The Rock (Le Rocher) and environs, including the Grimaldi Palace.

PRINCELY POSTAGE STAMP - MONACO

The tiny principality of Monaco celebrates its patron day on January 27, symbolically with a blessing of the sea and a fishing boat - and loads of colour and music.

The Cote d’Azur and Monaco constitute a strikingly beautiful strip along the Mediterranean coast, marked by limestone headlands, calanques (inlets) and bays. Colour is everywhere, from the blue of the sea to the colours of the lavender and sunflowers.

While the Monegasque territory covers a mere 1.95 square kilometres, it is divided into seven districts, one of which is Monte-Carlo, long-associated with casino nightlife. Yet there is far more to Monaco, including the historic centre, the Rock (Le Rocher) and Fontvieille which was reclaimed from the sea last century.

The Grimaldi dynasty took control in 1297, long after The Rock was occupied by a Ligurian the tribe, the Monoikos, the origin of the name Monaco. The Guelph Francesco Grimaldi, disguised as a monk, took the Ghibeline castle by guile and is celebrated in a stirring sculpture near the hilltop palace square (Le Rocher, or The Rock.)

Today, the population numbers almost 36,000, including 7600 Monegasque citizens. While French is the official language, the traditional Monegasque language continues to be taught in schools in a society where traditions are valued.

In 2005, upon the death of his father, Rainier III, Prince Albert II became sovereign of the Principality. In 2011 he wed South African beauty Charlene Wittstock and the couple is expecting a child early next year.

Traditions run strong in the tiny state. During the National Day in mid-November, Monegasques and local residents celebrate the Prince and the traditions of a community that has been united for more than seven centuries. For two days, Monaco is in ceremonial mode with honours bestowed, military parades in the Cour d’Honneur at the Palace, gala concerts and a mass in the Cathedral as well as performances and entertainment. For the traveller, it is a chance to discover a principality that is both solemn and convivial, decked out in red and white flags in the national colours and decorated with flowers, more so than at any other time of the year.

In fact, Monte Carlo attracts millions of tourists throughout the year, with its numerous prestige hotels, museums, cultural and sporting events and trade fairs. Five-star hotels abound, such as the world-renown Hotel de Paris, the Hermitage, Hotel Metropole and Monte-Carlo Beach and generally accommodation prices are significantly lower than those in France.

Small in size as Monaco may be, it packs a punch in terms of tourist attractions. Visit the State Apartments (or Prince’s Palace) and see the Changing of the Guard on Le Rocher, or explore its exhibits such as the Oceanographic Museum or the new National Museum of Monaco in Monte-Carlo (Villa Paloma and Villa Sauber). The Moneghetti area features the Exotic Garden and Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology while the Zoological Gardens and Princess Grace Rose Garden in Fontvieille are well worth a visit.

Day trips to French gems on the Cote d’Azur, including St Jean Cap Ferrat, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu sur Mer, Antibes/ Juan-les-Pins, and further inland, medieval Ezes and St-Paul-de-Vence are effortless from Monaco, not to mention towns along the Italian Riviera.

While there, do as the Monagesques - sip cassis, pastis and champagne, and citron pressé to beat the heat - and dress chic casual and predominantly white – to show off that Mediterranean tan!

Postage stamp size, yes, but Monaco certainly packs a princely and panoramic punch!



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LUXURY HOTELS

The legendary Hôtel de Paris (1864), in Place du Casino, is presently undergoing extensive renovations. Not only a luxury hotel, it is also a gastronomic mecca, with the restaurant Le Louis XV a crown jewel in the Alain Ducasse empire. Like the neighbouring luxurious Hôtel Hermitage, guests have direct access to the famous Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo, the ultimate luxury health day spa, overlooking the port. The marina is usually stacked with superyachts and other luxury vessels, complete with glamorous glitterati basking on sun lounges, as cruise ships and fishing boats hover out to sea.

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PATRON SAINT FÊTE

According to legend, Devota (Dévote), a young Christian woman from Corsica, was martyred by the Prefect Barbarus under the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian in 304 AD. Her body was stolen during the following night by believers, placed in a boat and transported to Monaco, where it was buried in a chapel in a valley known as the ‘Gaumates’, near the port, on 27 January of the same year.

Under Honoré II, in the 17th century, Saint Devota became patron saint of Monaco. The tradition has been perpetuated on January 27 each year since 1874 when a boat is burned on a pyre in the presence of the sovereign and the Princely Family, accompanied by Monegasque dignitaries. 

Once the boat has been burned, fireworks are set off on Port Hercule.


GETTING THERE:

Transfers from Nice-Cote d’Azur Airport by helicopter take only seven minutes while the bus (Ligne d’Azur) takes 45 minutes, leaving every 30 minutes, .

TGV (high-speed train) from Paris takes 6 hours or Milan/Genoa (2.5 hours).

Regional Express Trains (TER) serve the towns along the coast from Ventimiglia/Menton to Cannes and beyond.

Details: International Rail Australasia, 1300 EURAIL (387 245)

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