28 September 2011

Castle Hunting: Le Rocher de Monaco

Le Rocher, or "The Rock," is the historic and current heart of Monaco - really, the reason for its existence. Jutting up from the sea, it is topped by an ancient fortress and palace that has grown over the centuries to include a little village and a slew of museums and giftshops. This is the site of the princely palace and the seat of government, right in the center of Monaco's amphitheater of highrises and yachts. It's one of the more unique castles we've been to.
Le Rocher has been inhabited for millennia - long before recorded history, the natural harbor it creates on one side (now called Port Hercule) attracted ships and traders. The Romans occupied the area in 122 AD, and set up a military base that displaced a long succession of Greek, Phoenician and native peoples in the surrounding mountains and along the coast. About a thousand years later, in 1191, the first real fortress was erected by the Genoans - by 1215, some semblance of the current outer walls had taken shape, originally consisting of four towers and a thick curtain wall.
The interior pallazzo, which began to be defined in the middle of the fifteenth century, evolved in tandem with the outer walls. Although the two structures eventually merged and became essentially part of one whole, they should really be considered two entities. It's opulence isn't immediately evident from the front, but the Princely palace is actually quite large, stretching quite far along the ridge. The low-slung design was intended to keep it protected from cannon fire aimed from below, and the relatively plain facade is a function of its earlier defensiveness.
In 1297, a nobleman named Francesco Grimaldi - the distant ancestor of the current prince - gained entry to the castle disguised as a monk. He killed the guard and opened the gate for his waiting troops, who sacked the fortress.
The present Grimaldi employs a few guards of his own - their duties are mostly ceremonial, of course. Every day at noon, a too-popular changing of the guard plays to a huge crowd's thirst for princely ceremony. It's the absolute worst time of day to visit the fortress.
Although the castle is difficult to attack directly because of the natural protection of the cliffs, Le Rocher became vulnerable as gunpowder weapons became more sophisticated. It's position, flanked by higher peaks and with its back to the sea, had once been ideal. As the range of cannons increased, though, the mountains behind became a liability and the castle began to be attacked directly from the water. Naval assaults heavily damaged the walls and towers many times, especially from the end of the fifteenth century onward. New gun platforms were added in the 16th century, and a series of subterranean passageways allowed for protected movement between the bastions.
In the end, Monaco's survival was dependent more on diplomacy and its varying alliances than on its walls. Long aligned with Spain for protection against the Genoans, Venetians and French, the Princes eventually did the inevitable and became allies of France (though not forever). This provided some relief at the rear, but didn't help the Monegasques much on their seaward side. France's relatively weak navy concentrated little on the Mediterranean, and Monaco found it necessary to keep its defenses intact much longer than other, similar cities did - right up to the beginning of the 19th century, in fact.
This need for protection is part of the reason why Le Rocher is so well preserved, despite the age of its walls. The other reason is that the Grimaldis didn't have room in the country for other, newer fortresses and needed to renovate rather than move on. In other places - even in other, tiny Principalities like Liechtenstein - rulers and noblemen could let one castle fall into ruin and build another. In Monaco, there's only one big rock, and the Princes had to make do.

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