Nabella Shunnarah



"This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war...

This happy breed of men, this little world

This precious stone set in the silver sea...

This blessed spot, this earth...this Principality."

The immortal words of William Shakespeare in Richard II explain what mere human beings have difficulty saying: the Principality of Monaco---c'est si jolie!-it is so beautiful. Traveling through small ancient villages to get to Monaco, we marveled at the splendor of the Mediterranean, as blue as a star sapphire; for whether you love the mountains or the sea, in Monaco you can enjoy both terrains.

In all of Europe, only the Vatican City is smaller than Monaco. We were struck by the size of the Principality. It's only one square mile in size and has a population of 30,000. Four distinct areas make up the principality: Monte Carlo, the Rock, the bay and the new district.

Despite its size Monaco is the height of the tourist's dream with its glamourous palace, cathedrals, casinos, hotels and restaurants.

You can get to Monaco several different ways depending on your pocketbook. There is the train, bus, taxi or helicopter-or you may travel by boat or yacht. From Paris, the most economical way is the train, the EuroPass. Since my sister-in-law, Fadwa Shunnarah, a travel agent, and I also wanted to see Cannes and Nice, we stayed in a hotel in Nice and took day trips to the other places. She bought two five-day EuroPass tickets for a train ride which afforded us a glimpse of the French countryside with the Alps and sunny fields of mustard in view. When you purchase a EuroPass, you must use it in an allotted period of time, but it takes you anywhere you want to go.

From Nice, we caught a bus to Monaco one morning and decided to go to the palace first. To reach the Palace of Prince Rainier III, come armed withgood walking shoes and a bottle of water for the lengthy climb up the Great Ramp. After about a mile's walk, you reach the main square, breathless, but in awe of the wonderful sight of the palace. Hundreds of tourists in the square are swarming to watch the changing of the guards at midday. We were lucky to have gorgeous sunny skies and mild temperatures in May.

We were astounded by the abundance of souvenir shops, especially the close proximity of the shops to the palace. They were literally in Prince Rainier's backyard, but since the principality relies heavily on its tourist economy, we supposed the royals welcome the throngs of people lined up tobuy a cold drink or a memento. You'll never feel bereft of a place to spend your money--so many spots visited by tour vans are prepared to sell you a cold bottle of Orangina, that film you forgot to pack or even disposable cameras.

As we sat under the tent of one restaurant, shading ourselves from the sun and avoiding the crowds, we were served by an unsmiling gentleman. He became more cordial when we asked him his first name and found that we recognized the name, Guy, to be one and the same with a famous French writer: Guy de Maupassant.

Visitors can tour the Palace Great Rooms-the Officers' Room, the York Antechamber, the Blue Room and finally the Throne Room, site of the civil wedding of Prince Rainier and his young American bride, Grace Kelly. Looking at the opulent furnishings, we imagined that the beauty of the young starlet, who met "The Prince" in Monaco during the filming of To Catch a Thief, far outweighed the finest gilded frames or the most valuable antiques
on display.

The Cathedral in which the Prince and Princess were married is within walking distance of the Palace. The tomb of Princess Grace is in the Cathedral and touring the site, one is reminded of the life of the Princess and the manner in which she died. Her tomb causes people in the tourist line to recall the event with sadness for the beauty who married "Prince Charming" but met with a tragic end.

The Cathedral, as well as the palace and most of the buildings in Monaco are made of white stone, in contrast to those in other parts of Europe such as Italy, with its pink, gold and olive colored stucco architecture.

To get to Monte Carlo, which consists of the casino, Hotel de Paris and Caféde Paris, you can catch a bus, or get as lucky as we were and catch a ride on a tourists' tram which just happened to pass by. As far as the French go, they are willing to help with directions-in their language. It's helpful if you paid attention to your high school French teacher. But even then, asking a question in French is one thing, and understanding the answer en francais is another. Even smiling and repeating "Je ne comprends pas" doesn't do the trick. So, packing a French/English dictionary or conversation booklet is helpful-especially in restaurants.

At Monte Carlo, throngs of people awaited entering the the most famous casino in the world. Its neo-classical white facade is adorned with fountains and gardens in front to add to its grandeur. The visitor is greeted by thousands of flowers in the gardens producing a heavenly scent. The scene is completed with impeccable green lawns.

Visited by the famous, wealthy and tourist alike, the casino's vestibule boasts marble Greek columns and bronze sculptures. We felt rich just walking in! Also housed in the casino is the Monte-Carlo Opera House, built by the same architect, Charles Garnier, who built the famous Paris Opera. Adjacent to the casino is the majestic Hotel de Paris which was off limits to tourists.

In the back of the casino, one can look down on the roof of the Congress Centre Auditorium where a multi-colored geometric garden called Hexagrace is a surprising delight to the eye.

The charm of Monaco (and Europe in general) is in its sidewalk cafes such as the Café de Paris next to the casino. You can take a leisurely seat for a quick cup of café latte or a gourmet dinner while enjoying the beauty of the seasons. The first-time tourist in France needs to be prepared for industrial strength French coffee-it's thick and not for the caffeine sensitive-but very rich and aromatic. And expensive. A typical French dinner with wine and desert can cost up to $60. A mere cup of coffee is at least $5.

Sitting outside the Café de Paris affords a view of the multitudes of tourists who flock there each year. It's a great way to people watch. The hotel also offers slot machines that ring in your ears as you walk in. If you're not a gambler, you can just enjoy the sights and slip away to quieter, more romantic places off the main road that offer good cuisine at a more affordable price.

Fontvieille, the new district, is land that was filled in with rock and 40 meters of water to produce a platform. In this area is a tourist and sports complex adjoining a yachting harbor. Princess Graces' rose garden, boasting 4,000 varieties of flowers is in Fontvieille.

If you're as wealthy as King Fahed of Saudi Arabia, you may park your yacht in the harbor year round. His imposing sparkling white vessel outshined all others in the harbor.

If your penchant is shopping, you will find the grandest stores close to the casino area: Celine, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Van Cleef and Arpels just to drop a few famous names. You can browse these stores and feel the luxury of silk scarves costing from $800 to $3,000. But if your pocketbook cringes at the sound of these expensive names and extravagant prices, you can usually find inexpensive souvenir shops that may cater more to your budget on every corner.

And while you're in the French Riviera, you don't want to miss some of the small ancient villages between Nice and Monaco. We toured them on a small ten-seat van with Sabrina, our tour guide, who wound around the narrow streets of the small towns and villages with ease, and at times stopped to allow us to gush over the views of the Mediterranean and valleys below and take pictures.

We got out and toured Eze Village, a mountain village with a winding walkway highlighted with with small cave shops selling exquisite handmade items. For a mere $300 you can purchase a handsome linen throw pillow adorned with pearls and lace. Or you may spend just $8 for a jeweled barrette. At the foot of the mountain is the spice market, where baskets or oregano, cinnamon and every other condiment you can think of is for sale. The aroma of the spices fills the air and whets the appetite.

Amidst the lush, idyllic scenery floating by our window, Sabrina pointed out a house perched on what seemed the highest point in the Riviera: the home of British musician and vocalist, Elton John.

Before you go:

1. Check out a travel video from your local library to plan your vacation.

2. Walking long distances is inevitable, so take a good pair of walking shoes.

3. Buy a small, inexpensive French / English conversation book at a used paperback store or used book store and learn how to ask for foods you like and common questions you know you will need to ask. Your local library has audio books that can help with pronunciation.

4. If you plan to travel across a long distance, check into the EuroPass. You can buy a five-day or ten-day pass and use it for all your travels.

5. Monaco (and France in general) is extremely expensive. Pack enough film and toiletries to last your trip. A box of band aids can cost you up to $4.

6. Get maps and other tourist information from your travel agent. A little time spent in planning will save you time in pounding the pavement to find that special restaurant you've heard so much about.

7. Pack light. If you are traveling from place to place, especially on the train, you must carry your own luggage onboard.

8. Even if you're on a budget, treat yourself to a few good dinners in a nice restaurant. The wine, bread and creme brûlée are unforgettable.

9. Money converters (small calculators) can help you convert dollars into euros.

10. Power adapters are also necessary for hair dryers, shavers, etc.

11. If you plan to shop, stuff a lightweight duffel bag in your suitcase that you fill up with treasures and treat as a carry-on on the plane.

12. Don't be shy to negotiate prices.