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Little attractions mean the most in tiny Monaco

Published Mar. 22, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

Come to Monaco if you will, but don't say I didn't warn you.

You'll find plenty to interest you, but this little principality ruled by the Grimaldi family for 700 years isn't all peaches and cream.

The famous Monte Carlo Casino, for instance, is about as stodgy a place as you'll ever see. Architecturally, there's no denying it's a Belle Epoque marvel, and it's true it was all glamor and glitter in the scenes filmed there for a James Bond movie. But in real life, gambling there is about as exciting as rolling dice in a funeral home, and I frankly resent paying the 50 francs (about $8.75) that is charged just to enter the place.

Then there's Jimmy'z Disco, a trendy nightspot frequented by the Beautiful People. Order a beer and they'll present a bill for 200 francs, about $35.

And lining the narrow streets of Monaco-Ville, the old town atop a rocky headland, is a depressing collection of souvenir shops, fast-food spots and touristy boites. A motion simulator ride sits in the center of one little plaza _ a totally inappropriate sight amid the venerable buildings atop Monaco's "Rock."

But once you stand before the simple marble slab in the cathedral marking the grave of Princess Grace, the movie star who married Monaco's ruler, Prince Rainier III, your view of Monaco softens. Every day, fresh flowers are placed there. Somebody cares.

Monaco is a tiny place, expensive and sometimes haughty as well. But here and there amid its forest of high-rises lie some treasures.

When you stroll through the nearby Oceanographic Museum, you'll see some of the finest marine exhibits in the world. Check out the 65-foot-long skeleton of a whale harpooned by Prince Albert I, Rainier's great-grandfather, and the diving gear developed by the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, who was a director of the museum for three decades.

Founded in 1910 by Albert, a monarch with a scientific mind, the institution also displays a replica of the laboratory he maintained aboard his 1911-1915 marine exploration ship.

The Royal Palace, commanding a stunning view of the harbor and its mini-Manhattan landscape, is another fascinating place. Its state apartments are open to the public in the summer and early fall; the private rooms, where Prince Rainier lives, are always off limits.

Entering a real, working palace is a treat, even if the portions you see are mainly for show. In the throne room, the four corners of the marble floor are inlaid with crowns. The throne sits under a velvet canopy with the Grimaldi coat of arms _ a shield of vermilion diamonds _ above it. Rainier's actual office is another room whose floors also are inlaid with crowns; his desk is a 17th-century piece rimmed in gilt.

From an upstairs loggia, visitors can look into the courtyard, whose walls are covered with frescoes. More frescoes are found inside the palace, along with hundreds of paintings (one of them a lovely 1976 portrait of Princess Grace) and elegant, centuries-old furniture.

These are works collected in the 700 years since Rainier's ancestor, Francois Grimaldi _ called variously Francois the Spiteful or Francesco the Cunning _ seized the Rock from the Ghibellines through a ruse: Disguised as monks, he and his cohorts gained entrance to the castle, then massacred the garrison.

Somewhere along the line, the ambitious Grimaldis expanded their holdings to include a sizable chunk of coastline and also attained royal status, as did another commoner who reportedly is one of Rainier's distant relatives, Napoleon Bonaparte. That relationship is the reason you'll find a Museum of Napoleonic Souvenirs in a separate wing of the palace. Among its exhibits: the French emperor's monocle and hat.

From the square outside the palace, visitors can watch the changing of the guard daily at 11:55 a.m. At other times, a single guard paces back and forth in front of the palace entrance, creating a photo opportunity for legions of visitors.

Another marvelous photo can be made from the parapet next to the palace, from which one gets a panoramic view of nearly all the principality's 482 acres.

From that vantage point, it's easy to spot the bulge in the coastline that is the other great gathering spot in Monaco for tourists. Here, in the section of the principality known as Monte Carlo, are found the convention center and Loew's Hotel, and behind them, the Monte Carlo Casino, Hotel de Paris, Cafe de Paris and the gardens of the Place de Casino.

The famous Monte Carlo Casino was built by Charles Garnier, designer of the similarly rococo Paris Opera, and it also incorporates an opera house, the Salle Garnier. If you want to enter the casino _ whether to gamble or simply to look at the elegant structure itself _ present your passport and pay 50 francs. (Not nearly as elegant, but vastly more fun, is the large casino in the Loew's Hotel _ and you aren't charged admission.)

Just as elaborately fanciful as the casino in design is the Hotel de Paris, whose rooms in season go for rather princely sums _ as high as $600 a night. It's known also for its restaurant, Alain Ducasse's Louis XV, generally regarded as one of the two best on the French Riviera. (The other is Roger Verge's Moulins de Mougins in the town of Mougins, above Cannes.) A meal at the Louis XV, with wine, can run $200 a person.

Dining in Monaco doesn't have to be that expensive, of course. Nor does it have to be in rococo surroundings. Still upscale but pleasantly informal is La Saliere, where you can sample inventive Italian appetizers on an awninged terrace overlooking the old port. On the Rock, the Castleroc restaurant opposite the palace offers specialties such as onion tarts and stockfish; it's open only for lunch. Other worthwhile sites:

The National Museum: This contains a remarkable collection of more than 400 dolls, puppets and mechanical toys.

Exotic Gardens: High above the city, this preserve boasts more than 7,000 succulents and cacti. You can also explore the Observatory Grottos, ancient dwellings of cavemen.

Port of Monaco: Strolling around the U-shaped harbor in season, you can gaze upon some of the largest and plushest yachts in the world.

Museum of Antique Automobiles: Prince Rainier's private collection of 85 beautifully restored vintage cars, including many European models not often seen in the United States, such as a 1903 De Dio Bouton, a 1911 Renault Torpedo and a 1913 Panhard Levassor.

For more information, contact the Monaco Government Tourist Office, 565 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017; (800) 753-9696, or mgtomonaco1.org for e-mail. Web site is http://www.monaco.mc/usa/