Summer brings with it wanderlust, a yearning for broad vistas and the open road—the latter of which, in the United States, carries one past a parade of strange creatures and exotic monuments that are grouped under the heading of “roadside attractions.” These transcontinental wonders comprise a sort of postmodern pantheon that would have astounded the most ingenious mythmaker of the Hellenistic age. Beside that towering race of fiberglass giants known as the Muffler Men, the Titans themselves would have been as dwarfs. And the Colossus of Rhodes would have paled against the awesome spectacle of the fabled dinosaurs flanking the Wheel Inn in Cabazon, Calif., while the Oracle of Delphi could not have augured mysteries to match Austin’s Cathedral of Junk.
That said, the ancient Greeks did grasp the fine art of the interstate impresario. In fact, the Oracle of Delphi might have been the world’s first roadside attraction: Whatever its deficiencies, it managed to put Mount Parnassus on the map, and its site came to be regarded by the classical Greeks as the literal center of the universe—a claim that citizens of Texas’ capital have yet to stake for their cathedral. Beginning humbly as a site where Minoan priests exported the cult of Apollo, Delphi received thousands of supplicants who journeyed to the temple each year to consult the Oracle, known as the Pythia, whose pronouncements guided the actions of statesmen well into the Roman era. This occult activity eventually spawned its own cottage industry: Visitors required a sponsor, as well as ritual sacrifices that met exacting specifications, both of which the locals happily supplied.
This entrepreneurial spirit also informed the establishment of a much later European temple, the Casino at Monte Carlo. Perched above the Mediterranean and covering less than three-quarters of a square mile, Monaco’s barren cliffs provided little more than refuge from the sea. It was not until the mid-19th century, when the ruling Grimaldis sought to establish their financial sovereignty by transforming the principality into a luxurious spa, that the modern roadside (or, rather, seaside) attraction known as “Monte” was chiseled from the craggy bluffs and polished to a high gloss.
The chief artisans of this tour de force were Princess Caroline (née Gilbert), mother of reigning Prince Charles III, and Francois Blanc, manager of the highly successful casino at Bad Homburg. Backed by James de Rothschild, Blanc constructed a railroad from Nice and Cannes, and then shipped soil in from the French countryside to cover the stony slopes, over which he laid out exquisite gardens. Atop this veneer he affixed the Place de Casino, on three sides of which stood the Café de Paris, the Hôtel de Paris (copied from Paris’ Grand Hotel), and the Casino itself.
The latter was (and remains) a lavish confection, frosted with stone friezes and capped by cupolas worthy of Nevada at its most wanton. Under this ornate roof, European aristocrats and American meatpacking heiresses thrilled watchful croupiers by placing ruinous bets at elegant tables that looked out across the terrace to the gleaming sea. One Russian noblewoman, it was said, racked up enormous sums on a daily basis for two weeks straight, prompting a fresh ingress of visitors determined to “break the bank at Monte.” Such stories were surpassed in their promotional appeal only by those of players whom the bank itself broke: Italian princes who sealed their families’ fates at roulette, gentlemen who discreetly shot themselves in the privacy of their suites, and grandes dames who hurled themselves from the famed cliffs all lent their legends to Blanc’s temple of tourism.
Naturally, not everyone appreciated what had been achieved in Monaco. Outraged Frenchmen and Monegasques formed societies to rout this opulent vice, and learned tracts condemning its iniquities were widely circulated. Such is the history of the boomtown, whether it be Monte Carlo, Las Vegas, Reno, or, for that matter, Delphi, which the newly Christianized Roman Empire succeeded in shutting down in A.D. 385. Monte, however, like its American counterparts in the 1950s, survived these threats of closure through the shrewd maneuvering of its bosses; unfortunately, unlike its American kin, the Côte d’Azur’s crown jewel cannot boast driving distance to Bun Boy or the World’s Largest Thermometer. Alors.
Senior Vice President, Editorial