Suspend disbelief for the Never-Never Land spectacle of Monte Carlo.
Ah, Monte-Carlo. The words toll through the world, promising glamour, wealth, chaps in tuxedos and sloe-eye beauties with strapless frocks and cigarette holders. In truth, it’s not quite like that – but it is home to some of Monaco’s greatest hits.
First, though, let’s clear up the confusion about the relation between Monaco and Monte-Carlo. It’s simple. Monaco is the overall name of the principality. Monte-Carlo is one of the principality’s five districts (Monaco-Ville is another). So, in short, Monte-Carlo is a part of Monaco, as Mayfair is a part of London.
And the Place du Casino is its high-rolling hub. Behind the square, the Boulingrins Gardens climb up the slope. They’re the horticultural equivalent of a night at the opera – lush, formal and harmonious. In the streets nearby gather the discreet boutiques which exist to clothe and bejewel the planet’s wealthier bodies. To the right rises the deliriously ornate façade of the palatial Hôtel de Paris. To the left is the see-and-be-seen terrace of the Café de Paris brasserie, the waiters working hard to hone their reputation for surliness.
Sublime or ridiculous?
And before you is the Casino itself, its vast frontage treading that fine line between the sublimely rich and the ridiculously over-done. Around the square, there’s the constant swish of Bentleys and Mercedes – and of chaps in uniform clearing Peugeots out of the way that the limos might pass.
Nowhere else in Europe do you get the feeling of such fancy, concentrated wealth. It’s utterly absorbing. The most celebrated gambling spot in the world is so exotic of reputation that it has to be seen. Gaining entrance is a doddle. First ensure that you’re over 18. Then leap up the steps, show your passport or other id., hand over 10.10 euros and that’s it.
Nude women frescoes
Take a look at the extraordinary vestibule of marble columns, galleries, candelabra and a glass ceiling – before entering the gaming rooms. Here, they got the Belle Epoque decorators in with a vengeance. Chandeliers, hauts-reliefs, nude women frescoes, portraits, marble, gilt and sundry soaring allegorical works all jostle for the available space.
You expect to bump into the entire Austro-Hungarian royal family, in ball-gown mode. The whole should really be set to music by Offenbach. Instead it’s got slot machines and low-level roulette tables. (More serious gamblers pay another 10.10 euros for entry to the private gaming rooms).
And, in place of the tuxedos and strapless dresses are ordinary Joes in leisure-wear gaming rather glumly, as if under doctor’s orders. But don't let me put you off. I just think that the magnificent surroundings deserve better than poker machines and some pretty poker-faced people.
Then again, I’ve never understood the glamour of gambling, so I’m not a good judge. Certainly, the suggestion here is that gaming belongs among the most cultured achievements of human civilisation. You'll make up your own minds on that score.
Then you will re-emerge to the Place du Casino. Apart from walking round ogling the limousines and superb gardens, there are three further things to do here:
* Take a drink on the terrace of Café de Paris. Everybody does. It's the best ring-side seat for the spectacle which is Monte Carlo. Don't expect a smile from the waiters. You're not important enough for them. No-one is. So don't leave a tip, either.
* Pop into the Café de Paris casino, behind the brasserie. It’s free of entry, brighter and less formal than the more famous Casino de Monte Carlo next door - though you still can’t enter if you’re a clergyman, in military uniform or a Monaco national. Along with all the machines and table games, this casino also boasts a heated outdoor terrace.
This is to get round the indoor smoking ban which came into effect in November 2009 and has hit all Monaco casinos hard. On the terrace, gasping gamblers may once again puff and lose their money simultaneously.
* Then nip to the sea-front. The Monte Carlo Casino’s main façade faces inland. It’s worth popping around the back, to the sea-side of the building. This is itself pretty impressive. It also gives onto a huge terrace which doubles as roof of the Rainier III Auditorium which in turn stretches out over the sea on piles.
This whole sea-frontage is a monumental puzzle of great 20th-century buildings pushing out to sea, whose roofs are the floors of something else. Or gardens. Or sites for contemporary art. It’s an insight into just how cleverly Monaco has maximised the use of very limited space. So sophisticated is it that one is surprised to see something as elemental as the sea lapping away underneath.