Royal Monaco: A Glimpse Backstage

I’m off to see the Prince and Princess.

As my husband Philippe and I cruise the Côte d’Azur’s A8 motorway toward Monaco, I’m brimming with confidence. Our fashionista daughter has just told me, in no uncertain terms, that this white lacey dress does not suit me.

The woman who sold it to me in Toronto a couple weeks ago said she “got shivers” seeing me emerge from the change room. She was a pro. The dress was even on sale. I was simply delighted it took only an hour of last-minute shopping to reach my false style nirvana. Now I feel all wrong.

Philippe and I have left Antibes in good time. He’s dressed in a slate blue, Italian summer suit – one he just purchased in Cannes’ swanky Croisette shopping district – along with a brand-new pair of dark navy loafers. He looks the part.

It’s extremely bad form to arrive later than the royals, he tells me. His long-time friend invited us to this evening’s intimate gala and has been feeding him bit by bit with the protocol.

I fill part of the hour’s drive with details of the Prince and Princess. I’m hardly a royal watcher, but news of a chance rendez-vous with royalty filled me with a heady concoction of excitement and anxiety. Better to figure out their names ahead of time, I figured. Maybe a bit of background knowledge, too.

Albert II is one of the wealthiest royals on the planet, I tell Philippe, what with his stake in Monte-Carlo’s famous casino and a bunch of other Monaco landmarks. I’m reciting what I learned earlier this afternoon. My favourite salon in Antibes has WIFI – something we aggravatingly STILL do not have at home (see the prior post) – so what better way to catch up on life than to book a pedicure? I would simply kill two birds at once because shiny red-orange toenails would jazz up my cheap, five-year-old, silver high-heeled sandals.

All the fuss is over a chance to meet Monaco’s Prince Albert II.  Photo:  Wikimedia Commons
All the fuss is over a chance to meet Monaco’s Prince Albert II. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With my feet plunged into a bucket of tepid water, my iPhone in hand and my nose in Wikipedia, I learned about Albert II’s perpetual state of bachelorhood (and its offspring). I learned about his elder sister Caroline, the so-called “heir presumptive” – and why legitimate heirs are a big deal in this tiny principality that aims to stay outside the clutches of neighbouring France. I share all of this with Philippe as we cruise closer to the Principality of Monaco.

Wonderful Wiki also filled me in on the Princess. Charlene was born in Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe, but moved to South Africa and competed as an Olympic swimmer. She was also the latest famous bride with extremely icy feet in the run up to her big day – something to do with the rumour of another illegitimate child. But she carried on and became HSH The Princess of Monaco, a title last held by Grace Kelly. A few weeks ago, the palace – presumably with the greatest of joys – announced the Princess’ pregnancy.

These are the Prince and Princess I am about to see. Philippe and I do not arrive late. A couple women in black usher us into a reception hall along Boulevard des Moulins, just down the street from Monte-Carlo’s casino. Next to their somber clothing, my lacey white dress glows.

The reception room is hardly showy – no dripping chandeliers or gigantic bouquets of roses – but that’s what you’d expect in the circumstance. Straightaway I hear the voice of Victor, the fund manager friend who’s responsible for this invitation Philippe and I could hardly refuse. Victor has just joined a new bank in Monaco and somehow Philippe and I got short-listed for the opening gala: cocktails in their offices followed by dinner in the prestigious wine cellar of the Hôtel de Paris. The bank’s owners delayed tonight’s festivities for a couple months in order to fit it into the highly charged agendas of the principality’s top royals.

A Rolls Royce lingers outside Monaco’s most famous hotel.  Photo:  Steve Muntz
A Rolls Royce lingers outside Monaco’s most famous hotel. Photo: Steve Muntz

Victor and I greet each other with cheek kisses. A quick scan of the slowly populating salon reveals much black but also a couple light pink outfits and a white pantsuit. My lacey white dress glows a little less obviously.

Philippe and I chat with the assembling guests, sipping champagne but avoiding consecutive platters of beautifully assembled hors d’œurves. I don’t want to smudge my lipstick. I meet a woman who was born in Eritrea, moved to Belgium and then to Italy. Her son calls himself purely Italian. Another couple hails from Athens. He gives Philippe and me an overview of the Greek economy using a brilliant metaphor of how one should best operate a ship – but then that’s his business. The Eritrean-Belgian-Italian woman returns to introduce me to another woman, one dressed in all black with broad cheekbones and thick, dark curls pulled into a loose, bushy ponytail.

She is a true Monegasque, the multi-national woman tells me. Fourth generation. Her mother’s the one across the room in the white pantsuit.

The Monegasque in black fascinates me. She’s about my age. The idea that she – that anyone – can live within the two-square kilometers of Monaco all her life seems at once glamourous and infinitely cloistered. On our introduction, the poor Monegasque courteously outlines for me the global reach of her former classmates and the array of multinational friendships she keeps, probably answering the exact questions every foreigner asks. But my next words seem to take her by surprise. Have you ever met the Prince?

Of course I’ve met him, she says. Many times. Her tone wonders how I couldn’t possibly realise that.

So where do you see him? I continue, assuming Monaco’s royalty hardly parade up and down the principality’s undulating lanes or frequent its sidewalk cafés.

At private events, the Monegasque in black tells me. Surely she is relieved by the arrival of three photographers (one wearing jeans, a white t-shirt and tennis shoes) and a sense of movement out in the hallway.

Prince Albert II enters the room – at least that’s who I think he is based on the photo in Wikipedia and the way the crowd begins to assemble into neat rows at an appropriate distance. The Prince wears a dark suit with a perfectly pressed and bleached white shirt. His tie is a coordinating navy with a regal-looking golden pattern stitched into the fabric. He is neither tall nor short, particularly striking nor unfortunately plain, but somehow a palpable sense of anticipation hovers over this man’s entry into the modest reception room.

As the crowd gathers and conversations hush, this end of the salon becomes the center of attention. I find myself standing in the front row next to the fourth-generation Monegasque. The Prince makes his way toward us, shaking hands here and there. He looks at me carefully and, realizing he doesn’t know me, moves to my new acquaintance, offering her a handshake.

So she really has met him before.

A woman in black offers everyone a warm bienvenue to this happy occasion. I suddenly realize all evidence of alcohol has disappeared from the reception room – just like when the parents arrive back home unexpectedly early – and here I am in the front row, clutching my champagne red-handedly. I turn and pass my glass to Philippe, who’s better covered in the second row. Now he’s stuck holding two glasses.

A man in a dark suit makes another talk. The Prince stands at the front of the room, hands clasped, listening respectfully. By this time it’s clear he’s alone. The Princess isn’t going to show up. Shortly the Prince stands beside a low corner table and, holding the corner of a regal-looking cloth along with another dark-suited man, he lifts the material to expose a plaque bearing the announcement of today’s opening by HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco. Cameras flash.

The Prince says a couple words – literally. He seems shy of the spotlight, his eyes falling more comfortably through their wire frames onto the floor rather than the assembled audience. Moments ago Victor told Philippe and me the Prince is actually more confident in English; it was the language of his mother, after all. The formalities conclude.

A silver tray arrives with carefully placed drinks, and Prince Albert II takes the beer. Champagne and those gorgeous hors d’œurves again make their rounds, but I still avoid them. Philippe and I debate how we can meet the Prince. We hand Victor my purple, point-and-shoot camera and wait for our moment, which at last coincides with the royal’s move toward the door. A woman in black, the one who welcomed everyone, encourages Philippe. Now is an appropriate moment to address the Prince.

Excuse me, Philippe says in English to Prince Albert II as Monaco’s top royal shuffles toward the exit. There’s no mention of “Your Highness” or any other such niceties. Neither of us will consider these formalities until much later. Instead Philippe lays his hand on the Prince’s coat sleeve to grab his attention.

Prince Albert II turns toward Philippe. My husband offers his opening gambit: Would you mind taking a photo with my American wife and me?

Prince Albert’s dark blue eyes take in Philippe and me. He smiles cautiously. Yes, of course.

As others make space for our portrait for posterity, Philippe disappears. I’m left standing here in a slightly widened space with Prince Albert II. At least the English language is my specialty.

I’m really thrilled to meet you, I say, sure that for once – in the presence of Grace Kelly’s only son – I’m allowed to be totally American in my white lacey dress, red-orange pedicure and full-on, orthodontics-worthy smile. We’re shaking hands. The Prince’s hand feels unusually fragile and soft – silky even.

Princess Charlene now carries Monaco’s future top royal.  Photo:  Wikimedia Commons
Princess Charlene now carries Monaco’s future top royal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’m really thrilled to meet you, I say, and then it flies out: But I can’t help asking. Where’s your wife?

I hardly give Prince Albert II a chance to respond. I was really hoping to say hello to her . . .

Philippe’s back. Finally. My wife has visited Bulawayo! he announces to the Prince, as if this is a more astounding idea than meeting someone in glittering Monaco who was born in the tiny, defunct, crime-ridden country of Eritrea.

But the mention of Bulawayo sparks Prince Albert II’s interest. Really? He smiles a bit more obviously now.

Not just once, I tell him. In fact, I have a dear friend who comes from Bulawayo, and today of all days is his birthday! We were just on email together . . . Why am I telling him this? . . . And I’ve lived in South Africa, too.

The words are a rush. I’m giving the Prince the fleeting bit of my personal résumé that coincides with the life of his Princess wife.

But now you live here? Prince Albert II asks.

Well, in . . . I decide not to mention Antibes. We live here for three months of the year and the rest of the time in Canada.

I’ve clearly swerved off any established royal protocol, though I’m not sure what royal protocol exactly should be anyway. And Philippe simply stands there on the other side of the Prince, enjoying the whole of this moment.

Fortunately I’m saved from myself as the Prince, Philippe and I pose for a couple shots in front of the purple, point-and-shoot camera. I’m not looking during the first one. The men are trying to figure out why the flash isn’t working during the second.

Charlene’s not here because she’s not feeling well, the Prince offers, at last given pause to speak.

Ah yes, we’ve all heard the news of the baby! I declare, suddenly spokesperson for the whole world (and quietly praising the brilliance of Wikipedia). Félicitations!

Yes, the baby, so that’s why she’s not here. But I’ll tell her someone was asking after her.

Oh, yes, please do!

You should meet her sometime.

Yes, of course, that’d be lovely, I say, smiling my biggest, most American smile ever and wondering where, by chance, do you meet a Princess? In a department store? At the palace’s pearly gates?

So, the Prince says, bon chance – good luck – with your stay here this summer!

Thank you! And bon chance with the baby . . . (Am I really, truly saying these words?)

Prince Albert II again shakes Philippe’s and my hands with an incredibly soft hand and he’s on his way. In lockstep the champagne and fancy hors d’œuvres disappear from the room, too.

Evidently the Prince isn’t joining us for the gala dinner. How anyone declines an invitation to dinner in the fabulous cave of Monaco’s storied Hôtel de Paris, I am not sure. But then if you own a good chunk of town – including this, its most famous hotel – well, you’ve probably seen it all before anyway.

The glamour of royalty has vanished from our evening with a wave of its glittering, magic wand. But Philippe and I are still in Monaco – and glamour is practically the principality’s raison d’être.

The Ferrari Daytona Spyder is parked curbside along one of the principality’s major routes.
The Ferrari Daytona Spyder is parked curbside along one of the principality’s major routes.

It’s not every day, for example, that you pass a 1972, rain slicker yellow Ferrari Daytona Spyder parked curbside. Philippe recognizes it en route to dinner, along with its $1.5 million price tag.

It’s not every day that you’re welcomed so warmly inside the Hôtel de Paris, which boasts a three-star Michelin restaurant and too many gold prizes to name. Several years ago I was shown the exit for being dressed too much like a tourist.

It’s hardly every day you’re ushered backstage of the Hôtel de Paris, down plain hallways and utilitarian staircases until the corridors narrow, bringing with them a runway of votive candles and the emerging, musty smell of a cave. No, it’s not every day that the chief sommelier tours you through his acclaimed wine cellar, the cave hollowed into rock that hid the principality’s best wines while World War II pummeled the French Riviera – the very cellar that still counts some of those same bottles among today’s 420,000-bottle inventory. It’s not just any old day either that you stand in

The Hôtel de Paris’ homemade petits fours finish off a princely meal . . .
The Hôtel de Paris’ homemade petits fours finish off a princely meal . . .

the furthest reach of this cave, on the very stones where Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III once stood with family members – like my new friend Albert – to celebrate rites of passage in their royal lives, quite probably consuming a few of the 200,000 champagne bottles the hotel sells every year.

And it’s not every night that you dine in the dimly lit room carved into the rock beside these wine racks, sharing a white-cloaked table with folks who bring local views from Ethiopia and Egypt, Italy, Switzerland and Lebanon. Royalty may not taste the same foie gras, fresh spring peas and petits fours that we do right now, but their images hang on the walls beside us in black and white photos – Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier III and, among others, the young Albert II.

. . . while the wine cellar’s royal ancestors watch our every bite.
. . . while the wine cellar’s royal ancestors watch our every bite.

We say our goodbyes and leave the royal caves, catapulted upward by way of a sturdy, brightly lit elevator. It’s apparently easier than retracing our steps. The lift doors open quickly, too quickly, onto Monaco’s nighttime streets. A few pedestrians amble by, caught up in their own conversations. A car streams along the road beside the small plaza where a small group of us stands.

The elevator doors snap shut behind me. The bubble pops. Tonight’s spell evaporates into the night air in a fine, effervescent mist. A pair of unmarked, stainless steel elevator doors mask the fantasy that lingers beneath our feet. Now, standing here in the square in my lacey white dress, the small box of chocolates in my hand is the only evidence that our pumpkin once was a shining, horse-drawn carriage.

Down the road from here a row of Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls hugs the pavements in front of Prince Albert II’s famous casino. Somewhere across the yacht-strewn harbor, my new friend presumably tends to his wife, the Princess who bears in her womb Monaco’s legitimate successor to the throne.

Just like every day, Monaco’s heartbeat continues – but never can you call it “everyday”.

12 thoughts on “Royal Monaco: A Glimpse Backstage

  1. Beautifully described experience! Grace Kelly was always someone I “watched”………..but never got a glimpse when I visited there 25 years ago. THOSE cars are still parked there, I see!

  2. Monaco has always been one of my favorite places in Europe. Sadly, I have never had an opportunity to meet with the Royals. You are right: it doesn’t happen every day. Thank you for sharing your journey. It was really captivating to read about you, Philippe and Prince Albert II. Till next time…:)

  3. This is the second time I have read this entry. You have a gift of writing and thanks so much for sharing it with us back here in Rockford, Illinois. I am a friend of your Mom’s and watched you grow up at Christ United Methodist Church. You have led such a fascinating life both now and then, that I have to pinch myself when I read your stories. From Rockford to where you are now, unbelievable. I occasionally run into your Mom and she knows that I read your blog. Thanks for sharing your fascinating life with us. Marge Johnson

    1. Merci bien for following along with the stories, Marge, whether for the first or second time! And thank you for your very kind words. I know you are among those who gave me wings to fly. j

  4. Thanks for sharing your summer tales…so interesting. I do have a story to share with
    you when you return. Safe travels. xo

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