I must give credit where it’s due. I chuckled at Mrs W’s vivid description of Monaco as a puffin colony and told her I was going to use it in my travel report. The Principality’s residents and visitors are all packed on to a small clump of rock and waddle their way up, down and around it. Unless, of course, they’re in a puffin Lamborghini or Ferrari. In which case, they roar across it with little regard for other seabirds.
The weird shape and geography of the enclave – tucked away to the extreme south-east of France, near the Italian border – does take a lot of getting used to. Maps are good for telling you to go left or right on a horizontal plane, but are rather less valuable when it comes to the vertical.
Various ‘ascenseurs’ act as potential wormholes, magically transporting you down a few levels to somewhere you previously thought was accessible only by half an hour of foot slogging. But as none of these lifts are well signposted, you stumble upon them serendipitously like a Star Ship Captain exploring the Delta Quadrant.
The alternative to walking if you don’t have a flash set of wheels? They’re making a film about it. Called Monte Carlo or Bus.
There’s actually a fairly reasonable colour-coded public bus system, with six routes that wind around in endless circles. Trying to work out where anything’s going kind of does your head in, but if you get a ticket that gives you access for a week, you can jump on and off and see where the thing ends up. At some point, you’re likely to find yourself near the Casino or central tourist office.
It’s obviously useful to have a bit of French in this part of the world, but in some areas of town, Russian seems to be the language of choice. This comes as no surprise, given Monaco’s reputation as a tax haven and playground of the super rich, although is still a little disconcerting in the balmy Mediterranean setting. The good news is that while Monaco may be a Miniature Moscow, it’s also Tiny Turin and even, on odd occasions, Little London. Union Jack flags can be seen fluttering from certain buildings and yachts.
An obvious question would be how affordable the place is for the average tourist. I suppose the short answer is ‘not very’. You sense that you may be out of your league when you see parking spaces advertised at €325,000. Hell, in London that would buy you... well, a slightly bigger parking space. There was a boat called Lady Nag Nag which was on sale for about €25,000,000. Mrs W would need to nag quite a lot before I considered that one.
If you’re looking for a more practical international benchmark, the Monte Carlo Starbucks charges over €5 for a coffee which might be £2.75 in London. But this is a Starbucks with serious knobs on. It’s open air, with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean, just near the famous Fairmont Hairpin beloved of Formula 1 fans.
There are mind-bogglingly expensive restaurants of course, but if you look in the right places, the prices are more London than Geneva and there are eateries where it’s possible to get a fairly reasonable dinner for perhaps €20 or €25 a head. The food won’t send you scurrying for a postcard to write home, but it does the job.
There’s some nice stuff to do for free. The famous Monte Carlo Casino has a real buzz around it, even if you never step inside. Go down there at 9 or 10 at night and you can join the other tourists posing by the Bentleys and souped-up Maseratis. The worst that seems to happen is that you’re shooed away occasionally by a bored chauffeur or bodyguard, entrusted with ensuring that the motor comes to no harm while its owner plays the roulette wheel.
There are incredible views from the Palace and the changing of the guard at noon is done with a fair amount of pomp. There’s something about the slick, Italian-influenced white uniforms and helmets that gives the performance a certain je ne sais quoi. But remember, it’s bloody hot in the summer and the parade ground is quite exposed. In order to get a good look, you might have to stand for 20 or 25 minutes in advance of the kick-off.
The harbour is particularly enjoyable at night, although you might want to come back during daylight hours to visit the fairly cheap Olympic-sized open-air piscine. Be prepared for some strange rules and rituals. They won’t let you enter the pool area unless you’ve taken off your clothes, hung them on a rack and handed them to an attendant, who puts them in some kind of low-rent garderobe.
Monaco’s Larvotto Beach is not going to rank as one of the world’s most impressive, but you can travel a little way down the coast to the west and you’re in Antibes or Cannes. Head east and you can take the plunge at Cap-Martin, Menton or over the border in the Italian resorts of Bordighera or San Remo.
A lot of smoking goes on by London standards, but that’s true of this whole stretch of coast. What’s odd about Monaco is that its peculiar legal status ensures the survival of old-style billboards for ciggies. In that respect, any trip to the Principality is a little like taking a journey back in time. I’m now a sucker for Marlboro Slims. That’s the power of advertising for you.
One final thought. Be aware that ‘useful’ shops are few and far between. Yes, there are branches of the French supermarket giant Carrefour, although you may find there’s a walk involved and they’re not that easy to locate. There are, of course, designer boutiques (often with pictures of the Royal family in the window) and showrooms for luxury cars. But if you’re looking for somewhere to buy a bottle of water, say, you may find you’re out of luck. The Monaco puffins must store the stuff in their beaks.