All too often we just cycle through Menton on our way to Italy for a coffee or use it as a gateway to the Col de la Madone. The other afternoon, we decided to pay its Old Town a visit.
When life gives you lemons, it’s time to visit Menton. You can be sure that someone there will find a creative use for your fruit. Shops in the bustling traffic-free Rue St Michel teem with products from candles, soaps and soft toys to food and drink. The town’s claim to be lemon capital of the world is underlined each February when it hosts the Fête du Citron. Around 200,000 visitors descend on Menton for a two-week programme of colourful displays and noisy processions, using around 145 tonnes of citrus fruits in a range of events.
However, while the festival has been going for more than 80 years and is reason enough to make the trip, Menton, dubbed the pearl of France, has much more to offer besides, including plenty of architectural delights and a relaxed vibe that makes it an ideal place to relax and unwind.
With a microclimate that is gentler than elsewhere on the coast, largely due to being hemmed in between mountains and sea, it’s easy to see why the town, with a population around 30,000, has been a destination for travellers since 19th century. Around every corner in the old town is another stunning collection of buildings, drawing on every pastel hue in the Mediterranean palette.
During Roman times, Menton was crossed by the Via Julia Augusta which runs from Pisa, Italy to Arelates (Arles, France) through Menton’s neighbouring Italian town Album Intimilium (modern Ventimiglia) and La Turbie where a monument (Trophy of Augustus) was built to celebrate emperor Augustus’ victory over the Ligurian tribes.
The first written mention of Menton dates back to 21 July 1262 at the occasion of a peace treaty between the City of Genoa and Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily and Naples, as well as Count of Provence. The position of Menton between the Republic of Genoa and the County of Provence was highly coveted during the Middle Ages. In 1346, the town was acquired by Charles Grimaldi of Monaco and stayed under the possession of the Grimaldis until 1848. That year, Menton and the neighbouring town of Roquebrune seceded from Monaco in response to a litigation involving taxes on lemon exports.
The two towns self-proclaimed a Free City and placed themselves under the protection of the King of Sardinia. Menton was then administrated by the House of Savoy until 1861 when the town voted massively for its annexation to France by referendum (833 for versus 54 against). Nice and its county had taken a similar decision a year before and Menton was added to the département of Alpes-Maritimes.
In that same auspicious year Dr Henry Bennet arrived in the town. He believed he was dying and Menton seemed ideal for expiring in the sun. Within weeks he felt better, possibly even immortal. His book, Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate, sped through six editions. The TB-ravaged upper classes rushed to test the miracle: see Menton and live!
Soon they had promenades, grand hotels and two casinos. It became the de rigueur winter resort. When Queen Victoria first encamped at the Chalet de Rosier commemorative postcards went around the world. Her PR work was rewarded with a statue and square bearing her name in the Garavan area around the harbour. Other street titles offer further evidence of Menton’s popularity with influential travellers.
I should add you don’t stroll around the gorgeous old town; you hike up and down it. The steep cobbled medieval steps and alleyways are dark, narrow and winding. Shafts of sunlight reveal jumbled dwellings in muted shades of ochre and pink and gold. On rue Saint-Michel is the basilica of the same name, a baroque church with a landmark belltower. This is one of the venues for the Menton music festival each August. A little further on is the ornate Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, and right at the top, is the cemetery on rue du Vieux Chateau. A peaceful spot with incredible views. Surprisngly, it’s a place of pilgrimage for rugby fans: the sport’s inventor, William Webb Ellis, is buried there.
The town’s cobbled streets lead back to the seafront. Back among the bustle, Musée Jean Cocteau (currently undergoing renovation) features examples of the artist’s work from the private collection of Severin Wunderman, a watchmaker, philanthropist and art collector. There’s also a wonderfully ornate covered market. While, over the road, the pebbly beach draws sun worshippers throughout the year, with a refreshing dip in the sea the ideal relief when the mercury soars as it has done this past week.
While there are a number of excellent restaurants in the town, the place that has boosted Menton’s profile among foodies around the world is Mirazur, which enjoys an elevated position just a few paces from the Italian border. It received a third Michelin star in January 2019, making it one of only 133 places (2019) around the globe to hold that accolade. Then, six months later, it was further garlanded, topping the list of the World’s Best Restaurants. It’s still on my bucket list!