Andrea Black traces the footsteps of the late Princess Grace of Monaco, in anticipation of a new film starring Nicole Kidman, based on her glamorous life.
It's the stuff of fairytales, seemingly so perfect: a beautiful American actor is whisked off the red carpet and into the loving arms of her handsome European prince, living happily ever after, tax-free, in a palace up on a hillside in the principality of Monaco.
Only reportedly, things weren't so rosy behind the scenes for Grace Kelly. A new film, starring Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace, will lift the lid on her and Prince Rainier III's first days together after the "wedding of the century" in 1956. After reading the script, the Royal House of Grimaldi described a "series of scenes" as "purely fictional" causing "much astonishment". Despite this, the ruling Prince Albert II did allow some scenes to be filmed in his principality, namely Monaco's Casino Square, which includes the famous Monte Carlo Casino and Hotel de Paris.
The tale of the Grimaldis has captured the imagination of Australians for over 50 years. Their real-life, ongoing European soap opera, including various scandals, has been weekly fodder in gossip magazines.
In an effort to learn more about Grace's life in Monaco, I embarked on The Princess Grace Trail: scattered across the principality nestled between the French and Italian Riviera are 25 information posts highlighting where Grace had been, and what she did for the arts and charity.
I arrive into Monaco the exact same way Grace Kelly did in 1956, by ship. Thousands greeted the Hollywood star as she sailed in from New York on SS Constitution to meet her prince. She was transported into Port Hercules on a yacht owned by billionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis - it was his idea that Prince Rainier should marry an American movie star. Arriving by sea is the perfect way to gain perspective of how small this principality is (less than two square kilometres in total). Cliffside towers jostle for space, as do the luxury yachts in the harbour. On the right is the famous Monte Carlo Casino and to the left, on a hilltop known as The Rock, is the palace.
I disembark the Azamara Quest and prepare to take on Monaco.
PALACE AND CATHEDRAL
A peek inside the palace that Grace called home for 26 years is the obvious starting point on my self-guided walk. Although you can only see what are called The State Apartments for the €7 ($10) entry fee, you do get a sense of where Grace and Prince Rainier entertained, as well as the tastes of the late princess. She redesigned The Blue Room used for official receptions. Blue silk brocade lines the walls and lounges, hung with Venetian chandeliers. It sounds garish, but as we have seen from countless photographs showing her fashion sense, Grace had conspicuous good taste.
In the regal red Throne Room, the last-commissioned portrait of the royal family takes pride of place, depicting the couple and their children (Caroline, Albert and Stephanie) as if in the clouds. We see the marble mosaic table where the newly wedded couple signed their marriage certificate, and a marble bust of Grace.
A short walk from the palace is St Nicholas Cathedral, where the couple married in 1956. Princess Grace herself said that settling in took some time. Prince Rainier banned her films in Monaco and Alfred Hitchcock tried, unsuccessfully, to lure her back into acting again. There was no "happily ever after".
High above the palace and cathedral is the winding mountain road between La Turbie and Cap d'Ail where the princess met her untimely end, suffering a stroke and plunging down the mountainside while at the wheel of her Rover in 1982. She was 52 years old. Her daughter Stephanie, who was with her, was uninjured.
The cathedral is Grace's final resting place. A simple marble slab reads "Gratia Patricia".
The gleaming knee of a horse greets you in the Belle Epoque lobby of the Hotel de Paris, part of the Monte Carlo district.
It is in the Hotel de Paris that Princess Grace held many charity balls. In 1959, she opened Le Grill, one of Monaco's seven Michelin-starred restaurants.
I sample the lunch buffet, featuring a fresh Mediterranean sea bass fillet and freshly shucked oysters, on the terrace at the hotel's Cote Jardin, where scenes from Grace of Monaco were filmed.
Between the Hotel de Paris and the nearby Hermitage Hotel is a cavernous wine cellar housing 350,000 bottles ready to be transported upstairs in wooden carte des vins. There's cognac in here from 1845 and wine dating from before World War II.
Down here guests can visit the Marie Blanc Museum (named after the cellar's champion back in 1874) and dine in the private room, as Princess Grace and Prince Rainier did to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Framed pictures of the celebration line the walls.
A cavalcade of luxury cars is parked outside Hotel de Paris and the Monte Carlo Casino. Tourists stand in front of the vehicles for photo opportunities. Locals say that since the hotel relaxed the dress code, the casino is not like it once was.
In 1887, French author Guy de Maupassant found that around these gaming tables were "the scum of continents and society, mixed with princes or future kings, with women of the world, the bourgeoisie, money lenders, and exhausted girls, a mixture unique on Earth".
No such variety these days; all I saw were tourists pulling levers on pokies. Perhaps it was all happening in the private rooms. On my visit, I am told that tennis player Rafael Nadal is one of the high rollers trying his luck.
GARDENS AND THEATRES
Everywhere you turn in Monaco, you are reminded of the Grimaldis. I wander down Boulevard Princesse Grace de Monaco, Rue Grimaldi and Rue Princesse Caroline pedestrian mall.
Princess Grace has been commemorated for championing the arts. At the Theatre Princesse Grace wedged into the cliff overlooking the bay, a photo shows Grace standing on the balcony waving in December 1981. She helped design the theatre's interior. Outside the Monte Carlo Theatre, another stop on the Princess Grace Trail, a sign shows a picture of the princess in 1959 meeting performers from the Russian Ballet.
The last stop for me is the Princess Grace Rose Garden. It's cordoned off. Among the 300 varieties of roses, including ones named after her children, bulldozers are refurbishing the park - it will reopen in 2014.
As I approach the zebra crossing to return to Azamara Quest, my companion nudges me and with the skill of a ventriloquist urges me to look at the driver of the car that has stopped. Before us is Princess Stephanie. Alone in a four-wheel-drive she smiles. After two days in the footsteps of her mother and learning about the Grimaldis' Monaco, I react as would many Australians to the sighting: I'm star-struck.
ULTIMATE MOVIE SET
Grace of Monaco follows a long line of films shot in this very picturesque region.
TO CATCH A THIEF This Alfred Hitchcock film introduced Grace Kelly to the region and allowed her to meet Prince Rainier III for the first time, at the Cannes Film Festival.
AND GOD CREATED WOMAN The Brigitte Bardot film was shot in and around St Tropez. Bardot is a resident of the area, and while she lives a very private life, she can sometimes be seen walking her beloved dogs.
GOLDENEYE The French Riviera has a long history with Bond films. Diamonds Are Forever and Never Say Never Again were shot here and, more recently, GoldenEye, starring Pierce Brosnan as 007, notably features scenes in the Monte Carlo Casino.
THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS Elizabeth Taylor stars together with Cannes and Monaco in this feature based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited. There's a famous scene at the Monaco Grand Prix.
HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO Volkswagen sightings are rare these days in Monte Carlo — you're more likely to see Bentleys and Porsches — but the Love Bug handled the famous Monte Carlo racetrack's hairpin turns with ease in this instalment in the 1970s movie series.
Azamara Club Cruises visit Monaco on a number of different itineraries on board the Azamara Quest or Azamara Journey. 1800 754 500, azamaraclubcruises.com.
Cathay Pacific flies three times daily from Melbourne and Sydney to Hong Kong with a twice-daily connection to Paris. Connect from Paris to Nice, the closest airport servicing Monaco, a 25-minute drive away. cathaypacific.com.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sydney-based travel writer Andrea Black has a particular interest in a destination's musical and architectural heritage and relishes the 'getting there' part of the journey.
Andrea Black was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.