My love affair with Monaco



 © The Cahier Archive

I love Monaco. And yet I hate the place as well. And I think that there are many people in Formula 1 who suffer the same confusions when they arrive each year in the principality. There is something eminently sordid about it and yet it is magnificent. The town and the race.

Sure, there is no overtaking and the facilities are basic (although improving) but it is the one Grand Prix that every racing driver want to win. And the race that the fans want to say they have been to see. It is a tough track because the drivers are fighting not against one another but really against the bumps and the walls. They need to be fast and yet they must be completely under control at the same time. There really is nothing like it. It is the last survivor of another era, a glorious anachronism which continues to hold a fascination for all who visit - whether they admit it or not.

And no matter how jaded one becomes with the world of Formula 1 the sight of Grand Prix cars hurtling between the barriers never fails to jolt one back into enthusiasm once again.

But Monaco is more than just the racing. It is by nature a magnificent place. A small bay hidden at the foot of a vast rock. A place where the weather is different to all the other towns. It was never much good in the old days when the place barely survived on fishing and collecting salt. Piracy and smuggling were nice little earners as well...

The castle dates from 1215 and Monaco has been an independent state since 1489. There was a period in which the French grabbed it after the Revolution (when they renamed it Fort Hercules) and then independence was re-established.

It was not until the 1860s that Prince Charles III finally did a deal with France which guaranteed Monaco its independence in exchange for a settlement of various disputes and the creation of a customs union.

Prince Charles was a clever man and realised that Monaco had enormous potential for generating income by promoting itself as a resort town, thanks to its spectacular location and its pleasant climate. To draw in visitors he planned for a casino and some impressive hotels to be built.

The casino concession was acquired by a Parisian called Francois Blanc who had made a fortune running a casino in Bad Homburg in Germany. Blanc set up a company called the Societe des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Etrangers Monaco (thankfully later shortened) and by loaning the French government large sums of money at very low rates of interest, was able to convince them to build a coastal road and a railway line which linked Monaco to the rest of the world. Le Plateau des Spelugues, a flat area on top of the hill on the eastern side of the harbour, was chosen as the venue for the casino, which was designed by Charles Garnier, the man who had built the Opera in Paris. This was followed by the Hotel de Paris, the Cafe de Paris and the Hotel Hermitage. To give the place a little more glamour the name Spelugues was dropped and the area was christened Monte Carlo. At the time casinos were banned in France and so Monte Carlo had no opposition and within three years it had earned enough money for the principality to agree to abolish income tax.

The next step forward was in 1875 when the Prince of Wales paid a visit and thereafter Monte Carlo became the fashionable place to spend the winter and the British aristocracy were followed by Russian emigres and wealthy Americans, all of whom built vast Belle Epoque villas.

Anton Checkov called the place "disgusting and contemptible" but the legend grew, all the more so after British Music Hall star Charles Coburn sang "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" which, if you listen to the words, sum up the place fairly well.

"As I walk along the Bois Boulong, with an independent air, you can hear the girls declare: "He must be a millionaire".

You can hear them sigh and wish to die, you can see them wink the other eye. At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo."

It was all about money and toys for the wealthy.

One such person was Baron Arthur de Rothschild who used to drive his Panhard motor carriage up to the top of the La Turbie hill every morning when he was wintering on the Riviera. This led to the first La Turbie hillclimbs and the Nice Speed Week at the turn of the century.

In order to stay fashionable the Monagasques embraced many new trends. They established the Monte Carlo Rally in 1911 and in the same year Monaco became the home of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. By the 1920s Monte Carlo was the epitome of glamour and excitement and the establishment of the Monaco Grand Prix in 1929 added the final touch.

Well, not quite. It would be fair to say that the final glitter was added in 1956 when Prince Rainier married Hollywood star Grace Kelly.

Money doesn't buy you class but Monaco is about as close as you can get.

The ever-growing popularity of the place had resulted in a boom in building as the world's wealthy flock to Monaco to take advantage of the tax situation. And to me this is why it is such a poignant place. It is like meeting an old lover and remembering wistfully what she was like in the old days. Monaco's beautiful Belle Epoque villas have disappeared between the concrete blocks. It is not beautiful as once it was but it is the idea of the place - the remembrance of past romance - that is its biggest attraction.

And the Grand Prix is a vital element in that recipe of success.

Yes, it is a rip-off and the locals run up the Jolly Roger on the flag poles in the week before the racers arrive and they charge double for everything. Yes, it isn't that exciting to look at old blokes who have spent too long in the sun wandering about with girls who really should be their daughters and are only in it for the money - but that it what they want.

And I defy anybody who says that they can go down to the harbour in the evening and watch and listen as the beautiful people play their games and not be impressed. The yachts are all lit up and from across the harbour one can hear the chink of expensive glass and the laughter from the dining tables. Perhaps there will be the occasional low growl of a supercar pulling up on the quayside.

It's magic.

Put that in a bottle and you would be a millionaire - with an independent air...

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