On a terrace high above Monaco’s Port Hercule, men and women dressed in fluffy white bathrobes and designer sunglasses chatter over plates of raw vegetables and homemade soup. Below, superyachts worth billions of Euros bob in the harbour, their rigging clanging against tall masts as seagulls swoop overhead. On the adjacent balcony, Nicolas Sarkozy and his singer-songwriter wife Carla Bruni are relaxing on loungers, basking in the warm Riviera sunshine. It’s a typical Saturday afternoon in Monaco, the epicentre of all things luxury.
It was back in 1856 that Prince Charles III had a vision to turn the small Principality into the entertainment capital of Europe. His aim was to develop a portion of land on the Plateau des Spélugues overlooking what is now Port Hercule into an entertainment district like no other, with hotels, gaming houses, restaurants and other distractions for the affluent citizens of Europe.
In 1863, on completion of the original gaming house (today the Casino de Monte-Carlo) the Prince created the Société des Bains de Mer (SBM) and tasked the organisation with the management and development of the principality’s entertainment empire. Under the leadership of François Blanc, who commissioned Europe’s finest architects and designers to create a hotel to rival the best in Paris and London, SBM turned the Prince’s vision into a reality. When the Hôtel de Paris opened in 1866, the surrounding area was officially renamed Monte-Carlo, in honour of Charles III, and today the resplendent Hôtel de Paris and Café de Paris flank the Belle Époque-style casino, forming the golden triangle of Monte-Carlo; a magnet for the world’s elite and powerful.
In the 150 years since its foundation, the SBM empire has grown vast. The company now owns four hotels, five casinos, 33 restaurants and bars, and the Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo, a spa complex built into the cliff side overlooking the marina. ‘The Thermes’, as they are known among locals, have legendary healing powers, and people come from all over the world for treatments, from preventative health care and rehabilitation to marine treatments such as algae baths and salt scrubs.
The terrace of the Thermes’ L’Hirondelle gastronomic restaurant, where we are currently ensconced, with its sweeping views of the Mediterranean and the Rock of Monaco on the other side of the port, is a popular haunt among well-to-do locals, who like to enjoy casual (and healthy) lunches that can go on for hours. This is Monaco after all, a city built on the principles of indulgence, hospitality and distraction.
But, beyond the glitz and the glamour, there is another element to this vastly wealthy city-state, one that is evident wherever you turn, and yet often overlooked: its relationship with the water. From its role as a means of transportation and exploration, to its healing properties, not to mention the fact that it is a fundamental ingredient in the libations that flow freely all over town, water is a fundamental part of the history and character of the principality.
Before he became head of the Grimaldi family in 1889, Prince Albert I, also known as the ‘Navigator Prince’, had a passion for exploration and scientific research. In 1885, construction was completed on the 32-metre sailing schooner L’Hirondelle (after which the restaurant is named), the first of several research vessels that would carry the Prince on 28 scientific expeditions from 1885 to 1915.
For many, the lasting legacy of Prince Albert I is the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, a rare and extraordinary faculty built into the face of the Rock of Monaco, facing the Mediterranean. This palatial museum was built in 1910 on the orders of the Prince as a space dedicated to research and sharing the findings of his intrepid expeditions with the world. For anyone whose sense of wanderlust is peaked when talk turns to the Age of Exploration, the Oceanographic Museum is the adult equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Inside, visitors are greeted by the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, curated in 2011 by US artist Mark Dion, who has reorganised some of the most fascinating curios from the museum’s archive into a huge display cabinet that contains divers’ bells, maps, charts and a polar bear from Greenland.
“During my career as a navigator, the ocean revealed to me the laws of its role among the forces of the world, or those that govern the proliferation of life in its deepest waters,” wrote the Prince in his autobiographical La Carrière d’un Navigateur in 1902. The findings of his 28 voyages were recorded in 110 volumes of scientific notes published between 1889 and 1950 and the legacy lives on through the museum’s collection.
One long exhibition hall displays some of the tools and apparatus used on the expeditions, and another is filled with specimens including preserved sea creatures, skeletons and a terrifying collection of shark jaws. Infographics and video displays stress the importance of marine protection and species preservation, which became the driving forces behind Prince Albert’s expeditions and remain fundamental aspects of Monaco’s growth today.
A BACCHANALIAN FEAST
The principality’s relationship with water isn’t only scientific; H2O is also the main ingredient in some of Monte-Carlo’s favourite libations. Deep under the elegant hallways of the Hôtel de Paris, some 400,000 bottles of wine are stored in the ‘Cave Centrale’, SBM’s legendary wine cellar. Built in 1874, the cellar was extended over the decades, and is now home to more than a kilometre of wine racks that criss-cross beneath the Hôtel de Paris and the neighbouring Hôtel Hermitage. The atmosphere is kept at a carefully controlled 13 to 14 degrees centigrade, with humidity levels hovering at a constant 80 percent.
I’m shown around the historic cellar by Patrice Frank, one of the world’s most knowledgeable wine connoisseurs. As head sommelier at the Hôtel de Paris for 14 years, the 48-year-old can describe the character of every wine he stocks, and suggest the right bottle for any occasion.
We walk past alleyways stacked floor-to-ceiling with wine, each gloomy corridor labelled with signs indicating the region they come from. Some 98 percent of the wine is from France, with a few select bottles from other parts of the world. The collection includes such rare treats as a Châteaux Pétrus 1945, which discerning guests can purchase for a handsome EUR 25,000 ($33,900), and a 1929 Châteaux Margaux for a modest EUR 9,000 ($12,200), both of which are served in the hotel’s three Michelin-starred Louis XV restaurant, run by Alain Ducasse. “But its not a question of money — the historical value is something you can’t put a price on,” says Patrice.
Wine isn’t the only beverage served to SBM’s well-heeled guests; the cellar is also home to a collection of port, sherry, and barrels of the hotel’s vintage cognac, the Vielles Reserves de Paris. These beverages, like the wines, tend to spend several years in the cellar, unlike the company’s stash of champagne, which has its own cellar in another location. “We get through it too quickly to store down here,” Patrice explains. “We have the largest champagne collection in Monaco, but we serve up to 165,000 bottles per year, so it doesn’t stay for long, with the exception of a few vintage champagnes.”
Walking around Casino Square that night, I can see why; it seems that there is a celebration every night in Monte-Carlo. Outside the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, an endless stream of Bentleys, Maseratis, vintage Ferraris and Rolls-Royces roll past, as couples dressed in tuxedos and furs busily exchange handshakes and kisses at every turn.
THE LEGACY CONTINUES
The next morning, I head down to the Port and walk past countless superyachts, many registered in George Town, CI (Cayman Islands) or Kingstown, SVG (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), where taxation on superyachts is more sympathetic than in Europe. At the eastern end of the port on Quai Louis II, at the mouth of the famous tunnel of the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, construction is nearing completion on the Norman Foster-designed Yacht Club de Monaco clubhouse, due to open in June.
Built in the shape of a vast yacht, the new, ultra-environmentally friendly club will include function space and guest cabins for visitors, as well as restaurants, lounges, a swimming pool and observation decks, which will no doubt be popular during the Monaco Yacht Show and the F1. The project is being built to extremely high environmental standards, using seawater cooling systems, and photovoltaic cells and solar panels to power the facility, maintaining Monaco’s position as a global leader in marine preservation.
It’s strange to think that once upon a time, the only way to access Monaco was by boat, or by a long and arduous journey over the mountains from France. From a terrace outside the magnificent Salle Blanche at the Casino de Monte-Carlo, it’s possible, you can see land belonging to both France and Italy in the distance – a reminder of both the small size of Monaco and the importance of the sea as a link to the outside world. Its isolated position has defined Monaco both geographically and politically, maintaining its independence from the European Union and preserving its tax-free status. But its isolated location has done nothing to keep people away, as billionaires and sports stars from Europe choose to call the small city-state home, and visitors from all over the world come to sample it’s legendary hospitality and world-class events.
The principality might well be something of a semi-landlocked island, but like all islands, it is the influence of the waters around that provide much of its character and indeed its legacy.
Hôtel De Paris Monte-Carlo
Tel: +377 98 06 30 00
Tel: +377 98 06 40 00
Tel: +377 93 15 1515
Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo
Tel: +377 98 06 69 00
Opéra de Monte-Carlo
Tel: +377 98 06 28 00