He sat at the roulette wheel, adjusting the bowtie of his tuxedo, and with a hint of a smile, said, "My name is Bond, James Bond." The famous line from Dr. No, all happened inside, what is arguably the most well-known gambling den in the world, the Monte Carlo Casino.
I am actually penning this article at 30,000 feet, on a flight home from Monaco, the world’s second smallest country (next to the Vatican). Although I was only there for four days, I must admit it is a fairy tale-like experience, where wealth and opulence seem to be the norm.
Monaco became known to the North American scene when, in 1956, American movie actress Grace Kelly, married Prince Rainier III, the ruler of a tiny Principality, somewhere in Europe. Sadly the sweetheart of Hollywood perished in an automobile crash in 1982, but by then, the country of Monaco, had become a major tourist destination.
The ruling family, the Grimaldis, have been running the country since the middle ages and today, Prince Albert II, is still in charge of the government. Originally, the country was 25 square kilometres in size, but today it occupies only a mere 2 square kilometres. Its only city, Monte Carlo, covers the entire country, and is a haven for the rich and famous.
Unfortunately, the lavishness that exists also brings with it a hefty price for goods and services, especially in the tourist industry. Eight Euros ($12) for a small bottle of water in a hotel, is quite normal and do not expect to leave a dining table for less than $100, unless of course you enjoy wine, in which case you will have to make arrangements with your bank, to cover your expenses.
But alas, a visit to Monte Carlo is still highly recommended. I stayed in one of the Fairmont properties, located a few steps from the casino and situated on the water. The Mediterranean in September is fantastic. It has taken most of the summer to warm up, and 25 degree temperatures are not uncommon.
The view from the hotel was unimaginable. Private yachts the size of Palmer Park, were anchored off shore, and at night one could see hundreds of lights flickering on board, as the beautiful jetsetters partied until the wee hours of the morning.
One of the beauties of Monte Carlo is you can visit every inch of the place on foot, and it only takes a day or two to do so. After a hearty breakfast, which is usually included with the price of the room, a brisk walk along the seashore will lead you up a mountain to the Royal Palace. If you time it properly, you will arrive at the main gate in time for the changing of the guard ceremony, which happens every day just before noon.
When visiting the Palace, you will find yourself in the old part of the country, and a dozen or so winding streets. They are lined with shops, restaurants and quaint little art stores, that offer you an opportunity to walk through a world long forgotten.
The views of the harbour are unimaginable, as the palace sits on the slopes of Mont Agel. In the distance you can see the French Alps and down below are hundreds, if not thousands of boats, yachts and sail boats, most of which cost more money than the GDP of many African nations.
One of the reasons people stay in Monaco there isn’t any income tax. Corporate taxes are also very low, and social assistance is second to none. Education and healthcare are totally free, and housing assistance is provided by the state, especially since they own most of the apartments. A six hundred square foot unit can cost as much as $10,000 a month, so you can appreciate how difficult life would be for a poor middle class family, without assistance. The state will also find you a job, as the unemployment rate in Monaco is zero.
Every May, Monte Carlo opens its doors to the world of racing, by hosting the Grand Prix. Started in 1914, it has been a world class event, which attracts thousands of tourists and millions of dollars. The famous Gazometre turn, renamed in honour of Antony Noghes, the founder of the Monaco Grand Prix, is right in front of the Fairmont Hotel, and I imagined myself challenging the corner in a McLaren GT, or similar.
Automobile watching is another favourite pastime. I have never seen so many Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls Royces in my life. Mercedes, BMW's and Land Rovers are the poorer cousins, but motorcycles seem to rule the roads.
The main attraction of the country, is of course the casino. It was built in 1890 in an effort to attract tourists visiting the French Riviera. Prince Ranier I, constructed the building, sparing no cost, and his concept worked, as the wealthiest travellers of the 19th century flocked to Monte Carlo.
When I walked up the stairs to the entrance I was blinded by the glare from luxury autos dropping off their extremely rich owners. I had my twenty Euro note in hand, ready to wager it all, only to find out there was an admission fee of ten Euros. Needless to say, I lasted about a minute in the casino, and quickly reverted to a corner to observe the opulence that surrounded me.
There are several great side trips one can do from Monaco. A half hour drive takes you to Nice and the Azure Coast. Twenty minutes further will set you in the centre of Cannes, where the only stores available are Gucci, Hermes, Cartier and the like. On the way back to Monaco, stop at the 16th Century village of St Paul the Vence, and walk along cobbled stone streets to admire the art and architecture from the middle ages.
If you are travelling to Europe this year and need a few days layover, consider a stop in Monaco, as it will make a lasting impression never to be forgotten.