Life, even at the Monte Carlo Rendez-Vous, is not all business. Vitali Vitaliev takes in the sights and sounds of Monaco, stops by at the Casino, and luxuriates at the Hotel de Paris.
The principality of Monaco is the smallest fully independent state of Europe after Vatican City. Monaco’s size is close to that of Hyde Park in London. Out of 30,000 residents, only 5,000 are native Monegasques, and almost 50% are French.
The Prince, who holds all executive power in the country, is also the main shareholder of the Societe des Bains de Mer, the company that owns almost everything in Monaco, including the Casino and the famous Hotel de Paris. So it wouldn’t be an exaggeration say that Monaco is not simply ruled but also owned by Prince Albert Alexandre Marie Pierre.
Monaco’s royals have special red-carpeted entrances to theatres and public buildings, for their exclusive use. Not just the streets, but libraries, conference halls, gymnasiums and schools are named after them. Details of their income remain a state secret.
The history of modern Monte Carlo is inseparable from that of the Casino. It began in the mid-nineteenth century, a time when the international beau monde - rich, elegant and titled - dictated fashion and convention. For the Cote d’Azur, it was a time of rapid development. Nice and Cannes welcomed thousands of wealthy foreigners, mostly British. Chateaux rose out of the ground. Hotels lined the avenues. Only Monaco, a struggling township of 1,200 inhabitants, remained poor and forgotten.
It was then that the future Prince Charles III decided to breathe life into the moribund state. Gambling was forbidden in France, but the Principality of Monaco had been independent since 1489. Why not open a gaming room there and turn it into another Baden-Baden, where gambling was bringing in more than 200,000 tourists a year, he thought.
The idea was launched. In 1856, the first gambling licence was issued to two Frenchmen, Albert Aubert and Leon Langlois, who opened a roulette in Villa Bellevue, an isolated house in the Gondamine, a God-forsaken suburb. To get there, the potential gamblers had to take a coach from Nice. The journey lasted for more than four hours. The road, which had no protecting parapet, ran along a precipice; passengers arrived in Monaco more dead than alive. The only alternative route was by sea: the Palmaria, an old paddle-steamer, could carry a few passengers, along with sacks of flour and barrels of olive oil.
As for the citizens of Monaco (the Monegasques) themselves, access to the roulette was denied to them (and still is!).
In these conditions, it is not surprising that only one player visited the Casino in November, 1857. He won two francs. The journey by road cost him four francs, including tip.
A new page in the Casino’s history was associated with Francois Blanc, an art-loving businessman, who invited Charles Garnier, the famous architect of the Paris Grand Opera, to build a new casino and to design the whole ensemble of La Place du casino, which was to become the “Golden Square” of the principality. Charles III, who had become a full-scale Prince by that time, wanted to find a name for Monaco’s new capital. A humble person by nature, he hesitated between Charleville and Albertville (his son was called Albert), but finally settled on Monte Carlo – Mount Charles.
In the years to come, the Casino was frequented by Alexandre Dumas, Baron Rothschild, Jacques Offenbach, Napoleon, Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, Winston Churchill, and many more. Mata Hari shot a fellow German spy there. Aristotle Onassis, on a gambling spree with Jackie, once remarked: “Can you imagine it? The Monegasques are the people who run a Casino at a loss!” Indeed, for many years the Casino made no profit and was regarded as a source of easy money. Even today, gambling accounts for only 5% of Monaco’s income.
Not a gambler myself, I visit the Casino early in the morning. I walk through a marble vestibule with twenty-eight columns, cross the Renaissance Hall, with frescoes on the ceiling, and reach the Salon of Europe, lit by eight Bohemian glass candelabra, each weighing 150 kilograms (no card-shark would survive a blow on the head with a candelabrum like this). The huge hall is now empty, not counting a couple of char women with buckets and several ‘garcons de salles’ cleaning roulette tables and slot machines – a tiny fraction of the Casino’s 1,000 strong and almost exclusively Monegasque staff.
I approach one of the roulette machines and gently push a roulette wheel, “with neither memory nor conscience” (as Dostoevsky says). How many keep tearing eyes, bloodshot and swollen after a sleepless night, had followed this merciless rotation, both blissful and lethal in its quiet unpredictability! How many people put their lives and fortunes at the mercy of this soulless wheel!
One of the cleaners tells me that with a strong push the wheel can rotate for two hours. But I don’t have that much time to spare…
THE HOTEL DE PARIS
After the Casino, the second best-known institution in Monaco is the Hotel de Paris (next door), with its glorious Le Louis XV restaurant, run by one of the world’s most famous chefs, Alain Ducasse. Built in 1864, together with the Casino and the pigeon-shooting stand (another popular Monte Carlo attraction which allowed hapless punters to let off steam), it offered five-franc set dinners for its fifty guests paying twenty-five francs for a full board. From its very first days, the hotel has always been fully booked for months ahead.
The Hotel de Paris exterior and interior are kept in the same Empire style as the Casino. One interesting detail is that during the First World War the Hotel was used as a hospital. I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be dying (or recovering) among all these crystal chandeliers and marble columns…
The décor of the restaurant’s comparatively small dining hall for sixty patrons is little short of grandiose, which in plain words means that everything is gilded and shining. The tables are covered with cloth of damask linen and set with the finest monogrammed porcelain one can picture, cutlery in authentic silver guilt and glasses of cut crystal on gilded trays.
The detail that struck me most though was a special stand for ladies’ handbags near each table.
The restaurant room remembers lots of grand feasts. The early 20th century Russian Grand Dukes (of whom there were many), who rented whole floors of the hotel, drank gallons of champagne themselves and gave some to their horses, used to throw banquets here. One night the party of Grand Duke Dimitri, having consumed heaps of caviar, blinis and salmon pojarsky, ordered sixty magnums of champagne of which the majority ended up broken to smithereens against the marble columns. What a waste…
I was sure that if someone scrutinised the carpet properly, tiny prickly pieces of these bottles could still be found, the fragments of the belle époque itself.
Its modern fame came to Le Louis XV in 1987, when a thirty-year-old Alain Ducasse was appointed its chef. With his “new style of cooking””, he won himself three Michelin stars thus becoming the world’s youngest chef to be warded such an honour.
The statistics of Le Louis XV are staggering: it employs ninety cooks (one and a half for every customer!), the kitchen is 1,100 square metres; its wine cellars store 300,000 bottles of wine; it offers 500 varieties of cigar that one can enjoy without leaving the dining hall: Monaco is one of the few remaining countries in Europe where you are still allowed (and often encouraged) to smoke in public places.
As for the food, I won’t tire you with the original French names of the dishes from the giant menu, on which a Monaco Heli Air chopper can easily land. To give you a better idea, here are some “poetic” English translations of mine (they have to be translated in verse, these culinary hexameters): “Provencal home-grown vegetables with oil from the mill beyond the water stewed with crushed black truffles” (starter); “Breton lobster cooked over charcoal, juice from the press, spaghetti with truffles or tomato or basil” (first main course); “young pigeon from the Alps of High Provence, cooked over charcoal, grilled fattened duck’s liver, heads of boletus stuck with garlic and stewed” (second main course); and, to cap it all, “wild strawberries in lukewarm juice, water-ice and mascarpone – a Lombardy cheese prepared as a dessert”.
Still hungry? Then how about a “chump end of the loin of a free-range suckling calf cooked like an old-fashioned roast with real sauce, stewed carrots, new potatoes and small round onions”?
Vitali Vitaliev is a travel writer.