While I was in college, I took a trip to Chicago and bought a poster-sized reproduction of a vintage Monte Carlo travel advertisement. That image, which featured an impossibly slim and elegant blonde sauntering alongside her man under the stars in Monte Carlo, hung in a frame on my wall for years. I wasn’t exactly sure where Monte Carlo was, but it appeared to be quite the sophisticated place.
Fast-forward to my European adventure in fall 2015. I had just a couple of trips left on my Eurail pass and wanted to make them count. I studied the fold-out map that came with the pass. “Hmm…where should I go next?” Then I spotted it…that tiny little country on the French Riveria near the Italian border. Monaco, home to the district of Monte Carlo.
I sent out a few messages to potential hosts in Monaco on couchsurfing.net, and finally, one responded. “Hi Stephanie! Sure, I can host you!” he wrote cheerfully. We agreed that he would pick me up outside the train station, and a few days later, I was waiting in the designated location, loaded down by my big backpack and messenger bag when an Aston Martin pulled up to the curb.
In a moment, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed guy in a wool trench coat with a popped collar emerged from the driver’s seat. I was suddenly, painfully aware that after my long day on the train, I was not looking my absolute loveliest. I may have been blushing as this handsome European greeted me, placed my bags in the trunk and opened the car door for me. But it was dark; I don’t think he noticed.
My host, a financier with an apartment overlooking what must be the best view in Monaco, also turned out to be incredibly smart, accomplished and well-traveled. For these reasons…and because of the vehicle he drives (which he referred to only as a “gray sportscar”) I like to refer to him as Bond…James Bond. But aside from his impressive resume and address, my host was a true gentleman and a genuinely nice guy.
Bond insisted on taking me out to dinner on the last night of my stay, even though I volunteered to cook for him instead. It seemed like the right thing to do in exchange for the space on his couch, but he waved the suggestion away. It’s likely that he didn’t believe I could cook, but whatever the reason for his insistence, I was pretty excited about the prospect of a night out in Monte Carlo.
He chose a restaurant, made reservations and asked me to be ready at seven. Swoon.
At 7 p.m. sharp, we left his apartment and got into his “gray sportscar.” He pointed out key sites as we drove through the darkened streets of Monte Carlo, made cheerful by Christmas lights. In a few minutes, we were in front of the historic Casino Monte-Carlo, a location which featured prominently in James Bond films Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye. The impressive structure was further accentuated by a festive display of faux snow and twinkling red lights.
Bond pulled the car around to the side of the building beneath an awning. One suited valet opened my door while the other nodded to Bond and took his keys. Bond wasn’t offered a ticket. The valets know him… and his car.
As Bond escorted me up the red carpeted stairs to the Buddha Bar entrance, I suddenly had a Bond Girl moment. Drinks and dinner in Monte Carlo…at a swanky restaurant adjacent to the iconic casino…on the arm of someone who could be…James Bond!
“Is this really my life?” I wondered to myself.
True, my hair was in desperate need of highlights, and I was wearing the “dressiest” outfit in my travel wardrobe…black skater boots and tights with a dress that had been rolled up in my backpack for eight months (Oh, wait…yes! This is my life!). But I flashed my most self-assured smile and concentrated on standing tall, walking gracefully and acting like I belonged. When we settled into red leather bar stools for a pre-dinner drink, I ordered a dirty martini (shaken…not stirred!). Bond laughed at the “dirty” and asked for a beer.
Once seated in the opulent red and gold dining room, we shared an incredible tray of sushi, drank wine and enjoyed a great conversation. I was reminded once again of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to so many meet wonderful and fascinating people while traveling.
When I set out on this trip months ago, I couldn’t have guessed I’d live like a Bond Girl for an evening in Monte Carlo. But that’s the magic of travel. It surprises you with experiences you never could have imagined while going about your usual routine at home. This was one of those evenings of pure travel magic, and one that I’ll always remember.
Lest you assume that I did nothing in Monaco but sit in a high-rise all day and dine on sushi at night, I’ll share a few sightseeing highlights as well. While Bond working in the daytime, I had plenty of time to explore. The country is so tiny that all notable sites can be visited on foot in a single day, but I was happy to enjoy a leisurely pace and spread the sights over two days.
Here’s what I saw and did in Monaco:
- Monte Carlo Harbor
The harbor is a great place to take in the grandeur of life in Monte Carlo. I enjoyed seeing the magnificent yachts, the Bentleys and Maseratis driving by, the high-rise condominiums and the surrounding mountains. Having lived in the Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona, area for 10 years, I’ve gotten used to seeing luxury vehicles and resort-like surroundings, but Monte Carlo truly felt like a different world.
Unfortunately I just missed the start of the Christmas market, which was being constructed along the harbor when I was there in early December and opened the day I left. But the views overlooking the harbor from the Vieux Monaco, the old part of the city, were truly stunning.
2. Vieux Monaco (Monaco-Ville)
Monaco’s Old City, perched above the Mediterranean Sea, is home to narrow medieval streets with shops and restaurants, the Princely Palace, Monaco Cathedral, museums and historic squares. It’s a great place to wander for a couple of hours. A changing of the guard ceremony takes place in front of the palace everyday at 11:55 a.m. It’s a small procession – not exactly on the level of Buckingham Palace – but it’s interesting to watch if you happen to be in the area.
While exploring the old streets, I passed a shop that had a postcard-sized image of that poster I bought in Chicago back in college. I never guessed then that I’d one day be here!
The tidy medieval streets in Vieux Monaco are bordered by brightly painted houses, shops and offices. The area can get crowed in the high season but was quiet in December.
3. Saint Nicholas Cathedral
The impressive Monaco Cathedral is the final resting place of many Monaco sovereigns, including Prince Rainier and Princess Grace (the American actress, Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier here in 1956). A sign outside the church shows a wedding photo of the couple. Admission to the cathedral is free.
4. Japanese Gardens
The Japanese Garden provides tranquil respite in the heart of the city. The garden is small but features beautiful bridges, a koi pond, tea houses and other interesting details. Signs scattered through the garden explain the symbolism of various elements, and benches are available for resting amid scenery. I really enjoyed my peaceful 20-minute walk through the garden. It’s definitely worth a short visit, and entry is free.
5. Larvotto Beach
For me, it was a little too chilly for swimming when I visited Monaco, but I did see a few older ladies and gentlemen enjoying themselves during a morning swim at Larvotto beach. This is a very popular gathering spot during the warmer months, but I enjoyed some quiet reflection while having the pier and beach (nearly) to myself.
6. Casino Monte-Carlo
Casino Monte-Carlo is not to be missed on a visit to Monaco. A €10 admission fee is charged and “appropriate attire” is required for entry to this historic gambling mecca. But even if you choose to admire the casino only from the outside, you’ll get a sense of its ambiance from the ornate architecture, the muscled bouncers and the luxury cars flanking the entrance.
The casino is surrounded by luxury stores, cafes and a large fountain in the center of its circular drive. Come back after sundown for a glimpse of the building dressed up in lights to welcome the high-rollers.
Monaco is such an interesting place. Every detail says “high class”…in a dignified whisper. Crime is basically nonexistent, and the tiny country is pristine in a way that to me felt a bit contrived – like a super-upscale Disneyland. It’s not a place I would choose to live, but I had a great time visiting Monaco. And I’m so grateful that I got a tiny taste of what it might be like to be a Bond Girl.
Thanks again, Mr. Bond!