Do you know what Monaco and Indonesia have in common? They both have the same flag. If you turn it upside down, it then becomes Poland’s flag. Then if you turned the Polish flag 90 degrees left and added a cross in the top left corner it would then become Malta’s flag. Anyway, I’m sure you knew that.
A slightly more interesting fact now: tourism is responsible for 25% of Monaco’s GDP, so today I’m doing my bit by going to discover this quirky little nation perched on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. In fact, I’m even going to walk the entire length of the country (all 2-point-something kilometres of it).
After a few of the cheapest beers in Nice at the Beach hostel bar the previous night, I jumped on a tram from Comte de Falicon, near our Gardens hostel, feeling a bit groggy. The 10 minute journey to Gare Thiers (a short walk from the Nice Ville SNCF railway station) passes with plenty of eye rubbing, yawning and trying to clear my mouth of dryness. Luckily I’ve got my mandatory apricot juice to sort out the situation.
Nice Ville is an impressive station; the departure hall even used to have chandeliers! It’s OK Chris, don’t be too disappointed, you’re going to Monaco, they are bound to have some chandeliers there. Various discounts are available on the trains depending on your age, but a full cost return to Monaco is 7.20€ (the machines only accept coins or cards; if you want to pay with notes then you’ll have to join the queue in the ticket office, which is usually fairly long).
Now I’ve done a fair few train trips across Europe, but the one along the French Riviera coastline is definitely up there, probably in the top 5. The train hugs the coast along a track which passes through pretty Villefranche, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail, before plunging into a tunnel and a new country. The station in Monaco is entirely underground, and feels more like an airport than a railway station. Depending on which exit you take, you best be prepared for a long walk to exit the station (and the trains normally stop in the middle of the sizable platforms). They even have those flat escalators like they do in the airports!
After such excitement, I exit the station and make my way to the western border for the start of this Monegasque adventure. Due to its layout, Monaco is the type of place where a 3D map would come in handy as I realise that I’m actually walking above the road that I should be walking on. The western border with France is rather unpronounced to say the least. In fact, there is very little sign that you are actually crossing an international border at all. What I did find amusing though was a bunch of kids kicking a rugby ball around in the streets, across an international border. My first calling point is Stade Louis II (the football stadium), located right next to the border. There is even a nearby sign advertising “special UEFA Super Cup parking”. Eagle eyed football fans would be able to tell me that that event was 4 months ago.
The journey across Monaco begins here, with the arcs of Stade Louis II
After passing one of the poshest (and smallest) petrol stations I have ever seen, I continued further on to the district of Fontvieille. Here is Monaco’s heliport, which serves as the principality’s air transport hub with a direct helicopter service to Nice airport. Admittedly I had looked into the price of doing one of these journeys, most of which are in excess of 100€ one way. Oh well, never mind. Anyway, no matter how much money I might have, I definitely wouldn’t want to pay for an apartment near the heliport where approximately every 20 minutes or so, a helicopter noisily revs up and flies out across the Mediterranean.
If you’re in this quartier (district) of Monaco, then it is well worth having a quick look around “La Roseraie Princesse Grace”, a small but quaint public garden. On the way from the train station I had seen some graffiti asking “Où est la nature?” (“Where is the nature?”). Well here it is, and quite nice it is too. Considering how densely populated Monaco is (the most densely populated country in the world), I don’t think they do a bad job of providing some greenery, given the circumstances.
I head further east, passing by the quay and gawping at some extravagant yachts, towards “The Rock”. This is the main tourist bit of Monaco located, unsurprisingly, on the top of a very large rock which juts out into the ocean. Here you will find the Prince’s Palace, Monaco Cathedral and the very popular Oceanographic museum. Everyday outside the palace, just before midday, there is the changing of the guards’ parade. I have poorly timed my itinerary today and I arrived shortly after 1pm. However, from my previous visit in September, I can tell you that it pays to be there early as quite a crowd can develop. I potter around the cute streets of the Old Town, before stumbling across some exotic gardens literally hanging off the edge of the rock. It is yet another pleasant place to wander around, with some lovely sea views also. Highly recommended.
I descend “The Rock” on the Avenue de la Quarantine, and pass through Monaco’s substandard Christmas market, complete with sinister model reindeer shaking their heads at me. Next stop was the Casino (not the supermarket), arguably Monaco’s most famous attraction. I pass on going inside, not because I wasn’t feeling lucky, but mainly because my attire of bright blue anorak and jeans wouldn’t get me in. The obligatory photo of the casino façade was taken and I continued further onwards, passing through yet another park, and into a shopping centre. Elaborate Christmas decorations and gleaming marble floors are omnipresent. It is worth coming in here just to look at the shoe shop, which sells some of the most ridiculous sparkly shoes that I have ever seen. Oh yes, and some chandeliers too! The longer that I spend in the shopping centre, the more likely that I am to spend money that I don’t need to, so I promptly head for the exit.
Following the Avenue de Grande Bretagne, I delve further into the more residential Eastern Monaco. Apart from a beach, there is a very little to see in this area. Even the beach is a bit underwhelming, though quite understandably as it is very much out of season, and feels more like Barry Island than the Mediterranean.
I pass hotels, apartments and yet more hotels in a vain attempt to complete my mission and reach the border. This border crossing is just as disappointing as the western one, as the only real indication of having entered France is a sign heralding the start of Roquebrune Cap Martin. The immaculate red Monegasque pavements have also ended, and cracks begin to appear in the road. Welcome back to France. Maybe if I walked back into Monaco then it would be more exciting? No. Just a sign with a cross through Roquebrune Cap Martin. Feeling a little deflated, I head back to the railway station. Though I was rather chuffed to see a sign saying “Welcome to the Principality of Monaco”! If you’re at this end of town, be sure to drop into the Japanese Gardens, one of my personal highlights of my day in Monaco.
My feet ache as I sit in the railway station waiting for my return train to Nice. In total, it took me about 3 hours to walk the length of Monaco (though I did it a much longer way round, via all the main sites). According to Google Maps it takes 48 minutes directly. Monaco is unlike anywhere else I’ve been, though if I had been to somewhere like Dubai (or anywhere else with a lot of money), then I’d probably be saying something different. It’s definitely worth a visit though, if only for its quirkiness. It might not have the sweet nature of Entrevaux or St-Paul-de-Vence, but if you like big, flashy, clean cities then Monaco is certainly the place for you.