The glamorous words Monaco and Monte-Carlo cling like a toast of crystal champagne flutes with intoxicating indulgence. A sun deprived post-London syndrome and seeking safety in the crime ridden Côte d’Azur turned us into residents here. The climate is superb. Those thirsty for prestige desire to live in this Mediterranean Principality, yet there is much more to experience there than the speeding Ferraris and super yachts docking in the blue sea. The European tax heaven has its decadent materialistic side, yet most of the residents condensed on its 202 hectares are middle class multinationals seeking not showing off, but good life. They chose to live in Monaco because of the high level of security, great weather, quality education and healthcare. The life expectancy is over 85 years! Another blue zone? Visually getting there.
Cosmopolitan Monaco: daily life of a resident
While enjoying some of the costly benefits the Principality offers like dressy superb dining, culture and events, we like to walk in our trainers and sweatpants when heading for groceries and mingle with some of the entertainingly overdressed visitors or retired ladies walking their coifed dogs on the concrete. Some try hard to fit in, which is bizarrely entertaining. Grounded in the mundane life, we shop our groceries at the local farmers market or one of the French hypermarchès, get a sandwich, freshly-baked cake and a cup of tea at the locally-owned independent Teashop, or indulge in a scoop of gelato at the Corsican maître glacier Pierre Geronimi. When not ordering in (via the convenient Roomservice app) or cooking at our tiny homes, we head out to casual eateries like the Italian Il Giardino. To work it all out, we swim in the crystal clear sea or in one of the three olympic-size swimming pools, go for a breezy run along the dashing sea coast, hike up to La Turbie or Roquebrune village, hit tennis at the Country Club, golf up in the hills, practice yoga asanas on the beach or improve our combat and self-defence precision at the International Academy of Martial Arts of Monaco. We live well and long. The only stress is traffic and noise from the never ending construction. We can walk since everything is near enough and shut down our windows to shield our wellbeing from the upsetting decibels.
The unique assets of Monaco
Size matters here more than elsewhere. Surpassed only by Vatican, the Principality of Monaco is the second smallest country. The Gare de Monaco was carved in the rock so the trains do not take the rare space. Tiny, independent city-states, some governed with a firm grip like Singapore, others with a divine backing (the Vatican or the “Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain” on a remote Greek peninsula), have always attracted the wealthy and powerful for their security and high standards of living. Monaco adds its income tax-free fragrance and wealth of cultural and sportive indulgence to the lure (except for the US passport holders). The convenient location on the Mediterranean in the proximity of a well-connected international airport (Nice) attracts yacht owners and jet setters. Above all, the high level of security is Monaco’s greatest asset. Violence is rare, but material crime cannot be curbed to zero because of its porous border with France.
Reaching for the future
An autocracy that prides itself in its omnipresent and hard-nosed police guarding the roads and more than anywhere protecting the pedestrians, comforts anyone with democratising cravings. The real Monégasque by birth enjoy undisputed privileges. Affordable and modern housing, business support, high quality health care and education (Chinese is now also in the curriculum), so there is not much to complain about. The world’s rich will pay for it through their spendings in the city-state. Ostentatious fireworks are flashing in the sky as if they were traffic lights, charity galas, luxury fairs as well as the world’s most prestigious yacht show each September sails in the most wow mega boats for sale. There are billions of assets docking in the harbouring Principality’s two ports. In the main Port Hércule moors Lady Moura, Lady Nag Nag, and other curiously named yachts reflecting the sun’s gleam off their ultra-polished decks and high-rising hulls. The world’s most futuristic private super-yacht, the monstrous A has been spoiling our sea view annually around the Grand Prix, luckily its smaller sister the Motor A balanced the harshness of the military style mega boat. To me the old money billionaires have a better taste as the elegant, old sail boats like these owned by both Princesses, grace the ports of Monaco.
Walking through Monaco’s history
One of the best local guides with decades of knowledge and an enviable zeal is Brigitte Grob, the founder of Monaco Walks. Brigitte gave me a sniff of the unknown in my own town. During our walk, while sharing engaging stories, she showed me hidden treasures, that most locals do not know about. Facing the glistening waters of the Mediterranean, the area has a lush past that reaches far back into history. The harbour was inhabited by the Greeks, who named it Monoikos, in the 6th century BC. Le Rocher, the naturally protected rock of Monaco withstood countless attacks and once served as a shelter for the ancient peoples and as a fortress. The Genovese Grimaldi family grasped the rock in 1297 and split from Genova in 1419. The current castle was built on Le Rocher, and this is also the oldest built up area of Monaco. Historically, Monaco was also part of France, a colony of Genoa, and today the constitutional monarchy is under a lucky protectorate of France.
Sustainable lifestyle in Monaco
Sustainability might be the most important value the Grimaldis seek. Not just sustaining their reign over the little country and Monaco’s status as the luxury destination, but also environmentally. Prince Rainier III., the father of the current Prince and the husband of Grace Kelly, was a very active supporter of beauty, ecology and building. The last passion was a necessity to accommodate the growing population that yielded Rainier a nickname the “Builder Prince“. Under his rule a wise law was enforced that all flat rooftops have to be planted with greenery.
Albert II., his son, now continues in the visionary steps with his marine life protecting efforts, and a foundation supporting also local organic urban farming. The Swiss-born Jessica Sbaraglia and her Terre de Monaco organic projects like gardens at Monte Carlo Bay and Novotel hotels she managed the organic plantings on my and dozens of other residents’ terraces. As you stroll the roads of Monaco, all the orange trees you pass were not chemically treated. Also in Monaco, the world’s first entirely organic Michelin stared restaurant (Elsa by Paolo Sari at Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel) serves local vegetables, grains, sustainable meat and seafood to its affluent diners (a very slow food and service).
The nature in the surrounding Alpes Maritimes is perfect for hiking. Monaco is the western anchor for a 2.445km long Via Alpina hiking trail traversing five countries all the way to its eastern Adriatic dock at Trieste.
The fish tanks inside the eponymous Oceanographic Museum, built by Albert I., the explorer grandfather of the current Prince, are fed with sea water through pipes hosing high up from the sea. For certain species the water is adjusted so it facilitates their natural environment. The sea creatures displayed inside could not have wished for more comfort. To the disgruntlement of the local sushi chefs you will not find any bluefin tuna on the menus. The waters around Monaco are the cleanest achievable for residential shore, even for farming the local exquisite oysters known as “Les Perles de Monte-Carlo“. Served at the legendary Cafè de Paris, Le Quai des Artistes and other Monaco restaurants, still the fresh sea shells taste best with a glass of organic Provençal wine directly at the oyster farm. Overlooking the port of Fontvieille and the rocky tip of Le Rocher with the sandy-hued Oceanographic Museum, this is the most authentic experience in Monaco.
Building modern, still green Monaco
Eschewing the sustainable efforts in the name of progress, by developing Hong-Kong style high-rising apartment buildings and sea extensions à la Dubai became too tempting since the area cashes the highest prices per square metre in the world. Brigitte grasped the situation poignantly: “Crane, the bird, is Monaco’s national symbol, so now you see the steel homage to it all around.” The building never stops, perhaps only during the numerous French holidays.
It might seem that every morsel of land was build up, yet there are still parks and gardens. From the sprawling cliff of the Jardin Exotique, the Palace Park, Fontvieille Park, Princesse Grace Rose Garden, and the patch next to the sea converted into a Japanese Garden, the green spots unveil themselves when you look from above. So hike up or take the elevators, like in Hong Kong there are plenty to make the journey around more palatable for your feet.
The best views are from the Exotic Garden, from the terrace at Villa Paloma or from the bar inside the Vista Palace hotel towering above Monaco. Brigitte, the guide, took me inside the Jardin de L’Unesco adorned with sculptures, but what is the most impressive for any architect are the fountains. She informed me that, “it is logistically extremely challenging to have streaming water atop a building“. The garden was built on the roofs of the Fontvieille commercial centre, a modern residential quarter built on reclaimed land during the late 1970s and 80s.
With nowhere else to expand then to the sea, reclaiming land seems to be the way ahead to satisfy the never drying demand for residency in the already very dense area. A new startling project is under way right next to the popular local Larvotto beach. Adhering to the marine protection efforts, all coral reefs had to be shielded from any potentially harmful intervention.
Preserving cultural and natural beauty
Although the constitution ensures religious freedom, most churches and chapels are Roman Catholic. There is a charming church of Monaco’s Patron Sainte Dévote as well as hidden modern architectural treasures such as the Eglise du Sacre Coeur on Chemin de La Turbie. Sainte Dévote is the patron Saint of the principality and there is her sculpture inside the mighty Cathedral of Monaco, where all the Grimaldis including Grace have their tombs. Brigitte advised: “Look for latin scripture if you want to find her resting place.” There is even a synagogue that was recently ripped off the rocky hillside and with a minimalist simplicity rebuilt.
Culture and art have been flourishing from the era of Princesse Grace, the American iconic actress who married Prince Rainier in 1956. Through her artistic penchant she helped to beautify her adopted country. Her efforts continue today. More recently the Villa Paloma became the most interesting government run gallery for contemporary art. Boosted by superb views of the Castle, it is a must visit (entrance-free Sundays). An open air, Roman amphitheatre in the Vieux Ville fronts the crystalline sea, what a stage!
To sate your sartorial appetite in this land of honey, the marbled Le Métropole shopping mall and temporary futuristic bubbles sell the vanities of ultra-luxurious brands. Zooming in, fading façades, some just steps away from the always freshly painted castle, have a different story to say. As Brigitte disclosed, all the buildings in sight of the recent glamorous wedding procession of Prince Albert and Princesse Charlene were repainted from the government’s repository.
Monaco excels in looking well-manicured on the outside, but leaves some spots untamed. What remained untouched brings a pinch of an old charm into the overbuilt hills. Like in Nice’s Old Town, their unkept make-up attracts though their sincerity.
The main traditional market, Marché de la Condamine, benefited from a recent revamp. Not because of its romantic setting down under the castle, but we locals enjoy the reasonably priced freshly made pasta, pizza, socca, superb sushi and even Basque delicacies and healthy organic meals there for a casual outing. Here, meet for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or just browse the farmer’s vegetables, local and imported exotic fruits, seafood, seasonal mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, truffles), and other fresh delicacies. The farmers under the arches rotate on pre-scheduled days, so you will find something different daily (ex. Sun).
Events all year round
Monaco thrives culturally. Although the elegant casinos still generate most of the leisure-connected revenue and many gamblers and luck-teasers keep enjoying them, there is much more cultural richness to be discovered in Monaco. In spring, Printemps des Arts and Arts de Monaco annually change their programmes for constant excitement. During the summer enjoy the open cinema atop the old town (right bellow the prison for the Hitchcock vibes), the concerts at Monte Carlo Sporting Summer Festival where the world’s music stars perform during an overpriced, rather average dinner (better pack a picnic, a bottle of wine and spread a blanket under the night’s stars on the sandy Larvotto beach right next to the venue and you will hear everything). Great jazz musicians flash their instruments at the casual La Note Blue venue and restaurant also on the Larvotto, while each November the more polished Monte Carlo Jazz Festival at the gorgeous Salle Garnier inside the Opera House brings the jazz indoors.
Monaco has its own internationally acclaimed ballet group, philharmonic orchestra, soccer team, and the Princess Grace Dance Academy honing local dance talents.
The scope of aesthetic and other sensory indulgence is refreshing for the tiny country of Monaco. In the stressed contemporary world we need more life quality improving places to live. Having one of the longest life expectancies in the world, after reading my Monaco guide, you perhaps better understand why the blue sky makes all the difference.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hôtel Métropole – decadent Joel Robuchon‘s two Michelin restaurant befits the palatial hotel right in the heart of Monte-Carlo, luxurious spa pampering, and by the late Karl Lagerfeld photographed mural alongside the outdoor lounge pool attracts the Russian and Italian fashionistas on balmy evenings. Marbled floors roll out the shopping parade underground. Aside from all the luxury, the local porcelain by Manufacture du Monaco breaths elegance into any interior or a boat.
Hôtel de Paris – the star of luxurious accommodation in the Principality underwent a multimillion reconstruction. New spa, new suites, the best hair studio in the Principality, and the best gastronomic indulgence in town at the three Michelin stared Alain Ducasse is a must for any gourmand. I am not a huge fan of the food at The Grill, but the bird eye view over the Casino is easily best in town. A more casual Mediterranean dining designed for sharing awaits at Ô Mer by Ducasse.
Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel – the most exclusive, yet seasonal (April-October) contemporary hotel. The first “100% organic” Michelin stared restaurant in the word, rooms with exquisite sea views and direct access to the prestigious Monte Carlo Beach Club with its olympic size seawater swimming pool, beach volleyball, yoga, organic pizzeria, pool dining, and open only in summer La Vigie Lounge & Restaurant is locals favourite for al-fresco seafood-centric dining.
Monte-Carlo Bay Resort – all in one for a true resort experience right by the sea with its own garden (my favourite fitness training), two large swimming pools, organic Cinq Mondes Spa, a Michelin-stared, exotically accented Blue Bay restaurant (too slow service for us), a casino, an urban farm and the most elegant tea room in Monaco.
Hermitage Hotel – the Belle Epoque beauty is perfectly located just next to a new shopping arcade, some rooms overlook the active Port where super-yachts meet elegant sailboats, freshness is the decoration’s halo. The one Michelin stared Pavilion by Yannick Alléno is best in summer when the terrace ushers an elegant soiree, while extensive Thermes Marins spa offers the most advanced scientific healing and the widest wellness offer in town – from thalassotherapy, the most healing cranio-sacral touch I have ever experienced, a cryo chamber popular with the local soccer team, aqua gymnastics, to health-focused L’Hirondelle with daily changing market and wellness menus, a juice bar, and an outdoor terrace where the elegant Carla Bruni lunched with Nicholas Sarcozy before her giving a concert in the Opera.
Hôtel de Monaco – a bargain three star treasure, with an individual, cosy character. Located just outside Monaco in Cap-d’Ail its access to a seaside walking path makes this boutique hotel ideal for savvy travellers on tight budget.