Monaco: Glitz, Glamour, and Speed

I attended the Grand Prix of Monaco in 2003 and here is the article that Elements Magazine published..

(All photos by Richard S. Hollander)

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Monaco's famed harbor.

Monaco has given the world two lasting things that will forever set it into the glamorous jewelry of the world’s psyche: One is the fairy tale romance that brought Hollywood’s most beautiful actress across a sea and turned her into a princess with glitz, class, and Grace. The other is an automobile race through the streets of the small principality that’s been since 1928. Princess Grace—Grace Kelly from Philadelphia—hasn’t been with us for almost 30 years, yet everywhere one goes in Monaco, her presence is felt on street signs and posters. The Grand Prix of Monaco, the most glamorous sporting event in the world, comes for only three days a year yet it is burned into our consciousness as the ultimate sporting event, combining speed and scenery.

The most famous casino in the world.

Shining Through

Monaco is truly a tiny gem of a place that, if it didn’t already exist, some mega-developer would have to create it. Yet, the most “mega” of developers did—God. Nestled on the Cote d’Azur, Monaco’s topography is best described as “San Francisco compressed.” Just as one must hike the streets of San Francisco, Monaco’s streets make for strong calf muscles. Peppered throughout the principality, there are “public stairways” and elevators. Those with experience tell the virgin traveler to Monaco, “You can’t just get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’” and they’re right—especially during the week that the tiny nationlet is transformed into a Grand Prix venue. Streets are closed to most, unless you have a ticket from the race organizers granting you access to a particular thoroughfare. Approximately 30,000 people live in Monaco year-round, in this 485-acre realm.

The jagged cliffs of Monaco.

Yet Monaco is a gorgeous place that instills magic in the heart of visitor and racing fan alike. We’ve all seen James Bond tool around the winding streets of Monte Carlo and leap from a flashy sports car into the Casino. When one’s eyes first glimpse the ornate palace of gambling, for a fleeting moment you, too, can be “Bond, James Bond”…or if you’re of the female persuasion, Pussy Galore. The famed harbor is breathtaking: here in a cocoon of azure waters, and floating like platinum sardines, are billions of dollars worth of ships. During Grand Prix week, the ships are packed so tightly, it’s possible to leap from one floating party to another. However, the grandest dame in the entire harbor belongs to Prince Rainier himself. Docked just outside of the harbor entryway was one of the most expensive private yachts in the world, the Lady Moura, which is owned by an advisor to the King of Saudi Arabia. Complete with a helicopter and brimming with high-tech goodies, the Lady Moura symbolizes everything about the Grand Prix of Monaco: if you’re not there, you’re not truly among the jet set (floating palace set?).

Outside Prince Rainier's car museum.

Money Doesn’t Talk Here…It Raises Its Voice Above the Din

Everyone who is anyone attends this, the glitziest, fastest event of the billionaire’s social calendar. Rock stars, supermodels, idle rich, and business barons all come to the Grand Prix. The streets are literally crammed with the most expensive automobiles in the world. I saw two million-dollar Mercedes GTR race/street cars; a shining-new Rolls-Royce Phantom ($340,000) parked on a sidewalk; a Ferrari Enzo (about $650,000); a Bugatti EB110 (around $400,000); and multitudes of Lamborghinis, Porsches, Bentleys, and “ho-hum” BMWs. Many of these cars can be ogled sitting in front of the Café de Paris, juxtaposed between the Monte Carlo Casino and one of Monaco’s only shopping malls, Le Metropole.

If “money talks,” then for the three days of F1 racing in Monaco, money has a wail that’s higher-pitched than the race cars’ engines. Sitting under the hot Riviera sun at the Café de Paris, one is surrounded by the movers and shakers of the F1 circus. There are team principals, hangers-on, and the hangers-on’s assistants and they’re all watching the parade of cars, models, hunks, and tourists circle around, like fish in a crystal bowl. As you wait for a busy Monegasque waiter to grace you with his presence, there are deals going on at tables within earshot that’d make Warren Buffett blush. While I was sitting at the CdP, the highly exclusive Dutch sports car manufacturer, Spyker, was giving test drives in its hand built C8. I was told that Spyker had sold two of the C8s that day alone. The price for this two-seater sans roof: about $240,000.

Rich in the Spyker.

While Daddy Warbux is spending pocket change on a European super car, his “better half” can shop in the most exclusive stores in the world. Cartier, Prada, Bulgari—there are more than a few emporiums where a hundred grand can be spent in minutes. Art galleries pepper the storefronts and if your tastes run a little larger than a Matisse or a Picasso, there’s always one of Monte Carlo’s myriad yacht brokers who will be glad to fit you into something seaworthy.

Staying…In Style

Monaco is home to the legendary Monte Carlo Grand Hotel, which is ranked in the top five hotels in Europe. Formerly called the Loews Monte Carlo, the MC Grand is located directly on the sea, and it’s a chip’s throw from the Monte Carlo Casino. During the Grand Prix, the place to stay and be seen is the MC Grand; I even bumped some of the Ferrari team’s members there. The MC Grand also features its own casino, spa, pool, and every other amenity you can think of. Well, here’s an amenity you probably wouldn’t think of: the MC Grand is on the aptly named “hairpin” turn on the race course, and out in front of the lobby, lucky guests can view the sleek F1 cars straining to keep a grip as the legendary turn is negotiated. Another noteworthy place to stay is the Hotel Columbus, which is along the lines of a modern “boutique hotel” that we’ve become accustomed to in most of America’s large cities. The Columbus is on the opposite side of Monaco from the Monte Carlo Grand, yet it’s quickly becoming the spot where the tres cool hang out, because one of its owners is the Scottish former F1 racer, David Coulthard.

The most famous hairpin turn in racing.

Les Americaines!

Despite what you may have heard about the French and their alleged “attitude” concerning foreigners and Americans in particular, I didn’t run into anyone in Monaco who wasn’t polite and helpful. In fact, the Monegasque police were some of the nicest lawmen I ever met. They all spoke English and all were helpful in assisting my navigation of their not so humble burg. After the race was over, I even saw a police officer handing out hors d’ouevres on the street! A new municipal perk? Hardly, but at least he was sharing his food, unlike an American cop with a donut. Maybe it has something to do with the new generation of Royals being half American, but as I swaggered around Monaco, I couldn’t help but think to myself that not only should I be welcomed with open arms as a tourist, but also as a countryman to their beloved Princess Grace.

The Monegasque police are so friendly: this chap was handing out hors d’ouevres.

Electricity In The Streets

On the three days that there are incredibly fast machines prowling Monte Carlo’s city streets, Monaco is transformed into the world’s most expensive, lavish, and exclusive race course. The Grand Prix of Monaco is run on Sunday, but the two days leading up to the main event are no less filled with excitement. The first day, Thursday, is Formula 1’s testing day for four teams and a practice day for the rest. One should get to the “track” early on each day, as things get crowded quickly. The first time I heard the barbaric shriek of 20,000-RPM thoroughbred race engines reverberating against the medieval walls of Monaco, I didn’t get goose bumps—I got foie gras bumps! There is no location within the principality that can escape the noise of the F1 cars. (If you’ve never heard a Formula 1 racing engine at full throttle, try to imagine your Cuisinart dialed to “11”…on a loudspeaker the size of King Kong’s head…then multiply that noise by 100.)

There are several grandstand locations around the street circuit that afford terrific viewing. However, the best place to see the Grand Prix is from an apartment balcony overlooking the course. Don’t have a friend with a pied a terre in Monaco? No problem—you can go through a travel agency and they’ll arrange a prime location on a prime balcony in a prime apartment building for you. They will provide you with delicious vittles catered from a nearby restaurant. Sure, it costs a little more, but as the saying goes, it’s well worth it. After all, if you’re going to “do Monaco,” do it right.

A view from the balcony.

The balcony position I reserved was directly overlooking the Beau Rivage straightaway with a terrific view of the famed Sainte Devote corner. Cars would accelerate from start/finish line, break heavily at Sainte Devote, then, like a rocket ship, they’d zoom down the Beau Rivage. About a half-minute later, they’d come back into my view along the harbor portion of the course and do a wicked dance into the Piscine chicane, which is next to Monaco’s Olympic-sized swimming pool complex, and they’d speed away into the unknown. Schumacher’s Ferrari, Montoya’s Williams-BMW, and Coulthard’s McLaren-Mercedes sped by so close to me that I could see the stitching on their uniforms clearly…as I munched on a shrimp and couscous salad while sipping a cold beer served to me by a polite waitperson. Hey, if you’re going to do Monaco, do it right.

On the Friday before a race, the track is closed, so it’s a perfect opportunity to explore the principality. If you’re a car enthusiast like myself, Prince Rainier’s automobile collection (called the Collection Voitures Anciennes de S.A.S. Le Prince de Monaco) is not to be missed. For a relatively low admission of about eight dollars per person, you can feast your eyes on Rainier’s vintage vehicles, ranging in age from about 100 to almost brand-new. The museum even has the wedding car (a Rolls-Royce, naturally) that Princess Grace and her beau rode in on the day of their nuptials. Other sites to see include the Casino, the gorgeous exotic gardens, one of the planet’s most acclaimed oceanographic museums, or you can simply stroll along the harbor and soak up the money vibes given off by those magnificent yachts. Fancy a drink? If you’ve already done the Café de Paris, park yourself at Stars ‘N’ Bars, which is a good ole American bar in the stately city.

Floating F1 fun!

Saturday is the main qualifying day for the Formula 1 cars: each driver gets only one lap to reserve his position on the race’s starting grid. If a driver errs on the bumpy, tight turned track, he doesn’t get a second chance. The air is tense on Saturday, for driver and fan alike and this is when it hits you: Yes, you really are at the Grand Prix of Monaco and you really are party to a very special event on this big, blue marble.

The final day of festivities is Sunday and no sporting event you’ve ever experienced is like the running of the Grand Prix of Monaco. None. I can best describe it as the Indy “500,” the Super Bowl, and the final game of a World Series rolled into one deliciously smooth crepe.  First of all, start early on Sunday, and if you’re not in your seats (or on your balcony) by 10 AM, you’ll be dealing with Monaco’s narrow, crowded streets, and you may get your J.P. Tod’s stepped on (or step on someone else’s). Besides, there’s a driver parade two hours before race time, at noon. Loaded on to a flatbed truck are a few hundred million dollars worth of prime steering meat, and to have a pilote wave back at you…well, that’s heartwarming to any race fan.

Close to the action.

The race begins at 2 PM sharp. After the cars have done a couple warm-up laps, they all must wait, stationary, as five red lights illuminate. As the lights are activated, the engines’ revs build…louder and louder these Secretariats of the streets become as they wait for the red lights to extinguish, thus signaling the start of the race and the unleashing of the hounds of hell. From the start line, the field of 20 cars speed down to Sainte Devote and through that tricky corner—some will make it and some may not. The first time a Formula 1 car races by you in the anger of competition, a bolt of electricity will shatter you and you’ll be taken back into time: A time when the gods of racing, like Fangio, Clark, and Senna all attempted to tame the streets of Monte Carlo. It’s at this instant, as your body reverberates from the terrific sound, that you realize by being here in Monaco, you are now part of history with a capital “H.” You’ll be able to delight your friends and amaze your grandchildren by saying you attended the Grand Prix of Monaco. Best of all, the memories are everlasting in this fairy tale kingdom.


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