I love Europe. Who doesn't? It's filled with so much sophistication, dotted with beautiful cities and villages, steeped in history that has shaped the rest of the world, and infused with an energy that makes visiting nearly anywhere on the continent an incredibly worthwhile trip.
I've been to most of the big countries in Europe, and I don't think I've visited a single town or city that I didn't like. As are many avid world travelers, I'm amazed by the lives so foreign to mine that people lead even in the simplest or most remote of towns and villages. I can always find beauty in the dreariest of places. The row after row of communist-era apartment blocks in rural Polish communities come to mind, their formerly drab exterior walls now sometimes painted in bright colors to add a splash of life and flair.
I've also always been ascinated with small countries, ones so tiny that you can literally walk from border to border or run the entire width or length of the country to get a good workout. And because I'm a history buff - and usually royalty provides us with a living linkage to a country's past - I've always been particularly intrigued by the tiny principalities of Europe.
I was in the south of France in May for the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival. I was actually just going to Nice when I read online that the beaches there left a lot to be desired while Cannes, just down the road, had a nice sandy strip of beach on which I could work on my tan. So I hopped in a cab at the airport and booked a room on Hotels Tonight, and an hour later I was smack dab in the middle of one of the most famous international events in the world.
I love film festivals and I've always wanted to go to the one in Cannes, but it was total coincidence that I landed there in the middle of this year's event. That explained why the room rates were so high, but I just thought it was because it was the French Riviera.
After getting my tan on - priorities! - and being amazed at how this sleepy little village comes to life when stars and elite from all over the world helicopter or yacht in for the week, I was really eager to take the train just up the coast to Monte Carlo and check out one of the most fabled city-states in the world.
I didn't make it that time, strangely enough, because the Monte Carlo Grand Prix was going on right after Cannes and if I thought hotel prices were high in Cannes during the festival, those might as well have been Motel 6 rates compared to how expensive Monaco was going to be. So I skipped the fairytale principality on that trip but vowed to come back. After all, surely Monaco was worth a dedicated trip all on its own.
The opportunity to go back to the French Riviera came even quicker than I thought recently when I promised a friend I'd meet him in Barcelona for a long weekend while he was there for work. But flights to BCN were too full last-minute, so I caught one to Nice instead that was a little more open.
Since I was there again and had missed out on Monaco last time, I decided that this would be the time when I was going to finally visit the land of playboy princes, hollywood princesses, jet-setters, mega-yachts, ritzy casinos, amazing experiences, beautiful people, glamor, excitement, fashion, fun, and fabulousness - all one square mile of it packed full of the images I'd always had in my head of this place since I was a child.
When I stepped out of the train station in Monte Carlo, which I almost missed because it was so quick to get there from Nice, I was in awe of finally setting foot on Montegasque soil (which is rhetorical because there's naturally not much left in the entire country that isn't built upon or artificially landscaped, but in a high-density country that you can walk across in 8 minutes that's certainly to be forgiven).
Looking out across the narrow road, the first thing you see are yachts, but not nearly as many as I thought and certainly not as many as I had seen in Cannes earlier in the year or even in El Gouna on Egypt's Red Sea coast. But a few of the yachts were big and beautiful and there were a lot of other smaller boats dotting the marina.
Then you look up and to the south and see the hilltop castle, home to the princes who have ruled Monaco for centuries, former home to THE Princess Grace of Monaco, God rest her soul. While majestic from sheer history and height, it was surprisingly not very castle-like in appearance. But there it was nonetheless, and I forced myself to be in awe because, well, there I was in Monaco standing next to yachts and looking up at the castle... IN MONACO.
I strolled down the boardwalk a little past some dusty run-down storefronts that were closed or dead until I saw a sign for the casino. But this wasn't just any casino. This was THE casino... in Monte Carlo... in Monaco. This is where, as common knowledge tells us, the rich and the royals and the jet-setters have gone to gamble and frolic for nearly a century and a half. I imagined beautiful women in sequined gowns and fur stoles and men with slicked-back, jet black hair in tuxedos drinking champagne as they crowded around lively games of craps and roulette at all hours of evening, night, and into the morning.
I climbed several flights of steep stairs and wound my way through a garden path to finally stumble on the plaza over which the fabled Casino de Monte Carlo reigns, but was surprised at how small it was. Still, that was it and there might as well have been Red Bull running through my veins because I was so pumped and excited to be standing right where I was at that moment.
As I looked around the small plaza, Ferraris and Lamborginis and Porches and Bentleys were parked all around its edges, and tourists and Monegasques (ok probably just tourists) sipping espresso and wine filled the outdoor cafes on what turned out to be an incredibly gorgeous early autumn day. A billboard promoting an upcoming concert by Tarkan, the Turkish mega-star, lorded over everyone in the distance, and the ultra-modern architecture of the buildings across the road contrasted beautifully with the classic facade of the Hotel de Paris to round out the plaza's perimeter.
But it was still early and I must have looked like a hot mess because I came straight from stepping off of an eight-hour flight to hopping on the train to walking half-way across the country (literally!) to finally find myself in the middle of it all. I hadn't even checked into my hotel yet, but luckily I was only traveling with a small backpack filled with my MacBook, a few magazines, and a few starter clothes (I usually prefer to buy a few outfits when I arrive so I don't have to carry as much luggage). Still, I wasn't dressed for my first real Monaco experience, so off to find my hotel I went.
I walked nearly the entire length of the country in my first hour there between my initial exploring and making my way to the hotel. I had a reservation at the Le Meridian, which is at the top edge of the country just inside of its northeastern border with France. As I strolled about en route to the Le Meridian, I passed Ferrari and Rolls Royce dealerships and shops for some of the most recognizable names in high fashion, but I was strangely taken aback by how 1960-ish most of the buildings looked. This was Monaco, but it looked somewhat like Baltimore, just with more Ferraris casually passing by.
The hotel was nice enough and I was exhausted by this point, so I opted to settle in for a little while and take a short nap to get ready for what would surely be a dazzling Friday evening and night out on the town in Monte Carlo. I don't normally travel with a tuxedo, so after my rest I threw on the trendiest outfit I had with me and stuck back out to hit the town.
Back at the plaza, I pre-gamed on pumpkin ravioli and white wine at a cute little outdoor cafe and watched the tourists and the Ferraris come and go. I Instagrammed my dinner, finished off the bottle, splurged on dessert, then made my way over to the casino to win my playboy fortune.
There was a 10-euro cover charge for the casino, which I was totally OK with because I assume tourists come there all the time just to check out the famous casino and not actually patronize it. But I was there to gamble, and 10 euros was a small price to pay for the glamorous evening that surely awaited me inside.
Once in the Casino de Monte Carlo, one can't help but be struck by the ornate grandeur of its interior. The building was no doubt beautiful and classy, even if it was rather small. But that's about where the fairytale came to a screeching halt. When my head turned from looking up at the ceiling to looking around the room, it pains me to say that I was sorely disappointed in what I saw - two wide open rooms largely devoid of not only people, but also gambling.
There were a few games here and a few tables there, a few small restaurants off to the side, and of course a bar, but that's about it. I've seen a more robust gambling scene at roadside bingo halls in the Carolinas than I was seeing at THE famous Casino de Monte Carlo in Monaco. Surely this was all just a bad dream and I had yet to wake up from my nap. Alas, it wasn't so.
Of course I still couldn't give up the opportunity to play a few hands at blackjack. There were only two tables - a 25-euro table and a 100-euro table. I started out at the 100-euro table and played for about 20 minutes before I got bored. There was only one other player at the table and just no excitement whatsoever in the room. It was a Friday evening in Monte Carlo, and I might as well have been at a nursing home in Madison.
After losing a few hundred euros, I left. I have no problem paying (i.e., losing) good money for a few hours of fun and excitement in a casino. But this was a snoozefest, and I bolted to go explore some more.
I wandered into the centrally located Fairmont Hotel just around the corner, which, like many of the buildings in central Monte Carlo, appeared rather bland and run down. But just off the lobby was another casino that looked ever so slightly more lively than the Casino de Monte-Carlo, so I settled in there for a few more hands of blackjack. Within an hour I had won 1000 euros and I cut myself off. I decided to go back to my hotel and call it a night.
I had held Monaco in such high regard my entire life as a glamorous playground for the rich that was always abuzz with fun and excitement. This trip certainly burst the bubble of that image, and I could not have been more disappointed. Perhaps there's more to Monaco that I didn't see or experience. But on a Friday night in the center of what everyone thinks of as the global capital of ritz and glamour, nothing to justify the hype was evident or apparent.
I would love to visit Monaco again and be proven wrong. I would love to find the true Monaco that I've always dreamed of. I'd love to wake up from my nap and waltz into the room that must be out there of beautiful women in sequined gowns and handsome men in tuxedos laughing and engaging in witty and sophisticated conversation in French and English, clutching champagne flutes while throwing down hundreds of euros on a few hands just for entertainment during conversational lulls.
But until Monaco returns to its glory days, or until someone wakes me up to the hidden Monaco that I didn't see, I'll just have to keep dreaming.