If Vatican City (completely enclosed by the city of Rome in Italy) is the smallest country by land area in the world, then the Principality of Monaco is the second smallest at about four times the Vatican’s size. Located on the French Riviera coast not far from Italy, it is also the most densely populated nation on Earth, which is quite understandable. After ball, Modern Monaco is a paradise of the wealthy, with its majestic location and a powerful economy thanks to being the world’s second highest GDP thanks to its industries in tourism, banking and gambling. There is also the fact that the country is a tax haven.
Looking through history, it can be mind-boggling to think that this mighty microstate, home of one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world (and country of origin for two well-known female characters on Japanese fighting videogames) arose from rather humble beginnings. One story for the origin of its name comes from the Ancient Greeks, who recount in their mythology how Heracles (Hercules) travelled to that area in his adventures, leading to a temple called Monoikos (lone dweller) being built there in his honor.
But the real historical meat came in 1215 AD when the Italian republic of Genoa founded a colony on the site. Eventually that colony came under the control of the Genoese House of Grimaldi, who in 1419 bought the colonial territory as their own domain, with the house heads becoming Princes of Monaco. The tiny realm was alternately a protectorate of either France or Sardinia, and then began to accumulate great wealth when the princely house opened a casino during the 19th Century. Gambling revenues grew to a point that the Princes stopped collecting income tax from their subjects.
The famous Monaco Grand Prix race was started in 1929, with the cars racing down the streets and along the harbor of the ward of Monte Carlo. During World War II Monaco was occupied by Italy, and then Nazi Germany, forcing the state to deport its Jewish population to the concentration camps. The principality would enter the international scene again when in 1956 Prince Rainier III (reigning since 1949) married the popular American actress Grace Kelly. By this point the combination of the casino, the racing circuit and the tax haven status of Monaco has changed the country into its present form.
Today, Monaco finds itself trying to squeeze the memories of the old with the best and latest of the new. With a land area of only 2.02 square kilometers, getting everything in is no easy task. It can be cramped going at times for the principality’s population of 32,000, a majority of which are foreign residents who tend to be really rich. Native Monegasques average only about 8,000, but they have special privileges from their Prince, currently Albert II, son of Rainer III and Grace, like price-controlled housing and assured employment. Monaco is one of the most expensive countries to live in without such guarantees. That of course means it has the world’s lowest poverty rate.
Tourists travelling to Monaco are one of the sources of its economic muscle. Whether they are taking in the sights, trying their luck at the Casino de-Monte Carlo (opened in 1863), or trying to catch the Grand Prix for the year, the country has all their wants and desires covered. It is interesting to note that most of the leading hotels, sports clubs, nightclubs, eating places and the casino are all owned by a public company wherein the Royal Family has a majority controlling interest. Imagine that.
Speaking of which, one of the top tourist stops in the country is the Prince’s Palace, which has stood on its site at the Rock of Monaco in some form since 1191. The Rock, a natural fortress, is part of Old Town in the capital ward, Monaco-Ville. Since it is an active residence of the Prince and his family, only a few areas are open to the public, and it is guarded by security personnel of Monaco’s only military forces. The rest of Old Town on the Rock retains an olden-time aesthetic with narrow medieval lanes.
Not far away is the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which also serves as the burial place for members of House Grimaldi. Most frequently visited are the graves of Prince Rainier III and his consort Princess Grace. Next on the list would be the Oceanographic Museum, founded by Prince Albert I in 1910. It has an exhibit on the history of oceanography and 90 tank aquariums filled with aquatic life.
As mentioned, the other major destination in Monaco is Monte Carlo ward, home of the country’s world-famous casino and Formula 1 race. Those who would want to see the inside of the casino would need to follow a jacket-and-tie protocol, and no wearing of sneakers. As a rule, under-18s can only mill about in the morning until 2PM. The Grand Prix is an annual event, and visitors could count themselves lucky to arrive when it is being held.
When one can look beyond the crowds of the well-heeled, the high-stakes rollers and the pleasure-seekers, a visitor is sure to find in little Monaco an interesting portrait of a nation whose culture is a blend of its prominent powers. In a way, the principality is a mini-Europe, and getting to spend a few days there can feel like a tour of the whole continent itself already.
Photo courtesy of The Telegraph