A recent edition of Alpes Magazine described the French city of Menton as La Perle des Alpes (the Pearl of the Alps), an interesting description for a city of 30,000 people, which lists among its attractions several kilometres of beach front and 2 ports. As you will understand, Menton is no ordinary city.
As you enter either from the A8 autoroute, or through the neighbouring commune of Roquebrune Cap Martin, you will see signs which also describe the city as La Perle de la France. So, what are we talking about?
Like a pearl nurtured in the warm flesh of the oyster, this Belle Époque, Italianate Riviera beauty hides between its better known neighbour of Monaco, and the Italian border, and luxuriates in a warm micro-climate, courtesy of its Alpine wall.
One can stand on the beach and look up across the ochre coloured walls of the old town and marvel at snow covered Alpine peaks.
Waxing poetic is a very appropriate way to describe Menton, but it also has a more practical side. This is a sophisticated city which boasts the lowest crime rate in France, and the oldest population. It is also associated with the slightly less than refined game of Rugby, a relationship we will explore a little later, as well as Queen Victoria, and a (historical) host of lesser European nobles and consumptive artisans.
Like a dowager aunt or a debonair duchess, the city has a confidence which decries any need to compete with the other Riviera resorts, however like the favoured aunt, every so often she throws off the shawl and shimmies along in her most outrageous frock, and parties… and this month is Menton’s party month.
Menton’s Lemon Festival
Earlier I mentioned the city’s micro-climate, and it’s this which is the inspiration for the party. Sandwiched between the sheltering Alpes and the warm sea, Menton avoids the chill winds of winter (including the vicious Mistral) and maintains a temperate and moist climate several degrees warmer than the regional average. This resulted in the city becoming the centre of citrus growing, and indeed a gourmet lemon is named after her, AND every February she uses this as the excuse to hold a carnival.
Between February the 13th and March 4th The Lemon Festival (Fête du Citron) launches itself upon the town.
Although this may sound like a medieval right of Spring, it is actually quite modern. Menton never quite recovered it’s heyday of tourism following the First World War, when all its hotels (including the original casino) were turned into hospitals and rest centres, and in the early 1930’s someone came up with the idea of combining the town’s association with lemons, and its annual Mardi Gras parade into a full-blown annual tourist festival, and thus in 1934 the Fête du Citron was born.
Every year there is a different theme, and the Jardins Biovès outside the old casino, now the Palais de l’Europe, are turned into a “theme park” with the most amazing giant sculptures all made from oranges and lemons. At night the gardens turn into a Son et Lumière of weird and wonderful shapes.
There is a little bit of cheating going on here. Menton doesn’t actually grow enough lemons or oranges anymore (even if you include the beautifully manicured trees lining many of the major streets), and the fruit that is grown is too valuable to hang on statues, so the fruit comes from elsewhere in Europe.
Although once the major supplier of citrus in Europe, the industry took a nosedive in the 20th century, thanks in part to cheaper imports from elsewhere, and what was left was devastated in the severe Winter of 1956-57 which killed many of the remaining trees. Menton is now experiencing a revival of lemon production, and at the moment produces around 150 tonnes within the town area and in neighbouring Roquebrune, Sainte-Agnès and Castellar. However it also takes around 150 tonnes of lemons to garland the displays, so it doesn’t take a degree in common sense to realize the precious local fruit isn’t going to go to waste. The Menton lemon is unique, and at the moment the town has an application filed for an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlé) designation.
Local tip… if you are around at the end of the festival, all the (imported) fruit that is still usable is sold off at bargain prices outside the Palais de l’Europe on the edge of the gardens. Quite what the stall holders in the neighbouring fruit market make of this is anyone’s guess!
Every Sunday morning during the festival there is a magnificent street parade with floats transporting displays centred on the theme of the festival, and then every Thursday evening the place comes really alive with the Mardi Gras parade, as more floats sway down the street, to the music of salsa bands and folk dancers etc. etc., and the carnival parade ends in a firework display over the bay. Plus there are concerts held in the Palais de l’Europe.
If you plan to visit during the festival you MUST check out accommodation, and although you can pay at the door to visit the Jardins Boivès, seats for the parades are limited and you can book online, although you can also do as many locals do and simply stand on the street, but get there early.
Although this may sound like a promotion for the Fete du Citron, it isn’t. Menton is much more than lemons.
This is a border town, with none of the unfortunate attributes associated with border towns in other parts of the world. The border here is with Italy, and it’s this which has determined and influenced the development of the city. It is responsible for the style of some of its buildings, and the beautiful ochres of the old town, together with a relaxed, stylish self confidence.
An Ancient Coastal Town
The town first appeared on the maps in the early 11th century, although if you walk the rue Longue in the old town you will be walking along parts of the via Julia Augusta, the Roman road between Ventimilia (across the border) and present day Nice.
Menton came under the rule of the Republic of Genoa in the 13th century, then in 1346 it passed into the hands of the Grimaldis, who ruled (and still do rule) neighbouring Monaco. The town, along with the adjoining commune of Roquebrune freed itself of Monegasque rule in 1848, and after a few years as “free towns” under the protection of Sardinia, Menton and Roquebrune aligned themselves with France.
The late 19th and early 20th century, the Belle Époque, was Menton’s true heyday. The city blossomed under the patronage of many of the crowned heads of Europe, including Queen Victoria, the Empress Eugenie, and the Tsar of Russia. It was THE place to spend the winter.
Menton also became popular because of a claim that the microclimate was beneficial to sufferers of TB. Following an earlier article in the Lancet, in 1861 James Henry Bennet, a Manchester (UK) doctor, and himself a sufferer, published “Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean”. The book ran to many editions, and translations, and it resulted in a steady stream of Europeans including some of the finest artists and writers, musicians, and philosophers of the time, who sought the cure, and who died here. Many are buried in the old cemetery (le cimetière du Vieux-Château) overlooking the old town. So many in fact that the cemetery is categorized by nationality.
There are too many other books written about Mention to mention in this article, but I can recommend a fascinating book by another contributor to this magazine, Ted Jones, “The French Riviera, a Literary Guide”.
The cemetery brings us neatly back to that seemingly unlikely association between the gentile Menton and the slightly less than gentile sport of Rugby. Invention of the game is generally ascribed to a Mr. William Webb Ellis, while a student at Rugby School in 1823. The claim, first made in the school magazine is somewhat dubious, and there are many detractors, however the Rugby world has adopted him as their founder, and even named the prize for the Rugby World Cup after him. But why the association with Menton?
Born in 1806 in Salford (possibly Manchester), he spent his life in the Church, and eventually moved to Menton after he discovered at the age of 65 that he was suffering from TB. He died in 1872, and was buried in le cimetière du Vieux-Château overlooking the sea, along with all the other disciples of Dr. Bennett!
His grave and the association with Menton was lost, until in 1958, in a story reminiscent of Indiana Jones it was “rediscovered” by sports journalist (and political activist) Ross McWhirter, and French sports writer Roger Dries. The grave was hidden under layers of moss and undergrowth, and was restored. After a period of care, the grave again fell into disrepair, but following an outcry from the world of rugby, and indeed the Rugby School itself, it was restored and made safe in 2004. It is now one of the main attractions in the cemetery.
Menton has taken Webb Ellis to it’s heart. There is the Webb Ellis walking trail which will take you from the station to the cemetery, once there you can’t fail to find the grave. There are statues within the town, There is now a Webb Ellis rugby club, and rue Webb Ellis is right next to avenue Katherine Mansfield, another consumptive who spent her happiest days in Menton at the Villa Isola Bella, although she died elsewhere in France, still seeking a cure.
Two Famous Riviera Gardens
The other claim to fame for the town are the gardens. Many of the English émigrés who made the town their home, especially during the Belle Époque, created gardens. Two worth visiting are:
Jardin Serre de la Madone. Created in the middle of the 20th century by Lawrence Johnston, who also created Hidcote Manor gardens in England. It is a beautiful tranquil garden set in 22 acres on the Route de Gorbio.
Jardin Botanique Exotique du Val Rahmeh. This is a botanical garden, originally created in the late 19th century, and then owned by two families including Lord Radcliff, a former Governor of Malta. It is now owned by the state, is a research centre and houses rare and exotic species.
Let’s also not forget the rulers of Menton for many centuries, the Grimaldis of Monaco. Their former summer home, the Palais Carnolès on the border with neighbouring Roquebrune Cap Martin, is home to Europe’s largest collection of citrus trees. The building also houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts (fine arts gallery), with a permanent collection dating from the 13th to the 20th century.
Other places worth a visit are the Jean Cocteau museum situated in the Bastion at the entrance to the old port, and the Salle des Mariages (the wedding room) in the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall). Cocteau decorated this room in the 1950s, and it is essentially a gigantic adoration of love.
Like most towns in France, Menton has its market, in fact two of them, the daily fruit and flower market next to the Gare Routier, and the main market in and around the Market Hall. The Market Hall is open every day from 6am till noon: on Fridays there is an antique market and on Saturdays a flea market, both in the car park next to the Market Hall. Saturday is the day not to miss.
It is difficult if not nigh impossible to recommend places to eat in Menton, it is after all a cosmopolitan city (although maybe a small one), but La Place aux Herbes, a tiny very “Provencale” square with a fountain and colonnade, in the heart of the pedestrianised old town next to the Market Hall, can be an oasis under the Plane trees, and the writer has spent many a pleasant lunchtime there, and a dinner on a warm summer evening.
After lunch, you can walk it off by climbing through the old town to the Basilica of Saint Michel Archange which towers above old streets full of ochre coloured houses, The Basilica is situated on one side of a baroque square, the Parvis de la Basilique Saint-Michel Archange. Bordered on other sides by the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, and the view of the bay towards Italy, the square is also home to the annual (outdoor) summer Menton Music Festival.
There is also, of course, the Casino on the sea front, where you can play the tables for as little as 2€!
During the Second World War Menton suffered serious damage after first being occupied by Italian troops who crossed the border in June 1940, then by the German army and the SS, and finally by liberating American and Canadian forces who fought their way in on the 8th Sept 1944, following a bombardment by British and Free French naval vessels. A short walk from the Place aux Herbes, there is a memorial to the US and Canadian troops and the local Resistance, several of whom were publicly executed in the final days before the liberation. It took the city 10 years to repair the damage of the war, and Menton has never looked back.
Finally, no Anglophone visitor should miss the Queen Victoria fountain, situated at the traffic lights on the corner of the Porte de France and the road tunnel under the old town. It isn’t the most spectacular fountain in the world, but it does tell you an awful lot about this French/Italian gem on the Cote d’Azur.
© John Fitzgerald, 2009
Tourist Information Office
8 avenue Boyer. This is in the Palais de l’Europe opposite the Jardins Biovès
Tel: 33 (0)4 92 41 76 76
Menton can be accessed by train either from Nice via Monaco, or from Italy via Ventimilia. There are two train stations, and you should alight at the main station, Gare de Menton Centre.
Exit 59 from the A8 Autoroute (La Provencale). Menton is also at the end of the Grande Corniche (D2564). From Italy, Menton is right on the border, as soon as you cross you enter Menton Garavan. There is of course no border control, and you don’t even need to stop.
There is also an hourly direct bus (service no. 110) from Nice Côte d’Azur airport (both terminals). Last bus 21h15.