your feet as you wander deeper in to 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 sniff your way 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 that are shimmering impotently, as you waft across towards the quarter of Monaco that everyone knows: Monte Carlo, where an earlier Charlene claimed to have "grooved like [Jean] Harlow". The centrepiece is perched upon the Plateau des Spélugues, where 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. It 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 casino's 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 and whims 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 higher 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 west, each curve revealing more vertiginous views of a tiny nation on the edge. The finest prospect is from the gardens of the Villa Paloma. Look down at the magnificent compression of conspicuous consumption.
Now all you need to do is make your escape. Once again, your means of departure reflects your travel style – with the added option of hiring a Bentley for €2,400 a day from Elite Rent-a-Car. 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 disdain, and said the fare was €110 – coincidentally the same as my flight home to Heathrow. Surely, I asked, you must offer standby tickets for those discouraged by a standard fare that ticks along at €1 every four seconds? "Sorry sir, only for airline staff."
I walked out – of the heliport, and the principality, feeling enriched, not impoverished after experiencing 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".
Cap d'Ail, the perfect antidote to Monaco
"Do not go where the path may lead," suggests a sign on the stairs at the Hotel Normandy in Cap d'Ail. "Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail." Now, as instructions for using a staircase, I would not commend Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice. But anyone seeking an antidote for Monaco should heed his words. While the principality shows what happens when money meets the Med, the neighbouring French village of Cap d'Ail demonstrates how much richer life can be when nature and humanity combine beside the seaside. "Monaco-bis", if you like.
First, trace the coastline. The local mairie has made life easy, with a well-built path – the Sentier Littoral – that hugs the corrugated shore. It begins at Cap d'Ail's modest beach, and curls beneath the cliff before swerving left as the terrain subsides. Villas and bars straggle down to the water, which pummels the rocks ceaselessly.
Your seaside stroll is interrupted by a diversion inland to avoid disturbing the occupants of Villa The Rock, the grandest property along the shore. The most prominent, and possibly loneliest, former resident was Greta Garbo.
The essential components, from cafés to churches, crowd the rue principale, and a short way above stands a chateau that is being restored to its 19th-century finery. Going east, towards Monaco, you can step off the main road into a lattice of chemins, paths that cut through the greenery that clings to the hillsides. The Chemin de Souta ushers you down to Le Cap Fleuri. Perched on the Pointe des Douaniers is Le Cabanon, a restaurant that would be worth its place in the guidebooks on location alone – looking along the ripple of cliffs that fade into the mist somewhere around the Italian frontier. Happily, the fresh fish and salad match the delicious views. Who, I wondered, ever gets around to using the free Wi-Fi that Le Cabanon promises?
Back at the Hotel Normandy, Wi-Fi plus philosophy are included in room rates that are pitched well below those in Monaco (though during Grand Prix weekend they soar up to €1,000). "Le grand enemie de l'art, c'est le bon goût", exclaims another wall. Marcel Duchamp should have holidayed in Cap d'Ail, where good taste, art and nature abound.
Travel essentials: Monaco
* The nearest airport to Monaco is Nice, served from the UK by a range of airlines. Simon Calder paid £40 for a flight from Gatwick on easyJet, and €110 to return to Heathrow on British Airways.
* Bus 110 shuttles between Nice airport and Monaco, for €18.
* Heli Air Monaco (00 377 92 050 050; heliairmonaco) operates 50 flights a day between Nice airport and Monaco. From Nice, the one-way fare is €125; from Monaco it is €110; and a return costs €220.
* The Norwegian-run Hotel Normandy at 6 Allée des Orangers (00 33 4 93 78 77 77; hot-no.no) has double rooms with sea views available for €86 in July, with breakfast an extra €8 per person.
* Perhaps appropriately, the Monaco Tourist Office in London is in Mayfair, at 7 Upper Grosvenor Street, W1K 2LX (020-7491 4264; visitmonaco.com).Reuse content