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Break The Bank At Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo, Monaco

The principality of Monaco is one of the smallest – but not the smallest - in the world. At 485 acres there isn’t much room to spread out, but the locals manage to pack a lot into a little space. The principality has been independent, on and off, since the thirteenth century, when the Grimaldi family seized power. Despite a few ups and downs caused by the likes of Napoleon and Hitler, they’re still running the place today.

Monaco Harbour

It’s wrong to think of Monte Carlo, a byword for gambling and luxury, as being the same place as Monaco. Monte Carlo isn’t Monaco’s capital, either: it’s just one relatively small area within the principality. However, it’s probably the most famous part of the tiny state. Monte Carlo began to become really important in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Grimaldi family realized that their principality needed a firm economic base – yet it had not natural resources to speak of and only a very small population. So they decided to focus on making money from tourism and, in particular, from gambling.

Not that they gambled themselves, of course: they opened a casino. The Monte Carlo Casino is still open today, and continues to be a major source of income for the principality. It’s a bizarre, baroque building; fronted by gardens and palm trees, it’s a mess of towers and pinnacles with a façade that makes it look more like a church than a glorified gambling den. That’s appropriate, because it is in some sense a temple – it’s certainly exerted a semi-religious pull on rich gamblers over the years, keen to show off their wealth. Millions have been lost at the roulette tables of the Casino, and rather fewer millions won in return. The Grimaldis have profited enormously from the simple fact that the house always wins.

And it’s still winning. The Casino of Monte Carlo today isn’t, possibly, as glamorous as once it was, There are rather fewer aristocrats and rather more well-heeled tourists. But the plush interior still maintains a kind of tacky, tasteful swishness that even the great casinos of the Las Vegas Strip struggle to imitate properly.

Monte Carlo Streets The other way Monaco makes money is simply by attracting lots of very, very rich people. Its warm climate and relative closeness to major airports has made it a Mecca for those who, thirty years ago, would have been called the ‘jet set’. What makes it even more attractive to them, of course, is Monaco’s status as a virtually tax-free state. Looking at some of these men and women as they cruise the streets in their Ferraris or lounge on their yachts in the marina, you can’t help but get the impression that they’d happily live in Vladivostok or the Canadian arctic tundra to get the kind of tax-breaks that Monaco offers. That they can get them in a warm, lush Mediterranean port is simply a bonus.

As Monaco has attracted the rich, so it has also attracted the kind of tourists who like to gawp at the very rich. They in turn, have pulled in the souvenir sellers and assorted hangers-on that have made parts of the principality surprisingly kitsch and down-at-heel. There are few problems with crime, though, so if you take the usual security precautions you would in any city you should be fine.

If you want to see Monaco at its best, try to be there during the Grand Prix. Formula One motor racing is very popular in Europe, and Monaco’s annual race – which usually takes place in late spring - is one of the oldest established of the season.

Monaco Grand Prix What makes it especially spectacular is the setting in the streets of the principality. The cars have to negotiate tunnels and tight hairpin bends, racing past luxury yachts and apartments and thousands of spectators. This particular race is, more than any others in the Formula One calendar, purely a spectacle. Modern F1 racing cars are so powerful, and the streets so narrow, that overtaking is virtually impossible. The final positions of the contestants are more or less determined by who qualifies with the fastest time for the starting grid and whose engineers can plan the most cunning refueling strategy.

But is it a sight worth seeing! Watching the brightly-colored cars race through the streets is an unforgettable experience. Monaco is close enough to Italy for Ferrari fans to turn up in their thousands, and whole streets turn red, yellow and black with their flags, shirts and hats. Book early, though, and prepare to pay a premium. The price of hotel accommodation in Monaco isn’t cheap at the best of time – but over Grand Prix weekend demand sends prices soaring.

Monaco isn’t the kind of place you would want to visit for days at a time. Head there are part of a larger tour of France or Italy - and enjoy a brief taste of the high life.

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