All that glitters in Monte Carlo

The society that created tourism in the Côte d'Azur's richest enclave is 150 years old in 2013. But has it aged gracefully? John Walsh goes to find out

For a century and a half, the name has been cognate with reckless gambling and rackety glamour. While the rest of the Côte d'Azur can boast sun, conspicuous wealth and a lot more naked flesh, Monte Carlo has always managed to hint at wickedness. This is the showiest sliver of a tiny country, Monaco. The writer Somerset Maugham called the area "a sunny place for shady people".

While Americans in the 1930s could hint at their affluence and relaxed morals by saying they were flying down to Rio, their European equivalents could do the same by motoring to Monte. I remember my mother singing "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" in the 1960s; it was her father's favourite song, written in 1892, and a popular British music hall ditty on the lips of Charles Coborn.

Monte Carlo, I learned, was a sunny seaside retreat where you trusted luck, won a fortune and became a gentleman, whatever class of oik you were when you arrived. Since the 1860s, millions have flocked there to gamble and lose everything, stay in fancy hotels, fall in love and be betrayed. And since Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, Monte Carlo has been able to bask in her classiness, if only by naming its main thoroughfare after her.

There's a big celebration of the place this summer – not of Monaco, nor of the Grimaldi family, nor indeed the sporting triumphs, especially Formula One driving and tennis, that have given the principality its non-gambling identity. It's the 150th anniversary of the SBM – the (slightly long-winded) Société des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Etrangers à Monaco, or Sea-Bathing and Foreigners' Circle of Monaco Society.

Here's a quick history lesson. The Italian Riviera has had many owners in its history. In the Middle Ages, it was the battleground over which Guelphs and Ghibellines (supporters, respectively, of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor) constantly fought. Monaco was born in 1297 when François Grimaldi invaded the Ghibelline castle, with followers disguised as monks, and announced that they were in charge. In 1612, Honoré Grimaldi announced himself Prince of Monaco and, hey presto, created a principality. The Grimaldis were still running things in 1861 when Prince Charles III realised he was running out of money. The neighbouring towns of Menton and Roquebrune had come under the protection of Sardinia, and Charles could no longer have the orange crops that were its main source of income. Monaco was a small territory of rock with a palace but not much sand. How could he make it a moneyspinner?

Enter François Blanc, who had set up a profitable business in Homburg and Baden-Baden, running a legal casino at a time when casino gambling was mostly prohibited in Europe. Prince Charles eyed his operation. He set up a gaming room in 1856, but without offering visitors anywhere glamorous to stay. It was soon losing money. Charles asked François Blanc to run the operation. Blanc proposed to build a sumptuous casino, and an exquisite hotel nearby to attract the crowned heads of Europe. Charles set up a company to run it, and the Society was born, in 1863. The casino and hotel were built on the unattractively named Plateau des Spélugues; in 1866, out of respect for the prince, it was called Charles's Hill but given a new, Italianate name – Monte Carlo.

Anniversary events have been staged all spring and are set to continue through the summer. In March, Prince Albert II of Monaco and his wife, Princess Charlene, were stars of the Bal de la Rose du Rocher at the Sporting Monte-Carlo ballroom, with decor designed by Karl Lagerfeld, glamour provided by Cara Delevingne and Natalia Vodianova, and songs from Rita Ora.

On view all year is Monacopolis, an exhibition of all things Monte Carlo, in the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco which, confusingly, can be found in two buildings, Villa Paloma and Villa Sauber. The latter shows off the original architectural plans for the casino, the opera and the hotels, and their gradual expansion by the brilliant Henri Schmidt.

Early July will see the start of the Monte Carlo "sporting summer season". It kicks off with that human embodiment of Monte Carlo values, Rod Stewart, in the Salles des Etoiles on 6 and 7 July. A grand pique-nique in Casino Square, complete with synthetic grass, will welcome 600 guests. Music will be provided by Lang Lang, Jamie Cullum and Dame Shirley Bassey. The SBM organisers have interestingly Brit-orientated tastes in music: along with Rod, Jamie and Dame Shirley, they've signed up Bryan Ferry and, er, Deep Purple to make the summer go with a swing. But then, "Smoke on the Water" is a very Monte Carlo kind of song – documenting the destruction of the casino in Montreux.

Flying in to Nice, taking the helicopter link to Monaco heliport and taxi to the Hermitage Hotel, before you inspect Monte Carlo close up, does not prepare you for how small it is there. Monaco stretches along the Mediterranean coast, west to the Jardin Exotique and the Fontvieille quarter (built on reclaimed land) and eastward toward its only beach en route to Menton, but Monte Carlo's surface area is less than one square mile.

The centre of the action is Casino Square. The casino itself is a rococo dream, with its onion domes and posing caryatids; on the right is the creamy extravagance of the Hotel de Paris, built a year after Monte was founded; on the left, the Café de Paris is a haunt of low-rent gambling, where tourists eat croques monsieurs and watch the floorshow of shiny, racy Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis, resplendent in dazzling chrome, kingfisher blue and iridescent green – which circle the square ve-ry slow-ly, so that they and their glamorous owners can be photographed.

Walking into the casino is like escaping into a different world, one of marble pillars and immensely stylish ceilings. The main gambling room, with its thick carpets and roulette tables, clings to its venerable dignity, but it's a struggle when the tourists show zero sense of style.

The single visible trace of Monte's heyday is a slightly deranged Filipino lady gambler, in a pillbox hat and veil, a tight blue satin frock and a single red opera glove, who buys gambling chips as if she's buying, well, French fries, and bets them on almost every number on the table. The long conversation room is beautiful, but the tables have televisions attached (in case conversation flags?) and the minor gaming rooms are full of slot machines.

Outside, you walk the length of the casino, past the garish-looking Jimmy'z Bar at the Sporting d'Eté and turn right. You find yourself strolling along the Terrasse du Casino, past the statue of Diaghilev and the Opera, gazing over the Port Hercule, where the yachts are moored, down to the Mediterranean. It's lovely, but it's hard to feel intimately connected with this place, whose soul is most obviously to be found in the Buddha Bar. In this ground-level bar, presided over by a huge black Buddha statue, groovy Euro-dudes and their streamlined catwalk consorts drink pricey cocktails and you can't move after 9.30pm. Meanwhile, upstairs, the dining room is as dark as Minos's labyrinth, oppressively low-ceilinged and patronised by groups of Russians and Italians with expensive watches and sizeable gambling problems.

Highlights of my trip were the Hermitage Hotel, whose corridors go on for miles but whose rooms are gorgeous (triple-size bed, mile-wide bathroom, crammed minibar and a nice balcony overlooking the harbour, with a double rainbow thrown in), and whose spa, Thermes Marins, features a bath similar to the death-by-ecstasy machine in which Barbarella nearly met her end.

Also notable is the Japanese Garden, a wholly unexpected Shinto shrine around the casino gardens. I had the privilege of a tour of the subterranean wine cellars of the Hotel de Paris, whose premier cru clarets stretch right back through the 20th and 19th centuries.

You can eat really well at the two fine hotels (especially if you can afford Alain Ducasse's three-Michelin-starred Louis XV), breathe in some of its old seductive flavour and wish the place happy birthday. But, having seen how tacky the visitors to this glorious old sin bin have become, I doubt if you'll have many happy returns.

Getting there

John Walsh travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com), which offers two nights at the five-star Hotel Hermitage in Monte Carlo from £419pp. The price includes return BA flights from Gatwick and accommodation with breakfast. Heli-Air Monaco (heliairmonaco.com) offers return helicopter transfers from Nice airport from €230pp.

Visting there

Monte Carlo SBM: montecarlosbm.com.

Musée Nouveau National de Monaco (00 377 98 98 19 62; nmnm.mc). Monacopolis runs until 5 January 2014. Admission €6.

More information

visitmonaco.com

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