Of all the Cote d'Azur resort towns, Menton is the most Mediterranean in flavor and climate. It rests right up against the Italian border, and is protected from harsh weather by its location in the gentle curve of the Ligurian shore. Menton is one of the most charming towns in the area, with a lovely harbor skyline, terra-cotta roofs over yellow-ochre houses, and church facades with Baroque design.
Seem like paradise? The locals may tell you about Adam and Eve, and how when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve picked a lemon and hid it as they fled. After years of wandering, they found a wooded and watered place, a beautiful place where the hills came down and kissed the warm blue sea, where it was always spring. This, they decided, would be their new paradise, and Eve planted her lemon here. Soon the lemons bloomed throughout the hills and valleys, and ultimately the town of Menton was build here.
Archaeologists will tell you that Grimaldi Man, a 30,000 year old skull, was found in Les Rouchers Rouges, a series of caves near the village of Grimaldi in Italy, only a mile away from Menton.
Yet there is no evidence of the area being settled before about the thirteenth century, other than Grimaldi Man. When Menton was settled, it was subject to Monaco, and remained subject until 1848, when it revolted and became a tiny free state along with a couple of nearby towns. In 1860, they voted to join with France.
Almost every royal and imperial family in Europe has vacationed here, and Guy de Maupassant named the Old Cemetery on Castle Hill the "aristocratic cemetery of Europe." Writers and artists of all descriptions have sojourned here.
One of the most remarkable things about Menton is that exotic and tropical fruits thrive here. Lemon trees in all stages of growth, from blossom to ripe fruit, can be found here year round, and oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, passion fruit, and even bananas grow here year round. And enormous ancient olive trees grace many gardens and orchards, providing olives and the local creamy olive tree wood, which when carved has a grain as fine and smooth as marble.
The Basilique St-Michel is a majestic Baroque church with a bell tower rising high over the town. The frescoes in the nave and chapels contain works by Genovese artists, and there's also a 17th century organ in great condition. Nearby, the Chapelle de l'Immaculee-Conception dates from 1687, and has a lovely trompe l'oeil and gilt lanterns once carried in processions by penitents.
The Musee Jean-Cocteau is housed in a medieval fort with four small watchtowers. The artist spotted the fort and decided it would be a perfect location for his artwork. In the Hotel de Ville, Cocteau also decorated the Salle des Mariages, where civil marriages take place, with allegorical scenes.
The gorgeous gardens of the Palais Carnoles are a wonderful spot to view the tropical fruit that grows so well here in Menton. It also holds a collection of European paintings from the Renaissance to modern times. And the Val Rahmeh Botanical Garden is reminiscent of the Eden of Menton's tale of the lemon, with rare ornamentals, subtropical plants, and water gardens with lilies and fountains. Best of all, admission is free.
At the rue St-Michel, the Vieille Ville shops and cafes line the street, shaded with orange trees and alive with pedestrians. At the Marche Couvert, or Covered Market, you can admire the brilliant ceramic façade before going inside to check out the delicacies of this farmer's market.
Where to stay
The best place in Menton to stay is the Aiglon, where an 1880 garden villa holds thirty rooms sans television; why watch TV when there are so many things in Menton to see and do? Your balcony will overlook the grounds and a little of the sea, and the restaurant here serves primarily classic seafood in a romantic atmosphere. After dinner, it's only a three-minute walk to the beach.
The Fete du Citron, or Lemon Festival, at the end of February features a parade with floats made, not of flowers, but of real fruit. And the August Festival de Musique de Chambre is on the plaza outside the church of St-Michel.