There is an uncanny parallel between the Princess of Wales and Princess Grace of Monaco, both of whom died from injuries sustained in a car crash, each an ill-fated legend in her own lifetime. As a successful Hollywood actress from Philadelphia, Grace Kelly became an iconic figure in 1956 when she gave up her career at the age of 26 to marry Prince Rainier III, the head of Monaco’s ancient Grimaldi dynasty. It put the Principality on the map as never before and Princess Grace, like the Princess of Wales for the British public, would be the Monégasques’ queen of hearts.
Almost twenty-five years have passed since Princess Grace’s car plunged off a winding mountain road on the edge of Monaco and from mid-July to mid-September a celebration of her life can be experienced at the Grimaldi Forum, the conference centre at the eastern end of Monaco’s beach quarter.
Assembled with the full cooperation of the royal palace, the exhibition features many of her personal possessions never previously seen in public, including dresses, fashion accessories and letters. Sound recordings, movie clips and news reports evoke memories of her glamorous days as a film star and her seamless transformation into a fairy-tale princess.
With 600 spaces beneath the Forum, this is the best place to park while you soak up the atmosphere of the idle and not so-idle rich, whose multi-million dollar yachts are scattered about the harbour, and whose crews, clad in immaculately white uniforms, look as though they would be horrified if ordered to put to sea in anything but a flat calm. The yachts seem to be used for an unending succession of parties, especially while Monaco’s big international events reach their climax, such as the Monte-Carlo Rally and especially the Monte-Carlo Grand Prix, when many of the streets are closed to normal traffic and give way to the screeching tyres of Formula One machines.
Monaco is situated on the Mediterranean coast of France, a few miles from its eastern border with Italy. It is second only to the Vatican as the smallest independent state in Europe, albeit with open borders and a heavy dependency on France. Monte-Carlo, the wealthiest quarter of Monaco, is sometimes wrongly believed to be the capital, even though the principality does not possess one.
Monte-Carlo is however noted for its luxury shops, including Bulgari, Cartier, Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Hermès and Louis Vuitton, where only the deepest of deep pockets will suffice. More realistically priced boutiques can be found in the quaint narrow streets of the old town. However, if shopping is your priority, do not go to Monaco on a Sunday, when most shops are shut. Last year the famous international outlets broke with tradition and opened on Sundays from mid-July to mid-August. It was not thought a commercial success, however, and was unpopular with the staff, so unless there is a last-minute change of heart, it will not be repeated this year.
Expect crowds. This is not the place for a quiet day trip. Even without the visitors, numbered in tens of thousands during the peak summer period, Monaco is the most densely populated state in Europe, if not the world, with almost 16,000 persons per kilometre. Of the 32,000 who have residential permits, over 10,000 are French, more than 6,000 Italians, roughly 6,000 Monégasques and nearly 10,000 others from practically every country under the sun.
The Principality and its Prince first came together in 1309, when Francesco Grimaldi purchased the rock from the Genoese. As the Monégasques stubbornly resisted the concept of taxation throughout their history, the little state was practically bankrupt in 1863, when a Frenchman, François Blanc, inherited the concession to run the ailing Monte-Carlo Casino. Even then it took the arrival of the Riviera railway in 1868 to make it truly profitable. Thereafter the journey from Nice that had previously taken four hours by coach and five hours by boat could be accomplished by train in a mere twenty minutes.
Blanc experienced only one really nervous moment, brought about by the arrival in July 1891 of Charles Deville Wells, the hero of the famous song, The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte-Carlo. Wells had £4,000 to play with, a tidy sum in those days, the profits of a series of swindles back in England. In 1892 he broke the casino’s bank five times, but the bank eventually broke him; and at the end of the year Wells was arrested in Le Havre and duly sentenced at the Old Bailey in London for a further succession of frauds.
Monte-Carlo Casino, rebuilt in 1878 by Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera, can be visited by anyone aged 18 or over. However, do not expect to see James Bond or his successors in evening dress, with piles of chips in front of them and surrounded by elegant women. The serious gambling takes place late at night in the private rooms while the sumptuously decorated public salons are filled with batteries of slot machines.
High above the harbour, the royal palace, open only in the absence of the Prince, dates from the 13th century, although its Italian Renaissance rooms are predominantly 15th century. A much more grandiose façade greets visitors to the museum of marine sciences. Founded in 1910 by Prince Albert, it rises majestically above the sea to a height of almost 280 feet. The basement is devoted to a world-famous aquarium with over 4,000 species of fish, truly spectacular and not to be missed. On the top floor, La Terrasse restaurant offers a magnificent panorama of the Principality and the Italian Riviera and, contrary to rumour, fish is on the menu.