Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
Famed for its mild climate and exotic vegetation, the most Italian of the French Riviera towns is worth exploring for its labyrinthine Old Town, lush tropical gardens and vestiges of its past as an aristocratic winter resort.
DISTANCE: 3.25km (2 miles)
TIME: A full day
START: Jardin Biovès
END: Jardin Botanique Exotique Val Rahmeh
POINTS TO NOTE: Begin in the morning when the market is in full swing. The Jardin Biovès is easily reached from Menton train station along avenue de la Gare. From the Jardin Botanique Exotique Val Rahmeh return to the town centre along the seafront.
Set against a backdrop of mountains just before the Italian frontier, Menton became established in the 13th century on a rocky promontory on the old Roman road from Italy. From 1346, it was ruled by the Grimaldis of Monaco until 1848 when the town declared independence in protest against high taxes on lemons and olive oil, and then voted to become part of France in 1860. Soon it became a favourite destination of the British, Germans and Russians, thanks to Dr Henry Bennett who prescribed the health benefits of winters by the sea. Belle Époque villas, grand hotels, Anglican and Russian Orthodox churches were built and green-fingered visitors, many of them English, made the most of the exceptional climate (Menton claims to have 316 sunny days a year) to introduce tropical plants.
Start your walk down the palm- and orange-tree lined Jardin Biovès 1 [map]. Laid out as an elegant promenade over the River Cenci at the end of the 19th century, for two weeks each February it becomes the focus of Menton’s Fête du Citron (for more information, click here), when its lawns are filled with giant sculptures made out of oranges and lemons. The distinctive oval-shaped lemon is noted for its gorgeous scent and unacidic flavour. About halfway down, on avenue Boyer, the fanciful Palais de l’Europe 2 [map], once the grand casino, is now home to the Tourist Office (for more information, click here), municipal library and a contemporary art gallery.
The Casino 3 [map], fronting the sea at the southern end of the gardens, was built in the 1930s with a wavelike Art Deco silhouette. As if in disapproval, the Anglican Church of St John’s, an incongruous Victorian Gothic building, turns its back on the casino, although the gambling there is quietly genteel compared to the glamour of nearby Monaco.
Promenade du Soleil
Go round to the right of the casino to the promenade du Soleil, which borders the long pebble beach and is lined with an eclectic mix of Belle Époque villas, modern apartment blocks and hotels, and brasseries that do a hard sell with their pavement terraces (try Restaurant-Pizzeria des Artistes, see 1, near the casino).
Follow the promenade eastwards, then turn left up rue Adhémar de Lantagnac, turning right at the roundabout into avenue Félix Faure then left into rue Max Barel and first left into rue de la République. Here, you might want to pause for a drink or meal at Le 5 in Hôtel Mediterranée, for more information, click here.
Salle des Mariages
From the restaurant, cross the small garden square to the Hôtel de Ville to visit the Salle des Mariages 4 [map] (tel: 04 92 10 50 00; Mon-Fri 8.30am-12.30pm, 2-5pm; charge), which was decorated by the artist, poet and film-maker Jean Cocteau in the 1950s. Ring ahead to check, as it is sometimes booked up by tour groups and is still used for ceremonies.
Bastion Musée Jean Cocteau mosaic
After the town hall’s classical exterior, the room comes as a vibrant, jazzy surprise from the whimsical murals to the Spanish chairs, mock panther carpet and lamps shaped like prickly pears. For the murals, Cocteau’s aim was to ‘create a theatrical setting… to offset the officialdom of a civil ceremony’, and his inspiration was the Riviera style at the turn of the 20th century, ‘a mood redolent of Art Nouveau villas decorated with swirling seaweed, irises and flowing hair’. On the wall above the official’s desk, Cocteau depicts the engaged couple - she wears a Mentonnais straw hat, he’s in a fisherman’s cap - trying to read the future in each other’s eyes.
Return to avenue Félix Faure, which soon runs into the busy pedestrianised rue St-Michel. On the right at the end of place Clémenceau is the Halles Municipales 5 [map], a covered market, adorned with a glazed ceramic frieze of comical sculpted faces, which offers a profusion of local produce every morning. Look out for Menton lemons, award-winning bakery Au Baiser du Mitron and the socca stalls along the north outside wall for a quick and cheap snack. A short walk to the east in place Docteur Fornari is Les Saveurs d’Eléonore, which stocks a variety of artisanal Menton specialities.
Musée Jean Cocteau - Collection Séverin Wunderman
Opposite the Halles Municipales on the seafront is the new shining star in Menton’s cultural galaxy: the Musée Jean Cocteau Collection Séverin Wunderman 6 [map] (2 quai de Monléon; www.museecocteaumenton.fr; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; charge). Designed by Bandol-based architect Rudy Ricciotti, who was also one of the architects responsible for the new Department of Islamic Art at The Louvre in Paris, the striking museum opened in 2011. It houses works from the archive of Belgian collector Séverin Wunderman, which he donated to the city in the years leading up to his death. The permanent exhibition changes annually and looks at a different theme of the artist/poet/filmmaker’s work.
The 17th-century bastion
From here, head up place aux Herbes back to Rue St-Michel. Along with a lot of tourist tack, you can sample real Menton lemon juice and beer (near the junction with rue Pièta) brewed in the nearby village of Castillon at Mare Nostrum, and take your pick from dozens of lemon-based products at Au Pays du Citron (no. 24). Next door, the elegant Hôtel d’Adhémar de Lantagnac 7 [map] (tel: 04 92 10 97 10; Tue-Sat 10am-12.30pm, 1.30-6pm), belonging to the Service du Patrimoine, has exhibitions on Menton’s architectural heritage.
Now cross place du Cap, just to the east, where L’Ulivo, for more information, click here, and other restaurant terraces cluster around an olive tree, and descend tiny rue Capierra and rue du Jonquiers to the seafront.
Musée du Bastion Cross the street to the Vieux Port, where the 17th-century bastion on the western jetty houses the Musée du Bastion 8 [map] (tel: 04 93 57 72 30; Wed-Mon 10am-noon, 2-6pm; charge). The tiny museum, created by Jean Cocteau, is quickly viewed but has the charm of a scenography overseen by the artist himself, although he died shortly before it opened in 1966. Cocteau adapted his graphic style to the pebble mosaics or calades characteristic of the town - a young couple and a schematised face gaze out from either side of the entrance and La Salamandre covers the floor downstairs. In the upstairs guards’ room, still with its brick oven, changing displays of drawings, lithographs and archive photos focus on Cocteau’s Mediterranean period, along with engaging pottery jars influenced by Greek and Etruscan designs.
Across the street from the Musée du Bastion, Le Nautic, see 2, is another possible lunch spot.
Menton is famous for its lemons
Now follow quai Bonaparte north. Amid pavement restaurants, go through a discreet colonnade to the Rampes St-Michel, a steep double flight of steps with pebble calades climbing up to the church. Halfway up, turn left then right onto rue Longue. This was once Menton’s main thoroughfare; Prince Honoré II of Monaco had a palace here in the early 17th century. The street still feels like an Italian hill village, with its tall orange houses, some of them still occupied by craftsmen, and countless dark stairways and alleys leading off on either side.
Consider stopping at no. 66, where A Braïjade Méridiounale, see 3, is an atmospheric place for trying Mentonnais specialities.
Basilique St-Michel Archange
At Porte St-Julien, one of the original town gateways, double back along rue Mattoni until a fanciful archway brings you out at the Basilique St-Michel Archange 9 [map] (Mon-Fri 10am-noon and 3-5pm, Sat-Sun 3-5pm; free), a highlight of the region’s Baroque architecture. Its campanile dominates Menton’s skyline, and the square in front, paved with a grey-and-white pebble calade of the Grimaldi coat of arms, is the setting for Menton’s prestigious chamber music festival each August (for more information, click here). The church was begun in 1640, although its sculpted pink-and-ochre façade was rebuilt in 1819. The interior, restored after the 1887 earthquake, is surprisingly large with an arcaded triple nave, crystal chandeliers, elaborate side chapels, and a flamboyantly painted ceiling depicting St Michael slaying the dragon.
Basilique St-Michel Archange
Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs
In the adjacent square stands the ornate Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs ) [map], or Chapelle de l’Immaculée Conception, which was built in 1687 for a lay confraternity who sought to return to a simpler faith. If you are lucky enough to be here on a Wednesday afternoon (3-5pm if volunteers are present; free) or during the music festival, when it is used for early evening concerts by up-and-coming young musicians, you can visit the beautifully restored interior. Almost life-size stone statues of saints in niches ring the walls and a Baroque ceiling represents Heaven as a Mediterranean paradise. The chapel looks particularly astonishing during certain religious festivals when the walls around the statues, columns and pulpit are entirely covered in red satin hangings.
Cimetière du Vieux-Château
Go round the right-hand side of the chapel and take the steep montée du Souvenir. A gateway on the right leads into the Cimetière du Vieux-Château ! [map] (May-Sept daily 7am-8pm, Oct-Apr daily 7am-6pm; free), built on the site of the medieval castle, which was demolished in 1807 after being appropriated as state property following the French Revolution. The slightly dilapidated lower tiers mainly contain British, German and Russian tombs, crowded with memorials to retired surgeons and major generals and the wives and daughters of good families. Overlooking the sea, the grave of the Reverend William Webb Ellis is full of tributes to the man ‘who with a fine disregard for the rules of football first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game’. A little further along is an elaborate Russian chapel complete with onion dome and coloured tiles, which commemorates a Russian prince.
Blooms from the Jardin Botanique Exotique Val Rahmeh
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Leave the cemetery to the north on place du Cimetière, where a viewing terrace brings you out onto boulevard de Garavan, laid out in 1883 when the prosperous suburb of Garavan was being built with lavish villas and luxuriant gardens. The roadside is draped with bougainvillea, mimosa, succulents, cypresses and other exotic trees, some of which are labelled at pavement level.
East of Val Rahmeh are four more remarkable gardens, which can be visited by appointment with the Maison du Patrimoine (tel: 04 92 10 33 66): poetic Jardin des Colombières (created in 1919-27) was inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, mixing Mediterranean vegetation and antique sculpture; Fontana Rosa (dating from the 1920s) features tiled pergolas and pools; palm-filled gardens at Villa Maria Serena (built in the 1880s and designed by Charles Garnier); and the Clos du Peyronnet, created by the Waterfield family in 1915, around steps of water.
On the other side of town, the romantic gardens of the Serre de la Madone (74 route de Gorbio; tel: 04 93 57 73 90; Tue-Sun 10am-5pm, summer until 6pm; charge) were designed in the 1920s by Lawrence Johnston, creator of the garden at Hidcote Manor in England, with geometric pools, terraces and rare flora from around the globe.
Jardin Botanique Exotique Val Rahmeh
Several footpaths lead down to the Garavan seafront. After 36bis Villa Aurélia, take the unkempt sentier de la Villa Noël down between terraced gardens to the Jardin Botanique Exotique Val Rahmeh @ [map] (tel: 04 93 35 86 72; Wed-Mon May-Aug 10am-12.30pm and 3.30-6.30pm, Sept-Apr 10am-12.30pm and 2-5pm; guided visits on Monday pm via the tourist office; charge); turn left on avenue St-Jacques for the entrance.
This fascinating botanical garden, now run by the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturel in Paris, was created in the 1920s by retired governor of Malta, Lord Percy Radcliffe, around a villa and lily pond. In the 1950s, the next owner introduced numerous plants from Asia, Africa and the Americas, notably the pretty but poisonous daturas that earned her the nickname ‘La Dame aux Daturas’.
A winding trail leads round between magical and medicinal plants, dry and wet environments, towering palms, dank tropical ferns, forests of bamboo and exotic cocoa, avocado, banana, guava and citrus fruits, tea bushes and spice trees, and even the mythic Sophoro Toromiro tree, which is now extinct on its native Easter Island.
Food and Drink
1 RESTAURANT-PIZZERIA DES ARTISTES
1080 Promenade du Soleil; tel: 04 93 35 58 50; Mon D, Tue-Sun L and D; €€
Popular with locals and tourists alike. The tables outside on the seafront promenade are the real draw here, but it also serves up competent brasserie fare, such as king prawns, mussels, duck fillet and summer salads.
2 LE NAUTIC
27 quai de Monléon; tel: 04 93 35 78 74; daily L and D; €€
A good fish restaurant with friendly Italian owners, located opposite the Musée du Bastion. Try generous portions of fried squid, John Dory with courgettes or sea bass cooked in a salt crust, and the strawberry sabayon for dessert.
3 A BRAÏJADE MÉRIDIOUNALE
66 rue Longue; tel: 04 93 35 65 65; L Sun-Fri, D daily; €€
Authentic regional cooking is served in an ancient beamed dining room hidden in the Old Town. Specialities include vegetable fritters, flame-grilled skewered meats and fish, ravioles au pistou, and bagna caouda or anchoïade.