It’s not everyday that we are made to feel like rock stars, that we can walk along a stately boulevard with the world’s most famous and well-heeled elite. But then again, Monaco isn’t an everyday kind of place, it’s something special and most certainly unique. Docked in the port of Monte Carlo onboard the Viking Star, I looked up at the city surrounding us excited for the day ahead. It was a busy day visiting the French cities of Èze and Nice, but it was the Monaco portion of the day that may have meant the most to me.
The second smallest but most densely-populated country in the world, there seems to be far too many wards and political divisions for a country that has an area of less than a mile but, like most things in Monaco, history and tradition dictate everything. Visiting though as a tourist, there are two main areas of the country nearly everyone visits, Monte Carlo and Monaco-Ville. The latter is the oldest part of the country and where even today visitors are able to find quiet side streets and small shops away from the chaos of car racing, gambling and tourists. It was also, not surprisingly, my favorite part of the country. Monaco is the ideal port city for cruise lines not only because of the inherent value of the micro-country itself, but also due to its prime position along the French Riviera. Bordered on three sides by France, cities like Nice are an easy drive from Monaco, and even though I spent nearly half of my time away from Monaco, once I began my explorations in earnest I knew that I had found something truly special.
Monaco-Ville is the oldest part of the city, sitting high up on the premonitory simply called The Rock. It’s here were countless generations of people have lived and worked, from the Ancient Greeks through to the modern era. This is also where you’ll find the official royal residence, the Prince’s Palace, as well as sweeping views of Monte Carlo and that famous harbor. Getting to The Rock though is part of the fun, ambling past lush gardens awash in sunlight and jasmine, past the massive buildings that reveal the wealth of the country. The Oceanographic Museum, Saint Nicholas Cathedral, even simple houses aren’t so simple in Monaco, all designed with grace and style. Walking in the footsteps of Princess Grace, it’s easy to imagine yourself a member of those lucky 38,000 who are official residents of the city. Narrow streets lead to the rock and while they may be packed with restaurants and tourist shops, they also have their own secrets and charms to share. I found myself alone in these small alleyways more than once, amazed at the natural urban splendor of the city itself. Few places can radiate this kind of beauty, which seems second nature throughout the microstate.
Tourist officials would probably list a litany of things to do in this, the most ancient part of the city and while I’m sure they’re right, I didn’t do any of those things. No, instead I reveled in the views, ambled along those side streets and enjoyed quiet time with a cup of coffee and a scoop of gelato. In other words, it was my perfect afternoon not complete with chock-a-block activities, but with just enjoying a destination for its own inherent value. That’s the old part of Monaco though, and as I learned enjoying the best of Monte Carlo is an entirely different experience.
Glitz of Monte Carlo
My only real impression of Monte Carlo before visiting was what I’d seen in movies and read in books. So, essentially, it was a James Bond image with everyone in white tuxes and betting millions of dollars at the casino. And you know what, I wasn’t too far off. Monaco is simultaneously one of the most fascinating and most frenetic places I’ve ever been. That’s in large part due to the fact that it’s home to the country’s most famous landmarks, from the city streets that form the track of its grand prix to the stately and undeniably elegant casino itself. Built in the 19th century, this is where the rich and famous have gathered since its inception with no signs of changing anytime soon. Even though I wasn’t a high roller, I could still feel like one just by being there, walking around the streets and even poking my head into the casino itself. This is not a city for beggars, this is the playground of the rich and famous and it feels like it. As someone who is neither rich nor famous though, it was fun to feel that way if only for a few hours. To feel as if James Bond or Grace Kelley would round the corner, that paparazzi would soon emerge with bulbs flashing. I’ve never experienced anything like it before and I know it’s a sensation I won’t soon forget.
Monaco is a special place, but not for only for the reasons one might think. Sure, the glamour of the country is undeniable and yes, it is fun to walk along those famous turns of the car race and to amble by the casino pretending to be James Bond. But it’s more than that, it’s a naturally gorgeous country with many special moments to offer, from that quiet lunch I enjoyed in the old part of Monaco to simply admiring it at night from the water, lit up like a thousand fireflies in the evening. Sailing there with Viking Ocean Cruises was the perfect way to experience Monaco, giving me more than enough time to get a better appreciation for the region and to enjoy those languid escapes for which the French Riviera has been so very well known for so very long.