Monaco: A Rock, A Casino and Two Princesses

With a very small land mass – less than one square mile – Monaco was never a competitor for the mass tourist market, but it is more than just a casino.  There has long been something special about its being an autonomous principality; part sitting on a rock and the rest surrounded by cliffs; and run by a prince with a royal family in residence that for a few years included Grace Kelly as its princess.  That it happens to hold a world famous road race through the center of the city adds to that aura.

Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco

Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco

The Monaco we see today had its origins in the middle of the 19th century when the Monte Carlo Casino was built, but its isolation historically kept it from being much more than a fort overlooking a natural harbor – and even that did not happen until the 12th century.  Its protective cliffs and natural harbor had been well-known in the days of the Greeks and Romans, but surrounded by the nearly impassable extension of the Southern Alps, for centuries, Monaco had been strictly a sailing way-station and occasional haven for pirates, and not an important settlement.  Hannibal based his fleet there when invading Rome and Julius Caesar anchored there during his battle with Pompey, but these were just temporary layovers.  In the Dark Ages, it was occupied by Lombards from Italy and the Saracens, but it did not have any permanence until the 12th century.

In 1174, when the Genoese built a fort in Monaco, known as the Rock, to defend the nearby coast, it was an uninhabited place. When the fortress was finished in 1215, it gave Monaco some importance and continuity.  It also would become the primary holding of the Grimaldi family giving them lasting, but not uninterrupted, control over it that still exists.

As late as the 17th and 18th centuries, Monaco was nothing like it what once was or was to become.  The fortress was no longer needed, and the isolation caused by the cliffs kept it from being a prosperous regional trading center like nearby Nice.  It was such a dreary place, in fact, that throughout these years the princes of Monaco spent most of their time in Paris.

When wealthy visitors from northern Europe began to find their way to Cote d’Azur in the 19th century, it seemed inevitable that a place as physically beautiful as Monaco would get its share of visitors.  This was not the case, though, as Monaco was struggling with its two long-standing problems – a lack of access and money.  It would take the vision of an aging Princess Caroline to set in motion a transformation that in a dozen years lifted Monaco out of poverty and obscurity and made it one of Cote d’Azur’s most visited places.

At age 68, Caroline, upon returning from a visit to Germany’s Bod Homburg in 1857, had the idea that a casino similar to the one she had seen there could be built in Monaco and solve its money problems.  In that year at her urging, a casino was opened in a small villa that overlooked the water.  Gambling and a beautiful location, however, did not immediately overcome the access problems, and in 1858, the casino was not profitable.

The Princess, however, was not ready to give up, and in 1860, she was blessed by the fortuitous circumstance of the unification of Italy resulting in Italy rewarding France for its assistance by returning the County of Nice.  This totally changed the fortunes of Monaco for the better despite reducing its territory by 80 percent.  Her son, Prince Charles, was then able to sell Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Menton to France for 4.1 million francs along with an agreement that France would build a carriage road from Nice to Monaco and the railroad to be built from Nice to Genoa would go through Monaco.  This solved the financial and access problems and brought Caroline’s plans to fruition.

Even with all the positive events, an underfunded casino with the promise, but not yet reality, of railroad access continued to struggle and was still dependent on the perseverance of Princess Caroline, then in her 70s.  Fortunately, a combination of new management, Rothschild banking family assistance, the arrival of the railroad and Princess Caroline’s determination led to unimagined success.  In 1865, the beautiful casino seen today was finished on land below the Rock, but still on a hill, and a year later, a new Hotel de Paris and the Café de Paris were built on adjoining property.  The area around the casino in deference to Caroline would be named after her son, but also wanting an exotic name, she chose an Italian version, Monte Carlo.

Monaco’s aura took a step forward when on April 26, 1956 the American actress, Grace Kelly, married Monaco’s Prince Rainier, in what was called at the time, the wedding of the century.  She had recently won the Academy Award for best actress in the film The Country Girl, and her dignified beauty and prominent Philadelphia society pedigree added to her mystique.  It was a tabloid feast not to be seen again until Princess Diana’s wedding 14 years later.  The new Princess did her part in the marriage by having a daughter, Caroline, just nine months after the wedding; a son, Albert, a year later; and a second daughter, Stephanie, in 1965.

Princess Grace would tragically die in a car accident in 1982 while driving her daughter from the family home in La Turbie on the French side of the border with Monaco.  Despite the unfortunate ending, for almost 26 years she and her family had kept Monaco in the news, particularly in the United States, and her son, Albert, would become Prince of Monaco in 2005 when Prince Rainier died.  In July 2011, he married an Olympic swimmer from South Africa, but this did not have near the fanfare of 1956 as the new princess, Charlene, was not a movie icon, but it had the same intent – the need for an heir.

View of Monaco

View of Monaco

With its small size and proximity to Nice and Cannes, Monaco can readily be seen as a side trip from these cities by car, train or, in the case of the former, by bus.  It is about a 20 minute drive from Nice.  There are numerous parking lots, the best-located of which is immediately to your right as one turns off Boulevard de Moulins heading toward the casino.

To really get the feel of Monaco and its beauty and history, an overnight stay is advisable, and one does not need to pay the exorbitant prices of Hotel de Paris or Hotel Hermitage.  The Novotel Monte Carlo and Hotel Port Palace are excellent hotels within easy walking distance of the casino, harbor and the Prince’s Palace.

It is such a small place, walking is the way to see Monaco, and since most people stay or park near the Casino, it is the natural starting place – and specifically the gardens behind it.  These gardens include what is probably the most photographed statue in Cote d’Azur, Botero’s Adam and Eve.  From there it is an easy and delightful stroll down the hill along the harbor filled with an endless number of beautiful yachts.   At the bottom of the hill are numerous inexpensive outdoor restaurants right on the harbor.  For those who visit in the winter, there is public skating rink with palm trees in the background at that site.

It is a bit more of a struggle to the climb to the top of the Rock to see the Prince’s Palace, what passes for an Old Town and oceanography museum that includes a large aquarium.  For those who are tired after the climb there is a ride back without the complication of learning the buses as one of Cote d’Azur’s ever-present Little Trains leave often and go down to the casino area.

The casino area is where tourists want to be and the evening is when to see the sumptuous Hotel de Paris.  Its rooms and its main restaurant, Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, are costly to say the least – i.e., at least 200 euros each for dinner, but drinks at Le Bar Americain and dinner on the sixth floor Le Grill overlooking the harbor are affordable alternatives and well worth doing.

If you are lucky enough to be in Monaco the third week of January, April or September there is a special treat for you.  In January, it is the world-famed road race with the finish line at the foot of the harbor.   In April, it is the Rolex Masters men’s tennis tournament that draws the best male players as a French Open warm-up, and the background views from the grandstand alone are worth the visit.  Parking is a problem for both and going to the other end of town and taking a taxi is not a bad idea,  In September, it is the boat show featuring an endless array of yachts, many of which are larger than the sailing ships of Hannibal and Julius Caesar that were there two millenniums earlier.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Travelers History of Cote d’Azur.

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