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To get to the Prince’s Palace, you have a small climb on foot which, thanks to the stunning views over the Mediterranean, does not take long at all and is very pleasant. Once you have arrived, the first thing you see is the large Palace Square featuring cannons given by Louis XIV and a bronze statue of François Grimaldi dressed as a monk, but concealing a dagger under the cloak of his habit.
To understand why, we have to go back to the 13th century. The Ghibellines had decided to build this great fortress on the Rocher, Monaco’s large rock, in 1215, but on 8 January 1297, François Grimaldi, disguised as a monk, managed to gain entry and open the doors to his small Guelph army. The Guelphs and the Ghibellines were in dispute over the succession to the imperial crown after Emperor Henry V died without an heir.
After admiring the statue and taking in the spectacular views, it is time to head to the Prince’s Palace, also known as the Grand Palace.
This is the official residence of the Prince of Monaco and it is one of very few royal palaces in this style, as other European sovereigns, like the Bourbons, Habsburgs and Romanovs, favoured more luxurious and spacious Renaissance or Baroque palaces.
The fortress was built in the 13th century by the Genoese and, during its long history, has been attacked, besieged and bombarded so often that it has had to undergo major restoration work nearly every century. In 1997, the Grimaldi family celebrated 700 years of rule from the same palace.
The palace is such a blend of different architectural styles that each needs to be understood separately. Its main façade gives the impression that it is made up of a collection of different palaces from various periods of the Renaissance, but, in reality, it is just one. These palatial façades only have the lower level in common and, in one way or another, conceal the original fortress, whose irregular towers stick out at the sides and above, showing their battlements and machicolations. The medieval towers, the ones on the far right, had to be rebuilt in the 19th century, St Mary’s Tower by Charles III and the Clock Tower by Albert I, both in white stone from La Turbie, a French town located a few kilometres from here.
From April to October, the Palace is open to the public and guided tours of just over half an hour are offered. Not to be missed. You can come in and see the Gallery of Hercules, its various rooms and feel as if you are a member of the nobility.
If you enter, starting at the top of the Gallery of Hercules and coming down to the main courtyard, you will see a spectacular double-turn staircase made from Carrara marble dating back to the 13th century, inspired by the one situated in Fontainebleau Castle. The gallery walls are adorned with frescoes of mythological figures by the 16th-century Lombard painter, Francesco Mazzuchelli, il Morazzone, and others by the Genoese artist, Orazio Ferrari, from the 17th century.
To the north of the courtyard, you will find the Palatine Chapel from 1665, dedicated to St John the Baptist. Interestingly, inside, you can see a number of frescoes that tell the story of St Devote, the patron saint of Monaco.
From here, you can cross the Hall of Mirrors, used by royalty and heads of state, to gain access to the State Rooms and Apartments. Many people visit these spaces and they are quite spectacular. Here, we summarise the most notable. The Red Room is in the style of Louis XV and contains exceptional paintings by Breughel and other artists. You will also discover the York Room, named after the Duke of York, the brother of King George III of Great Britain and Ireland, who died within these walls in 1787. Then you will arrive at the Blue Room where the decor in blue silk and gold is highly recognisable as this space is used for official receptions. And for official ceremonies, the famous Throne Room, which you will also see during the visit. This room’s Renaissance fireplace particularly stands out, as do the ceiling and walls painted by Orazio Ferrari. And rounding off our summary, the Mazarin Room, adorned with ornate woodwork.
Whether you visit all of these majestic rooms or not, you will certainly be keeping an eye on your watch. Because, every day, outside the Prince’s Palace, the changing of the guard takes place. At 5 minutes to midday. So get your camera ready and find a good place to take a photograph. As you will soon find out, in Monaco, even the changing of the guard is a real treat.