Glitz, glamour and gasoline
It’s a fast life in Monaco
We’re gunning it round the Fairmont hairpin on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit, weaving our way through cars in our quest to reach the finish line and the royal box. OK, perhaps gunning it isn’t quite right.
The day after last year’s Formula One race in Monaco, my petrolhead nephew and I are cruising (well, crawling) most of the course in a Renault Twizy, a tiny electric car for two that reaches a top speed of 45km/h — and we’re nowhere close to that.
“Why are you driving so slowly?” complains our instructor, who we lose as he guides us around a particularly tricky part of the city state. Er, there’s the minor matter of hideous traffic in this tiny principality as well as a nightmarish one-way system that catches us out, meaning we have to turn around at the Sainte Devote Church, the scene of a pileup the day before. And just you try doing a hill start (you’ll be doing plenty here) with no clutch — the Twizy doesn’t have one. It’s also silent.
It’s a marked contrast to the roar of the race even if the quieter F1 engines end the need for earplugs. Sounding like a swarm of angry bees, the cars can be heard long before they materialise, Lewis Hamilton’s white helmet flashing by at the front.
Seeing Monaco at Grand Prix time — the 2018 race will be on May 27 — is seeing it as it’s meant to be seen, all glamour and fast cars. There are plenty of the last everywhere, with Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis lined up outside the elegant Hermitage Hotel and the Casino (although when we go for a gamble we find it’s more faded glory than dazzling elegance).
We ogle yet more at the Prince of Monaco’s car museum’s collection on the Terrasses de Fontvieille. Here is the machine that carried Hamilton to victory in 2008, all silver and orange sleekness. Over there are gleaming Jaguars from the 1930s, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and a 1928 Lincoln.
The Prince’s Palace on the site of a medieval Genoese fort is the place to see the changing of the guard before burrowing into the narrow alleyways of old Monaco. Here, in charming pastel houses, shops that sell tourist tat rub shoulders with quaint restaurants. It’s a stark contrast to the high-rise city surrounding it.
Down at Port Fontvieille we drool over the megayachts, feel nostalgic in Princess Grace’s rose garden and walk past the football stadium several times as we try to find the bus stop to return to our hotel.
It’s not far to anywhere in Monaco, which at 4.8km by 2.4km is the second smallest country in the world (after Vatican City), but it is hilly, which means that sometimes the bus is better (not a car, and definitely not a Twizy). We eventually find the stop and the bus, and trundle back across the F1 starting grid to the Fairmont hotel.
It’s as glitzy as you’d expect, with more than 8km of corridors, plenty of open spaces and 602 rooms. There’s a panoramic vista of three countries: Monaco, France and Italy. And don’t forget that world-famous view of the Fairmont hairpin, although you’ll need very deep pockets to view it from one of the hotel’s suites during the race (head instead to the spa, which overlooks the bend and where you can enjoy a relaxing pedicure as the world’s fastest race past).
There’s more to Monaco than the F1, however; a cultural scene is building with opera, ballet and jazz. If gastronomy is your thing, Monaco has eight Michelin stars, three of them at the Metropole, where Joel Robuchon has a trio of restaurants. More of a spa animal? Visit the swanky, gleaming white Les Thermes Marins specialising in cryotherapy: a buzz in a cold chamber set at minus 60C, or a positively ridiculous minus 110C.
If you are here for the F1, though, you’ll be amazed at how quickly 78 laps can pass in this country the size of New York’s Central Park. I am clueless on the race intricacies but the atmosphere is amazing. There’s even a cacophony of blaring victory salutes from the boats in the marina at the end.
Yes, we get drenched in the rain, but it makes the race even more exciting, with skids and crashes, Hamilton controversially staying on wet tyres even as the ground dries (see, I did learn something) and some slower-thanusual driving round the Fairmont hairpin.
Just not quite as slow as us in our Twizy.
Jane Knight was a guest of the Monaco Tourist Board. THE TIMES
Monaco coast, top; F1 cars on the Fairmont hairpin during the Grand Prix in May, above; exhibit at the Prince of Monaco’s car museum, above left; Prince’s Palace, left