This Summer, our European Grand Art Tour took us to the delightfully picturesque principality of Monaco. We, of course, had to sample the delights of the Grand Casino and Hotel de Paris having seen them in so many Hollywood movies. From Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’, to a number of Bond films, plus even the famous Circuit de Monaco Grand Prix race, events needing an elegant backdrop have been located here for over a century. Keen to see opulent interiors, ornate, Monacan architecture, as well as some uber-sophisticated automobile design, Art Today went in search of luxury…
From the mid-19th Century, Monaco was in need of a financial grand plan in order to stave off the debt caused by the towns of Menton and Roquebrune breaking away from its patronage. At length, it was Prince Florenstan I’s wife, Princess Caroline, who devised the concept of a gambling casino. At a time when transport to Monaco was considerably more difficult than today and luxury guest accommodation was sparse, however, this was likely to prove a difficult idea to realise. Add to this a failure to effectively advertise the resort and few gamblers materialised.
The Grimaldi’s looked to various sponsors, builders, and investors to help (Albert Aubert, Napoleon Langlois, Frossard de Lilebonne and Pierre Auguste Duval), but to no avail. Even though Duval had moved the casino from the original Villa Bellevu in La Condamine to Les Spelugues (Caves) in 1858, and it had started to make a profit, by 1859 he was unable to translate the complex into Princess Caroline’s grand venue.
The princess set about persuading Francois Blanc – French entrepreneur and Bad Homburg Casino operator in Germany – to take up the challenge instead. It took a number of attempts, but she won him over and by 1863 he was on board, sponsored by the Bishop of Monaco and future Pope Leo XIII. Along with renaming Les Spelugues to make it sound more appealing (to Monte Carlo after Florenstan’s son, Charles), the casino and neighbouring Hotel de Paris were starting to gain kudos.
Various extensions and improvements to the original plan were carried out by Garnier and Dutrou from 1878-81, and again by Henri Schmit from 1898-99, to achieve the final complex extant today. In a distinctly ‘Beaux Arts’* style, the florid, stark-white exterior serves as a permanent reminder of a princess’s determined creativity and ingenuity.
As you would expect, the casino interior is as grand as the exterior. The Salle Blanche is a particular favourite where Beaux-Arts* meets Art Nouveau decorative panelling. Swathes of ocean blue carpet and gaming table fabric blend together in a sea of opulence and comfort. Gold embellishment features heavily over ivory marble scrollwork with an organically-shaped mosaic bar stood proudly at the centre of the room to serve you.
Luxuriant, turn-of-the-century paintings adorn the Main Salon, which resembles a grand Chateau atrium. Teamed with heavy panelling and deep red, floral carpet, this room expresses the casino’s function as one of the most sumptuous gentlemen’s clubs in the world.
Unlike its Las Vegas namesake, the Casino de Monte Carlo is smaller and more intimate than you would imagine, adding to the covert ambience. The protection of gamblers’ privacy is an absolute must. Many visitors from the States are confused by its unparalleled reputation yet diminutive setting.
There are even private lounges reserved for certain high-rollers, kept separate from the regular gamblers. Bodyguards stand cover at the entrances. Even decks of cards (36,000 of them) are kept in a locked room at a strict 20 degrees centigrade like vintage champagne.
Seven craftsmen and women maintain the gaming tables, including a Mastercraftsman Carpenter and an Embroidery Specialist.
The Casino attracts numerous visitors due to the notoriety it has inevitably attracted over the decades. ‘Breaking the Bank’ has been the aim of various groups of master-gamblers looking for infamy and riches. in 1873, the first recorded attempt involved Joseph Jagger who apparently gained insight into a particular bias on one of the roulette wheels and decided to fully capitalize on it. Whilst the most famous example of the Gambler’s Fallacy occurred in 1913 during a game of roulette when the ball fell in black 26 times in a row. Gamblers lost millions of Francs betting against black, anticipating that a run of red must soon follow. Aristotle Onassis held a controlling stake in the Casino in the 1950’s until he was allegedly forced out by Prince Rainier III.
At length, a class of random sampling algorithms to aid gamblers in their attempted mastery of probability, were named after the Casino (‘The Monte Carlo Methods’).
If you wish to visit the Casino there are certain provisos you need to be aware of. Casual attire will not be tolerated (no shorts nor flip-flops, no matter what the weather outside). Also, you will need to take your passport along with you for both security purposes and to ensure you are of age, should you be tempted to take a flutter. Public photos are prohibited. Finally, each visitor must pay a small entry fee (10 Euros) at the front desk.
Be prepared to leave time to shop – the shops around the Casino Square include Chanel who displays beautiful, sumptuous diamonds in their window – and also sample an ice-cream at the Hotel de Paris next door. They might cost 5 Euros each, but they are the best ice-creams you will ever taste. (Since 2013, the complex has again been undergoing modernisation with certain shops being temporarily moved.).
The steps from the harbour are no mean feat – and can prove difficult on a hot day. Fortunately, you can stop off at Nobu halfway up from the harbour for a modicum of refreshment. Alternatively, shaded Twingo restaurant at the water’s edge provides a cool and airy solution to the intense afternoon sun.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to stay for more than a day, the 5* Hotel de Paris now offers a pop-up, luxury Maserati Suite (no. 321), designed by Ludovica and Roberto Palomba. Guests are offered airport transfer in a Maserati Quattroporte and the use of a Maserati GranCabrio to cruise around the Sud d’Azur.
Prices start at 533 Euros for 3 nights in a suite at the hotel.
In summary, the Casino de Monte Carlo complex has had a chequered history as one of the world’s most opulent and high-end gambling destinations. Its sumptuous design and function from the start were orchestrated to relieve speculators of their burden of wealth in order to favour the fortunes of the principality. With such a set up, it couldn’t help but achieve the notoriety ingrained in its deep-stained panelling and gold-leaf scrollwork. Today, this cocktail of chance, luck and luxuriant surroundings attracts visitors and gamblers in their droves, along with a nostalgic movie industry and one of the most expensive supercar races. A one-off, there is nowhere in the world like this.
*Beaux Arts – is the particular Neo-Classical architectural style taught at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, based on late Roman , Baroque and Italian Renaissance features. It was popular in Europe until 1860 and tended towards urbane and social contexts. Key features of the style include:- arched and pedimented doors, Classical detailing, statuary, sculpture, murals, mosaics, and other artwork, all coordinated in theme to assert the identity of the building, plus Classical architectural details (balustrades, pilasters, garlands, cartouches, acroteria, with a prominent display of richly detailed clasps (agrafes), brackets and supporting consoles.