The Absurdity of Monaco 56

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monaco harbor tilt shift

I just simply don’t understand Monaco. It is one of the cities in the world, like Beirut or Hong Kong that just sort of mystifies me.

It is a city of immense wealth of course. It boasts the highest Gross Domestic Product per capita of any country in the world, at over $150k per person. It has an unemployment rate of basically zero. It is a tax haven of the rich and famous. It boasts one of the biggest Formula One races in the world. Its most famous citizen was actually an American superstar actress from Philadelphia.

And it is less than one square mile in size.

How the hell was this place even allowed to be a country??

Monaco Casino

the famous Monaco Casino from the harbor side


As in most places in Europe, the history is fairly complicated, but from what I gather, it was originally a colony of the city-state of Genoa back when the House of Grimaldi took over rulership in the 1200s. In an incredibly appropriate move, given what Monaco has turned into over time, the Grimaldi’s purchased Monaco in 1419.

Yep, they bought it.

Over the next few hundred years, it was occasionally conquered and passed back and forth to various countries, with the Grimaldi’s still maintaining rulership in some form or fashion, until they paid France 4.1 million francs for it in 1861.

Yep, they bought it twice.

In 1869, the Grimaldi’s eliminated income taxes and the tiny nation state basically survived on revenue from the casino. And so began the modern history of a tax dodging haven for the rich and famous.

To my eyes, Monaco’s has the look of a city that rose to prominence in the 1970s and is trying to age gracefully.

The problem is that the 70s really don’t age that gracefully.

botero statue of adam and eve in monaco

Odd to see a Botero statue in front of the casino -- odder still that one part of Adam is rubbed to a shiny finish by tourists

I was only in Monaco for a very brief afternoon. It was early on during the Ultimate Train Challenge, right after I had gone to Bordeaux. I was taking advantage of the Eurail Pass that had given me to cruise around as much as I could manage.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived on the train from Nice was the sign I saw at the tourist office: “No bag storage.”

I obviously had my two backpacks on me and was planning to leave the big one in a locker somewhere, while I explored the city and took photos with the smaller backpack.

I walked up to him and said, “there are no lockers here?” He looked up from his papers with disdain and replied, “there are no lockers in Monaco.”

I’m thinking they aren’t huge fans of travelers like me.

So, I got back on the train, rode back to Nice, dropped off my backpack in a locker there, and came back. A little high brow disdain wasn’t going to stop me.

It is obviously a small enough city to walk around fairly easily, though it is hilly. There were a few other brief impressions I had while wandering around, the first being — Monaco is such a nanny state.

No, I don’t mean nanny state as in a government that coddles its citizens… I mean there are a ton of nanny’s walking around. I am assuming that the high per capita income translates into “one family, one nanny” pretty much universally, considering how many I saw pushing kids around in strollers.

Secondly, I have never seen so many relators’ office anywhere on Earth before. There were literally hundreds of them. I had assumed I would see loads of banks, which I did, but they were far, far outnumbered by the offices with photos of the properties they had for sale.

The idyllic part of town is on top of the low mountain that frames the west end of the main harbor. Up there lies the castle where the ruling family lives. Aside from the castle, there are a few hundred very pricy residences up there on the five or six small streets that crisscross the top of the mountain.

There you will find small, but amazing beautiful, gardens on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. There is also a perfectly quaint church only about 300 yards away from the castle in the center of the little mountain top village. It is easy to imagine Princess Grace and Prince Rainer III walking over from the castle for Sunday services.

Now it is overrun from tourists fresh off the Carnival Cruise line ship that docked that morning in the harbor for a quick stop, before moving on down the coast.

monaco tax office

one of the buildings up on the mountain, near the castle


monaco west small harbor

the view of the smaller west harbor from the castle area


monaco castle

The Palace/Castle up on the mountain

monaco church and statue

some random church in town




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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

56 thoughts on “The Absurdity of Monaco

  • Linda

    Basically I spent about the same amount of time there a few years back. I hated it.Maybe it was some sort of inverted snobbery. It felt exactly like being on a movie set. Unreal. Even had a fairly posh lunch there (with a friend who was celebrating her 60th, and the idea was to do it in style!), and it wasn’t the best meal I’d ever had.

    One thing I did wish, though, was that all the jerks who keep their wee boats here and think it makes them important, could be made to go over to take a look at the ones in the habor in MC because the boats there would make their look like toys!

  • vesey

    I visited Monaco and found it interesting and enjoyable. But maybe if i hated rich people i would have ended up having the same reaction that the writer and Linda had……….

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Not sure I hate rich people at all, just didn’t love the place. Didn’t really hate it either, just wasn’t my cup of tea. But thanks for coming to the blog and reading. Hope you continue.

  • Christine

    Monaco is pretty ridiculous…but it is beautiful! Absolutely love your photo of the harbour. My favorite part is the aquarium–it’s built on a cliff and the architecture is stunning!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      The harbor is quite pretty. I am not a huge fan of the 70s buildings, but the view from up on top of the hills is pretty great. I need to hit the aquarium next time.

  • Cat

    I spent a day in Monaco with my grandpa ten years ago. I remember being yelled at by the guards in the palace and my grandpa in a speedo. I much preferred the towns and villas of nearby France.

  • Laura

    I have never been to Monaco. However, when on the small island of Burano in Italy, I met an older man from Monaco that was one of the classiest and nicest men I have ever met. He raved about his country of Monaco and told me I must visit. I’m sad I never asked for his contact details, but because of that, I’ve wanted to visit.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      You soooo should have gotten those contact details. How fun would it have been to hang with a local there?! Awesome.

  • Priscilla

    You are too funny – The Nanny State! I’m sure it must be since the parents are in the casino all day? What else does one do when one lives in Monaco?
    I definitely want to see it for myself one day. I want to go in the spring or summer when it’s nicer weather than when I tend to get to France – January. My husband has been and says it was pretty overrated, but good to cross off bucket list.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I really wish I would have had the proper clothing to go into the casino, though I am not sure I would have felt good about the entry fee (though would have done it anyway).

  • OurPassportStamps


    Well, we have actually spent 2 days in Monaco and enjoyed it.
    We used Ventimiglia, Italy as our base and took the train over.
    Which is less than a 30 minute ride

    Just a couple of things..

    1. The picture you labeled Random Church is St. Charles and was finished in 1883. The architect who designed it is the same one who designed Monaco’s Cathedral where Princess Grace is buried.

    2. The Jacque Cousteau Oceanography Museum is fantastic AND hands on. If you are a diver, snorkeler or someone who grew up watching him on TV, you will enjoy it.

    3. The Prince Ranier Automobile Museum is considered world class for those of you who enjoy vintage automobiles this is the place for you..

    4. The Rose Garden when in bloom is so breathtaking.

    5. The staples …Castle, Changing of the guard and Cathedral are worth a look.

    6. The farmers market has a great blend of Italy and France treats a perfect co-mingling of pastas, cheeses, fruits and veggies.

    Also, regarding cruise ship passengers. There are plenty of websites that allow you to determine ahead of time if and how many cruise ships will be in town. This gives land travelers/tourists the ability to plan accordingly and time your visits to avoid them.

    I hope you and others that have posted above have a chance in the future to see the Monaco that we did


  • Baron's

    Been there several times. I use Nice as my base and drive up in a rental Fiat UNO….love the drive on the Blvd des Englais….best views in the world

    ballades des ERnglais

  • The Travel Fool

    It seems like some other places I have been to. The place doesn’t live up to the allure and hype. When I was younger I had that list. You know the one, “The places I must see before I die”. Looking back on that list now there are only a couple of places left and some have vanished because I no longer have the desire. Monaco was on that list years ago. It hasn’t been for quite some time.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      If I could have seen Monaco in its heyday… and had the money to do it right… and would have sat next to James Bond at the casino… it would have rocked!

  • Giulia

    I’ve been to Monaco a billion times coz my father works there, and i used to like it a lot when I was a teen.
    Back then, it looked like a unique and exclusive place for VIP’s only. Now, Monaco is invaded by crowds of tourists and it’s becoming crowded and with too much traffic, and is definitely loosing its charm.
    Concerning the fact that Monaco used to belong to Genova, the alleys in the upper (old) part of the principate are still named in our dialect (yep I’m from Genova) and this always makes me smile.:)
    Oh and the aquarium is really amazing, check it out next time!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I forgot you were from Genoa. Very cool added info here being tossed in by loads of folks. Thanks!

  • Sophie

    It is a bit of an absurdity – but so are other odd little countries in Europe and elsewhere. I enjoyed Monaco, particularly the Oceanographic Museum. Intrigued by your comparing Moncao with Beirut – have to check out your Beirut post now πŸ™‚

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I really want to hit all the “tiny countries” in Europe in 2012. Is one of my goals for sure.

  • Abby

    I’ve been to Monaco twice but not in many, many years. I remember diving into the pool so excited for chlorine after weeks on the Mediterranean, and it was salt water in the pool. Good to have your clever writing back!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Salt water pool, heh? Interesting. And I am going to try to bring the humor back. Is needed, I think.

  • Emily @Travelated

    I spent one day in Monaco, and I actually enjoyed it immensely. I found it to be beautiful, and I liked that it was so easy to get around and see everything since the place is so small.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      It is easy to walk around, for sure. I do not doubt its appeal to a variety of folks in the least.

  • Adrian & Mary @TravelToSun

    We’ve never been to Monaco before, but we’ll have to check it out with our own eyes sometime, since we keep hearing intriguing stories about this country.

    One thing we’d definitely want to see sometime is the Monaco F1 Grand Prix – if, of course, our budget will allow it πŸ™‚

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I totally would want to go back and hit the F1 race there. Would be really cool.

  • Angela

    Well, I guess there’s no unemployment because all people working in Montecarlo live in the neighboring countries and Montecarlo is just for the rich. I’ve been there, pretty, but can I say I wasn’t that impressed? I think it’s famous more for the Grimaldi-based gossip rather than the actual piece of land. Liguria’s Cinque Terre, in my opinion, is much better and for sure more authentic.

  • Nomadic Samuel

    I like what you’ve been doing with your photography lately from a creative standpoint. The saturation levels and selective blur of the shot from the harbour is an awesome pic!

  • Drina Murphy

    We visited Monaco a couple of years ago. We found it very expensive and a hell of a walk down the winding round (I believe it was the f1 track – we parked at the top)

  • Abi

    Just seen a lot of it on the film Monte Carlo that’s been showing on my last few flights…And that’s kind of how I remember it (minus the sexy men…sigh…)

  • Garrett

    It sounds like all backpackers have the same experience.

    I, too, was there for a matter of hours. Luckily, I stowed my stuff in Nice before making the train ride over.

    The highlight of my trip was seeing a boat with a giant Georgia “peach” on it. My friends and I stuck around, and when a grey-haired white guy walked out, we asked if he was from Georgia.

    He dodge the question until we mentioned we were Georgia Tech students.

    I’llbedamned – he admitted being the owner. We then found out his single mast sailboat was the largest in the world.

    And he, too, was a Tech alum.

    Memorable afternoon.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Now THAT sounds like an amazing experience. Damn, now I want to go back and see if there are any Longhorn or Razorback flags flying there.

  • Audrey

    It’s funny that such a high-end destination, where I imagine few properties ever come on the market, would have so many real estate offices!

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I found it quite odd also. I’d think it was such an exclusive city that there would be few people selling. Apparently not!

  • Gerald

    “I have never seen so many relators’ office anywhere on Earth before.” You must mean realtors – they sell real estate.

  • The Honourable Husband

    I was once a trailing spouse as my husband entertained a client at the Red Cross Ball. Thus, we stayed at the Hotel de Paris (the fancy one at the Casino) and he lived it up while I skidded around backpacker style looking for a cheap hamburger.

    I was delighted to stumble into a bar that actually contained normal Monagesques: the schoolteachers, the nurses, the nannies. The regular folk.

    Of course, the normal folk are also car dealers that sell Ferraris, art-supply-shop owners that frame Picassos, bank tellers that dish out millions in cash every morning.

    You know what? I found them charming. Smart, multilingual, with fascinating stories to tell.

    I also won €200 on roulette at the casino, playing my birthday, you’ll be pleased to know.

    The place has a fascinating rail station, as you mentioned. It’s built into a cave high on the steep slopes of Mont Charles. The two exits are not labelled “North” or “South” or anything like that. They are labelled Up and Down.

    All in all, I’m a fan of Monaco.

  • Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista

    I have never been to Monaco but can understand your feelings about it. That said, it is beautiful and, therefore, a place I would like to see someday!

  • Clarice Richmond

    I’m sad I never asked for his contact details, but because of that, I’ve wanted to visit. 6. The farmers market has a great blend of Italy and France treats a perfect co-mingling of pastas, cheeses, fruits and veggies.

  • Lorenzo Gonzalez

    Nice write up. And yes, I had heard that they had tons of real estate offices from watching HGTV… oh the properties are really pricey!

  • Fred

    My Monaco experience was as a bachelor G.I. stationed in Germany over a half-century ago, in 1961. A buddy and I drove down in his MGA to see the Grand Prix of Monaco and investigate a new French invention that had not yet appeared in the ‘states. It was named after an obscure Pacific atoll ..the Bikini.

    We did it “on the cheap” of about ten bucks a day, each; staying in a no-star sort of a campground in Golfe Juan, between Nice and Cannes. (It’s main claim to fame is as the spot where Napoleon came ashore after escaping his first exile to Elba, to begin his “100 days”.)

    Ah, the memories! I’m glad to have been able to do it when I was young and foolish; couldn’t afford it now…but well remember getting the fresh hot baguette and bottle of vin ordinaire every day..

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