Monte Carlo, in the principality of Monaco, is a favorite port of call for many cruise visitors to the Mediterranean. Monte Carlo is tiny (only three kilometers long--less than two miles) and sits on a large rock named Mont Des Mules overlooking the sea. A road separates Monaco from France, and you hardly realize it when you are moving between the two countries. There are about 30,000 residents of Monaco, of which the citizens, called Monegasques, make up about 25 percent of the total populace.
During 2003, Monte Carlo completed a new cruise ship pier in the harbor at Monte Carlo. This new pier makes it easier to visit this exciting Mediterranean port for the thousands of cruise lovers whose ships include Monaco as a port of call.
Many people think Monte Carlo and Monaco were synonymous, especially since the country is so small. There are actually several different areas in Monaco. The old town of Monaco-Ville surrounds the palace on the southwest side of the Monaco harbor. To the west of Monaco-Ville is the new suburb, harbor, and marina of Fontvieille. On the other side of the rock and around the harbor is La Condamine. The resort of Larvotto with its imported sandy beaches is on the east, and Monte Carlo is in the middle of it all.
The history of the ruling Grimaldi family and the surrounding area is fascinating and dates back centuries. The port of Monaco is first mentioned in the records back in 43 BC when Caesar concentrated his fleet there while waiting in vain for Pompey. In the 12th century, Genoa was granted sovereignty of the entire coastline from Porto Venere to Monaco. After years of struggle, the Grimaldis captured the rock in 1295, but they had to continually defend it from the surrounding warring factions. In 1506 the Monegasques, under Luciano Grimaldi, withstood a four-month-long siege by a Genoan army ten times their size.
(Sounds like a made-for-TV movie in the making or the Monaco version of the Alamo!) Although Monaco officially received full autonomy in 1524, it struggled to remain independent, and at various times was under the influence of Spain, Sardinia, and France. It is currently run as a sovereign principality.
The Grimaldi family is still a very visible royal family. Those of us who loved Grace Kelly and are fascinated by "royals" know this family well. You don't even have to be a reader of the tabloids to know about the Grimaldis. The relationship between Monaco and France is an interesting one. Any new law passed in France is automatically sent to Prince Albert, the current head of the Grimaldi family and the titular ruler of Monaco. If he likes it, it becomes a law in Monaco. If not, it doesn't!
The look of Monaco is enough to make you want to stay awhile. The view coming into the sheltered harbor is spectacular. The city is spread out over the rock and into the sea. Because of the limited space, some of the buildings are even constructed right over the water. The streets of the city practically ooze money. Expensive cars and limousines are everywhere. Monte Carlo is definitely a place where the "rich and famous" journey to see and to be seen.
Gambling and the tourism associated with it has been the primary livelihood of the city for more than a century. If you're not a gambler, don't let that keep you from traveling to Monaco. However, even with only one day in port, there are many other interesting shore activities in Monte Carlo and the surrounding areas.
Since Monaco is such a small geographical area, it seems like it should be easy to walk around the city. It is if you are a mountain goat! Actually, it is relatively easy to navigate Monte Carlo and Monaco if you take the time to learn where the various "shortcuts" are. The cruise director or shore excursion desk will have city maps that will highlight the tunnels, elevators, and escalators that facilitate touring the city. Be sure to get one before you go ashore.
If you walk to the western side of the harbor, there is an elevator that will take you up to Monaco-Ville and deposit you near the Musee Oceanographie (Oceanographic Museum). This is a must see if you have the time. Explorer Jacques Cousteau was the director of the museum for over 30 years, and it has a wonderful aquarium with both tropical and Mediterranean species of marine life.
As you continue walking along the Avenue Saint-Martin, you will walk alongside some beautiful cliff-side gardens and come to the Monaco Cathedral. This cathedral was built in the late 19th century and was where Princess Grace and Prince Ranier married. It is also where Grace and many of the other Grimaldis are buried. Her tomb was quite touching, and she was much beloved by the Monegasques.
The Palais du Prince (Prince's Palace) is located in old Monaco-Ville and is also a must see. The Grimaldi family has ruled from the palace since 1297. If the flag is flying over the palace, you know the Prince is in residence. The Grimaldi children each have their own separate homes in Monaco. The changing of the guard takes place daily at 11:55 am, so you might want to time your visit for then. There are guided tours of the palace each day from 9:30 to 12:30 and 2:00 to 6:30.
While you are on the hill near the palace, be sure to take time to walk over and look at the harbors on either side. The view is marvelous!
If you leave the harbor and walk to the east, you'll be headed towards the famous Casino De Paris (Grand Casino). It's only a short walk, elevator, and escalator ride away. If you plan on visiting the Grand Casino, you'll need your passport to enter. Monegasques are not allowed to gamble in their own casinos, and passports are checked to enforce this law. There are very strict dress codes in the Grand Casino. Men need to wear coat and tie, and tennis shoes are verboten. The Casino was designed by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera House.
Even if you're not a gambler, you should go in to see the beautiful frescoes and bas-reliefs. Many can be seen from the lobby of the casino without having to pay the entrance fee. The gaming rooms are spectacular, with stained glass, paintings, and sculptures everywhere. Makes the slot machines look a little out of place! There are two other more Americanized casinos in Monte Carlo. Neither of these has an admission fee, and the dress code is more casual.
If you take time to check out the prices of the hotels and restaurants in Monaco, you'll be glad you are on a cruise ship. The Hotel de Paris, near the Grand Casino, has a couple of elegant restaurants. You might even run into some of the "rich and famous" if you choose to dine in the Louis XV Restaurant or Le Grill de L'Hotel de Paris there. If you feel the urge to mingle, the Cafe de Paris is a good place to stop and sip a late night aperitif. You can watch the action and the people going in and out of the Casino.
Shopping in Monte Carlo is not as different and special as it was years ago. Many of the designers now have shops in the United States. There is a concentration of top names in fashion in Monaco, as you would expect, given the expensive lifestyle. From the Avenue des Beaux-Arts between the Place du Casino and the Square Beaumarchais is one area. Another is under the Hotel Metropole. Most people will enjoy wandering the area and window shopping, even if you don't buy anything. The normal shopping hours are from 9:00 to noon and 3:00 to 7:00 pm.
After you've explored Monaco, the countryside surrounding Monte Carlo on the Cote d'Azur is gorgeous. If you can tear yourself away from the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo, take time to see some of the towns and villages on the French or Italian Riviera like Eze.