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.
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; www.tourisme-menton.fr; 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.
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; www.feteducitron.com). The central Biovès Gardens are colonised by tableaux created from oranges and lemons. Weekends see processions and other citrus-related shenanigans.