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The full monte
Live and dine like royalty in this playground for the rich.
The Monegasques (all of 7, 600 citizens of the Principality of Monaco) are still reeling! They are perhaps the snootiest people in Europe, and have historically taken high-wattage celebrations in their stride, with a Gallic shrug and a knowing smile. After all, what can be bigger or grander than the legend of Princess Grace and her fairytale wedding to Prince Rainier in 1956? So many decades later, the Grimaldi magic lives on as is evident from charming reminders (an imaginative Grace Kelly Walk around the main square, or a scrupulously researched exhibit of Princess Grace and her association with Pringle of Scotland at the new National Museum) that dot Monaco. For over two centuries, royals from across the globe have treated Monte Carlo, as their favoured playground. People who live in this jewel-like, tiny state (all two square kilometres of it) are used to pomp and ceremony. But nothing had prepared them for the Great Indian Wedding. So, when the Fabianis, along with six hundred close and intimate friends, arrived in Monaco to celebrate the wedding of their beloved daughter, Monte Carlo reeled. Awestruck locals insist that Monaco will never be the same again. As Luca Allegeri, MD Hotels, Spas and Resorts of the SBM Group that runs five spectacular luxury hotels, twenty six restaurants and bars, plus a discotheque, stated with unmistakable astonishment in his voice, "We have still to get over the visual spectacle of that fabulous wedding. "
We were chatting at one of the great bars of the world - The American Bar in the opulent Hotel de Paris, snacking on a signature hors d'oeuvre, the wicked Barbagiuan (let's call it a French samosa filled with tender spinach and cheese), sipping a friendly rose, and gazing longingly at superbly maintained vintage cars (participating in the Louis Vuitton Grand Prix for old beauties, ahead of the F1) parked just outside the French windows. Luca told us about the European circus elephant hired by Fabiani's wedding planners, along with a snowwhite mare for the groom to ride on at the baraat. The entire square (dominated by an impressive Anish Kapoor) was taken over by rowdy, noisy bhangra dancers and exquisitely dressed desi guests in traditional designer finery and weighed down by eye popping jewels. The vows were exchanged inside the magnificent Opera House, built in 1864 by the great architect, Charles Garnier, who had earlier designed the opulent Monte Carlo Casino. In place of a holy fire, which was clearly a hazard and not allowed, the blissed-out couple performed their saat pheras around a hologram! How's that for a modern interpretation ? Ever since that extravagant shaadi, the efficient people who manage Monaco Tourism with such aplomb (in particular Corrine Kiabski and Mireille Rebaudo Martini ), have woken up to the potential of courting and capturing the lucrative Indian market. Attracting Bollywood is a priority, even though I tried my best to dissuade Axel Hoppentot (executive vice president, sales and marketing) that it was not the best idea. Look at what Bollywood has done to poor Switzerland! Bollywood and Indian royalty will both be represented at the upcoming Ball of the Princes.
Axel was not entirely convinced about my suggestion (not to woo Bollywood producers ). Monaco really does not require much hard sell, given what it has to offer. True, the revenue mainly comes from tourists (Japanese, Russians, Americans), and the profile of visitors is in keeping with the high tariffs. A suite at the iconic Hotel de Paris starts at 3, 000 euros, and this is not during the high season, when tariffs move up astronomically. Like during the F1 Grand Prix, the Rose Ball (August 3 - 750 euros with champagne), or the most important event in the social calendar, the Red Cross Ball (1, 000 euros with fine wines) which is presided over by the immensely popular Prince Albert himself. Given that there are 600 events in 365 days, there isn't a dull night in this glittering destination. It is said the fireworks over the New Year weekend light up the sky so brilliantly, one can see St Tropez or Nice without squinting ! There is also a fireworks festival near the harbour on November 19 and January 27 - major national holidays. Combine all this with ballet, performances of the Philharmonic orchestra, opera season and more (between April and October), and you can be sure there isn't a single evening sans quality entertainment. It also helps that Monte Carlo rarely sees either rain or snow.
Nothing comes cheap in Monte Carlo. Cocktails at Budha Bar start at 15 euros, and champagne is, of course, pricier at 22 euros a flute. But for today's well heeled, well travelled desi bon vivant, what's a 300-euro picnic in Provence if it features a hamper put together by none other than superchef Alain Ducasse himself, with a helicopter ride thrown in? This works best for a six-people package. But hey, if you are a Ducasse fan, this is perhaps your best option to nibble on fresh produce and Ducasse delicacies at a comparatively affordable price. At the magnificent Ducasse driven Le Louis XV restaurant in Hotel de Paris, a die-hard Duccasse admirer can end up paying more than a 1, 000 euros for a sumptuous dinner (it richly deserves its 3 Michelin stars). I'd say one of his signature dishes alone is worth the money. I tried the cookpot with fresh vegetables from Provence, along with cracked wheat and morels, that was so outstanding I can still taste the mushrooms. As for the hazelnut soufflê, to describe it as a mere dessert is to insult Ducasse's skill and imagination.
Astonishingly enough, there are seven Michelin starred restaurants in this tiny place. There's The Grill on the top floor of the Hotel de Paris, which has a retractable sky roof (lovers can dine under the stars). Here, the damage is around 450 euros. That is, if you don't opt for a rare wine (Petrus, anyone?) from the hotel's famous cellar (the largest hotel cellar in the world that houses over 500, 000 bottles). But it was the elegant and delicious menu at the Hirondelle restaurant which is attached to the popular Thermes Marins Spa that impressed me the most. Imagine a spa menu that allows you to eat pasta... and a dessert. Guilt free! As Frederic Darnet, director of the Thermes Marins Spas, sportingly explained, while encouraging me to pig out, these delicately balanced menus make sure health conscious spa devotees don't starve. The idea is to feed them well with the right balance in terms of taste and quantity. I can tell you I have never eaten a better crab salad, nor finished an entire portion of pannacota by myself! I was also hoping to catch a glimpse of Princess Stephanie, who often lunches there or swims in the heated salt water pool. Instead of waiting for the elusive Princess, I opted for a relaxing massage and scrub that included hydrotherapy at the spa which focuses on therapies based on the five senses. Rejuvenated and with my skin feeling like a baby's bottom, it was time to check out the Budha Bar, which locals claim is the best Budha Bar in the world. I'd agree. It is sexier than its counterparts in Dubai and Paris. The food and service were indeed outstanding. But it was the spectacularly oomphy crowd that made the evening special.
Monaco at Diwali should be terrific fun. It will also give some of us the legitimate excuse to gamble at the only casino on earth that comes with an Opera House attached. Since desis cannot complete their Diwali celebrations without taking a few risks, why not at the roulette tables in Monte Carlo? If you are lucky, you will walk away with a stash of cash. If not, you can drown your sorrows at the Cafê de Paris close by. Or head to the American Bar once more. Who knows, you may find U2's Bono singing with the lively band (he owns a home close by). And if your luck improves, you can always saunter back to the casino - a throw of the dice could change your life forever. That's the magic of Monaco!
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