IF YOU ever come face to face with a Monegasque, that is, a citizen of the principality of Monaco, count yourself very privileged.
Consider this - there are only about 7,500 Monegasques among the world's population of over 6 billion. So the chances of running into one outside of this European micro state is infinitely lower than hitting the jackpot at its famed casinos.
Located in the south-east of France, 12 km from the Italian border, the principality stretches over a narrow strip just over 4 km in length on the Mediterranean coast. Its current land area covers a tiny 1.95 sq km with a skyline reminiscent of Hong Kong - tall buildings, tightly packed together,rise from undulating grounds or cling to edges of cliffs.
Because of its compact size (Sentosa, with its land area of 5 sq km, is a continent in comparison) and reputation as an expensive destination, it's little wonder that many visitors to Monaco are day-trippers, hopping over from nearby France or Italy.
However, as I'd discovered, there're plenty of good reasons to pack more than just an overnighter.
The best place to get a panoramic view of the tiny state is at its old town or Monaco Ville, a village built on a rock promontory with commanding views of the sea. The main attraction here is the magnificent Prince's Palace where the ruling Prince Albert resides officially.
The palace's State Apartments are open to the public from June to October.Here's a chance to gawk at the splendid and opulent quarters of one of the longest ruling families in Europe. Eye-popping scenes of grandeur include its ornate Italian gallery featuring frescoes by 16th century Genoese artists and the Louis 15th suite all decked in yellow and gold. Outdoors, the Main Courtyard is paved with three million white and coloured pebbles forming immense geometrical patterns, with a superb 17th century double-revolution staircase in Carrara marble as a centrepiece. A day spent at Monaco Ville should also include a visit to the Monaco Cathedral, and the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium. The former was built in 1875 and stands on the site of a13th century church. Most visitors to the cathedral come to pay homage to the former princes of Monaco and to the much loved Princess Grace, who are all buried here.
Perched on a rocky cliff and rising to a height of 279 feet above the sea,Monaco's aquarium is like no other in more ways than one. Housed in a majestic building constructed with 100,000 tons of cut stone, it looks more like a staging venue for the state's renowned opera and ballet companies than a home housing marine life.
Inaugurated in 1910 by its founder Prince Albert I, it contains remarkable collections of marine fauna gathered by Prince Albert, numerous specimens of sea creatures (stuffed or in skeleton form, including the skeleton of a 66-foot whale), and models of Prince Albert's laboratory ships. The captivating aquariums feature a colourful display of some 4,000 species of fish and over200 families of invertebrates, and include a newly-created Sharks Lagoon'.
Monaco is divided into four quarters, with Monte Carlo being the happening' place. This is where you'd want to be if you want to experience the lifestyle of the fast and the furious. Take a drive through its streets and you're driving on one of the circuits for Formula One races.
You're also likely to be in the company of some flashy cars as they are the preferred mode of transport here. Do keep an eye on that speedometer though,for the police number per capita in Monaco is amongst the highest in the world and they certainly make their presence known.
The picturesque Place du Casino, surrounded by Monegasque icons like the Monte Carlo Casino, Hotel de Paris and Cafe de Paris, is the convergent point of locals and visitors alike. The Belle Epoque grandeur of the casino, built in1863 by Charles Garnier of the Paris Opera House fame, encourages one to quite happily part with a few chips just to soak in the rich and historical ambience contained within its elegant walls. And gentlemen, please remember to pack a jacket and tie because that is the dress code if you want to get in.
In fact, this formality is observed at many restaurants and social events.In Monaco, being casual smart isn't always enough. Whether it's dinner at one of the several Michelin-starred restaurants in town or a night out at the opera, designer togs and bling are de rigueur if you want to blend in with the locals. Now do you see why a hand carry just won't do?
Exotic Garden and the Observatory Cave
62, Bld du Jardin Exotique
Exhibition of HSH the Prince of Monaco's Collection of Classic Cars
Terrasses de Fontvieille
National Museum of Automatons and Dolls of Yesteryear
17, Avenue Princesse-Grace
Exhibitions at Grimaldi Forum
10, Avenue Princesse-Grace
For more information, check out www.monaco-tourisme.com