Guide to The Monte Carlo Casino & Opera
The Casino de Monte-Carlo and Hôtel de Paris was credited with inventing the “jet-set”; the biggest international stars rubbed shoulders with industry barons and powerful world leaders within the casino walls. It has welcomed everyone from Napoleon to Churchill. This mythic gambling mecca made headlines in the late 19th century by Russians who lost entire fortunes there in a single night, and later via blockbuster films like Ocean’s Twelve and James Bond films GoldenEye and Never Say Never Again.
Its ostentatiously beautiful exterior façade practically looks subtle when compared with the lavishly decorated salons, soaring columns, marble statues, and glittering chandeliers inside. Its marble paved “atrium” is surrounded with 28 Ionic columns made of onyx.
The casino’s series of “Gaming Rooms” are marvelously decorated with stained glass windows, sculptures, and allegorical paintings. Turn-of-the-century paintings adorn the Main Salon, which resembles a grand Chateau atrium. Don’t miss the ceiling paintings in the Salon Rose or the gorgeous Les Salles Touzet room with its paintings and intricate stained-glass ceiling. In La Salle Medecin, named after its architect, Francois Medecin, all the paintings are by one artist and represent the various moments throughout the day.
To ensure that Monégasques don’t fritter away their inheritance – Monaco’s rulers are far from stupid – proof of overseas identity is needed to enter the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Ionic columns support the roof of the Salon Europe. Here roulette and blackjack are played under gilded ceilings for maximum bets of €10,000 – to wager more, have a word with the croupier then stroll on to the Salons Privés.
To access Les Salons Super Privés it helps if you’re staying at the Hôtel de Paris across the street, as a top-secret tunnel connects these two establishments. If you can’t afford the hotel’s €8,000 Garnier Suite, then a €28 French 75 cocktail in its Bar Américain or lunch at its Michaelin three-star restaurant Louis XV might be more appropriate.
If you are feeling lucky (and rich), try a slot machine or game in the Casino. If you fancy some fresh air, head up to the terrace; losing money is always a little less painful when gazing out at the sea.
James Bond’s Favorite Casino
Excessive amounts of wealth are evidenced before one steps foot on the casino’s red carpeted steps by both the fine-tuned Ferraris, Lamborghini’s, Bentleys, and Rolls Royce’s that the rich roll up in. But it was the Aston Martin – 007’s Aston Martin, to be specific – which enhanced Monaco’s already intriguing reputation.
The super spy’s creator Ian Fleming envisioned Casino de Monte-Carlo when he authored his first James Bond book, “Casino Royale,” in 1953. Few places are so associated with James Bond as Monaco and Casino de Monte Carlo. Although it was not until 1983 and the Bond film with Sean Connery, Never say never again that Bond went to Monaco for the first time. The principality would later play a part in the beginning of Goldeneye, when Brosnan wore his black tie for the first time. Here’s a clip:
007 actor Roger Moore is among the many celebrities who lived in Monaco throughout parts of the year – as is Shirley Bassey, who sang a number of James Bond theme songs including “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds are Forever”.
Perhaps filmdom’s smoothest spy entrance to Casino de Monte-Carlo came when tuxedoed Pierce Brosnan, in his first 007 movie “Goldeneye,” wheeled down off of Monaco’s winding, cliff-side roads, and was recognized upon arrival as “Mr. Bond.” 007 then handed the keys of the DB5 to the valet, while being greeted in French and responding en France, and glided into the casino for a bout of Baccarat.
The History of the Monte Carlo Casino
Back in the 1850s, Monaco was in dire straits. The ruling family’s persistent financial problems became especially acute after the loss of tax revenue from two breakaway towns, Menton and Roquebrune, which declared independence from Monaco in 1848 and refused to pay taxes on olive oil and fruit imposed by the Grimaldis.
Princess Caroline, the shrewd, business-minded spouse of Prince Florestan I had the idea that saved Monaco. Worried about the future of Monaco, she devised a plan to attract visitors and make money through a new casino. Revenues from the proposed venture were supposed to save the House of Grimaldi from bankruptcy.
In 1854, Charles III, Florestan’s son and future Prince of Monaco, recruited a team to devise a development plan and write a prospectus to attract the 4 million francs needed to build a spa for the treatment of various diseases, a gambling casino, and English-styled villas. The casino was opened in a mansion, but was not run or promoted well enough and thus became a money-losing venture.
During this initial period, several versions of the casino were built and failed due to incompetence under Charles III’s direction, and the casino had been moved several times, until it finally ended up in the area called Les Spelugues (The Caves). This is where the new casino and the Hotel de Paris were finally built on their permanent site, with construction beginning in 1858. However, the people in charge, like their predecessors, were incompetent and lacked the ability to bring the gambling enterprise to the scale envisioned by Princess Caroline.
Frustrated, Princess Caroline took over and recruited François Blanc, a famous French casino entrepreneur and, at the time, the operator of the Bad Homburg casino. Blanc initially declined the offer. It took a lot of time and persuasion on the part of Princess Caroline to convince the Blancs to move to Monaco. Princess Caroline even appealed to Madame Blanc, whom she befriended during her first visit to Bad Homburg, with a suggestion that Monaco’s mild climate would be good for Madame Blanc’s ill health.
Finally, François Blanc agreed to take over Monaco’s casino business. On Blanc’s insistence, the Spelugues (which translates to ‘Caves’, in English) area where the gambling complex was located was renamed to make it sound more attractive to casino visitors. A few suggestions were considered, and the name Monte Carlo (which means “Mount of Charles”) was chosen in Prince Charles’ honor.
François Blanc founded a company called Societe des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Etrangers (known as ‘SBM’) that is now a publicly-held company which manages the casino, hotels, restaurants, and other important places in Monaco. He hired Paris Opera House architect Charles Garnier to design the gaming halls and to build an opera house, attached to the casino.
The principality had to raise money for development – including the construction of the casino – and Prince Charles did that by selling 80% of its area to France. He sold the areas of today’s villages of Roquebrune and Menton to France in return for 4 million francs and the promise that France would build a road and rail-line from Nice to Monaco.
In 1863, the Casino of Monaco opened its doors to the public. A large flow of visitors, for the most part the aristocracy, came to the Principality, as the gambling houses had been banned in France 30 years earlier. Princess Caroline’s plan worked, and the Monte Carlo Casino quickly began to bring the principality so much money in profits (even though the Principality only received 15% of the profits from the casino) that the prince abolished income tax for residents of Monaco. This attracted many more wealthy people to the area, not just to visit, but to stay.
Since then, the Casino de Monte-Carlo has been welcoming the international elite in its gold-decorated Baroque rooms. From the great femme fatale, La Belle Otero in 1868, whose great lovers paid for her sometimes huge losses, to the actress Sarah Bernhardt, a regular at the casino who one night, famously came into Casino de Monte-Carlo with nothing but 100,000 gold francs in her bag.
At the end of the 1860’s, the social elite flocked to the gaming rooms, royalty and titles such as the Duke of Hamilton, the future Edward VII, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Napoleon Bonaparte came to play, even writers and artists such as Jacques Offenbach, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Saint-Saëns, Massenet took the pleasure in a game. Socialites such as Liane de Pougy, Emilienne d’Alençon or La Belle Otero were seen to rub shoulders at a table – all three represented in a painting “Les Grâces Florentines” by Gervais which still hangs inside the casino.
Queen Victoria contrived – and failed – to keep her pleasure-loving son Prince Bertie (later King Edward VII) from the roulette table. Vladimir Lenin also stopped by and fumed that the general public were gambling money on a mere “game of chance” – which, if you’re not a Bolshevik, is terribly good fun.
It was in 1911 that the first racing cars whizzed by Le Casino de Monte-Carlo, during the Monte-Carlo Rally. In the same period, Sir Winston Churchill was another prolific gambler at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Although the Second World War took him away from Monaco, he came back in 1945 to the shout of “Gentlemen, let’s pick up where we left off”, and thus that night winning 2 million francs. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Opera House
To add an artsy sense of class, a theater was tacked onto the Casino de Monte-Carlo in the winter of 1879. Actress Sarah Bernhardt kicked off proceedings in January of that year. The most famous troupe of the time, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, were stranded in the South of France by the Russian Revolution.
The entrance to the Casino was built in 1893 by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera House. Its marble paved “atrium”, surrounded with 28 Ionic columns made of onyx, gives access to the Opera Hall (no visits unless you’re seeing a show) which is entirely decorated in red and gold, with bas-reliefs and sculptures. For more than a century, the Monte Carlo Opera’s stage has been the setting for international operatic creations, prestigious concerts, and exceptional ballets. Such was the region’s cultural muscle that performances boasted costumes by Coco Chanel, sets by Pablo Picasso and posters by Jean Cocteau.
Thanks to a recent $34 million renovation to the Salle Garnier, the spectacle of opera season in Monte Carlo rises to new heights. Over 80,000 gold leaves were applied to paintings and moldings, a five-ton chandelier has been entirely rebuilt, and the windows overlooking the Mediterranean have been opened for the first time, making this the only opera house in the world to feature exterior views from within the concert space.
Open Times: Guided visits and group tours to the casino are available from 9am to 12:30pm. Gaming opens at 2pm daily (until 4am), at which time visitors to the casino must be 18 years of age, meet the dress code, and present ID
Cost: Free to enter the atrium and the area with slot machines; €17 for entry into the table gambling areas of the casino, which gets you a €30 voucher to use at the restaurants or for gambling. Free entry for My Monte-Carlo cardholders.
Dress Code: No dress code for the slot machines area. For the table games area, trainers (sneakers) are strictly forbidden and a jacket and tie is strongly recommended in the gaming rooms for men in the evening (and is compulsory for the salons privés). No shorts or flip-flops, jackets after 8pm.