Charles III had to provide a new future after the amputation of his country. He had the financial possibilities for improvements thanks to the money received from Louis-Napoleon. During a visit to the German spa Baden-Baden, he suddenly envisioned how he could organise his country to meet the demands of tourism. There he heard that the Grand Duke of Baden could guarantee his people a good life with the profits from the casino. Something like this had to be possible with Monaco.
Charles wanted to give his country a modern appearance and projected a new district on the plateau of the Spélugues, where there were mainly olive trees. These had to disappear for the construction of luxury hotels and villas with beautiful gardens around a centrally located casino, where parties and concerts had to be held. Then Monaco would be attractive for tourism.
To finance this project, the Société anonyme des bains de mer et du cercle des étrangers (abbreviated SBM) was founded in 1863. Four thousand foreigners, but mainly French, invested in this project by buying shares. But within a few years, a French banker, François Blanc, took over all the shares. He was a self-made man from a village near Orange (Courthézon), who had been removed from his position as a banker in Bordeaux as a result of a bizarre affair (because he had inside information about the Paris stock exchange by bribing officials) and then gained experience in the German spa at Homburg. In the casino of that city he had created such a unique atmosphere that many people were willing to gamble capital. Blanc saw that the combination of a seaside resort with a casino could be worth its weight in gold and promised Charles a lucrative future for his country. The two gentlemen came to an agreement.
The SBM received a concession for fifty years and was obliged to invest part of the profits in public works, such as urban transport, street lighting, water distribution and the construction of houses, hotels and the organisation of events to attract tourists. From that moment on, the SBM and the Monegasque state formed a two-unit entity.
In 1866 the new casino was opened. At about the same time, the railway line from Nice to Monaco was opened. The principality gradually became accessible to many more travelers.
François Blanc turned out to be a wizard because SBM became a very profitable organisation within a few years. In fact, things went so fast that Charles III decided in 1869 to abolish direct taxes on wealth and income because the state could support itself only with the income of the SBM. In addition, SBM offered a lot of employment.
The farmers who until recently had to live on the proceeds of citrus fruits, olives or lavender found work in the hotels, in the restaurants or in the casino. And a lot of people were needed in the construction of all the projects. In a short time, the dwarf state was partly turned into a permanent construction site, because during this period a completely new district was built on the plateau of the Spélugues.
On May 13, 1858, Charles and his son Albert laid the foundation stone in a barren plain by the sea for the construction of the Elysée Alberti. In order to give this new district its own identity and to distinguish it from Monaco, Charles decided to give it its own name. Although the name Albertville was initially considered, Monte-Carlo was eventually chosen. This name evoked something special and exclusive, the Prince himself thought. On June 1, 1866, this city officially became its own municipality. It immediately attracted visitors. In the same summer, the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro wrote that Monaco had turned into a paradise on earth.
A year earlier, the Hôtel de Paris was opened and three years later Café de Paris, which was initially called Café Divan, and looked like a disguised mountain hut. Behind Hôtel de Paris, the construction of another hotel was started: the Hermitage. In addition to the casino, work was carried out on a modern opera house, which had to meet the prestigious and mundane wishes of Charles III architecturally. In Monte-Carlo it was certainly also about appearance. Many modern villas were built, with beautiful gardens, lush statues and striking facades. Villa Sauber, now the museum on ave. Princesse Grace, is an example of this architecture.
The most spectacular building was the Casino, which was designed by the architect Charles Garnier, who was responsible for the construction of the Opéra in Paris. SBM commissioned him to build the same kind of building on a smaller scale. During construction, the workers were day and night on the site. It was the first in Europe where artificial light was used because there was a hurry. On January 25, 1879, the building was opened in the presence of the famous actress Sarah Bernardt. The building fully lived up to Monte-Carlo’s new reputation: l’industrie de rêve. Here dreams became reality. A special attraction were the gas lanterns so that mundane life on the street could continue after sunset.
Monte-Carlo had also become more accessible because in 1868 the railway line between Nice and Monaco was completed, so that from then on there was a direct train connection from Paris to Monte Carlo. That connection was operated by the PLM company. At half past six in the evening the train ran from Paris-Gare de Lyon to arrive in Monaco at a quarter to twelve the next morning. In 1872, the section between Monaco and Ventimiglia was also completed, allowing people from St. Petersburg, Warsaw and Vienna to travel to Monaco without having to change trains. This meant a breakthrough because suddenly many more tourists came, who mainly came to spend the winter. In 1880, more than three hundred thousand were registered in Monaco.
The big winner was SBM, because as a saying goes from that time: whether you play on red or black, Blanc always won. François Blanc was the big man behind this success and was certainly able to reap the benefits. He was actually the boss in Monte-Carlo and financed all the projects of SBM himself. He was married twice and especially his second wife, Marie Hansel, would become the ‘grande dame’ in public life around the casino.
François Blanc himself would not experience the glorious opening of the Casino because he died two years earlier (in 1877). Marie financed the construction of Salle Garnier, the opera hall, which was built from April 1878. She organised, until her death in 1881, many concerts (including the pianist Camille Saint-Saëns, who performed a few times) and had the composers Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet write some operas, which would premiere in Monte-Carlo.
The Hôtel de Paris became a meeting place for artists and other celebrities from all parts of the world. Even crowned heads such as Queen Sophie of the Netherlands and the writers Guy de Maupassant and Jules Verne exchanged their experiences with each other. Of course, these buildings of the SBM were also decorated inside with masterpieces and lots of gold and glitter. This era became known as ‘la Belle Epoque’ for a reason.
MAIN PHOTO: The Casino looking towards the Mediterranean