Christmas in Monte Carlo

Awash In Tax-free Money

Here in Monte Carlo, we’re window-shopping. Not only when we peek at the displays in the windows of Cartier and Prada, Hermes and Dolce & Gabbana…but everywhere we go, all the time. We’ve never witnessed anything like this up close.

Monaco is the most beautiful place on earth,” remarked a friend with confidence when I mentioned we planned to spend Christmas in the principality.

In fact, Monaco is many superlatives. It is the world’s second-smallest country (after Vatican City). It’s the world’s most densely populated country. And it’s the world’s smallest French-speaking country.

It’s all of 2 square kilometers. In that tiny land area is found not only more people per city block than anyplace else on earth (about 33,000 altogether), but also more money. This speck of a country on the side of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is awash in the stuff.

The whole place is a playground for the rich and jet-setting, who come here, if they’re able, not only to visit, but also to reside. For, as residents, they pay no taxes. Monaco is one of the world’s few remaining true tax havens.

The effect of all this tax-free money in such a contained area is both as you might predict (the streets are clean, the building facades are fresh, and the parks are manicured) and also, for me, very unexpected. The people are friendly in a way I’ve never experienced before.

Stand on the corner waiting for the light to turn in your favor so you can cross the street, and drivers stop and wave you across with a smile. Stand anywhere too long looking confused, and passers-by pause to ask if they can be of assistance. Sit down in a restaurant for lunch, and the woman at the next table strikes up a conversation…

At the café where we had lunch Christmas Eve, the nice Irish-British-French-Monagesque lady across from us asked where we came from, then, when we explained we’d lived in Ireland, Paris, and now Panama City, continued to chat:

“Have you seen any consequences of the financial crisis in Panama?” she asked. “We aren’t seeing it here, really, because French banks don’t lend the way U.S. and UK banks lend. Here, the most you can get is 70% or 80% and that only after a serious financial review. What’s been going on in the United States and the UK could lead to no good end, and now the whole world will pay for it.”

People we’ve only just met offer Jack sweets, offer to help me carry my parcels, offer to give Lief directions…

Perhaps it’s the season, but I suspect the fair Monagesque are this polite and friendly year-round. Who could be grumpy living this life?

My friend’s estimation of the place was not exaggerated. We drove the coast road from Monaco to Cannes Christmas Day, and it’s hard to imagine anywhere more picture-postcard beautiful. The region challenges the travel writer, who is hard put to come up with a description to do it justice.

Monaco is not only beautiful but also an engineering marvel. Can’t waste a square meter of space in a country this size. To make the city-builders’ job tougher, this tiny ville sits atop the side of a rock cliff. Through the rocks, over hundreds of years, have been cut tunnels and walkways, bridges and underpasses. The city’s infrastructure is layered. As the crow flies, you could cross the entire nation in a matter of minutes. In practice, getting from place to place requires ups and downs, overs and unders, and a keen sense of direction. The winding roads and passageways rarely lead where you expect them to lead.

It’s no wonder I’ve yet to see a single person here, young or old, who’s overweight. The Monagesque eat as well as the French, but then they hike these hills and cliffsides day and night.

In fact, Monaco shares many similarities with the country that surrounds it. It’s the best of France with an Italian twist.

And, as you might expect, given the severely limited supply of real property, it’s more expensive than the most expensive region in either of those countries. Window shopping for real estate earlier this week, we saw a 43-square-meter studio in a nondescript building offered for 1.49 million euro. That’s nearly 35,000 euro per square meter.

“So…what are we doing here again?” asked our daughter after we’d collected her and her boyfriend from the Nice airport Christmas Day. You might be wondering the same thing, dear reader.

Our weeklong hotel stay is a much-appreciated gift that we’re glad now we finally decided to accept. How often do you get the chance to witness five-star living from the inside? We could never afford to own this lifestyle, but the Monagesque don’t seem to mind our taking it for a test drive this week.

Kathleen Peddicord