Make mine Menton, the crème of the Côte-d’Azur

by Anthony.Peregrine

Anthony Peregrine really didn’t want to go to Menton in France. After a couple of days of sea and winter sun, Provençal food, epic scenery and a rugby encounter, he really didn’t want to leave

We had a few days free and needed an off-season break. So I asked her: “Where would you like to go?" The Côte-d’Azur, perhaps. But not Menton. She’d been there before, alone. Memories had made it her favourite place in France. She’d talked about it often, and at length – and I resisted for that very reason. You know what husbands are like.

So where was it to be? “Menton,” she said. So we went to Menton. Even reluctantly, it’s easy to do. You motor (or train) along the Côte-d’Azur until you almost bump into Italy, and there you are.

And there we were, driving steeply down from the motorway towards town and Mediterranean. The sun was strong and the air sweetly warm. Orange trees fringed gardens between the central avenues. Buildings were of the stately sea-side variety, from the wedding cake school of architecture. And, at the hotel, we were upgraded to a sea-view room because my wife was jolly nice to the male receptionist.

She was beaming, but I wasn’t ceding yet. “First thing, I want to see William Webb Ellis’ grave,” I said. She had no idea what I was talking about, so I explained. (I’d been reading.) In the 19th-century, Menton was a magnet for rich and noble Britons, not least because they thought its mild winter climate ideal for the easing of TB and other ailments.

Tombs with a view

A British community developed and, with it, a luxury trade. In the early 1870s, the community welcomed William Webb Ellis who, as everyone but my wife knows, invented rugby football. His playing days behind him, he’d entered holy orders and gravitated to Menton in old age. After taking the final whistle in 1872, he was buried in Menton’s Vieux Château cemetery. As a former player of considerable height but little aptitude, I felt duty-bound to see this.

And because she was still beaming, she agreed. It was a stiff climb up to a hill-topping graveyard whose large number of British dead suggested that Menton hadn’t been as effective as advertised against TB. After wandering the labyrinth, we found Ellis’ tomb. It was a sober affair, bearing memorial plaques from rugby federations. I paused and thought: “Well, there he is, then.” No matter how keen you have been to see a famous person’s grave, there isn’t actually much else to think.

She wasn’t taking any notice. She was looking everywhere except at the grave because everywhere else was breathtaking. Dead people don’t have better views anywhere in Europe. Before us, the last of the Alps – serious mountains, hard and high – dropped directly to an endless acreage of briny spangled by a light so clear that it appeared to have come direct from the Creation.

Behind, the geometrical anarchy of old town roofs clattered down to a new town overcome with greenery. Beyond were more mountains and sea. No wonder she loved it. Not that I mentioned this, of course. What I said was: “That’s Webb Ellis done; shall we go?”

We wandered down through the old town, a vertiginous tangle of ochre and pastel houses crammed along twisting alleys and stairways. Folk here shared accommodation with their donkeys until into the last century. Today, there were cooking smells, toys spilling out of front doors and hanging washing. Kids scurried. From upstairs, women hailed passing friends. We were edging through the town’s family album.

Bronzing bodies

Near the bottom, the pressing streets released us to a little square overseen by the baroque St Michel basilica and attendant chapel. The tower, classical façades and explosion-in-a-jewel-box interior fitted the Mediterranean frame of loud emotions barely contained – but we didn’t linger. The sea awaited down the steps. I took them three at a time. I was having trouble staying grumpy.

We walked the port and round the headland to the Promenade-du-Soleil, the blue giving an inebriating sense of forever. Even here, it was, for all but lunatics, too cold to bathe in late winter. Bronzing bodies, though, beckoned from the beach. On the other side – where you’d have expected burgers and blow-up dolphins – stood the creamy buildings put up for our 19th-century forebears.

The lower town was full of such stately confections, from which ladies had once issued with parasols, gentlemen with canes and cravats. Then they’d gone gardening. If Menton is now engulfed with trees, exotic bushes and plants, it’s because our green-fingered forebears left a heritage of horticulture. My wife stopped every two paces to point out some fat-leafed and highly-coloured item whose name, because it was not “daffodil”, I was fated to forget.

The whole had a rooted and courteous air which others have described as “genteel”. Nonsense. This is the Mediterranean, with Italy at the end of the Prom. Gentility is not an option. Sea-front bars were embellished by handsome women and men born to lounge. The pedestrianised Rue de la République throbbed with arm-waving commerce. At lunchtime we ate pichade savoury tart (onions, anchovies, tomatoes, olives, spices) alongside an Italian family who offered some of their rosé when ours ran out.

Empresses and David Niven

“So you like it?” she asked. “Too early to be definitive,” I said. Over the next day or two, we bumped into a Russian Orthodox Church and toured more gardens. We walked the Boulevard de Garavan corniche, where posh villas still gather discreetly way above the Med.

Even better was the rocky coastal path round the Cap Martin headland, with the sea to one side and, up the slope on the other, even posher villas where Empresses Eugénie and Sissi used to stay, before being replaced by David Niven. Ahead lay Monaco, looking like a displaced slice of Seoul. We could have gone there, or Nice or Cannes, in minutes on the sea-side train. But we didn’t.

Nor did we rise into the mountains directly behind to St Agnès – at 2250-feet, the highest coastal village in Europe – and other perched settlements. We could have done that, too. On Tuesdays, the Tourism Office organises day-trips round these spots for £38pp, including lunch. This gets you out of the white-knuckle driving (0033 492 417676;; book ahead).

We were, though, perfectly happy where we were, wandering the seaside the few hundred yards necessary to get to Italy. Then wandering back, below an old town scrambling up and over itself to keep a weather eye on the sea.

By night, we ate and drank the best of Provence in places which were pleased to see us. On one occasion, we strolled into the casino. I won €100 at roulette, which was €95 more than I’d ever won at anything anywhere else. I gave in completely. I’ve been to Nice and Cannes; I’ve been to Monte Carlo, Antibes, St Tropez and pretty much every other town along this coast – but I know where I’m going back to. I told my wife. She could have said: “I told you so,” but she’s cleverer than that.

Where to stay

The Hotel Princess & Richmond, in Promenade du Soleil (off-season doubles from €88), looks like a 60s block from outside but is much better within. Rooms are practical, some with balconies. There’s a terrace with a Jacuzzi and the family’s Le Galet restaurant next door.

The Hotel Napoleon, in Porte de France (off-season doubles from €94), is of similar, modern, three-star stripe, with clean-lined bedrooms and a lovely garden.

Where to eat

Perched high by the Italian border, the Mirazur (30 Ave Aristide Briand; 0492 418686) has the loveliest views of any restaurant in France – over gardens to the Med beyond – and Provençal food to match. Think €55 a head, minimum.

Meanwhile, Le Bruit Qui Court (31 Quai Bonaparte; 0493 359464) is among the best of the port-side fish restaurants.

Getting there

Nice is the handiest airport. There’s a shuttle bus for the 26-mile drive from the airport to Menton.

Rendezvous: Menton is famous for its citrus fruit, a fact celebrated each year in the Lemon Festival (Fête-du-Citron, Feb 12-March 3, 2010; The central Biovès Gardens are colonised by tableaux created from oranges and lemons. Weekends see processions and other citrus-related shenanigans.


For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.