James Bond played on its table, Tony Stark drank at its bar. Since its opening in 1863, Casino de Monte-Carlo has become established as the most famous gambling house in the world, the one place where our fantasies and reality merge for a few glorious hours at the tables. Las Vegas has the glitz, Macau is the glittering upstart, but Monte Carlo retains the class, the sex appeal, the epic ballerness - albeit baller in a tuxedo and cigars type of way, rather than throwing £50 notes off a yacht. (You can do that in the harbour.) In terms of spinning the roulette wheel or playing a hand of cards, it’s Centre Court, the Louvre and the Vatican all rolled into one.
Doing justice to the magnificent grandeur of the place is tricky, so it’s fortunate we have pictures (only a couple, mind you: the casino is notoriously reluctant to let photographers through the door - unless they’ve swapped their camera for their wallet). The Louvre comparison isn’t a million miles off: there are paintings and frescoes everywhere you look, generally depicting romantic courtship or bucolic landscapes or romantic courtship occurring within bucolic landscapes. (Girls and a countryside pad - what else would you spend your winnings on?)
Perhaps 'palatial' is a better adjective: what with its chandeliers and vaulting ceilings and the giddily extravagant decor - when in doubt, stick gold leaf on it - the casino bears a more than passing resemblance to one of those stately homes inhabited by the 18th-century French version of Donald Trump, before he went doolally and was duly elected President of the United States.
The casino stays open from 10am to 6am, Pascal Camia tells me, although table games only start from 2pm. (For the first four hours it’s just slot machines.) “The peak of the gambling is between 11pm to two, three, four o’clock in the morning.” Camia is the director of the casino, and the man responsible for the experience of hundreds of gamblers who pass through its doors every day. As he observes: “People when they are here, they expect to see James Bond.”
Here’s a fun little tidbit for you: the clocks in Casino de Monte-Carlo are the only clocks in any casino in the world. (Potentially a double tidbit for anyone unaware that casinos don’t have clocks). Basically, Monte Carlo's casino predates Monte Carlo's resort, and therefore gamblers coming from out of town (i.e. most of them) had to keep an eye on the time so as not to miss the last train. The station was situated just outside the casino, which probably seemed like quite a neat solution until some bright spark decided to build more hotels and make leaving entirely optional.
Anyway, now there’s a casino restaurant, Le Train Bleu, laid out exactly like a restaurant car to the point I imagine diners must occasionally glance outside to reassure themselves it isn’t actually moving. Le Train Bleu opens directly onto the casino’s main room, and supposedly a diner once spent her meal yelling roulette bets through the hatch to the nearest croupier. You hope she won, if only for her waiter’s tip.
The casino brims with such anecdotes or points of interest. Go into the aforementioned main room, the Salle de Europe. Look up. See those eight little windows spread round the perimeter of the ceiling? That’s the original version of CCTV, with watchful eyes instead of video cameras. (Your chances of robbing the casino in the 19th century? Undeniably higher than today. The consequences if caught? Probably a lot more painful.)
If you’d rather not play with the Muggles, move to the Salle Blanche - provided you’re allowed past the cordon. This room is where the real high rollers stake the kind of money most of us only play with on Football Manager. Jackets are compulsory, and that’s just as well considering all the croupiers wear tuxedos. I sit at the bar - which offers a Louis XIII cognac at €300 a glass - and watch a middle-aged gentleman enjoy several spins of roulette. After he’s departed, I ask the value of the chips that he’s been pushing so nonchalantly across the table. €100,000. I need a hit of that Louis XIII.
Step inside the casino...
(Casino de Monte-Carlo is renowned for letting its patrons play for stakes that would be off-limits elsewhere in the world. Camia tells me that “sometimes, on the table, we can have nearly a million – for one bet per person.” He later adds, “it's not a bad thing, the game, if it's responsible. We stress that: play responsible.” It’s not just talk: the casino will cut off and stop inviting gamblers for whom the game may be becoming a problem.)
Unfortunately the fellow in the Salle Blanche can no longer spend his winnings on the company of La Belle Otero, a 19th-century Spanish courtesan whose portrait hangs in the Salle Blanche. Her talents were prodigious enough to bring the great and good flocking to Monte Carlo, and what remained of their fortune after procuring La Belle Otero’s charms (the lady didn’t come cheap) was taken to the casino tables. She proved so beneficial to the local economy, the Hôtel de Paris ended up hosting her for free.
Lucky La Belle Otero: hotels don’t come much more storied than the digs across the road. The Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo opened the same year as the neighbouring casino. Its restaurants include the three-Michelin star Le Louis XV, its American Bar is one of the most famous in the world, and its 200 suites include the €40,000 a night Princess Grace penthouse – a celebration of Monaco’s most famous resident that doubles up as Monaco’s most exclusive lodging.
The penthouse is quite something. Opulence, opulence everywhere: from the rooftop pool and jacuzzi looking across the bay, to the two enormous bedrooms with their own private dressing rooms, to the gleaming in-house spa. The minimum booking is three nights – or €120,000. Definitely one for the high-rollers, or the very lucky.
Princess Grace Suite
Unsurprisingly, Monte Carlo likes high rollers – so much so the casino stages an annual dinner for 120 of its highest, an ultra-exclusive celebration of gambling and those who gamble big. Despite the fact I consider £20 down William Hill to be a fairly hefty wager – the closest I come to being a high roller is a trip to Gregg’s with the munchies – the casino was kind enough to invite me along for the evening.
The guestlist included Prince Albert and Princess Caroline (naturally), ‘Queen of Burlesque’ Dita Von Teese (makes sense), and Topshop heiress Chloe Green and her boyfriend Jeremy Meeks, aka the ‘Hot Felon’. Hosting the whole shebang was Darren Tulett, a British journalist who has become quite the celebrity in France as the presenter of BeIN sports.
After champagne and canapes in the Atrium, everybody decamped to the Salle Médecin for the dinner itself. The Salle Médecin – literally, the ‘Doctors’ Room’ – hosts most of the major events in the casino: galas, concerts, boxing matches. I don’t know where the moniker comes from, although I’m sure the average player stakes sums high enough to cause a heart attack. Even compared to the rest of the casino, the Salle Médecin does a particularly good impression of a cathedral interior, all artwork and arches and a ceiling so distant it must be halfway to God. You don’t know whether to gamble or genuflect.
Each course is interspersed with performers depicting the emotions of gaming through the medium of dance, and some pretty snazzy lighting effects. Those emotions are the wonder of childhood (‘aren’t casinos cool…’); the chill of fear (‘oh lord, my mortgage, my mortgage’); the thrill of combat (‘sod it, another grand on red!’) and the love of the game (‘it’s such a RUSH! I can stop anytime I want’). The highlight is undoubtedly the combat dance, in which goddamn Kendokas have a sword fight between the tables. I’ve seen productions of Henry V with less action.
After the final performance, gold confetti descends from on high and everyone hits the roulette tables. Even though I daren’t play – I’d be cleared out after two spins (unless of course… let’s not got there) – it’s impossible not to fill a little giddy. The Salle Médecin of Casino de Monte-Carlo on a Saturday night...
Step onto the balcony overlooking the Riviera, the yachts on the sea reflecting the stars in the sky, and maybe it’s the champagne but suddenly the quietly glimmering bay has a touch of magic; a place where F Scott Fitzgerald lights the cigarette of Grace Kelly, James Bond stares down Le Chiffre over baccarat; a place where time holds its breath and the ugly truths of the world can be temporarily tossed away.
Monte Carlo: not so much a region as a state of mind; halfway between reality and a dream.
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