The tiny principality of Monaco is a footballing anomaly. A miniscule city-state squeezed between France, Italy and the Mediterranean, this tax haven has made its money from high-rolling recreation from the late 19th-century onwards.
After casinos came Formula One, the Monte Carlo Rally, and… AS Monaco. Formed in the roaring twenties around the same time as the first Grand Prix, the club spent most of its early years in the amateur divisions of the Provence-Côte d’Azur region.
Coach Lucien Leduc put helped football on a professional footing. His two spells in the 1960s and 1970s reaped three titles, and Monaco was on the football map. Under Arsène Wenger, Monaco then became a powerful force in French football, youths such as Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram turned out in the distinctive red-and-white shirts, along with stars Glenn Hoddle and George Weah.
What Monaco wasn’t, though, was a full member of the football community. Its club plays in the French League while its national team, apart from the FIFA and UEFA family, takes on the likes of fellow castaways The Vatican, the Isle of Man and Tibet. Even more bizarrely, their home ground isn’t AS Monaco’s Stade Louis II, where UEFA held its prestigious season curtain-raiser, the European Super Cup, until 2012; the Monagasques play at the Stade des Moneghetti, just over the border in Beausoleil, France.
Not that you notice when you cross the border. Walk five steps from the nine arches of the Stade Louis II to the Riviera Marriott Hotel opposite for a pre-match cocktail and you’re in France. The stadium is set in the western district of Fontvieille, on land reclaimed from the sea in the 1970s. Most of the stadium complex, differing levels of sports halls and event areas, is underground.
Alongside spread out high-end hotels, luxury yachts and a heliport. The home of the highest number of billionaires in the world per capita, Monaco is the run by the Grimaldi dynasty, whose current head is sport-mad Albert II. With AS Monaco facing third-flight football in 2011, Albert II agreed to sell two-thirds of his family’s shares with Russian potash billionaire Dmitri Rybolovliev.
After promotion in 2013, by splashing out more than €150 million, €50 million on top Colombian striker Radamel Falcao alone, Rybolovliev went toe-to-toe with Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain.
Playing in front of the second-lowest crowd in Ligue 1 – on average, a quarter of the principality’s population – the stars dropped points at home, and trailed behind PSG for most of the season.
Off the pitch, Monaco’s Ligue 1 competitors have not taken kindly to the club offering huge salaries to top international stars, and tax-free foreigner status. It is thought that Monaco save the equivalent of Falcao’s transfer every season, or the entire budget of a club such as Montpellier.
The league took Monaco to court, demanding the club bases itself in France for tax purposes, and received a proposed compensation of €50 million. Seven clubs, including PSG, then disputed this figure, and the matter remains unresolved.
Unless you have your own helicopter, in which case you can use the heliport beside the stadium, the nearest air terminal is Nice, 20km away. From there, you have the choice of helicopter (every 30mins, online €105.74, 7min flight time) or No.110 bus (hourly, journey time 20min, €20/€30 return). The bus stops at Stade Louis II (Hotel Marriott) except on busy match days.
If you’re getting the train from Nice Riquier (15min, €3.30), there’s no station at Monaco-Monte Carlo as such, just a series of exit levels. Boulevard de Belgique leads up to bus No.5, Port Boulevard Albert Ier leads down to bus No.6 – both heading for Fontvieille. A machine at the station/bus stop dispenses tickets (€1.50, €5 day pass, touch in on board). It’s otherwise €2 on board. The bus service shuts down about 9.30pm, after which there’s a one-line night service.
Central Taxi Riviera Nice (+33 4 93 13 78 78) charges around €75-90 from Nice airport to Monaco, depending on time of day. Taxi Monaco Prestige (+377 93 15 01 01) has a flat rate of €90 – for a limousine.
Around the principality, Taxi Monaco (+377 8 20 20 98 98) offers a 24-hour service.
The Monaco Tourist Office has a comprehensive booking service. Note that prices hit the roof during Grand Prix weekend in late May.
Facing the stadium, overlooking Cap d’Ail harbour, the Marriott Riviera Hotel La Porte de Monaco is unsurprisingly upscale, with a gym, pools indoor and out, and a terrace bar overlooking the bobbing boats. Note that this four-star is actually in France and cannot be booked through the Visit Monaco website.
Also close to the stadium, and within Monaco itself, Columbus Monte-Carlo is a favourite with Grand Prix drivers – it was originally owned by David Coulthard. Note the rooftop pool.
A handful of more affordable two- and three-stars sit just over the border in France, a short walk downhill into Monaco. The Boéri offers doubles at just over €110-€120. The Grimaldi Forum is a matter of steps away.
There’s plenty of scope for fun in this sportsmen’s playground. Monaco even has its own beer, a golden lager sold at the Brasserie de Monaco (‘The Place to Beer’), based around a century-old local brewery and a good place to start any crawl, TV sports, burgers and all. Diagonally across the Port de Monaco, Stars ‘N’ Bars is a landmark sports bar, with framed Formula One iconography displayed around a large interior and island bar. €16 a cheeseburger, mind…
With two small balconies overlooking the harbour, the Rowing Club is one of Monaco’s best-kept secrets. At this convivial, affordable and unpretentiously sport-themed first-floor bar/restaurant, non-members are charged an extra €1 per meal, funds going to young rowers.
Equally unpretentious is the Monte Carlo Bar/Brasserie Le Monte Carlo, a football-focused corner spot at a major junction where boulevard Charles III meets avenue Prince-Pierre, decked out in framed shirts.
Mc Carthy’s Pub is Monaco’s token Irish bar, on a quiet street away from the action and part of a nightspot chain.