The Principality of Monaco is about the size of a tomato patch and is situated ideally on the south coast of France It is kept solvent by sporting one of the grandest and most famous gambling casinos in the world. Over a hundred years ago Monaco abolished all taxation, making it a haven for many who have amassed a considerable wad and seek not to share it.
Once a year Monaco hosts the most spectacular automobile race in the world. Since 1929 world championship races have been run on a course that snakes through Monaco’s winding streets. To emphasize just how winding, note that cars capable of topping 200 miles per hour manage to average just 88 miles per hour around the two-mile circuit. Challenges to drivers include a top-gear bend through a sea-side tunnel and a series of goose neck turns that has the drivers steering lock to lock. Buildings and other manifestations of civilization line the full length of the course. A mechanical malfunction or a momentary lapse of concentration anywhere and a driver will find himself parked against something solid. If ever there is a driver’s course, this is it.
Famous as it is, the best known Monaco Grand Prix was a race that never happened.
In 1966 director John Frankenheimer followed the world championship Formula I racing circuit to film the movie Grand Prix. He brought his film crew to the races that year and filmed the action on some of the top courses.
The movie cranks up with the starting of engines for the Monaco Grand Prix, and the opening scenes follow the cars in a breath-taking chase through the streets of Monaco. The aerial shots, background set pieces, and views from on-car cameras in the first few minutes of the film give the viewer a virtual tour of this tiny country. Although time has not stood still in the years since the movie was shot there, today’s visitor will have no problem touring Monaco’s principal attractions using scenes from the movie as a guide.
The cars race up Boulevard Albert 1st and Avenue d’Ostende, to the famous Casino Square and sweep to the left around the Hotel de Paris. Leaving the square drivers plunge down the tree-shaded Avenue des Spélugues, with its famous gooseneck bends. In the distance of three city blocks this quirky street takes the drivers all the way back down to sea level. On any other day a casual stroller can stop to examine the menus of restaurants that line the left side of the street, but during the race steel barricades block the sidewalk, and these inviting places flash by too quickly to be noticed by the drivers.
Frankenheimer’s car-mounted cameras take the viewer on a white-knuckles ride through here as the course heads straight into a dead end before turning sharply to the right, then to the right again before doubling completely back to the left as it continues to cascade down from the heights above. Turning hard right again the cars streak beneath a road viaduct and toward the waterfront. At the waterfront another right turn leads to what may be the most famous feature of the course.
Boulevard Louis II hugs the shoreline here, and plunges into a tunnel. Today the tunnel is an artificial construction that has resulted from expansion of the Casino Square above. When the movie was filmed in 1966 it was a real tunnel and not so long as now.
Drivers emerge from the tunnel and streak right along the water’s edge, doubling back almost parallel to the uphill portion of the course above. It’s along this sunlit stretch that Frankenheimer’s fictitious race has its dramatic conclusion.
The movie stars American actor James Garner as one of the drivers. Garner’s car mixes with his team mates BRM here, and Garner’s BRM goes into the harbor while his team mate’s car tries to climb the cliff face before falling back onto the street. Garner is quickly from the water, and his team mate has to be extracted from his mangled BRM
Scenes from the film show the cars doubling completely back to the right around a traffic median as they exit the waterfront section and start the climb to Casino Square. These days the cars leaving the waterfront proceed almost to the row of official government buildings along Quai Antoine 1st and hook to the right around the Grand Prix Café.
The drivers also pass close by a life-size bronze of Juan Manuel Fangio and his Mercedes Benz racing car. The sculpture is located on a grassy traffic median across the street from the Grand Prix Café, and a sunny afternoon will find tourists posing for photographs alongside this racing icon and affectionately touching it, despite a posted sign to the contrary.
Most of the actors did their own driving for the movie. Additionally, a number of well-known drivers played themselves or else fictional characters. Knowledgeable race fans can quickly spot American drivers Richie Ginther and Phil Hill. British racing star Jim Clark played himself, and the fictional character of Bob Turner was played by Graham Hill. A slew of other famous drivers participated uncredited in the filming. Even the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, long retired, worked as a driver.
The story of the race that wasn’t would not be complete without mentioning the terrible irony that followed the following year. In 1967, while the film was playing in theaters, many of the same drivers were back competing in Monaco. Up and coming Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini was one of the uncredited drivers in the film, and in 1967 he was leading the race in a team Ferrari when disaster struck. To complete the irony, Bandini crashed in the same spot as James Garner’s fictional crash of the year before. Unfortunately, Bandini was killed, the only fatality in the history of the race.
As a great fan of the movie, I longed to retrace these famous scenes. More than that, having been born in the small town of Tolar, Texas, I had a hankering to see a country that was smaller than Tolar.
And so it is. A quick geographical fact check shows that all of Monaco covers just 0.76 square miles while Tolar stretches 0.90 square miles out on the Texas prairie. Of course, Monaco is built on a steep mountain side, so most likely if you laid it all out flat like Tolar, Monaco would be just as large.
Monaco also seems to be a much better tourist draw than Tolar. So it was that my brother and I, two boys from Tolar, dropped by with our wives to check it out. No contest. Monaco beats Tolar hands down.
To the new visitor it immediately becomes apparent why the original inhabitants, and subsequently the Grimaldi’s, chose this site as their base. In early times it was so difficult to get there that defending the place probably amounted to not telling people where it was. Even after the casino was built in 1863, patrons got in by means of a mule trail.
What really opened Monaco up to visitors was the completion of a rail connection to Nice, and now there are a number of ways to get there by road. You can take the A8 toll highway and get off at the Monaco exit. Or you can take the scenic route. Driving out through the suburbs of Nice on N7 or N98 you will see signs prominently posted telling where to turn to stay on course. Once out of Nice the choice of routes dwindles precipitously, and there’s no question of getting lost. It’s either go to Monaco or look for some place to turn around.
In Nice the N98 coast road is "La Promenade," where it serves the beachfront properties. If you arrive at the Nice airport, it’s the first street you encounter, and you can follow it directly to Monaco, about 11 miles from Nice. On the way to Monaco N98 twists along the cliffs and through the picturesque towns of Villefranche sur Mer and Bealieu sur Mer. This route is particularly painless and offers some of the most spectacular scenery on the French Riviera. Tolar has nothing to compare.
If you are not into driving you can catch the SNCF rail line to Monaco. Beyond Nice it follows close by N98, with stops at Villefranche and Bealieu. In Monaco the trains stop a few blocks from the Casino, which really describes just about everywhere in the country. Beyond Monaco the rail line connects to nearby Menton in France, and Ventimiglia and Sanremo and beyond in Italy.