Casino de Monte Carlo

To Monaco for fish and chips

Planning a holiday in Provence? Have a day out in a pocket-size principality with its sea-life centre and world-famous casino – and take Robin Gauldie’s guide with you.

You might think the sexy way to arrive in Monaco is by helicopter. Choppering it in from the nearest airport, Nice-Côte d’Azur, certainly gives you a buzz as the blue Mediterranean zips past beneath your feet and you skim the rugged cliffs of the Riviera corniche.

Monaco's quayside district of La Condamine

But that’s not the way it’s done. Taking the seven-minute helicopter shuttle is considered as humdrum as arriving in London on the overnight bus from Cumbernauld. Much more stylish is to roll into town in the back of a chauffeur-driven vintage Rolls.

Or, failing that, an understated, charcoal-black, top-of-the-range Merc, with driver. The last thing you want to do in Monaco is drive yourself. That might seem a little ironic, because one of the principality’s main claims to fame – the other being that it’s a tax haven funded by serious gambling – is its status as a motorsports Mecca, hosting the only Formula 1 Grand Prix race run on city streets.

However you get there, Monaco is best explored on foot. Hilly it may be, but at 0.7 square miles, it’s still smaller than Hyde Park.

Start from the Prince’s Palace, high above the sea, and home since 1297 to Europe’s longest ruling dynasty, the Grimaldis. In that year François I Grimaldi smuggled himself into the imposing fortress protecting Monaco, disguised as a monk, then opened its doors to his henchmen.

The clock of Casino de Monte Carlo

His ancestors have been on the throne ever since – except for a brief hiccup at the end of the 18th century, when Monaco was briefly seized by the French Republic. Last year saw the crowning of the latest in the long line of Grimaldis, Prince Albert II, who inherited the throne following the death of his father, Prince Rainier III.

Outside the Renaissance palace, a crowd gathers just before noon to watch the changing of the guard. The Compagnie des Carabiniers wear toy soldier white uniforms which give them a comic-opera air, but there’s nothing amusing about their modern automatic rifles. If it’s up to them, the Grimaldis will be on the throne for a while yet.

From the Place du Palais, wander through the old town, known as Le Rocher, a labyrinth of narrow streets (dotted with slightly tacky souvenir stores) that contrasts oddly with the clutter of less-than-picturesque apartment blocks rising from the twin yacht harbours far below.