ONE OF its croupiers claims that the secret of Monaco's success is that a little old lady can come out of the casino at 3am with a glass of champagne in her hand, diamonds around her neck, a night's winnings in her handbag, and totter back to her hotel in complete safety. And though the scenario has an Absolutely Fabulous dottiness about it, there is plenty of hard evidence that the principality takes its haute securite very seriously.
There are closed-circuit cameras on every street corner, even in public loos, and a policeman for every 30 inhabitants. Two of them politely but firmly interrogated me on my first approach to Monte Carlo by car when, unable to park and having executed two Grand Prix circuits, I thought I'd at least stop for a quick photograph. No chance.
Probably the best way to approach Monaco is to sweep into its old harbour by boat and roost among the yachts. On one visit I did the next best thing and took the seven-minute helicopter trip from Nice, which puts Monaco in perspective: the whole country is less than the size of Hyde Park, though there is almost no space to waste on greenery.
Its three-quarters of a square mile arouse conflicting emotions. 'Only gets the Eurotrash nowadays,' one informant confided; 'Cannes is for millionaires,' disputed another, 'Monte Carlo is for the seriously rich'. Somerset Maugham called it 'the sunny spot for shady people'.
Despite the Ruritanian aspect of the powder pink palace with its toytown soldiers, the House of Grimaldi has played some shrewd political and financial games since Francois Grimaldi arrived from Genoa in 1297. After the French Revolution, the principality was broke. It was Charles III, along with the Societe des Bains de Mer, who revived its fortunes in the 1860s. They took advantage of the fact that gambling was illegal in France and Italy, encouraged the Monagasque fishermen to exchange fish for chips, and transformed the somewhat poverty-stricken and barren patch into a living, tax-free Disneyworld for the wealthy.
Along the way, and with the help of its royal family, Monaco has developed some quite genuine three-if not five-star tourist attractions. Founded in 1910 by Albert I, the Oceanographic Museum has some wonderfully eccentric exhibits. Last year, Prince Rainier opened his private collection of 85 vintage vehicles dating back to a De Dion Bouton of 1903 and including a London taxi used by Princess Grace. But for most visitors, the gambling and star spotting are still the main attractions.
I settled for the latter, establishing base camp at the Cafe de Paris next to the casino and opposite the Hotel de Paris, where I spent an entire afternoon over a coffee for pounds 3.
On the Richter Scale of celebrity, Princess Stephanie rates 10, higher than her brother and just above top models, while pop stars score lower than politicians. 'Take no notice of Armani suits,' I was told, 'the really wealthy wear jeans.' A posse of Pavarotti lookalikes turned up; their name-tags exposed them as being here for a software convention.
It was unlikely I would encounter any 'names' in the casino. This was because my entry fee didn't get me into the salles privees, the private rooms where solitary gamblers win or lose their fortunes in privacy.
While the gambling arcade of the Cafe de Paris is free but flash, and Loews with its demented lights too Las Vegas for my taste, the casino's marvellous Belle Epoque interior is like a museum piece in sepia and well worth the 50 francs just to get in.
I did spot Alain Ducasse, one of the new princes of Monaco, at the covered market the next morning, pondering polished peppers and surreal fungi; he was the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars and was brought in to revitalise the Hotel de Paris' Louis Quinze restaurant, a sort of pre-Revolution Versailles, with stools for women's handbags, gold with everything, 18 different types of bread and superb cooking largely based on the simple, fresh ingredients of Provence.
By then I had given up star-spotting. In any case, Monaco is hardly for the bucket-and-spade brigade. But there are timeless Mediterranean pleasures: sipping a glass of wine in a harbour cafe; mooching around the nooks and crannies of the medieval Old Town.
I never did spot a star - not even, alas, a tipsy old lady with diamonds. I'm not sure how long I would want to spend here on holiday; but for a long weekend or a short break, I thought Monaco was terrific.
GETTING THERE: Air France (081-742 6600) offers return flights from London to Nice to Monaco for pounds 291 - the last leg is by helicopter. Trailfinders (071- 938 3366) offers flights to Nice for pounds 129 return; from there, trains run regularly from 6am-11pm, taking under 30 minutes and costing F15 ( pounds 1.80). A helicopter service leaves Nice airport every 20 minutes for Monaco. It costs F360 ( pounds 41) each way.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact the Monaco Tourist Office, 3 Chelsea Garden Market, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 0XE (071-352 1088).
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