Anyone visiting Monaco for the first time arrives in a land of contrasts. On the one hand it is a bastion of tradition, with its own territory, culture and princely family. But thanks to its tax status, it’s also the pied-a-terre of any number of the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires.
Monaco shares land-borders with la belle France. It has its own railway station, although the trains are administered by SNCF. Its tennis championship – the Monte Carlo Masters – is defiantly held a week before the Roland Garros. And although its footballers play in the French league, there’s always a dispute because of the team’s favoured tax status.
The principality’s cars have their own number plates, but the cars which race around the Grand Prix circuit have none. They are driven by an international brigade of daredevils – several of them resident in Monaco. It’s a thrilling contest, hemmed in by a street-pattern which is still in parts mediaeval. And above the shoreline where once only fishermen’s huts stood, soar the condominia and glistening towers of a thousand millionaires. Many think of Monaco as Manhattan-on-Sea, and they’re not far off the mark.
A unique look
The contrast of wealth and super-wealth is best exemplified by the architecture. Monegasques and their relationship with celebrity culture is one thing, but it’s resulted in some truly odd juxtapositions. What should a casino look like? or a restaurant, a five-star hotel, or a football stadium? These are not new questions for Monaco.
The coast road from Italy to France is the one Grace Kelly drives along in To Catch a Thief … and the same one on which she would meet her untimely death in 1982. Looking down from the corniche, you see the architectural uniqueness of Monaco in plain view. For the briefest moment, the riviera skyline changes abruptly, thanks to Prince Rainier’s 1960s decision to allow highrises on the slopes above Monte Carlo.
In the Place du Casino itself, Charles Garnier’s stylish fin-de-siecle Casino is still the heart of the city known as ‘the playground of the rich’. And since 2018, a striking adjustment to the Monegasque skyline has arrived. ‘One Monte Carlo’ is a post-modern Richard Rogers-designed condominium whose value is underpinned by the presence, on its ground floor, of most of the world’s top fashion houses.
But the main accessory is no longer simply a Cartier necklace or a Dior gown. It’s a superyacht. In recent years these extraordinary, graceful hulls have have found a new berth: Norman Foster’s ship-shape Yacht Club de Monaco, a replacement for the former cramped headquarters of the world’s yachting elite.
Now, just to the east of the harbour, snugly fitted between the Fairmont Hotel and Larvotto beach, comes the most spectacular development. A teardrop-shaped artificial island has recently been towed into position next to the Japanese gardens. Mareterra will contain gardens of its own – water-gardens – and pedestrian lanes, and shops, and more glittering apartments.
Because in Monaco, you can never have enough space. To live, to relax, to enjoy the gentle breezes of the warm riviera. That has always been the way, since the time the Grimaldis first set eyes on that fabled headland, the Rock of Monaco.