Finding myself in the French Riviera for business, I couldn't help but visit the world's second smallest independent state, the city of Monaco, and its renowned district of Monte Carlo. A quick twenty minute train ride along the scenic Mediterranean coastline delivered me from Nice to Monaco, though "quick" is apparently a relative term when dealing with the French mass transit system.
Upon arriving in Monaco, one's first impression is that of grandeur - there's money here, and plenty of it. Expensive cars line the streets, the people are dressed elegantly, and the shops clearly cater to the rich and famous. But the awe is soon replaced by bewilderment: why would anyone want to build a city on such a steep, craggy hunk of land? The layout of Monaco is as much vertical as horizontal, being laid out primarily on a steep hill overlooking the port.
While it makes perfect sense to build a fortress on top of this precipitous terrain (for both the protection afforded by inaccessibility as well as the excellent vantage point provided out to the sea), it makes much less sense to build a city around it. Traversing the hilly streets of Monaco is rough on the legs, though climbing the seemingly endless hill to the Palais Princier (Prince's Palace) makes for absolutely breathtaking views of the port and surrounding landscape.
To sports fans Monaco is best known as home to the Formula 1 Grand Prix, one of the most exciting motor races in the world. The Grand Prix's thrilling course through the narrow and twisting roads of Monaco has a profound influence on the local populace, from the abundant Formula 1-themed fan shops to the polished engines on display in the window of the Ferrari Club Monaco. The Formula 1 influence apparently runs deep with local motorists as well, particularly the motorcyclists, as they speed around the steep, winding roads with reckless abandon.
Of course, the main attraction in Monaco is the Le Grand Casino, known as the preferred playground of the world's rich and famous. My only European gambling experience to date had been the casino in Nice, far from luxurious and more akin to the run-down gambling halls in much of the Caribbean or those found on Native American gaming lands back in the States. Monte Carlo was about to turn that all around.
Le Grand Casino is nothing short of magnificent, appearing more like a palace or cathedral than a typical gambling hall. A passport is required for entry: the residents of Monaco are forbidden from entering the casino. And, perhaps most surprising, a 10 euro cover charge was required for admittance, as if the odds weren't stacked enough in the house's favor already.
But the rationale for the entry fee is quite apparent once you've entered the gaming area, as Le Grand Casino is really more of a sightseeing attraction than a gambling hall. The ceilings are nothing short of magnificent, with ornately sculpted angels holding aloft crystal chandeliers. A portrait of Les Graces Florentines overlooks the slot parlor, adding a solemn air and hopefully some good luck. In fact, the atmosphere was that of a library, perhaps even a funeral, with everyone speaking in hushed voices and no bells and whistles from slot machines. In square footage, Le Grand is dwarfed by American casinos, but it is a giant in its own right when it comes to class. The crowd was sparse for 8 PM on a Wednesday, and most guests seemed content to browse the sights without even bothering to take a single pass at the roulette wheel or blackjack table.
Despite the elegance, the casino is quite welcoming, even to common peasants like myself. While they claim a jacket is required, in reality the dress is much less formal, with more than a few of the handful of patrons sporting polo shirts or shorts. Roulette was, of course, the game of choice, and offered with as low as 5 euro minimums. Blackjack got little attention with a very reasonable 25 euro minimum. Those wishing to play a little more cheaply were relegated to slots, with as low as nickel machines on the floor.
As a boorish American however, the elegance wasn't enough to hold my attention for long, and the action was much too quiet compared to what I've become accustomed to in American casinos. After taking in the sights and losing my first three consecutive spins on the roulette wheel, I left to seek more exciting times. The sights of Le Grand Casino, though, were well worth the 40 euros it extracted from my wallet.
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