Monte-Carlo: A Life Less Ordinary

The revival of the Hôtel de Paris adds another chapter to the glorious, curious story of Monte-Carlo.

WORDS Chris Wright
July / August 2019
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Photography Laura Stevens

In the months since Monaco’s fabled Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo concluded a four-year, $280 million renovation, a small addition has been made to the mythology surrounding the hotel. The story begins in 2016, when the recently arrived managing director, Ivan Artolli, noticed scratches on the glass of the lobby’s revolving doors. “I mentioned to someone that they should be replaced, and he looked at me like I was from the moon,” Artolli recalls, sitting in the hotel’s Le Bar Américain. “It turns out the scratches were from the diamond rings of all the women who have passed through, a part of our history, so we decided to keep them.” Later, after the panels were inadvertently removed, Artolli devised a reverse-restoration project of his own. “I’m going to go to Harry Winston,” he deadpans, “and borrow some diamonds from them.”

Among the more tangible additions to the hotel are a new courtyard, 85 balconies and the sumptuous Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III suites, the latter of which lists at around $50,000 a night during the summer season. “Wow,” I say, munching a lobster sandwich that itself costs the better part of $70. “Who’s the client for that?” Artolli smiles, pulls out his phone and brings up an image of a million-dollar-plus credit-card bill, recently accrued by a guest at the hotel. “Wow,” I say again, still chewing. “This is a really good sandwich.”

Over the next half hour or so, Artolli regales me with tales of pampered guests, like the guy who received a complimentary bottle of vodka—made from handblown Murano glass and swimming with gold leaf—but left it untouched. (“I like to enjoy my gold and vodka separately,” he’d explained.) It’s unclear whether this was before or after Lady Gaga walked into Le Bar Américain and led an impromptu songfest, but that happened, too.

In the 150-odd years since it opened, the Hôtel de Paris has amassed hundreds of stories like this, involving aristocrats, actors, politicians and the prodigals who frequent the casino next door. And let’s not forget Grace Kelly, the American movie star who married Prince Rainier III in 1956 and died in a car accident 26 years later, a tragic romance that is now firmly embedded in Monaco’s sense
of self.

A particularly talented raconteur is Gennaro Iorio, who for three decades has overseen the hotel’s wine cellars, which currently hold around 350,000 bottles. As we roam the mottled catacomb, Iorio points to a small chamber that, during World War II, harbored a hidden stash of precious wines, lest they fall into the hands (or gullets) of invading Nazis. “They were so stupid, they never realized,” he says with a smile. In another room, he produces a dusty 1811 Grande Champagne cognac, the very bottle said to have been enjoyed by Winston Churchill during a visit.

“For a while, Churchill stayed at the hotel for free,” Iorio tells me. “But then he won so much in the casino they told him he could start paying.”

Artolli knows a thing or two about luxury hotels. “Before here, I was lucky to work in the Ritz Paris, Claridge’s and The Balmoral,” he says. “All of these hotels are connected to a location, but none are at the root of what that place is. Paris was there before the Ritz, London before Claridge’s, Edinburgh before The Balmoral. But for Monaco, the beginning came with the hotel and casino.”

Indeed, this tiny city-state—occupying about 500 acres (Monte-Carlo a mere fraction of that)—had little going for it before 1862, when Charles III, the reigning monarch, hit upon a more reliable source of revenue than citrus and olive crops. By the end of the 19th century, lured by the sunshine and high-end hospitality, British aristocrats were strolling the seafront promenades, followed 50 years later by showbiz types and jet-setters. Today, Monte-Carlo stands as a paragon of wealth, glamour and the $70 sandwich.

But there is more to the Monte-Carlo food scene than this. If Princess Grace sparked a revival here in the 1950s, then Alain Ducasse had a similar effect in the 1980s, when he took the helm of Le Louis XV, the gilded, three-Michelin-star restaurant in the Hôtel de Paris, cementing the city’s status as a culinary destination. “When I was young, I dreamed of working in Monaco,” says Marcel Ravin, the Martinique-born chef at the Michelin-starred Blue Bay restaurant. He also oversees Mada One, a casual eatery at the new Richard Rogers-designed complex One Monte-Carlo. “Here, there is no judgment—you just have to be good,” Ravin adds, bearing a platter of fish accra, like his grandmother used to make. It is very good.

Mada One is among several acclaimed eateries—along with various hotels, spas and casinos—owned by the Société des Bains de Mer de Monaco (SBM), who seem determined to have me sample every dish in their portfolio: barbajuan fritters at the chic Le Grill; sea bass ceviche at the waterfront spot Coya; and carpaccio of shrimp with caviar at Elsa, in the iconic Monte-Carlo Beach resort. By the time I sit down to an array of Mediterranean-style meze at Ômer, a new Ducasse project in the Hôtel de Paris, that fantastic lobster sandwich seems like a distant memory.

When they’re not eating, visitors to Monte-Carlo can avail themselves of the 700 or so events held here each year, most notably the Monaco Grand Prix, now in its 90th year. My own downtime is spent luxuriating in spas—I get a facial on two successive days—or placing fraught wagers at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. But it seems churlish to lament my tiny losses in this glorious beaux-arts building, whose lavish interior would give Versailles a run for its money. So, among the gilded columns, stained-glass domes, burnished mirrors and dangling chandeliers, I raise an eyebrow and slap down another 20 euros—very much like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.

On my final day in Monte-Carlo—fed, rested and smooth-skinned—I set out in search of another side to the city. The Place du Casino, just outside the hotel, is a good place to start: Here and elsewhere, the city boasts wonderful examples of baroque, belle-époque and beaux-arts architecture. West of here, set on steep inclines or beside craggy cliffs, are clusters of the pretty pastel residences that date back to the early boom years. I wander among these for a while, then cut down Rue Grimaldi, which leads to a funkier part of town.

My first stop is the wine merchant Les Grands Chais Monégasques, which has brick arches, stone floors and a small bar. Nearby, I pass the oddly elegant Dixième Art tattoo parlor, followed by the stylish furnishings store Deco & Beyond. In Pierre, a quirky little shop selling handmade crafts and vintage items, I find the proprietor, Isabelle Pierre, standing beneath a sign that reads “No Smile, No Sale.”

Pierre, who took over the store from her grandfather seven years ago, was born and raised in Monte-Carlo. “When I was young, around here were small houses, gardens, families,” she says. “This was the soul of Monaco, and I would like it to continue.” She likes to think her enterprise is helping in this regard, but allows that there are challenges involved in moving, say, the old leather punching bag dangling beside the till. “The space is missing here,” she says of the notoriously cramped city. “This is why antique pieces don’t sell.”

Not far from Pierre is Le Marché de la Condamine, a produce market used mostly by locals. Passing stalls heaped with red peppers, pink ham hocks and inky-black sea anemones, I join a couple of old-timers sipping beer at a small bartop, then cross the road to the foot of a long, steep path. At the top is a broad square flanked by grand municipal buildings and the Prince’s Palace, the royal residence whose history dates back to the 12th century. Beyond a nearby battlement, the city tumbles down the mountainside to the edges of the Mediterranean Sea.

Next, beyond a maze of alleyways dotted with shops and cafés, I come to the Oceanographic Museum, an enormous neoclassical edifice built into a seaside cliff. Just along from here is the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, whose vaulted interior, mottled with colored light, houses the tombs—side by side—of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III. Finally, I wander the pathways of the Jardin Exotique, surrounded by strange-looking succulents and the sound of birdsong. Far below, a boat cuts through the minty-blue water. It’s a magical place, beautiful to the point of ostentation—perfectly Monaco, but also perfectly not.

Back at the Hôtel de Paris, waiting for my ride to the airport, I take stock of the lobby, with its nautical-themed moldings, domed glass ceiling and enormous spray of exotic flowers. In the center of it all stands a burnished bronze statue of Louis XIV, riding a horse whose right foreleg glistens like gold—the result of countless good-luck rubs, preludes to a night at the casino. While this curiosity might not represent the soul of Monte-Carlo exactly, it speaks volumes about the spirit.

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