As the weather turns cooler and the first signs of autumn appear, it’s time to indulge in a last fling with summer, Solange Berchemin pens this Menton review.
Where?…… Menton, nicknamed the Pearl of France, is a small French enclaved tucked up between Monaco and the Italian border. Protected by an amphitheatre of mountains, the sunlit town slides gently towards the turquoise-blue sea. Here, the temperatures rarely fall below 10 C. In the 19th century, it was the favourite destination of rich Victorians and of tuberculosis sufferers. By mid 20th century, the place had fallen under the tourists’ radar, TB had been eradicated and party-goes favoured towns such as St Tropez.
Nowadays, Menton is many things, but it remains primarily a biodiversity area, a garden town where visitors can enjoy several ‘jardins d’exception’. These timeless exotic gardens are owed to the Victorians. Queen Victoria, herself, regularly came to visit. On her first trip, she stayed in the Chalet des Rosiers. Today, the Chalet des Rosiers is converted into apartments and part of the garden is now incorporated into the Exotic Botanical Garden of Val Rahmeh.
Dedicated to the conservation of rare and endangered species, the Val Rahmeh garden is a must-see. It’s the opportunity to catch sight of a myriad of species such as the Victoria-water lilies which have the largest leaves of any aquatic species in the world or the magnificent ‘Heliconia Rostrata’ nicknamed ‘Lobster-Claws’ on account of its shape. Before the Val Rahmeh, I could have sworn that I knew my lemons but I was not prepared for an encounter with the ‘hand of Buddha’, a type of citrus which looks like a lemon with long, finger-like segments growing from it. And yes, it’s edible.
Food is big deal in Menton, from Le Marché des Halles to the three-Michelin star Mirazur via Italian pizzerias, the place teems with restaurants each offering a unique and colourful culinary adventure. But it isn’t only eateries that attract foodies, personally, I felled for la Maison Herbin, a craft jam factory. Hundreds of jam-jars and as many varieties line up the shelves of the workshop. Team Herbin offers guided tours, from tangerine to mimosa jams, it’s the best place ….on earth, yes I’m a fan, to learn the secrets for making traditional or more unusual jams. Of course, lemons are included.
The town was Europe’s biggest lemon producer until the 30s. These days, each February, the emblematic citrus is celebrated during the extraordinary ‘Fete du Citron’. A festival like no other, day and night fantasy structures made of hundreds of kilos of lemons and oranges parade in town.
It wouldn’t do justice to this Menton review not to mention the Old Quarter. Instagrammers, this is a place for you, so pack comfortable shoes and grab your phone. The medieval old town is a warren of paved streets meandering gently between colourful buildings. Most windowsills burst under the weight of seasonal flowers, the older buildings are decorated with friezes. A large stone staircase leads to the Basilica Saint Michel-Archange. When inside, don’t forget to look up, there are some breath-taking trompe-l’oeil paintings inside the dome.
No Menton review would be complete without a tour of ‘Les villages perchés’, built on the top of the surrounding hills for defence, they stand proud on rocky spurs. Roquebrune-Cap-Martin offers some incredible views over the Mediterranean, its ‘olivier millénaire’ is one of the oldest existing olive trees, and rumour has it that Winston Churchill and Coco Chanel strolled by. The village of Saint-Agnes is my favourite, make sure to get to the car park before midday,
It gets rather busy around lunchtime when people head to Georges Tibert’s restaurant, Le Saint Yves. An old fashion bar-restaurant that serves earthy food. Here, boar stew is spooned straight out of the pot and fruit tarts are as large as flying saucers. If you can still move after your meal head for the village’s back streets to look at the craft shops, the fountains and chapels, no wonder St Agnes is classified among the most beautiful village in France. In fact, the whole area is a jewel in the crown of the Cote-d’Azur.
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Head for the Office du tourisme Menton, Riviera & Merveilles – Palais de l’Europe- to find out more about the randonnées du mimosa and the villages perchés
Where to Stay
Just behind the promenade and within walking distance of the old town, the 17-room Pavillon Impérial hotel is in the former grounds of one of the huge belle-époque palaces on the seafront. It has a shady garden, a library and a bar.
A few of the Gardens
Food Artisan Shops: Pasta Piemonte, Maison Herbin, Huilerie St Michel