Monaco, thank goodness, is utterly unique. You only need to visit ‘the Rock’ once, but someday you have to visit it.
If you’re completely mad that might be in May when the Grand Prix pushes this already teeming anthill into eardrum-breaking, fuel-stinking overpopulated overdrive. Or, if you are of a more sedate disposition, like me, you might prefer January, when the world-famous Circus festival is in town.
Before animal rights protestors start getting hot under the collar, we were there last year by generous, un-refusable invitation from Monagasque friends; most of the entertainment is human-based (though the excrutiating clowning that ended with Princess Stéphanie getting egg custard all over her face was fairly animal), and, yes, of course we boycotted the big cats. The high wire and rolling trapeze acts, though, were brilliant.
Night had fallen when the big top shut down and we wandered along the gaudy, concrete block, neon-strobed modern brashness of the “new town” on port level. But then we entered one of Monaco’s swish public lifts, and emerged up two levels in a completely different world of bygone classical opulence. The Place de Casino is dominated on three sides by the stunning belle époque façade of the Hotel de Paris, the Casino, and the fabuous Café de Paris, all softly lit at night, and quite, quite beautiful.
The Café de Paris is the place to see and be seen in, in Monaco. In summer its terrace is stiff with star-spotters, and in winter its richly decorated dining rooms seat the sophisticated smart set in a buzzy brasserie atmosphere. Although it”s not entirely the point of being here, the food’s not at all bad, either. Chef Jacques Lambert boasts a “franco-italo-européenne cuisine”, and his 38€ - 46€ menus are filled with classics like artichoke risotto, roast saddle of lamb in herb crust, and perch in a saffron cream. There’s also a special seafood menu between October and March. Surprisingly, although Yquem and vintage champagnes inevitably crown the wine list, there are some very reasonable Côtes de Provence at ‘our’ end of the price scale.
If the Café de Paris is too grand and old-school for you, you could go to its opposite number, which represents the other face of Monaco. Stars ‘n’ Bars is young, multicultural, modern, noisy, bright, colourful, and crowded with memorabilia from the world of music, films and sport.You eat outside by the port, or inside under a hanging motorbike, next to a screen showing a baseball game, surrounded by framed, signed shirts from the world’s top footballers. The food is all-star American – ribs, buffalo wings, Tex Mex, excellent burgers, and puds of sundaes based on brownies or apple cinnamon. We took a teenager there, who, once we’d pulled him away from the electronic entertainment, was ecstatic to discover “really decent grub” at last in the south of France… sad but true. They have recently set up an upstairs restaurant called Fusion, aimed at the more sophisticated over 25 market, (I think we mostly fit that demographic bracket?) so we’ll not be taking him there, obviously.
Having said you only need to visit Monaco once, last year’s circus trip was, in fact, my fifth visit (three were on business), and it will definitely be the last. It is, I grant, an impressive réussite, an oasis of greed and turmoil in a particularly wild and magnificent part of France’s coastline. But how long can you stay sane in a concrete rabbit warren, where not only the cars but a half of the population, live below street level? I’ve been there and definitely earned the T shirt, and now I’ll happily leave it to the underground world of carpark attendants, tax exiles and hobbits…Juliet Young