8 things I discovered visiting the Festival Printemps des Art de Monte Carlo

The Cathedral in Monaco-Ville – a must-see for tourists

Crossing the road is a nerve-wracking experience

Convention dictates that the cars won’t stop at a pedestrian crossing unless you’ve stepped into the road first. I spent the first 24 hours of my visit standing at the side of the road shaking my fist at every car that sped past me without stopping. Actually committing to this counter-intuitive process is a terrifying undertaking, but it does work. I hesitated every time. Drivers are more concerned about being stopped by the police in Monaco, hence they do actually stop. Things are a little more treacherous in France I understand. 

What we think of as Monte-Carlo is actually not Monte-Carlo

Port Hercule in La Condamine 

The famous view of the bay with all the boats bobbing up and down isn’t Monte Carlo at all. It’s Port Hercule in the district of La Condamine.

Monaco is the principality (it takes as long to walk from one side to the other as it does for me to walk from London Bridge to Charing Cross), La Condomine is one district; Monte-Carlo is next door; Grimaldi is next door to that.

The heart of Monte-Carlo is the Casino and the Opera House (see below) – both constructions sought to save the principality from bankruptcy and named after the monarch who had it built – Prince Charles III.

They build big, they build dense and in some places it all feels a little soulless, especially in those places where the streets have been cleaned, refreshed or refurbished Disney-style. The architecture still retains a strange charm about it – a nostalgic feel emanating from the smoked glass and aluminium frames.

The experience is similar to the 1950s modernity experienced on the Southbank, only everything is ridiculously packed-in. It’s living arrangements best viewed from afar on a sunny day. The explosion of high rises and hotels was the work of Prince Rainier III in the 60s. It’s what I remember Monaco for when I visited there as a kid. 

La Condamine’s harbour – Port Hercule – as we know it today is the work of Prince Albert

Oceanographic Museum

Albert I reigned 1899-1922. He introduced the Monte Carlo rally to the principality. He also built up the harbour into (basically) what we see today. Oh he was mad about Oceanography, hence the ridiculously-sized and strangely disappointing museum built into the side of a rock (see above) the opposite side to Monte Carlo.

Princess Grace is their history

There are historic-looking buildings, but there’s no real sense of history. All around the place signs depict Princess Grace (the American actress Grace Kelly who married Prince Rainier III in 1956 and later established the Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo) at various stages in her Monaco life. There’s something a little sad about seeing so many images dedicated to a woman whose prominence is in part built on the tragic end of her life. 

The Garnier Opera House is the work of Prince Charles

The Opera House, Monte-Carlo – a bugger to keep clean.

The people who own the Opera House (part of the casino) aren’t terribly keen on people taking pictures and then publishing them (there was lots of talk about copyright issues and permissions and what have you). So, instead I’ve nicked this picture from someone else’s website just to give you a flavour of what its like inside.

It is ridiculously opulent with gilt edges, a stupendously high ceiling and blissfully comfortable velvet-covered seats. The curtains cost the price of two Ferarris apparently although I’m not entirely sure what the Ferraris actually were or whether they were second hand or not. I sat in the Prime Minister’s own box overlooking the stage.

You’ll need the current monarch’s approval to sit in the royal box, FYI.

Buy your booze in the Carrefour City, not in the hotel

Rose at the Monaco Brasserie in Port Hercule

It's worth bearing in mind that I am quite tight when it comes to money. If I find myself using my bank card for anymore than £25 in a day, I start getting a bit twitchy, shouting angrily at young people across the street for no apparent reason. This was compounded because of the price of booze in Monte-Carlo.

It's not like it was a massive surprise. People had warned me. 10 Euros for a pint of beer (I kid you not) and around 7 Euro for a small glass of wine. Conversely, I found a variety of alcoholic beverages in the local supermarket for a good deal less money than I was paying by glass in the hotel a few steps away. Le Carrefour is selling a half-bottle of red for an astonishing 1 Euro 75 – it went down a treat. Side note: the Rainier III Auditorium doesn’t allow drinks in the auditorium by the way. I’ve tried.

Pro-tip: Eat at the Monaco Brasserie in Port Hercule for a good value meal. Don't do what I did though and leave your bank card in your hotel room. The staff were very understanding, but those steps back up to the train station and back to the hotel are very steep.

Musically speaking, we don't realise how lucky we are in the UK

There is a sense in Monaco – from the architecture and the way engineering has made building work possible – that money buys everything. Monaco isn’t ostentatious necessarily, but it’s scale hints at a strategy of ‘we can do this so we must’. Sometimes I wondered whether that was reflected in the concert experience too. It was refreshing to see concerts with a variety of different artists playing one work – that meant we had a greater range. But the flipside was that we missed electrifying performances because the artists weren’t on-stage for long enough.

Inside the Oceanographic Museum 

There is also an important point to be made about good front-of-house work. Staff are there to welcome, direct, and guide customers to their seats. In most venues that worked – especially the more eclectic spaces. But in one venue there was room for improvement. That impacts on a concert-goers experience in quite a profound way, as much as the music on stage. there was room for improvement. That impacts on a concert-goers experience in quite a profound way, as much as the music on stage.

New connections with Berio and Ives

Just as Verbier introduced me to an intense chamber music listening experience, and a trip to Budapest helped me (finally) get Wagner, so Monte-Carlo has introduced me to the music of Berio and Ives. I knew little about Ives before I visited, now I find the man strangely fascinating. Festivals remain a great way to get an intense fix of something new.

The Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo runs until 29 April 2018

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