There's lots to do and see in the favourite haunt of the rich and famous

On the day we arrived in Nice and were heading to the hotel, I got chatting with the cab driver about places we could see. He lost no time in coming up with Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo, which lies in the French Riviera on the Mediterranean sea in Monaco, surrounded by France and close to Italy, is one helluva place. Not for nothing is it known internationally as a favourite haunt of the rich and famous.

The Principality of Monaco is the second smallest in the world after the Vatican, extending over a 4,100 km-long coast, not to forget the cliffs that punctuate the skyline and rise steeply above the sea. Founded in 1866, Monte Carlo (meaning Mount Charles) was named in honour of the then ruler, Charles III of Monaco. The mountain that gives it its name is the escarpment at the foot of the Maritime Alps on which the town stands.

With its casinos, opera house, concert hall, and high-profile sporting and fashion events and a host of leisure activities, it is no surprise that the swish set flocks to Monte Carlo.

In the early years, the Principality's revenues were mainly from its lemon, orange and olive crops. But, taking a cue from the numerous towns in Europe that were growing in prosperity with gambling establishments, Charles III gave concessions to establish a sea bathing facility for the treatment of various diseases and build a German-style casino in Monaco. The casino moved locations several times before its present location in Les Spelugues. In time, the sea bathing facility proved to be such an economic driver that the Monacans earned themselves a surprise boon and were exempted from land, personal and professional taxes.

Today, all the action is at Casino square (Golden square) at Monte Carlo, where the world-famous casino is located, and the nearby Café de Paris.

The lure of casinos

The Casino square is to Monte Carlo what the Strip is to Las Vegas in the USA The Casino de Monte Carlo, which is the first among the great casinos built in the Belle Epoque style is an architectural beauty. It was opened in 1863 and has an array of table games that are a huge draw.

The Café de Paris, built in 1868 and renovated in 1988, has game rooms, slot machines that clink away and a drinking saloon within an overall 10,000-sq m area, and is furnished in retro style and decorated with stained glass windows.

Monte Carlo is all about glitz and glam and style and class; so, you can spot the movers and shakers, royalty and movie stars, and sports and fashion celebrities. The people who set foot here are so elegantly and stylishly turned out, they could give the regular tourist a huge complex.

Quite a number of people also walk in with their stylish, attitude-oozing pets in tow. As for the cars in Monte Carlo, they are worth dying for — from the Ferraris to the Rolls Royces to the Maseratis, you can see them all. There is also a concert hall designed by Charles Garnier that stands out with its neo-classical façade and two towers framing a large glazed area. The Opera de Monte Carlo or Salle Garnier, decorated in red and gold and with frescoes and sculptures, also the brainchild of Charles Garnier, is a replica of the Paris Opera House, though somewhat scaled down.

Half the fun of going to Monte Carlo is getting there. For en route, you not only zip past medieval villages and marinas, besides halting at panoramic view points with their breath-taking gardens and a superb embankment built on land reclaimed from the sea, you also cross the Formula One Grand Prix racing route.

And, sports is big in Monte Carlo. It is home to most of the Circuit de Monaco, on which the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix takes place. It also hosts world championship boxing bouts, the European Poker Tour Grand Final and the World Backgammon Championship. If time permits, see the Changing of the Guard at the Prince's palace, and the cathedral where Princess Grace and Rainier are buried.

Incidentally, Monte Carlo has been featured in numerous films and television series — the James Bond films “Never say Never again” and “Golden Eye” (remember the scene where Pierce Brosnan goes into the casino in a red Ferrari?), and the American film “Monte Carlo” .