MONTE-CARLO — Monique from Monaco pushes the peddle down on her Italian-made sports car as we race through the narrow, winding streets of this exhilarating city that’s home to the world’s most famous Formula 1 auto race.
As we quickly approach the yawning entrance to the famed Monaco Grand Prix Tunnel, Monique instructs me to “hold on” as she guides the car into a sweeping straightaway — one of the few places where F1 drivers can pass during the iconic race.
My heart is revving faster than the car’s engine at this point.
A second later I’m blinded when we exit the Tunnel into the bright Mediterranean sun.
Monique doesn’t slow down, though.
The city’s landmark harbour where multi-million dollar yachts are anchored, passes in a blur. The races’ famed hairpin corners — Casino Square, Tabac, La Rascasse, Sainte Dévote — go by in the blink of an eye. The palatial pastel-coloured mansions that cling to the city’s rocky hillsides are there one second and gone the next.
Above: The famed F1 tunnel and Monte Carlo's harbour filled with expensive yachts are what you see on a walking tour.
By the time Monique comes to the screeching stop in front of the legendary Fairmont Monte-Carlo Hotel, my hands are shaking.
“Would you like me to pick you up tomorrow morning and take you on a city tour in my car?,” the hospitable Monique asks.
“I think I’ll just walk,” I reply.
Actually, walking is the best way to see all this compact auto racing Mecca, that's just 2sq/km in size, has to offer. And the best place to start a walking tour is at the posh Fairmont Monte-Carlo Hotel, which sits overlooking the world’s richest city and its fabulous Mediterranean coastline.
Since the early 1970s, the property — it originally opened as Loews Hotel Monte-Carlo — has been ground zero for the race, with many drivers, team officials and affluent fans making it their base for the annual GP. In fact, the hotel is actually part of the Circuit de Monaco because the race’s iconic Tunnel runs directly under the Fairmont.
Next morning, I’m up bright and early and walk a short distance from the hotel to Casino Square, where the world’s most famous gambling venue is located. The square is surrounded by chic boutique shops and restaurants like the lovely Café de Paris, but the opulent Casino building stands out from all the rest.
Above: Monte Carlo is filled with impressive buildings and a unique church that's located under an overpass.
Designed by Charles Garnier — he also created the Paris Opéra House — the Monte-Carlo Casino opened in 1863 and was created by then ruler Princess Carolina to help the principality avoid bankruptcy. It paid off big.
The Casino now attracts some of the richest and most famous gamblers in the world, including super spy Jame Bond — scenes for several of the 007 movies were filmed in the castle-like Casino.
Garnier also designed the nearby Opéra de Monte-Carlo, an exact miniature version of his Parisian icon.
As I walk towards the Port Hercule, the official name of Monaco’s harbour, I pass high-end couture shops showcasing the latest designs from Paris, Milan and London. The fashions, along with the price tags, are eye popping.
The armada I see in the harbour ranges from small sail boats to massive sea-going yachts that look like private cruise ships. Crews are busy swabbing decks and keeping everything ship-shape for their well-to-do-owners.
The port dates back to ancient times but the modern-day version was created in 1926 and can hold up to 700 vessels.
Above: The city's sidestreets are dominated by handsome homes and apartments painted pastel colours.
A short distance away, in an area known as Place Sainte-Dévote, I see a small chapel tucked under an overpass. The tiny church stands out against a wall called Vallon des Gaumates and dates back to 1070. It is dedicated to Saint Dévote, a martyr who is the patron saint of Monaco. The chapel is usually obscured during race weekend by crash barriers.
By tradition, when the Prince of Monaco gets married, his bride leaves her bouquet in the church, as Princess Charlene did following her 2011 wedding to Prince Albert II, the principality’s current ruler.
I duck down the small labyrinth of streets running off Boulevard Albert, the city’s main thoroughfare that wraps around the harbour, and discover lots of handsome apartments where the working class live.
Rue Louis Notari, Rue Suffren-Reymond, Rue Caroline and Rue de Millo are lined with a multitude of small open-air restaurants and bars where locals gather to sip wine or coffee and gossip.
Above: Monte Carlo's skyline is made even more dramatic with the backdrop of the sea and might mountains.
Across from Avenue du Port and up a hill, I find Place du Palais (Prince’s Palace), along with Monaco Cathedral and the fabulous Museum of Napoleonic Memorabilia. From the elevated palace grounds I get jaw dropping views of the city and the southern slopes of Mont Age, the principality’s highest point.
The palace is now the official residence of Monaco’s ruler but it started out in 1191 as a fortress. Over its history it’s been attacked and bombarded many times.
There’s a daily changing of the guard at the palace — 11:55 a.m. —but arrive early if you hope to see it because the area is quite small and crowd-size is limited.
My walk also takes me to other Monte-Carlo landmarks, like St. Charles Church — it was built between 1879 and 1883 — and Jardin Japonais de Monaco, a small magical Japanese garden that was designed by the late Princess Grace (aka Grace Kelly) in 1994.
If you hope to see all Monte-Carlo has to offer, you'd better slow down and walk, don’t ride.