Behind a pair of sassy, dark shades, a perfectly coiffed blond expertly manoeuvres her beige Rolls Royce around a carelessly parked Ferrari glinting in the afternoon sunshine. Her passenger, tan and fit, sweater thrown casually over his shoulders, surveys his opulent surroundings with the indifferent gaze of the super-rich, and talks nonchalantly into a cell phone. Palm trees throw their stately shadows over the casino’s impeccably landscaped grounds dotted with dancing fountains. Beyond, the turquoise Mediterranean Sea beckons.
A glance at the map says I am in France, but a closer look tells a different story. The licence plate on a passing Jaguar proudly declares that it was insured in the Principality of Monaco, a tiny monarchy that, although seemingly on French soil, stands independently. Occupying almost two square kilometres of land sandwiched between the French Riviera and Italy, it is almost the smallest country in the world, second only to Vatican City.
The train journey from Nice is a quick jaunt along the coastline, clearly illustrating just how developed the French Riviera has become. Its cities blend seamlessly together, leaving room for little more than a few token palm trees, reminding one that this is, after all, paradise. The station, being entirely subterranean, allows through passengers not a glimpse of the prosperous little monarchy, but its ethereal lighting and spotlessly shiny, cavernous interior offer a hint of the luxury and glamour that exist above.
Monaco-Ville, otherwise known as The Rock, is the fortified old part of town that sits on a lofty promontory within its ancient city walls. Here, one is quickly whisked back to a time when cars had not yet been thought of, its roads narrow and cobblestone, designed solely for travel on foot. Only the roar of the race cars tearing around the track below and the hordes of tourists milling around the palace, home of the royal family, remind one that this is, indeed, the 21 st century.
The reign of the Grimaldi family began over 700 years ago. In the year 1297, a small army led by Francois Grimaldi, disguised as a Franciscan monk, seized the Fortress of Monaco from a rival Italian faction, and reclaimed it in the name of the Pope. This daring feat is commemorated today in Monaco’s coat of arms, displaying two monks bearing swords.
The following centuries saw Monaco thrive as a vital port on maritime trading routes and an important naval base, throughout most of which the Grimaldi’s maintained control of The Rock. Lord Honore II ascended the throne in 1604, and saw fit to bestow upon himself the title of “prince”, a title that Monaco’s rulers have held ever since.