Ray Kershaw, The Daily Telegraph, April 22, 2013
It may be the single passion that I share with Queen Victoria: whenever I see Menton my heart skips a beat. When the widowed monarch arrived in 1882, Menton already had 5,000 British residents busy building mansions and planting tropical gardens. In Europe’s mildest climate, sheltered by the high Maritime Alps, oranges and lemons bloom even in winter (it’s said that Menton’s first lemons were planted by Eve). Picture-postcard pretty, year-round seaside sunshine, Menton is where the British inadvertently invented the French Riviera.
The medieval old town, compressed between two bays, was founded by pirates and warren-like alleys still bear their names. The princes of Monaco owned Menton for six centuries, taxing lemons to fund their sumptuous Carnolès palace.
But Monaco squeezed the pips too hard. In 1848 Menton established a republic, uniting in 1860 with Louis Napoleon’s France. The Quai Bonaparte, built by the emperor on 16 giant arches, harbours scores of seaside restaurants, irresistible for lunch.
In that same auspicious year came Dr Henry Bennet. He believed he was dying and Menton seemed ideal for expiring in the sun. Within weeks he felt better, possibly even immortal. His book, Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate, sped through six editions. The TB-ravaged upper classes rushed to test the miracle: see Menton and live!
Soon they had promenades, grand hotels and two casinos. It became the de rigueur winter resort. When Queen Victoria first encamped at the Chalet de Rosier commemorative postcards went around the world. Her PR work was rewarded with a seafront fountain in Victoria Square.
Jean Cocteau Museum
Menton’s register of visitors resembles a Who’s Who of British luminaries. Some, like Aubrey Beardsley, were never to leave. Katherine Mansfield wrote stories in the Villa Isola Bella. Churchill painted landscapes. Sutherland designed his Coventry tapestry.
Today’s cultural showpiece is the Jean Cocteau Museum. In an ancient fort nearby is the exquisite gallery Cocteau himself created. He also adorned the town hall wedding room with lyrical frescoes depicting love and marriage – it is France’s top venue for tying the knot.
The greatest British legacies are subtropical gardens: Lord Radcliffe’s Val Rahmeh and Major Johnston’s Serre de la Madone go top of my list. Menton’s floral centrepiece, the Jardins Biovès, has countless scented citrus trees, but my favourite sylvan spot is the 1,000-year-old Pian olive grove offering glimpses of Menton’s medieval heart.
From the labyrinth’s foot soars St Michel’s campanile, its sea-view courtyard the stage for Menton’s chamber music festival. The town is crowned with the cemetery that Maupassant labelled “the world’s most aristocratic”. Here lie the Menton cure failures. I spend a morning reading epitaphs, the majority British. Yet the setting is too beautiful for melancholic thoughts.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) has daily flights to Nice from Heathrow and Gatwick; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com ) from Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and Edinburgh; Monarch (08719 405040; monarch.co.uk ) flies from Birmingham; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) from Liverpool. Bus 99 runs half-hourly to the station and takes 15 minutes into town; the €4/£3.40 fare covers unlimited transport throughout the Nice region. Half-hourly trains to Menton take 30 minutes; €4.30/£3.70.
Eurostar (08432 186186; eurostar.com ) to Menton via Nice takes around 10 hours, fare from £119.
By car from the Channel ports is 11 hours’ driving time (P & O Ferries, 08716 642121; poferries.com ).
Half-hourly trains connect the whole Riviera from Menton’s two stations; ideal for excursions to Monaco or Nice or for lunch in Italy. Regular buses climb to nearby mountain villages 3,000ft above such as Sainte-Agnès and Gorbio with breathtaking views. All fares €1/85p ( carfenbus.fr ).
There are guided walks. Information from the Tourist Office, Palais de l’Europe, 8, avenue Boyar (0033 4 9241 7676; tourisme-menton.fr ).
The medieval old town was founded by pirates
THE INSIDE TRACK
The new Jean Cocteau museum ( museecocteaumenton.fr ; €6/£5). Ticket also admits to Cocteau’s original Bastion museum.
Katherine Mansfield’s home, the Villa Isola Bella, is marked with a plaque on the avenue Katherine Mansfield. It’s closed to the public.
Palais Carnolès Art Museum and citrus-fruit gardens are open daily, except Tuesdays, 10am to noon and 2pm to 6pm; admission free. For Menton’s other famous gardens check at jardins-menton.fr.
The fabulous Hanbury Gardens ( giardinihanbury.com ), begun by Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1867, are just three miles into Italy. Open daily.
The Prehistory Museum shows Menton life from 30,000 BC.
Italy’s alcohol prices are among Europe’s lowest. Various outlets, just a stroll across the border, stock huge selections of the world’s top brands.
Sandy beaches are few but the beach restaurants along the Promenade de Mer rent sunbeds, parasols and a dash of luxury.
THE BEST HOTELS
Hotel de Londres £
Recently modernised, the spotless good-value rooms have attractive midweek rates (0033 4 9341 7778; hotel-de-londres.com ; doubles from €85/£72, breakfast €10/£8.50).
Royal Westminster ££
One of Menton’s lovely doyens. Also has an attractive restaurant (9328 6969; hotel-royal-westminster.com ; sea-view doubles from €141/£120, breakfast included).
Four-star luxury in a modern hotel with private beach and pool; the suites are themed after artists such as Sutherland (9335 8950; napoleon-menton.com ; sea-view doubles from €170/£145, breakfast €12/£10).
Le Balico £
Friendly staff serve Mediterranean dishes at cheerful prices on Menton’s jolliest square; the daily-changing €20/£17 three-course menu may be Menton’s biggest bargain (Place des Herbes; 9341 6699).
Le Petit France ££
Directly on the sea front; traditional French fish cuisine. Look first at the daily-changing market menu (69 Promenade du Soleil; 9341 6605).
Menton’s most-renowned restaurant perched high above the town with breathtaking views. You will need a taxi. Chef Mauro Colagreco won his second Michelin star this year (30, avenue Aristide Briand; 9241 8686).
WHAT TO AVOID
In the market hall the fruit and veg are irresistible but picking your own will incur the owner’s wrath. And don’t photograph the sellers without asking permission or buying something first.
Avoid disappointment – book well ahead at any time of year if your stay includes a weekend.
Menton’s many pensioners own many poodles – be careful where you step.
DID YOU KNOW?
Menton is exactly halfway between Paris and Rome. A fountain marks the spot.