Monaco: casino, car-racing and 700 years of Grimaldis

The principality of Monaco consists of less than two square kilometres (0.75 square miles) of steep and rocky real estate carved out of France's Mediterranean coast.

Known today as a playground for the rich, replete with a casino and an annual car race that roars through its narrow streets, Monaco has been ruled almost continuously by the Grimaldi dynasty since 1297.

The current monarch, Prince Albert II, is due on July 1 to marry the Zimbabwean-born swimming champion Charlene Wittstock in a lavish ceremony.

Some key facts about Monaco:

In 1861 Monaco was recognised as an independent state under a treaty with France, with which it has closely been associated ever since.

After World War I France agreed to protect Monaco's independence, in return for which the principality aligned its domestic and foreign policy with Paris.

Monaco's Minister of State - the head of the government who is appointed by the sovereign - must be a French citizen.

In 1856 the Monte Carlo casino was built, triggering the principality's transformation into a playground for the rich and famous.

Over the last 50 years buildings have come to cover virtually the whole of the territory, which is now a thriving tourism and banking centre.

Motor racing has been closely associated with Monaco since 1911, when the Monte Carlo rally was launched. The first Monaco Grand Prix was held in 1929.

Monte Carlo is the name given to the mainly residential area to the north of the port. The old town of Monaco, including the royal palace, is on a promontory known as the Rock.

Monaco, with its current population of 32,000, is not a member of the European Union, but has a customs union with France and shares its currency, the euro. It does not levy income tax, which has encouraged many celebrities and wealthy businessmen to settle there.

In 2000 a report by two French Socialist parliamentarians alleged that the principality had become a haven for money-laundering, but this was fiercely rejected by the authorities there.

Monaco became a full member of the United Nations in 1993. It is the most densely populated state in the world, and the second smallest after the Vatican.

Until 2002 the death of a ruling prince without a male heir could have led to the principality reverting to France. But under a constitutional change it is now possible for the title to pass through the female line.

Prince Albert II ascended to the throne in 2005 on the death of his father Prince Rainier.

His wedding festivities are due to last two days, on July 1-2.

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