The distinct but faint smell of aerosol wafts through the air as we approach Casino de Monte-Carlo, Monaco’s legendary crown jewel.
Built in 1863, this is a lavish example of belle epoque architecture and a majestic backdrop for a constant parade of Rolls-Royces, Ferraris, Porsches and other exotic cars which signal that the French Riviera is where the world’s ultra-rich convene.
Intriguingly juxtaposed against all this glitz and glamour is a street art festival.
Street art & sustainability
This is the sixth year that the UPAINT festival – previously known as Urban Painting Around the World or UPAW – has been held in Monaco. But it is the first year it has been given such a prestigious spot in the city – testament to the event’s growing influence in the principality.
The 2022 edition featured 14 street artists from all over the world, including American graffiti artist pioneer Futura, who were commissioned to create original artwork in real time over the span of three days last June.
At the end of the festival, the works, each inspired by a sustainability and wildlife theme, were auctioned off with proceeds raised for the Human Wildlife Initiative of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation to protect wildlife in rural and mountainous areas in the neighbouring South of France.
“When you think of Monte Carlo and Monaco, it doesn’t have to be linked only to sport or classical culture like the opera, the ballet, or the orchestra,” says Mr Olivier Wenden, director of the foundation, commenting on the unlikely collaboration.
“To start with, we have a wonderful arts school in Monaco called Pavillon Bosio on the Rock, and street art has become more and more popular over the years. So the organisers of UPAINT had this brilliant idea of bringing this kind of art to the backdrop of Monaco – to have a conflict of culture and generate some buzz.”
He adds: “I’m grateful that they have also ensured the event is as sustainable as possible; from the spray paint cans that are of the highest quality in the market, to the carpets that have been repurposed from the congress centre of Monaco – everything is recycled.”
According to a spokesman from VisitMonaco, the principality’s tourism bureau, the UPAINT festival is just one node in a high-level strategy towards Monaco repositioning and reinventing itself beyond the glamorous image of the capital, and focusing more on sustainable tourism to woo a new generation of travellers.
That said, Monaco has, in fact, been championing sustainability since 1906, when Prince Albert I founded The Oceanographic Institute devoted to the study of marine sciences and the conservation of aquatic life.
The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco was later established in 1910, and the work of the late prince, once a passionate and visionary seafarer, continues today through both entities housed in the museum.
Like much of Monaco, the museum inspires awe with its Baroque Revival architectural style. It is monumental – towering dramatically 85m high on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Leaning against the Rock of Monaco, the museum appears most majestic from the water. But the interior of the building inspires even more wonderment. You will find Nemo here and more.
On a private tour with a marine biologist, our group of travellers discovered an underwater world of multicoloured fish, manta rays, luminescent jellyfish, octopuses, starfish, seahorses and other exotic creatures of the sea in one of the world’s oldest aquariums.
We also went behind the scenes and witnessed how these complex ecosystems have been designed to preserve rare species of fish and living coral, and even visited the aquatic “hospital” where some of these sea creatures are being nursed back to optimal health.
Going deeper into learning about the ocean ecology and its captivating inhabitants certainly left this writer with a more profound appreciation for marine life – just as it may imbue the museum’s other 650,000 annual visitors with a desire to care for the planet.
Monaco in the metaverse
As the second-smallest sovereign state in the world – after Vatican City – with an area of just 2.1 sq km, Monaco is easily the most expensive city with, unsurprisingly, the most expensive real estate on the planet.
In a 2022 report released by global property firm Savills, average prices in the principality topped €50,000 (S$70,500) per sq m for the first time this year, marking a 9 per cent increase from 2020, and a 74 per cent surge over the decade.
Experts expect this to double when Le Portier, a new waterfront district also referred to as Portier Cove or Mareterra, is completed in 2025.
According to reports, the US$2.4 billion (S$3.4 billion) development – a massive reclamation project that will extend Monaco’s land mass by reclaiming land from the Mediterranean Sea – will feature residential enclaves including private waterfront villas. Prices for luxury homes have been set at around US$11,000 psf – about double the average price for prime real estate in Monaco.
Now, even if you do not belong to the world’s wealthiest 1 per cent, you can soon purchase a piece of the pie – virtually, that is.
Monte-Carlo-based Italian-Filipino technopreneur Manila Di Giovanni has created the first virtual twin of Monaco, in collaboration with the Smart City Department of the government of Monaco. The prototype is now in the final stages of development and will be launched to the public in October.
Ms Di Giovanni, 21, is the young and dynamic founder and chief executive of DWorld, which is in the business of creating smarter and greener virtual twins of cities worldwide. When applied to real life, the technology can help cities improve urban planning for a more sustainable living environment.
As one of the pioneers of this new technology, DWorld is leading the charge by integrating real-world economic applications on the virtual reality platform, thus giving rise to a new economic era dubbed the “V-economy”.
“Our goal is to create not just a virtual reality or 3D experience, but also an actual system where people can perform business transactions, so we’re interconnecting all the main economic sectors: art, retail, real estate, yachting, events, tourism and much more in a single platform, which is the metaverse,” Ms Di Giovanni explains.
Digitising the country, she believes, will also help boost tourism.
“Tourists from all over the world can access the virtual twin of Monaco in a carbon-neutral way while it also incentivises people to come visit Monaco in the real world,” she adds.
During the UPAINT festival, Ms Di Giovanni, who was named in Forbes Monaco’s prestigious list of “30 Under 30” individuals making an extraordinary impact in their field, gave a live demonstration of the metaverse version of Monaco and invited us to immerse ourselves in the world’s first virtual economy.
Slipping on the virtual-reality headset, I was instantly transported into the virtual world – my maiden metaverse experience – and began strolling, quite cautiously at first, through the digital streets of Monaco.
Soon enough, I was walking past a sports car and yachts docked in Monaco’s famed Port Hercules, and into a fashion boutique where I began trying on designer threads, which I could purchase on the spot and have my avatar wear, walking out of the store.
In the metaverse, visitors may soon be able to buy a luxurious superyacht, visit the Oceanographic Museum and other landmarks, and purchase a piece of virtual real estate
Ms Di Giovanni is already in talks with local real estate companies and developers to potentially partner with and offer “Worlders”, as they call users in the DWorld community, virtual property parcels for purchase from the first quarter of 2023.
Clearly, the commercial potential is multifarious, from the monetisation of the platform for its creators and investors to providing businesses and brands with a new avenue for revenue, and even to promoting a new form of sustainable tourism.
They say it is the bold who will change the world – and Monaco shows that this could very well be the future of travel.
As a country that has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, Monaco has much to offer travellers with a keen interest in sustainability. Here are three offerings you will not find anywhere else.
1. “Polar Mission” exhibition
From now until 2024, you can go on a “polar mission” by assuming the role of a field reporter at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco’s new exhibition.
Explore the five thematic spaces of the interactive exhibition and discover wildlife, the Inuit people, the explorers and the scientists of the Arctic and Antarctic, and more. Entry to the museum, including the Polar Mission exhibition, is €18 (S$25).
2. La Distillerie de Monaco
One of the purest examples of sustainability in the origin story of La Distillerie de Monaco, the country’s only distillery creating locally crafted liqueur.
Before the principality ceded most of its land to France in 1861, the bitter orange was a staple in Monaco’s agricultural economy, and bitter orange trees still line the boulevards of Monte Carlo today.
Most of the fruit, however, was simply discarded as it is too bitter to be eaten raw – until Mr Philippe Culazzo asked the city to give him the oranges instead.
In 2017, he founded the distillery and created L’Orangerie, a premium orange liqueur handcrafted in Monaco.
Now, once a year, the sun-kissed citrus fruits are hand-picked and brought to the distillery, where the finest alcohol infused with their zest to create L’Orangerie, popularly served as a spritz, which some dub “sunshine in a glass”.
You can visit the distillery, sample L’Orangerie and its other vodka and gin spirits, and take home a gift-wrapped bottle of the local liqueur that has become synonymous with Monaco, quite like how the Singapore Sling is symbolic of Singapore. Prices start at €29 for a 500ml bottle.
3. Visit three countries in a day
If checking countries off your bucket list is a travel goal, Monaco offers the opportunity to see three countries while inflicting minimal carbon footprint. Situated rather centrally in the French Riviera, Monaco is a great base to visit France and Italy, which are on its borders.
A 30-minute drive takes you to the coastal city of Nice in France where you can explore the classic beachside strip of the Promenade de Anglais before making your way to St Paul De Vence, a hamlet that inspired many great artists such as Monet, Picasso and Chagall.
You could find yourself in the rustic Italian village of Bordighera (do not miss Villa Garnier) or the city of San Remo, famous for its international music festival – in under an hour.
If you are feeling adventurous, drive 2½ hours from Monaco to the Italian town of Portofino and indulge in a dinner with spectacular seaside views.
While I recommend exploring the region at a more leisurely pace, is it not fabulous that you can visit three countries in one day if you fancy that?
Feast like royalty
In a city synonymous with luxury, you should partake in at least one indulgent experience. Feast like royalty in this playground of the rich and famous that boasts nine Michelin stars shared among six restaurants. Here are three establishments that put you in the lap of luxury.
The only Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant on the Cote d’Azur is open just during summer. Designed by the late fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, it is lodged at the Metropole Monte-Carlo and has a delightful pool ambience. Helmed by head chef Takeo Yamazaki, who has worked alongside Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon, the star dish here is the Ghindara, black cod marinated for 72 hours. A beautiful spot for balmy summer evenings. Its lunch menu starts at €54.
One of the hottest new restaurants, La Mome offers marvellous views of Port Hercules and the megayachts docked there from the rooftop of Port Palace Hotel.
Its blue and white interior exudes French Riviera chic, reminiscent of the aesthetic portrayed in the 1955 film To Catch A Thief, starring silver screen legends Cary Grant and Grace Kelly and also filmed in nearby Cannes and Nice.
Mediterranean fare with Provencal, Italian and Greek influences meets a vivacious vibe in this lively space with live music.
Another establishment making waves is Maya Jah, which has an upscale take on Moroccan and Indian cuisine, and is set in a plush interior with opulent dark tones.
Exotic describes this new addition to the growing Maya Collection of global restaurants that includes sister establishments Thai-Japanese Maya Bay and Italian Maya Mia, also in Monaco.
Where to stay
One would hardly equate Monaco with “affordable”, but Novotel Monte-Carlo comes close. Depending on the season, rates start from about $250 a night for a contemporary-styled room, but it is the great location that makes it a steal.
The famous Casino Monte-Carlo is less than a 10-minute walk away, as is Monte Carlo Harbour with its luxurious array of super-yachts docked there. In fact, selected rooms in the three-star hotel offer beautiful views of the sea.
Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo
If you are looking to splurge, Hotel Metropole Monte-Carlo is a bastion of luxury right in the heart of the famed Casino Square. Within the walls of its Belle Epoque architecture is where classical elegance meets modern luxury. Rates start from around €360, depending on the season.
In the hotel, lounge-restaurant Odyssey takes pride of place, designed by the late fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld. The hotel is also home to Yoshi, the only Japanese restaurant on the Cote d’Azur to be awarded a Michelin star since 2010.
- Jamie Nonis is neither rich nor famous, but this luxury lifestyle journalist is quite happy playing the part here in Monaco.
- The writer was partially hosted by VisitMonaco.
- In Quest Of is a series on the joy of niche exploration amid the resurgence of international travel.