TRAVEL: Hidden gems lie within easy reach of Monaco
ONE of the best reasons to go to Monaco is to leave it — just a stone’s throw away lies some of the most beautiful scenery France and Italy have to offer.
The hinterland hides eagle’s nest towns perched precariously on the tops of the mountains that press Monaco up against the Mediterranean Sea. Eze, a 14-century bastide, sits 550m above sea level and offers a panoramic view from the terrace of its Château de la Chevre d’Or restaurant.
Energetic visitors from Monaco can ride the train to the lower town, little more than 10 minutes away, and scramble up the path often taken by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that cuts through scrub and woodland to the foot of the medieval village. It is not a walk for the faint-hearted, with roughly 90 minutes of steady climbing and little shelter from the scorching heat. But the sight of the turquoise sea below and the sounds and smell of Mediterranean maquis — scrubland growth — are ample reward.
No wonder Nietzsche is said to have taken the path every day. It was also rumoured the hallucinations he suffered as a result of heatstroke while making the climb inspired his work, Thus Spoke Zarathusa.
Art and Provence have always gone together. Matisse and Picasso are just two of the artists who chose to settle in the south of France, liking its laid-back lifestyle and warm light.
Within an hour’s drive of Monaco lies one of the world’s greatest collections of contemporary art. The Fondation Maeght is an oasis of shade and tranquillity, located on the outskirts of the medieval town of St Paul de Vence.
Founded in 1964 by publishing magnates and avid collectors Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, the museum houses works by artists such as Bonnard, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró. But the real genius of the museum’s founders was to expand the exhibition space into the surrounding wooded landscape.
No other museum can offer such a refreshing tour of artistic genius.
After the visit, head to the Colombe d’Or, a hotel-cum-restaurant that, for decades, has drawn celebrities from all over the world. Scattered around the place are works by Picasso, Matisse and others, said to have been payment to the original owner for meals and friendly chat. But the lovely terrace is the real draw. Make sure you book or you are likely to be disappointed.
There are smaller gems within easier reach, such as the Saint-Pierre chapel decorated by Jean Cocteau to honour his fishermen friends in the small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer. A small museum dedicated to the writer and artist has recently opened in Menton to the east of Monaco.
Or visit the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a belle-époque mansion on the Cap Ferrat peninsula. While on the Cap Ferrat, take the time to walk its coastal path, shaded by pines, and pass in front of villas once owned by Hollywood greats such as David Niven and Charlie Chaplin.
When the cultural thirst is sated, there may be those who need retail therapy. But, contrary to its reputation, Monaco fares poorly when it comes to shops.
"You have the very, very upmarket names like Hermès and then the tourist tat," says one resident who prefers not to be named. "But in the middle you have precious little. I doubt anyone comes here for the shopping."
Monégasques prefer to head to St Tropez, the Riviera town made famous by Brigitte Bardot in that bikini, where there is a better selection of "funky shops". Or take the train on Saturday morning to Ventimiglia just across the Italian border for the flower and fruit market. Avoid Friday’s market, where crowds are drawn to the cheap designer knock-offs on sale.
Finally, there is, of course, Nice, where a day’s shopping should be finished off with a drink in the bar of the splendid Hotel Negresco. One travel reviewer described the experience of visiting this turn-of-the-century hotel as like being in the Vatican with room service, hardly a description you are likely to encounter of anything on offer in Monaco.
With so much on offer outside Monaco, it is reasonable to ask why anyone would return to stay there. The answer may simply be that compared with bigger cities such as Nice or Cannes, Monaco is a haven of safety. Its concentration of police officers per resident is the highest in the world.
After a long day touring the sights, there may be comfort in knowing that when you return in the evening it will be a safe stroll back to a bed for the night.
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited