Rude Travel: The legend of Monte Carlo

The trouble with telling people that you are going to Monte Carlo is that you only have to mention the name of your destination for it to sound like you are showing off. In the minds of most of us, Monte Carlo is less a real place...writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Apr 13, 2013 18:51 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Monte Carlo,james Bond,casino

The trouble with telling people that you are going to Monte Carlo is that you only have to mention the name of your destination for it to sound like you are showing off. In the minds of most of us, Monte Carlo is less a real place than a reference point. Mention the city and the associations that spring forth are casinos, luxury hotels, the Mediterranean, the hill roads of the Riviera, large yachts, and beautiful women sunbathing topless.

Many of these associations are bogus (there is not much to the beach and I didn’t see a single topless sunbather) but enough of them are valid for the legend of Monte Carlo to endure. For instance, when you land in Nice (there is no airport in Monte Carlo), the transfer to Monaco, where Monte Carlo is located, is almost always by helicopter. The Monaco authorities keep the price of the helicopter ride low, ask the chopper pilots to take the route over the Mediterranean and urge them to fly fast so that you are at the Monte Carlo heliport in just over seven minutes. The chopper ride is part of the experience: from the time you lift off and see the sun glinting off the blue waters of the sea, you know that this is going to be a luxury experience.

As much as we’ve heard of Monte Carlo, glamorous location of James Bond movies and high rollers at the casino, these are only the obvious clichés and not the full story. (And many of us still think of a biscuit when Monaco is mentioned, anyway). But there is a history to the jet-set glamour and the legend, and yes, the casino is at the heart of it.

Right From The Start: From the time you lift off in the helicopter for Monaco and see the sun glinting off the blue waters of the sea, you know that this is going to be a luxury experience

Though it is now a millionaire’s paradise, Monaco was not always rich. For most of its existence, in fact, it has been desperately poor. The Grimaldis were seafarers (or pirates, depending on which version you believe) from the Italian port of Genoa, who captured the rock we now call Monaco in the 13th century. In the 17th century they began to call themselves Princes but the rest of Europe did not take them seriously, the French kept annexing their tiny Principality and in the 1850s, they were bankrupt and had to cope with a restive population that wanted to join neighbouring France and dump the Grimaldis back into the Mediterranean.

As the situation grew desperate, the Grimaldis gave a concession to a private company to operate a casino. In 1864, after the injection of Rothschild funding, the casino finally got going in a previously little-known part of Monaco. The casino company (called SBM) developed the new area, built two grand hotels (the Hotel De Paris and the Hermitage) and created the town we now know as Monte Carlo. The Monte Carlo casino soon made lots of money and the Grimaldis were able to abolish income tax and provide lavishly for their subjects. This ended the clamour on the part of the populace to join France. But Monte Carlo remained the only part of Monaco anybody had heard of and even that was owned by SBM, not the Grimaldis.

In 1949, when Prince Rainier took charge in Monte Carlo, gambling had become legal in the rest of Europe, so SBM was making losses and the gamblers and tourists had stopped coming to Monte Carlo, choosing to gamble in their own countries. Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping tycoon, took control of SBM in the early 1950s, and set about trying to improve Monaco’s global image.

One of Onassis’ suggestions was that Rainier should marry an American actress to put Monaco on the map. Feelers were sent out to Marilyn Monroe but she believed that Monaco was in Africa and said she was not interested. When Rainier did find an American actress, he did it on his own without Onassis’s help. He pursued Grace Kelly, then a leading Hollywood star, and was delighted when she agreed to marry him.

But neither Rainier nor Monaco were rich. So Grace Kelly’s millionaire father had to pay a dowry of $2 million, some of which Rainier spent on organising a grand wedding which was televised across the world. (Onassis also paid for part of the wedding.) The story of the Prince and the Hollywood star captured the global imagination and after that, Monaco has never looked back.

The publicity surrounding the wedding and Princess Grace’s own popularity were enough to turn Monte Carlo into a jet-set hot spot. By 1964, with tourists flocking to Monaco and the casino flush with funds, Rainier finally decided to do battle with SBM. He ousted Onassis, took charge of the company (now the Grimaldis and the Monaco government jointly own around 70 per cent of SBM) and finally emerged as the true lord of Monte Carlo. The pirate family had become proper Princes via Hollywood.

Ever since, Monaco has hardly been out of the news. Princess Grace died young, at the wheel of her car on one of those beautiful hill roads on the Riviera in 1982 but her children have kept Monaco in the gossip columns. Princess Caroline has been among the world’s most glamorous figures all through her three marriages. Her sister Princess Stephanie had many affairs with such high-profile figures as the Hollywood actor Rob Lowe but married her bodyguard. That marriage ended when he was caught having sex with a stripper. Later lovers have included an elephant trainer and a gardener before she married an acrobat and went to live with him in his circus caravan.

The Grimaldis tried to keep the Grace-Rainier glamour alive by hosting a grand wedding for Albert, Rainier’s son who is the current Prince. But despite the choice of a glamorous South African Olympic athlete as a bride, the ceremony was dogged by speculation that the lady had tried to make a run for it when she heard of Albert’s many illegitimate children.

Nobody knows if this story is true but last week, Albert and the Princess seemed happy enough. They were the hosts of the annual Bal de la Rose organised by Princess Caroline and the Grimaldis to raise money for the Princess Grace Foundation. I was one of the invited guests (this is less impressive than it sounds; there were over 750 people at the ball!) and had a chance to see Monaco’s jet set up close.

As for as I could tell, apart from a sizable contingent of wealthy Japanese, the cream of Monaco’s society was largely white and middle-aged. The men showed off their dinner jackets and the woman trailed silicone and collagen on the dance floor. Even so, the smell of money was in the air and when Rita Ora (dressed by Karl Lagerfeld who had designed the ball) began to perform, large sections of the audience had no clue who she was. And when the black American singer Theophilus London followed Ora onto the stage, he was possibly the only black man in the house.

He’s Got Designs: The ball was imagined by Karl Lagerfeld, including the menu (above), which even carried an illustration by the designer

But Monaco is like that. It has no desire to be a rainbow nation and is quite happy being a millionaires’ playground. The country is tiny (about the size of Delhi’s Greater Kailash I would guess: around 480 acres) and there are only about 7,500 or so native Monegasques with another 30,000 or so tax exiles. Nearly everybody who works in Monte Carlo lives in neighbouring Italy or France and commutes every day. There are day-trips by tourist coach parties but Monaco does not attract downmarket tourism and there are few cheap hotels.

The heart of Monte Carlo is the area around the casino which includes the grand Hotel de Paris and the more elegant Hermitage. All of this is owned by SBM, which also owns two seaside hotels and all the big clubs: Buddha Bar, Jimmy’z etc. A short distance away is the Metropole Hotel, which SBM does not own, and which is much cooler and trendier with interiors designed by Jacques Garcia (him of Hôtel Costes in Paris fame) and all the restaurants supervised by Joël Robuchon.

Monte Carlo’s appeal to those who do not want to gamble (and though the casino is beautiful with both a janta area full of slot machines and more elegant rooms inside, it posed no attraction to me, a dedicated non-gambler) is as a centre of gastronomy. Not only does it have the best food in the South of France, it is also a battleground between the world’s two greatest chefs Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse.

Of the two, Ducasse is now the bigger name with three different restaurants in three cities possessing three stars, (the highest honour the Michelin guide can bestow) in London, Paris and Monte Carlo. Of the three, it is Monte Carlo that forms the nerve centre of his operation because Franck Cerutti who masterminds the food for the Ducasse organisation is based here.

I ate an exquisite meal at Ducasse’s Monte Carlo place (it is called Le Louis XV) where the many courses included a shellfish salad with coco beans, sea bass from the Mediterranean with fresh asparagus from the south of France, and lamb from milk-fed baby sheep that was so pure and white you felt you were eating roast chicken. The meal took three hours and after five different wines, I had to go and lie down to recover.

On the other hand, not everything Ducasse does in Monte Carlo is as successful. I had a godawful meal at the Grill at the Hotel de Paris which Ducasse also runs: asparagus turned to mush, an over-salted risotto with morels and beef that had been cooked for much longer than medium rare required.

Robuchon, on the other hand, has the advantage of consistency. His gastronomic restaurant at the Metropole has two stars to Ducasse’s three but this could be because it is merely a fancier and warmer version of the L’Ateliers he runs all over the world. The food though, was light and terrific: the famous onion tart with black truffles, his foie gras-filled version of the hamburger, scallop Carpaccio and tartare, followed by a nice old-fashioned Floating Island.

Stellar Setting: I was one of the invited guests at the Bal de la Rose, organised by Princess Caroline and the Grimaldis and had a chance to see Monaco’s jet set up close

Robuchon’s Japanese restaurant Yoshi, only has one star but the food was even better: teppanyaki prawns, crispy veal, Wagyu tartare and more. This was Japanese food done to Japanese levels of precision and sophistication with the flair of a great Western chef.

There are many other great places to eat in Monte Carlo. Vistamar, at the Hermitage, where I stayed, has one Michelin star and serves Oriental-influenced French food cooked by Joël Garault. You can eat well at the Monte Carlo branch of the Cipriani if you stick to the classics: Carpaccio, the veal chop and lots of
Bellinis. And all over Monte Carlo you will find serious food designed for serious foodies.

So what kind of person visits Monte Carlo? The obvious answer is: rich people. But this can be a little misleading. Nothing is cheap in Monte Carlo but, on the other hand, it is actually less expensive than Paris or London. The hotels can be cheaper and judging by my experience of the Hermitage and the Metropole, they may even be better.

There are other advantages. Except for two months of the year, it is never too cold. It is bright and sunny all summer. There are no traffic jams, nothing is crowded, you can walk everywhere and the city is remarkably safe. Women flashing large Kelly bags (the bag was named for Grace Kelly) and lots of diamonds walk
the streets at night without any fear of being mugged or robbed.

And there is always something happening. I went for the Bal de La Rose. But there’s a Grand Prix, a huge yacht show, a jazz festival, a golf tournament, a tennis masters, a flower show and God alone knows what else. So if you have four days to spare, want to relax and to eat some of the world’s best food without having to pay Paris prices or fight the crowds in Europe’s big cities, then Monte Carlo is probably the place for you.

And of course, there’s the glamour. As your chopper angles over the Mediterranean, it is hard not to think of Aristotle Onassis, Grace Kelly, James Bond, the casino and even of the Grimaldis and their colourful love lives.

From HT Brunch, April 14

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First Published: Apr 12, 2013 15:03 IST