On the sun-kissed southern coast of France sits the world’s second smallest country, Monaco. (The Vatican is the smallest, by the way). The Principality of Monaco, to use its official name, covers just 0.76 square miles, but within its small pocket-handkerchief sized boundaries, it has money and glamour and a reputation that totally outstrips its size.
A policy of reclaiming land from the sea means the country is very slowly growing in size, but it still remains the world's smallest French-speaking country. For the record, Monaco is also the world’s most densely populated sovereign country. It has been ruled by one family, the Grimaldis, since 1297, when, according to legend, François Grimaldi captured the fortress on the strategic Rock on Monaco, dressed as a Franciscan monk.
Geographically surrounded by France on all sides, except for its Mediterranean sea-board, the borders of the country are little more than signs on the highway: you drive along the A8 Corniche from Nice to Menton, via Monaco. Just as the border between Monaco and its huge neighbor, France, is hard to spot, so is the distinction between Monaco and Monte Carlo. The distinction between the state and the city of Monaco is purely theoretical, and is at best a fairly hazy concept. Monte Carlo is one of the three original municipalities of the city state, under its 1911 constitution, and today the term generally refers to the better-known center of Monaco – the casino, the castle, the harbor, the hotels.
Monaco is tiny, that much is obvious. It is also pretty, in a picture postcard kind of way, and very, very wealthy, in a shimmering, expensive kind of way. There are designer shops galore, luscious looking Monaco hotels, casinos, enormous private yachts in the harbor, and a hill-top castle complete with a daily changing of the guard.
The wealth derives largely from its tax-free status. The world’s seriously wealthy people live there, to escape tax. They invest their money there, to avoid tax, and the self-fulfilling cycle continues. The rich bring glamor, the glamor draws tourists, making tourism one of the country’s main sources of income.
There are banks galore, to store all that money. There are also casinos – there to potentially relieve you of your money, though every gambler must secretly hope that, just like the song, they will be the ones to, “break the bank at Monte Carlo”.
Monaco is host each summer to the Monaco Grand Prix, the most demanding and the most glamorous of all the Formula 1 races. No purpose-built race-track for this Grand Prix – instead the race is run on the twisty streets of the little country, up and down the hills, past the shops, past the casinos, and through a tunnel along the sea, which runs under one of the large hotels. The Beautiful People flock to Monaco in droves, to watch the race from their yachts in the harbor. It is all just too glamorous for speech.
The prestigious Monte Carlo Rally is also considered to be one of the world's toughest road rallies, and is the opening event of the annual World Rally Championship. Add to these the Monte Carlo Masters, which has been a fixture on the tennis social circuit since 1897, and it’s easy to see why there is such a whiff of glamour and excitement attached to the place.
In addition to all this money and adrenalin is the glamorous, film-star image of Monaco, largely shaped when the Hollywood actress Grace Kelly married the ruler of Monaco, the late Prince Rainier in 1956. Monaco acquired a dash of Hollywood glitz and Hollywood got its real-life royalty – until the princess died in a car accident in 1982. The death of such a beautiful iconic woman, in circumstances that have still not been fully explained, only served to strengthen the mystique of the principality. Rumours still swirl about who was at the wheel of her car when she plunged off the Corniche.
Every day, outside the little hill-top castle that is the royal home, a small detachment of the even smaller Monegasque military, enacts the ritual changing of the guard. They march down the cobbled little main street, across the cobbled little square, to the delight of the visitors who flock there to witness the spectacle. The little royal army, La Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince has a total force of 112, so in the unlikely event of anyone invading it, Monaco would have to rely on France, with whom there are numerous treaties and agreements.
Once you are through with the window-shopping and celebrity-spotting, try and fit in a visit to the wonderful Musée Océanographique (Marine Museum). The museum, which was opened in 1910, houses much of the diving equipment of the legendary and pioneering diver and explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who became the director of the museum in 1957. You can see over 4,000 kinds of fish, while you gaze out at the Mediterranean, and drool over the drop-dead gorgeous boats in the harbor below.