Not as famous as nearby Cannes and Nice, but no less glitzy and grand, the French Riviera town of Menton makes for a stunning, sunny break
Arriving at Nice airport, you may well be tempted to explore the playgrounds of the rich and famous for which the French Riviera is world-renowned. Turn right out of the airport car park, heading west along the coast, and you’ll hit Cannes, to which star-spotters and paparazzi are drawn like a magnet every year for the film festival. Head east instead, and glitz and glamour engulf you once again in Monaco, famed for its Monte Carlo casino, grand prix and royal family.
But if you can resist these temptations, and drive on to the comparatively peaceful and unspoilt Italian border town of Menton, your treat will be to discover one of the true gems of the Cote d’Azur, a town so beautiful that it inspired the brushes of no lesser artists than Monet and Renoir.
There’s an elegant British atmosphere pervading Menton, a throwback to the days when famous Brits such as Queen Victoria, Sir Winston Churchill and Noel Coward strolled beneath their parasols along the seafront Promenade de Soleil. Thanks to its subtropical micro-climate, this is said to be the sunniest spot in France, enjoying 316 days of sunshine a year – and all those rays brilliantly light up the many colourful attractions that Menton has to offer.
The morning local market in the town centre is a feast – both for the eye and the palate – not to be missed. Shiny purple aubergines and the bright-red flesh of local watermelons glisten in the sun, fresh, wet fish with rainbow scales stare at you, while Menton’s famous lemons add a sparkling dash of yellow to proceedings.
Famous, because there’s a special relationship between Menton and the lemon. Locals will tell you of the legend that the first lemon planted in Menton was smuggled out of the Garden of Eden by Eve. Whether you believe that or not, almost everywhere you look, the lemon appears - in local artworks, in gift shops selling lemon soaps and bracelets, in bars offering citron presse drinks and lemony cocktails. The nearby Citrus Garden of the Palais Carnoles houses the largest citrus fruit collection in Europe, including more than 100 different species of oranges, grapefruits, mandarins, kumquats – and lemons galore. There’s even a Menton Lemon Festival every February.
Another popular local attraction is Menton’s Orthodox Russian Church, which was built at the instigation of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas l, and funded by rich Russian families who lived on the Riviera at the end of the last century. Designed by Danish architect Tersling, it was dedicated to the Holy Virgin and Saint Nicholas.
The traditional, slightly faded grandeur of the town includes the 1930s casino and a small museum, housed in an old fort, dedicated to the life and work of artist Jean Cocteau, who was a local favourite and frequent visitor. Menton is famous, too, for its many gardens and parks, some of which were planted by English botanists in the early 19th century.
It’s impossible to resist the shopping, and there is ample opportunity to negotiate the price, whether it’s food or gifts, clothes or shoes on your list. Don’t leave town without trying the mouth-watering millefeuille custardy cakes in the local patisseries; and the pizzas at the Restaurant Don Riccio in the old town are among the best on offer.
Do as most visitors to Menton do, and take a day trip to Ventimiglia, across the Italian border. The border itself is just a few minutes’ stroll from Menton town centre, but for Ventimiglia, it’s best to take the train, which snakes along the coast on a hillside track that sometimes seems to tower right over the lapping waves of the Mediterranean.
Every Friday, Ventimiglia comes alive with streets packed with stalls, offering leather goods, shoes, fruits and cheeses and, of course, a million different types of fresh pasta. Pastis and its many different varieties are popular, too. And if you thought bargaining in Menton shops and markets was fun, try the Italian traders in Ventimiglia. It’s more entertaining than trips to the theatre, cinema and circus rolled into one.
When your legs tire, stop for lunch at Cuneo’s restaurant, hidden away in a back street (Via Aprosio, 16; +39 018 423 1711). The food is fabulous, the clientele is local – and if you let the patron choose for you, you’ll be surprised both by the delicious meal and the reasonable total on your bill. I recommend the spaghetti alla vongole, which is laden with clams, garlic, sweet red peppers, parsley and olive oil.
Don’t forget you still have to make the trip back to Menton, so don’t get too carried away with the food, drinks and shopping. Conserve your energy for carrying all those shopping bags home on the train.
Where to stay
Stay near the old working harbour, where small fishing boats bob in the water and there’s still a statue of Queen Victoria - British holidaymakers can admire it before checking in to hotels with names that don’t sound too French. Try, for example, the Balmoral (38, Rue Felix Faure) and the Royal Westminster Hotel (1510, Promenade du Soleil).
Where to eat
If you enjoy watching the world go by, stop for a bite or a drink at one of the many waterside bars and restaurants that overlook the pebbled beach. The cafes themselves are separated from the tables on the promenade by a road, and watching your waiter balance your drinks and steaming plate of moules marinières on a tray above his head as he skilfully weaves in and out of the traffic to reach you can be entertaining.
If your budget permits, dine somewhere a bit more special, and try the bouillabaisse (fish stew), a speciality in many Menton eateries. The divine, rich smell of this dish is all down to the quality of the freshly caught local fish, like red mullet, mussels, prawns and sea bass, which are presented to you on a platter before the chef starts cooking them.
Perhaps the most relaxing aspect of a peaceful holiday in Menton is that you don’t need a car. Local train and bus services are inexpensive, frequent and punctual. And most places worth a visit are a short stroll away. Just remember to look the right way when you cross the road after a lunchtime pastis…