On April 17 we docked in Port Hercules in the middle of Monaco (legend has it that Hercules passed through here & made the area habitable by getting rid of all the wild beasts). Monaco is the world’s second smallest sovereign state (after the Vatican), covering less than a square mile. But it is also the world’s most densely populated state with some 37,000 residents (just about a third of whom are citizens). It is only about 5 miles from Italy but is surrounded by France on all land borders, and by treaty France is responsible for the defense & foreign policy of Monaco. Although not a member of the European Union, the Euro is Monaco’s official currency. Monaco is, of course, famous as a playground for the rich & famous, so the harbor is full of (big) yachts, the streets are full of fancy cars & everything is expensive.
It was a gray rainy day, one of the very few we have had on this trip. Mary was still feeling pretty bad from the illness she picked up in Dubai, the previous two days in Rome & Florence had been pretty taxing & we were planning a big day in Barcelona the next day. Monaco really wasn’t a priority for us, so we decided to take it easy & just took the HOHO bus tour around the city/country. We didn’t hop off the bus at all, though, so all the pictures in this episode were taken either from the open top of the bus or from the ship. Thankfully the heavy rain didn’t begin until just after we got back to the ship.
Our first stop was at the Casino of Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo (Mount Charles) is one of the five districts of Monaco. The casino was first built in the mid 19th century because the ruling family was in dire financial straits. It worked: they aren’t in any danger of bankruptcy any more. You have probably seen James Bond walking up the steps to the entrance in Casino Royale or Never Say Never Again. The back part of the casino, facing the harbor, is the opera house, built a few years later. And on one side of casino square next to the casino is the Hotel de Paris, built in 1863, very ritzy & expensive. The tennis ball decorations are to celebrate the 110th Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament (actually held over the border in France), the final day of which was the day of our visit.
We rode through the narrow, sharply curving & hilly streets of the city to the Palace.
The Prince’s Palace was first built in 1191, but has been expanded, renovated & enhanced many times since then. Built on top of a huge rock overlooking the Mediterranean, it was initially a Genoese stronghold & you can still see some of the more castle-like walls at the edge of the rock. The Grimaldi family, Genoese noblemen who were on the losing side in a struggle for control for Genoa, captured it in 1297 & have ruled here most of the time ever since. The princes were absolute rulers until 1910, when a rather ineffectual parliament was established under a constitution granted by Prince Albert I in response to public unrest. But even today Prince Albert II is the dominant political power in Monaco & his offices & residence are in the Palace. His predecessor (& father) was Prince Rainier III, who famously married the movie star Grace Kelly (Albert’s mother) in 1956.
From the Palace grounds there were some stunning views of the harbor & the mountains. Next to the Palace on the edge of the rock cliff is a statue called “hommage aux colonies étrangères,” built in 1914 to honor the 25th year of the reign of Prince Albert I. Across the square from the Palace were some interesting buildings that look like they date from the 19th century. We drove on, down through an arched road, to St Nicholas Cathedral. It was built at the turn of the 20th century; Prince Rainier & Princess Grace are buried there.
We passed by the Oceanographic Museum. It was built in 1910 by Prince Albert I, who had an avid interest in the subject, and presided over from 1957 to 1988 by Jacques Cousteau. The collection inside has a first rate reputation, including an aquarium with more than 4,000 species of fish, but of course we didn’t see the inside. Outside the museum was a very colorful exhibit, but we have no idea what it was about.
The Monaco Grand Prix auto race was first run in 1929. It is a challenging course through the streets of the city, with hairpin turns, changing elevations & a tunnel. The 2016 race was to be at the end of May & they were already preparing when we were there, building viewing stands in several places on the water front. One of the excursions offered by HAL was to walk the course of the race (it might be a lot cheaper to buy a map & walk it yourself). We saw several of the viewing stands that were under construction (built anew every year).
Well that’s it for our short bus-top tour of Monaco. We returned to the ship & it then began raining pretty hard for most of the afternoon. We will leave you with a few pictures taken from the ship.