Susan Llewellyn travels to the Principality of Monaco, and discovers a land steeped in history and stories of glamour and friendship.
The Principality of Monaco nestles in the mountains of the Alpes-Maritimes. It is the second smallest independent state in the world, after Vatican City. Its position gives access to the Côte d’Azur on one side and Italy on the other. The whole is divided into quarters – Monte Carlo is the best known, embracing the old Port of Hercules, as legend calls it.
How rare, that Monaco can trace its beginnings precisely to the date of 8th January 1297, when Francois Grimaldi from Genoa tricked his way into the castle. He disguised himself and his followers as monks and they seized the fortress, establishing themselves as rulers. There they have stayed ever since.
The world-famous casino was opened in 1866 by Charles III, as he recognised there needed to be new sources of revenue. The plateau was named Monte Carlo or Charles Hill. With the advent of the railways, so came wealthy gamblers and tourists from all over Europe. But the masterstroke was to exempt the residents from most taxes, ensuring a stream of tax exiles that have been a benefit up to this day.
The Monégasque is conservative, taking pains to protect the image of an upmarket playground. All the squares, parks and gardens are manicured to perfection. If broken, the dress code of ‘no swimsuits, bare feet or topless undress’ will call the attention of the police – except strictly on the beach or by the pool.
The Monégasques are not allowed to gamble in the casinos, by law. However, they are allowed to be employed in them. Monte Carlo represents the voluptuous sensuality and curves of the Belle Epoque period. My favourite is the Hotel Hermitage, which was built in 1890 by the architect Jean Marquet. The dining room is vast, reminiscent of the Grand Trianon of Louis XIV with its rose-petal pink marble columns. The gilded, carved and painted ceiling is particularly beautifully conceived by Gabriel Ferrier, a gold medal-winner at the Exposition Universal in 1889.
“Everywhere you turn in Monaco there is a fresh experience in architecture. From Belle Epoque to modern and contemporary, all examples are there”
Here too, Gustave Eiffel – who created the Eiffel Tower, the icon that sums up Paris – designed the dome of the Winter Garden and balcony. This looks onto and leads down with a handsome marble staircase to contemporary ruby-red sofas inspired by Poulain, with crimson chairs, giving a here-and-now feel.
The rear of the hotel has breath-taking views of the harbour and the Royal Palace on the Rock, the design of which is art nouveau style with a gold mosaic frieze, colonnades of columns and wrought iron balconies. The rooms are elegant, with well thought-out and co-ordinated colours to give a maximum spoiling of luxury touches. This is where Princess Grace held her 40th birthday party, attended by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Princess Grace played a pivotal role in transforming Monaco into the world cultural and sporting centre it is today. There is a new film coming out starring Nicole Kidman as Grace of Monaco, exploring the love story of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. Even today, Monégasques leave flowers on the graves of their beloved princess and prince.
A visit to the Thermes Marins is a must. It is decorated in white marble with two inviting pools and a relaxing feel for pampering treatments. L’Hirondelle fulfils a monitored dietetic regime restaurant, to round off a feeling of wellbeing. The crystal bar and terrace, with well-selected wines and champagnes, puts a finishing touch to this gem of a five-star hotel.
Everywhere you turn in Monaco there is a fresh experience in architecture. From Belle Epoque to modern and contemporary, all examples are there.
The principality has so much to offer on every level. Every project is of the highest standard and is an inspiration to all that view, on sea or land. Science, sport, cultural, historical, spiritual, organic, exotic, oceanographic, charitable, unusual museum collections, zoological, naval, philately, classic cars, sports cars, anthropological, numismatic, the Salle Garnier Opera House with its baroque gilded interior design. Serge Diaghilev founded his Ballet Russe here. Gambling, radio, cinema, congresses and festivals, international shops and exhibitions.
When Prince Rainier III ascended the throne in 1949, he worked ceaselessly together with his consort, the beautiful Grace Kelly, to bring about advancement of the principality. The building, Prince Rainier III’s legacy, is now being developed by his son, Prince Albert. At present he is working on over 170 projects.
In 2011, he married Charlene Wittstock, the South African swimmer. With her by his side, the companionship, friendship and support enabled him to carry on the works started by his parents – in a far stronger and more powerful manner vivez your Royal Highnesses.
The presence of Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace is still felt in all directions of the principality. The loving goodness of Princess Grace still captivates Monégasques and visitors, pour l’éternité.
“The principality has so much to offer on every level. Every project is of the highest standard and is an inspiration to all that view, on sea or land”
The Nouveau Musée National – I was lucky as there was a very interesting exhibition of works by Kees van Dongen, born 26th January 1877 in Rotterdam. He followed the movement of Fauves – Wild Beasts – that had been adopted by artists like Henri Matisse. In 1905 he, with Matisse, exhibited at controversial Salon d’Automne. The works were based on bright colours. I find this style very inspirational for interior schemes, as there is no fear as illustrated by the artist.
Kees van Dongen became popular with high society: “The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim. After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels,” he is quoted as saying. “Painting is the most beautiful of lies.” He lived in Monaco from 1959 to 1968 when he died in Monte Carlo at the age of 91.
So how come the unlikely friendship of Princess Grace and a poor black orphan girl named Josephine Baker from St Louis? The Princess met Josephine in 1951 when she, even as a star, was refused service because of her race in Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in Manhattan.
Grace Kelly, as she was then, supported Josephine, leaving the club with her and her party and vowing never to give business to them again. Even after her marriage and becoming a Princess in 1956, the pair did not lose touch. On hearing of Josephine’s financial demise and loss of her home with her “rainbow tribe” of 12 adopted children, destitute and homeless, the Prince and Princess offered her a villa and invited her to perform at Monte Carlo Sporting Club.
Josephine’s final curtain came down in Paris after a celebration of her long career was financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace and Jackie Onassis. A few days later Josephine died, at the age of 68 on 12th April 1975. Her exit, as she would have wanted, was on a high. She was given full French military honours at her funeral at La Madeleine in Paris and buried in the Cimitière de Monaco in Monte Carlo, arranged and mourned by her friend Princess Grace. As her son Jean Claude Baker said: “Au revoir, but not adieu.”