The French Riviera, stretching from Marseille in the west to Menton, close to the Italian border in the east, is considered by many to be the most glamorous stretch of civilisation on the planet. I suppose it may well be for so many different reasons. Concealed behind the bright blue sea and the glaring virgin sunshine though, there lurks a bit of a shady past. Monaco, towards the eastern end, keeps a few secrets of its own to epitomise this. Take a visit if you ever find yourself in the south of France.
The culture of Monaco is solidly French and is seen by many people as being a part of France. Monaco is, however, a very small but full blown country in its own right. It has its own efficient administration, is a member of the EU and holds a seat at the United Nations. It has much influence in Europe and beyond.
The association of Monaco and Monte Carlo can sometimes seem a little confusing. Monte Carlo is the district or ward of Monaco where the government resides. It is also where the casino culture operates and where many lives have been ruined. Monaco is a tax haven. There is no income tax and only a very low business tax. We can all go to visit and dream, but few of us can afford to become residents and enjoy a sumptuous, sunny lifestyle. I suspect that only a few of us would want to.
Monaco, with its administrative and cultural centre of Monte Carlo, is tiny. Today it has an entire population of only around 35000 people. There are about 125 different nationalities living there though, and unemployment is zero.
I took a brief visit there myself some time ago. I wanted to have a good look round. At that time I was working for an airline from which I received many travel concessions. I only paid ten percent for my British Airways ticket to Nice airport, got a good travel industry discount on my hire car and standby rates at my hotel when I showed them my ID card. I began to feel that I was practicing the art of being a good, confirmed ‘Monegasque’ and was really getting into the spirit.
Monaco came into existence when the land was bought from Genoa by the Grimaldi family in 1308. They have remained the controlling influence ever since and run the country as the ‘Principality of Monaco’. It is a very old state but only became well known in the world after the mid eighteen hundreds.
At around this time, a scoundrel from Bordeaux in France came onto the scene. He had made a lot of money for himself using a cunning scheme of insider trading on the Paris stock market. His name was Francois Blanc and he had a well practiced sharp eye and a slick hand at cards to boot. He drifted towards Monaco and recognised the attraction of casino gambling there. Charles 111 was the reigning worthy at the time and was almost bankrupt.
Blanc bought undeveloped land on a cliff top by the coast from Charles at a pittance rate. He built a casino with an opera house, bribed the railway company to extend the line in from Nice and began to make a fortune. He called this quarter Monte Carlo, Italian for mount Charles, as a grovelling gesture towards the ruler. He would often quote the lines, ‘sometimes red wins, sometimes black wins, but Blanc always wins’. This phrase sounded very cool when quoted in French. He trusted once more in the greed and raw desires of humanity and cleaned up. When he died, he left an estate of around 20 million dollars, a fortune at the time.
In 1892 another celebrated punter began to stamp his gambling inclinations on to Monte Carlo. His name was Charles Deville Wells. He was an arrogant cockney from London and was wanted there under several arrest warrants for various spurious activities. He had a loud mouth, a barrel for a stomach and wore an outlandish checked suit. He carried a large wad of money and began to gamble it all in the casino. He had fabulous luck and won night after night. Everyone followed him and copied his bets on other tables. Wells was always the only winner though, completely legitimately of course. He was hero worshipped and adored and temporarily became exceedingly rich. He bought an enormous yacht and hosted intoxicating parties on it in the beautiful horseshoe shaped harbour down by the sea. Wells ‘broke the bank at Monte Carlo’ many times and the catchy song of that name has stayed with him ever since.
Luck, of course, ran out for Wells in the end. He ended up bankrupt and was chased by his creditors. He died in hiding and obscurity in 1922 at the age of 85. It was a dull and rainy day and no one came to mourn him. The casino still operates today. You can take a visit yourself and try to imitate Wells if you really must. Many have tried but some have thrown themselves to the rocks below as they faced ruin.
Monaco today is a major tourist attraction. The sun is always shining and the sea such a stunning blue that the first sight of it will take your breath away. It did for me. Monaco with Monte Carlo is home for so many of the rich and famous.
Notable residents include Roger Moore, Ringo Starr and Shirley Bassey. There is a selection of various Formula 1 racing drivers and well known ‘A’ class rock stars. Mohamed Al-Fayed from Harrods in London and Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of Easyjet, are among the many local high rollers. Monaco is an encrusted jewel of celebrity, elegance and opulence.
There is much for the traveller in Monaco to see. Every year there is the Formula 1 Grand Prix race that takes place through the streets of the country. There is also the annual Monte Carlo Rally. Cars from all four corners of Europe descend on to the streets of Monaco after lengthy motoring journeys. The event is world famous and great prestige is always attached to the winning vehicle. Both of these events are organised by the Automobile Club de Monaco.
Visit the interesting Cathedral in Monaco and the magnificent Prince’s Palace. The Napoleon and Oceanographic Museums are also splendid attractions. Tourists must never miss the startling view of the Panorama of La Condamine and the harbour of Monte Carlo from the lookout near the Prince’s Palace. The captivating sight of the curved, matronly port containing all the yachts from above seems the iconic symbol of wealth and extravagance.
Grace Kelly was a very famous and beautiful American film actress. She met and married Prince Rainier, the ruler of Monaco at the time, in 1954. Ms Kelly was there to make a Hollywood movie with many of her celebrity friends. They had been invited to the Palace by the Prince.
The wedding attracted intense media attention from all over the world. It seemed to intensify the perceived glamour of Monaco. Many renowned personalities attended the ceremony from so many countries. Many of Ms Kelly’s famous friends from Hollywood were present. The marriage in the Cathedral appeared to the world as the perfect realisation of every person’s aspiration. Grace Kelly, the bricklayer’s daughter from Philadelphia, had become a real live Princess under the glorious sunshine over the Mediterranean Sea.
Grace Kelly devoted her life to her new surroundings in Monaco. She adopted her role as a Princess perfectly and provided Rainier with the heirs that he so badly needed. In 1982 it all ended for her in a tragic road accident.
She was driving down a steep mountain road towards the Palace and her car plunged into a deep ravine. Ms Kelly was with her daughter Stephanie, aged 17 at the time, and both were badly injured. Stephanie survived but Grace Kelly did not. Her funeral appeared on live television all over the world. There was a global demonstration of universal grief and sadness.
The only person from her past to attend her funeral was an elderly and white-haired Cary Grant from her old life as a Hollywood actress during her youth. Maybe this would not be the last sad ending for a person that lived their dreams in Monte Carlo only to find them crash so harshly on to the rocks of real life. Visit Monaco sometime if you like, but perhaps best not to forget to come home again.