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. 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.
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.
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 and unemployment is zero. Monaco is also a tax haven. There is no income tax and only a very low business tax.
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. He drifted towards Monaco and recognised the attraction of Casino gambling there. Charles III 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 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. An arrogant London cockney, he was wanted under several arrest warrants for various spurious activities. He had a loud mouth, a barrel of a stomach and wore an outlandish checked suit. He carried a large wad of money and liked to gamble 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 temporarily became exceedingly rich. He bought an enormous yacht and hosted intoxicating parties 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 is a reminder of those heady days.
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 – many have tried – and failed.
Monaco today is a major tourist attraction. The sun is always shining and the sea such a stunning blue that the first sight will take your breath away. It did for me. Monaco with Monte Carlo is home for so many of the rich and famous. We can all go to visit and dream but few of us can afford to become residents and enjoy a sumptuous, sunny lifestyle.
Notable residents include Roger Moore, Ringo Starr and Shirley Bassey as well as raft of Formula 1 racing drivers and well known ‘A’ class rock stars. Monaco is an encrusted jewel of celebrity, elegance and opulence.
For us mere mortals – there is much to enjoy in Monaco. The annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race that takes place through the streets and the yearly Monte Carlo Rally are real crowd pullers. 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.
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.
This was a view enjoyed by one time resident the famous Hollywood actress Grace Kelly. Visiting the tiny country to make a movie she met the ruler, Prince Rainier and a fairy-tale wedding soon ensued attracting intense media attention from all over the world. It seemed to intensify the perceived glamour of Monte Carlo and 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 adopted to her role as a Princess perfectly and provided Rainier with the heirs that he so badly needed. In 1982, driving down a steep mountain road towards the Palace, her car plunged into a deep ravine, a tragic accident from which she did not recover.
The only person from her past to attend her funeral was an elderly and white-haired Cary Grant. 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.
Take a visit to Monaco sometime but don’t forget to come home again.
Bob Lyons is a travel writer and Francophile who has visited almost every department of France.