The Côte d’Azur is a stretch of sumptuous coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, spanning 115 kilometres along southeastern France.
In English, it translates into ‘Blue Coast,’ although most will probably be more familiar with its other name – the French Riviera.
Originally popular in the 18th century as a winter health resort for the British upper class, it soon became popular with aristocrats looking for a summer getaway.
Now the area is an established destination for travellers from near and far to the likes of Nice, Saint-Tropez and Cannes. The mega-rich also frequent the area, with at least 50 percent of the world’s superyachts visiting the Côte d’Azur every year.
I was fortunate enough to head there this July, flying into Nice with the intention of dividing the two full days I had there between the French city and the jewel in the crown of the French Riviera – Monaco.
Monaco is a principality and presided over by Prince Albert II. It is perhaps most well-known as home to a lot of high-earners thanks to no income tax and low business taxes. Monegasque natives pay absolutely no tax whatsoever, but aren’t actually allowed to visit or gamble in the world-famous Monte-Carlo casino.
The tax haven is reachable from Gare de Nice-Ville, and is only 20 minutes away by train. A return ticket costs around the €7 mark for a return, but this seems to vary throughout the day.
The ride itself is part of the experience, with the railroad hugging the relief along the coast, providing splendid views of nearby Villefranche-sur-Mer and Cap-d’Ail before pulling into Monaco-Monte-Carlo station.
The itinerary was set and the day stretched to accommodate as with Monaco being the small package that good things come in.
Cars and alleyways
Up early to meet the sunrise for a breakfast date, the harbour at Monte-Carlo was the first port of call.
There was some difficulty getting there from the main entrance, and being a pedestrian in Monaco can be confusing at first. But it has been built cleverly, with warning signs showing where not to walk on foot, and a multitude of alleys, shortcuts and walkways dotted around, granting easier access to different parts of the country.
After being guided by a street cleaner, I headed down some winding stairs and through a tunnel, and appeared at the corner of the road that lines the land part of the inlet.
My phone’s maps app had this area marked as ‘Circuit de Monaco’, yet as an avid Formula 1 fan I knew exactly where I was in the world with or without it.
To my left was the famous Fairmont Hotel, and underneath that the tunnel that is reputedly one of the most difficult parts of the Monaco Grand Prix, thanks to the quick light, to dark, to light transition for drivers.
To my right was the Automobile Club de Monaco, the house of the governing body of Monegasque motorsport, which would have looked toward the harbour if it hadn’t been obstructed by a stretch of noisy roadworks.
Out in the harbour were some of the finest boats money could buy. Most of them were sparkling white and encrusted with silver trim, the occasional one even sporting champagne buckets on tall stands, further highlighting the wealth of their owners.
The marine glamour provided a stark contrast to the ongoing construction, but there was something between the two that, to me, was even more eye-catching.
Rainier III Nautical Stadium, named after the father and predecessor to Albert II, is an outdoor swimming complex. Lying right in the harbour’s heart, the saltwater pool is flanked by a water slide, in addition to a diving board and two diving platforms.
I clearly hadn’t researched properly as I only stumbled across it, which meant that I didn’t have any swimming shorts, nor a towel, pretty much omitting me from trying it out for myself.
It was something I had little time to deliberate on, but it did disappoint me somewhat. There was a degree of envy, seeing people of all ages having fun in the sun, even if it was early in the morning.
Less swimming, more sightseeing
Yet there was still fun to be had of my own and so off I went to the Prince’s Palace, located on top of a hill overlooking the area I had just been. This meant a steep climb, the difficulty of which was underlined by heavy beads of sweat rolling off the small of my back after every few steps
Atop the hill was a lookout point, where I couldn’t resist getting a little creative with my camera, before heading off to the ticket office to purchase a dual ticket, granting entry to the Prince’s Palace as well as the Oceanographic Museum – a large aquarium built into one of Moanco’s cliff faces.
The tour of a small part of the palace was impressive and gives visitors a greater insight into the country’s history and hierarchy. It was particularly to find out more about Princess Grace who, of course, was Grace Kelly, famed Hollywood actress who got her title after marrying Rainier III in 1956.
As it was a place of residence, capturing audio and video images was not permitted. Yet I still managed to sneak a couple of snaps along the way.
Down another winding path, passing and visiting Monaco Cathedral on the way, was the Oceanographic Museum. The museum has several thousand specimens of marine life across several aquariums.
But not everything there is visual, with visitors able to get up, close and personal with small sharks in a tactile pool – a nice, interactive touch, especially for youngsters.
Exploration made for thirsty (and hungry) work, and a lunchtime pit stop was necessary. The sun was still beaming down, highlighting the principality’s beauty. That’s why it was so hard to find a seat outdoors at a restaurant. Fortunately, there were a couple of open seats at Bar La Pampa, located strikingly opposite the palace.
It was less restaurant and more café, but I was still able to enjoy a French croque-madame, washed down with a surprisingly refreshing Monaco beer. Though I may not be a true beer connoisseur, I knew enough to know that Monaco was tasty, and a pint of it cost less than a pint of Coca-Cola there. The beer was €5, while the same measure of the sugary soft drink was €7, and that was with ice, too.
My other meal and snacks in Monaco would largely be purchased from the giant Carrefour supermarket, located inside a small shopping centre in Fontvieille.
Speaking of Fontvieille, that would be the next stop on my list and a trip to Stade Louis II was on the cards. I’d seen it earlier in the day from the Place du Palais, looking down from the hill over the port and the stadium.
Rather than looking like the traditional venue for football, from above it blended in with its surroundings, the terracotta roof making it seem like a collection of large houses instead.
On approach the outside also appeared different, and to my surprise it wasn’t solely home to AS Monaco, but the university as well. Add in the athletics track and the phrase ‘multi-purpose’ was certainly apt.
Not realising that they offered stadium tours, I was hoping to get let inside so that I could get a photo from the stands. I asked people at three different receptions and offices around the ground, and finally got my answer.
The stadium was closed for tours today, but they would be back up and running tomorrow, when I was supposed to be in Nice.
I was gutted. I was really hoping to pull this off, and even debated sneaking into the stadium through an open gate I’d spotted by the ticket office. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue that route. After recent events in France, I thought it was better to not risk raising an alarm.
Making more plans
A minute or so after the rejection, I thought back to the pool and how much I wanted to take a dip, just like I wanted to be inside the stadium, as opposed to out on the street wondering where I should go next.
It was then the figurative lightbulb appeared above my head and I decided to return the day after, blowing off Nice. Well, aside from a quick bit of early morning shopping for some swimming shorts.
With my new purchase and the towel I snuck out of the hostel, I returned via train to Monaco, and made the walk to Stade Louis II. After booking my place on the tour, I backtracked to do some shopping at the club shop before turning up 10 minutes before the start.
When the stadium staff were ready, me and a family of approximately eight Portuguese people were hurried through the backrooms of Stade Louis II, home to seven-time French champions AS Monaco, and venue for the UEFA Super Cup from 1998 to 2012, with no verbal commentary offered by the guide.
But it mattered little when we were standing in the shadow of the nine arches, looking around an entirely empty stadium, contemplating everything to ever happen there. For €5, it was a bargain, and we were given around half an hour to check out the innards.
Checking out Stade Louis II helped to work up a sweat, and soon after I had made my way over to Stade Nautique Rainier III and changed into my new swimwear.
I was probably surrounded by a whole host of rich people, yet didn’t look, or feel, out of place. Everyone was having a good time and I was ready to join them. With one leap off the side into the cool, crystal water, I was floating in a pool of happiness.
That feeling didn’t wane for the entirety of time that I spent there, not even when I was queueing amongst the five to eight year olds in the queue for the waterslide, which was awesome, by the way.
There was something liberating about swimming in the middle of a millionaire’s playground, surrounded by high-rise apartment blocks and yachts – especially when it only cost €3.50 to have a go.
No longer is Monaco just a place for rich people and aristocrats – even budget travellers can enjoy it, too.