In James Bond movies, Monte Carlo is the essence of class. It glitters, but not in a gaudy Vegas showgirl type way. Bond girls at the Casino drip with real jewels, the kind handed down from grandmothers or given by wealthy older lovers. Its roulette wheel is polished, an antique. It shines gracefully as it spins in a whirring of red and black.
No matter what the plot twist may be in each movie set in this wealthy city, the implicit message is clear - you do not go to Monte Carlo to win. You go there because you are already winning at life; you have already won.
Life does not always imitate art!
Our first impression of the real Monte Carlo revolved around a tall apartment building. An enormous skyscraper actually, full of luxury apartments. It seemed at first glance to be the largest building I have ever seen in person. As we first drove by Monaco a few days ago, along the edge of a high cliff overlooking the seaside town, our eyes were accosted not by a stunning shore or an ancient castle... but rather by this twisting blue building straight out of Dr. Seuss novels - or Miami Beach!
We later learned its name: Tour Odeon Tower. The building rises from the center of town in a massive column... and no joke, it dwarfs all of the surrounding buildings, seeming to reach the height of the huge mountain we were driving along. Have I mentioned more than twice that it was a Miami blue? Like Colgate toothpaste?
The Sky Penthouse apartment at the Tour Odeon Tower, by the way, retails for a bargain price of only $387 million.
Really? I mean, REALLY?!?!? For that?
Monte Carlo turns out to be the most densely populated city on the planet. It is also the main district of the principality of Monaco, the world's second smallest country. (The entire country is less than 1 sq mile!)
Yet, the town is not overrun with locals... not with lovely Monacans. Señor Aventura tells me that few of the local people can actually afford to live there.
Apparently Monaco/Monte Carlo is known for being one of the most important tax havens in the world. Its inhabitants do not have to pay a personal income tax! This makes it a super desirable spot for the uber-wealthy. In fact, I read estimates that more than 30% of residents in Monaco are millionaires.
To be an official 'inhabitant', you must own or rent property in Monaco. You must also be able to show the local bank that you can support yourself there, which can be done by placing a mere 100,000 euro in a local bank account.
At the cheapest end of town, a small one bedroom apartment with parking space will run you approximately $3400 USD. It just goes up from there. Most of the advertisements we saw yesterday posted in realty windows (on every block!) involved larger homes selling for between 9 and 20 million euro.
Walking toward the center of Monte Carlo from the train station was a little disappointing. Compared with Cannes its streets felt narrow and cramped; gargantuan buildings towered and blocked out the sun. There was no visible beach nearby... the center of town turned out to be a port with a boardwalk. It seems likely that Monaco residents take their yachts and superyachts out to sea and then to anchor off of gorgeous sandy beaches in nearby French towns like Beaulieu sur Mer.
We passed many, many of those beaches during our 1+ hour coastal train trip from Cannes back up to Monaco... but Monaco itself had nary a beach in sight. (Perhaps we did not search hard enough.)
Our children were entranced by the portside swimming pool. Those kids are an easy sell. Give them a popsicle or a pool on a hot day and they'll be happy; but Señor Aventura was not impressed.
"Why pay to swim in a pool when we could swim in the Mediterranean for free?" he asked.
With our spirits flagging just a bit, we set off to find lunch.
The August sun was hot and the Aventura children were uber-hyper... rough-housing and off the wall. All of their friends at home had started a new school year yesterday, and it was weighing heavy.
Our kids imagined their buddies hanging out with others, making new friends. Forgetting them. They thought about the teachers at their school that they'd never be lucky enough to have. They felt bummed and left out. To compensate, they jumped around the streets of Monaco wildly and edgily teased each other, yearning for desks and classrooms 6,000 miles away. We reminded them that they too will have a 'first day of school' next week.
Eventually we found an indoor market with various food stalls, where we ate at a group table and were treated to two "insider" business/finance meetings hosted by an Australian bloke eating sushi. He was wheeling and dealing up a storm.
Then, we parted company with Señor Aventura.
My husband set off with his passport in one hand and some euro in the other to find the famous Monte Carlo Casino! Sadly (for me!) this is one place in Europe where children are not invited.
Señor Aventura brought only as much money to the Casino as he felt willing to burn (50 euro) and agreed to place bets on our favorite numbers and colors. He and I are not ambitious gamblers, but we both relished the idea of this James Bond moment.
"Ask them to take a picture of you playing roulette!" I begged. "I can't wait to see it!"
(No cameras were allowed inside, sadly. I will have to visit the casino myself someday.)
Meanwhile, I embarked with our children upon the steep climb up to the Prince's Palais and the famous Musée Océanographique de Monaco, where Jacques Cousteau himself was "le commandant" from 1957 to 1988.
We gazed upon brightly colored tropical fish and sultry eels, winding their way through manmade rocks. Alien angel-like jellyfish, flounced and floated in a circular stream. Poisonous rockfish taunted us through gnarled flesh and slitted eyes.
The museum itself was the best thing we'd seen in Monaco... an amazing personal collection of the royal family itself who had helmed many scientific, oceanographic missions throughout hundreds of years to discover new species. We were simultaneously grossed out and impressed to hear how one prince had harpooned whales and other large fish to study the contents of their bellies once they were dead. In this manner they were able to catalogue many previously unknown sea creatures.
We saw all of the old instruments, flasks and vials associated with their oceanographic research - and viewed models of the massive ships the Monacans built and took around the seas to do their exploration.
I really have to hand it to the Grimaldi family, these lovers of the ocean. Grimaldis are survivors!
The royal family of Monaco are descendants of a Genovese statesman during the first Crusades. They've been going strong as a ruling family for almost a thousand years, and when the male line of the family died out in the 17th century, the Grimaldi women kept things going by taking on husbands that agreed to adopt the name. The Grimaldi grandchildren and all of their descendants led countless important maritime expeditions and withstood hundreds of years of various wars.
And then there is the sad story of Princess Grace.
Like most people who have seen her films, I adore Grace Kelly in "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief." She radiated quality - an Irish-Catholic American girl who became an actress despite her parent's wishes. She was a sensation, and had won her first academy award by her mid-twenties.
Intelligent, educated and gorgeous. Who couldn't have fallen in love with a woman like that?
Prince Rainier of Monaco, himself a World War II veteran in his early thirties, was looking to align his tiny principality with the most successful economy in the world in the 1950s - America. His friend Aristotle Onassis, billionaire, suggested that to do so, Prince Rainier must either marry Marilyn Monroe or Grace Kelly.
This probably wasn't too much of a stretch for the prince, as his ex-girlfriend of 10 years happened to be a French actress.
Grace and Rainier met. Was it love at first sight? Or something more cool and calculated? Who today can know. They did fall in love and agree to marry.
According to juicy historical gossip, Grace Kelly's father was asked to provide a dowry of $2 million USD and Grace had to undergo fertility tests. Like any father of a successful, stunning daughter would be, her dad was horrified. (I'm sure Mr. Kelly thought she could do better.)
To marry the prince, Grace also had to give up her sensational acting career and devote herself wholly to her new role as Princess of Monaco. She had to learn all of the history, customs and culture of the principality. She had to find contentment as a royal hostess, wife and mother.
They married in 1956. Grace bore Rainier three children in the next ten years, and I'm sure she must have adored her babies.
Still, to be stuck in Monaco? No career or outlet? Lost in a place that has been rightly called in print, "a small and ridiculous principality"? I'm amazed she made this choice. Poor lady. I guess it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Grace Kelly suffered from postpartum depression and some say alcoholism during later years. She also experienced terrible headaches. One afternoon in 1982, after shopping with her daughter Stephanie, she managed to drive their car straight off a cliff. She did not swerve and there were no skidmarks. Her daughter survived the crash, but Grace died the next day.
I was seven years old in 1982 but still vividly remember how sad my mother, an actress, was over the Princess' untimely end. It made a big impression on me.
Yesterday we walked by the Cathedral where Grace married Prince Rainier. We gazed upon the palace where she lived for 25 years, and took photos in the lovely manicured garden she must have walked through from time to time. We enjoyed the charming (albeit few) streets of "ancient" Monaco atop the hill.
I said a prayer here for Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco. As a mother of three, a career woman and a Californian I felt a connection... but also felt very sad for her. Such a lovely creature trapped (perhaps?) in a gilded cage.
Amazing how a person can have so much, yet so little, all at the same time.
On to the positive!
Prince Albert of Monaco (son of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace) has amazing taste in cars! In fact, car racing may be one of the most authentic and awesome things about Monte Carlo - a town so famous for its Grand Prix that Chevrolet named its 1970 class after this city.
The kids and I loved Prince Albert's car collection spanning all forms of vehicle from horse drawn carriages to the fastest modern race cars. His vehicles are all in cherry condition and we took a gazillion pictures. Each of us had a favorite. Anyone who knows me well will not be at all surprised... mine was the scarlet 1963 Ferrari.
Here are some splendid cars. We had a ball checking them out!
We also took a photo of one of the first ever motorized bicycles for Señor Aventura.
Meanwhile our good Señor himself played as many rounds in the elegant casino as his 50 euro limit (plus a 10 euro cover charge) would allow. He enjoyed himself immensely and ultimately lost it all with a smile.
We headed home on the evening train wiser and more experienced, having crossed another country off the proverbial bucket list.
In the end, we realized that tiny Monte Carlo does have real charms... a few beautiful vistas; a carefully maintained and protected royal compound rising above the dense frenzy of apartments; an authentic historical connection with the sea and ocean science.
You couldn't pay me enough to live there, though... not even in the Sky Penthouse of the Tour Odeon Tower.