In the Belle Époque, European aristocrats were confused about Menton, the last resort on the French Riviera before Italy.
Queen Victoria stayed in 1882, and the diaspora community in the Russian Empire was so large that they built their own church.
There are still plenty of clues about this past, from the burial grounds perched high in the town with the Gentlemen’s Graveyard, to the charming botanical gardens that adorn the slopes of the sea.
These slopes are made for citrus, and Menott has far more oranges and lemons than it knows.
So every February there is the Lemon Festival, which is a bigger public event than the Monaco Grand Prix.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Menton:
1. Val Rahmeh Botanical Gardens
You might wonder if the botanical gardens are the most important event in the French Riviera resort.
But Val Rahmeh is a little paradise that has blessed the slopes above Menton for over 100 years.
The garden is a living relic of a time when only the aristocracy and the super-rich had a way to retreat to the French Riviera.
Val Rahmeh is the masterpiece of former Maltese Governor Lord Radcliffe, who took advantage of Menton’s mild microclimate to grow tropical and subtropical plants from Asia and South America.
He also likes tropical fruit, so Val Rahmeh is full of kiwis, avocados and bananas.
The rarest of all species is the toromiro tree, endemic to Easter Island but now extinct in the wild.
2. Jean Cocteau Museum
As we will soon see, the multi-talented Jean Cocteau spent much of his life in Menton at the end of his life, and the city now has the world’s first and largest public resource.
The museum opened in 2011 in 2003 after Cocteau specialist Séverin Wunderman donated his multimillion-dollar collection of the artist’s work to the city. This massive assemblage of 1,800 works makes up most of the museum’s exhibits, as you might imagine because Cocteau comes in a variety of formats: they consist of graphic art, film, and photographs, mostly during his filming of Orpheus. The will of the film.
3. Salle des Mariages
In the late 1950s, Jean Cocteau was given two years of free time to decorate the Menton wedding hall at the Hôtel de Ville.
Everything from faux leopard-print rugs to carved wooden doors, chairs and bronze candlesticks is up to him.
But what attracts you are the brightly colored murals, which are filled with rich symbolism inspired by ancient mythology.
Some come with information boards, but the way to get a full explanation is to take a guided tour on Thursday, or get an audio guide from reception at City Hall.
4. St. Michael’s Cathedral
Just look at buildings like this gorgeous baroque church and you’ll have no doubts that Menton was Italian rather than French for most of its history.
Commissioned by Honore II of Monaco, Saint-Michel was not completed until the 19th century, although later architects remained faithful to the original Baroque plan.
It’s best to head to the cathedral before you start your warm-up in the morning, as you’ll have to climb a series of winding stairs from the promenade.
For a more adventurous route, you can traverse the corridor-like passages and alleys that lure you up the hill from Rue Longue.
5. Old Castle Cemetery
Even higher than the cathedral is where the medieval castle of Menton once stood.
This is long gone, replaced by a cemetery with stunning views of the city, the port and the mountains that hold Menton to the coast.
During the Belle Époque, you were in the resting place of many wealthy and aristocratic British and Russian holidaymakers.
A famous funeral is that of William Webb Ellis, who invented the game of football in the early 1800s when he picked up the ball during a football game and ran with it.
6. Plage des Sablettes
The best beach in Menton is a small cove below the city’s cathedral.
Les Sablettes is separated from the sea by the port of Menton and blocked by a long breakwater.
Relax on this mix of pebbles and sand as you gaze east at the villas perched in the mountains and recognize France as Italy’s Cape Mortola.
In Les Sablettes, you can head to Palmes Beach, a diving and water sports center that offers trips to more than 30 dive sites in French and Italian waters, including shipwrecks and epic drops, or shallow bays for newcomers.
7. Regional History Museum
Despite the name, Menton’s Prehistory Museum deals with many different eras in the French Riviera’s past.
For example, there is a new and fascinating exhibition “Trésors d’épaves”, which tells the history of shipwrecks on this coast, with pottery, glassware and weapons taken from their underwater graves.
But the museum’s main character is “l’Homme de Menton”, the fossilized corpses of cave dwellers from the Late Paleolithic (between 10,000 and 50,000 years) found in Cavernon in 1872. The original is in Paris, but this museum has a complete model of his body.
Finally, there are models, handicrafts and reconstructions of local historical trade, such as olive pressing, lemon farming and fishing.
8. Plage du Fossan
For convenience, you cannot punch on the beach next to the old town of Menton in Quai Général Leclerc de Hautecloque.
Plage du Fossan unfolds slowly for nearly half a kilometer over the Baie de Soleil, a place of sand and pebbles with a strict no-smoking policy.
The sea is as pale as Nice, and Foshan Beach is completely free to the public.
If there’s one downside, it’s that you’ll need to bring your own parasol if you like shade.
But then again, when the sun gets too big, you can always escape to the shelter of the park’s swaying palm fronds, which run east along the beach.
9. Jardin Serre de la Madone
Rolling over 9 hectares of steep terrain, just off the coast, this park blends terraced subtropical gardens and Mediterranean forests with umbrella pines around reflecting pools.
Serre de la Madone was planned by the wealthy American Lawrence Johnston, who had already made a name for himself in a French garden in Hicote, Gloucestershire, England.
In Gorbio Valley, breezy and sunny, Johnston chose the perfect spot for exotic plants to thrive.
Hedges and walls form the boundaries between each garden, which contains bamboo, palm trees, succulents and a plethora of other exotic plants from around the world.
10. Museum of Fine Arts
The lavish 18th-century Palazzo Canoles was once the summer residence of the princes of Monaco, and for such a small city, it’s home to a wealth of art.
The person to thank for this is Charles Wakefield Mori, director of the National Museum of Art of Monaco, who donated his personal collection of modern art to Menton in 1959. Works by Salvador Dali, Chagall, Picasso and Francis Picabia are waiting for you, as well as a breathtaking sculpture garden, which opened on the palace grounds in 1994. Modern and classical sculptures are scattered around a research garden with 137 different citrus tree species.
11. Lemon Festival
Menton has been one of Europe’s largest citrus producers since the 1400s, but to experience the city’s love of lemons for yourself, visit the Menton Lemon Festival in February.
In terms of visitors, it is second only to the Nice Carnival, but ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix, and it lasts almost three weeks.
Chaos erupts in Menton every Sunday, with dances, musicians, lemon and orange mosaics and an elaborate parade of ten-meter-high floats adorned with plenty of lemons and created according to the theme of the year.
In years past there’s been Tintin, Alice in Wonderland or Around the World in 80 Days, 2017 will be Broadway.
12. Hebin preserves
In an alley near Rue Saint-Michel, you will learn how to make use of the harvest of lemons and oranges.
Herbin is a family-run artisan jam and preserves maker, open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:30. The jam and marmalade craftsmanship was brought to Menton by the British aristocracy, and with the abundance of fruit every year, this location couldn’t be better.
Herbin uses around 400kg of fruit daily to make 1,500 individual pots, which contain some eye-opening flavour combinations such as strawberry and basil.
The owner, Jean-Claude Bineau, who holds the title of Master of Jam, will explain everything to you.
13. Église Russe de Menton
Like other French resorts that attracted Russian nobility, Menton was endowed with a palatial Russian Orthodox church in the 1890s.
The church has the typical onion dome, painted here cobalt blue.
Inside, most striking is the iconostasis made of Tuscan Carrara marble with icons painted in Byzantine style by the Russian master Karl Bryullov.
The church is attached to La Maison Russe, a four-story mansion set in a garden of lemons, oranges and palms.
This was actually here before the church, a charitable foundation for sick and needy Russians on the French Riviera.
14. Marché des Halles
Head straight to Quai de Monleon’s covered market hall to find your food outlet, or just soak up the buzzing atmosphere.
Menton is known for the warmth and friendliness of its residents, so don’t be surprised if you’re greeted with a friendly welcome and warmly received by the stall owners.
From Tuesday to Sunday, there is an abundance of cheeses, meats (cured and raw), fruits, vegetables and pastries.
And dig deeper into Mentonnaise food culture, picking up the city’s famous preserves and other citrus fruit products.
15. Food and drink
Menton’s dishes are simple, emphasising the quality of local vegetables without much elaboration.
Serve the premium appetizer Salad Nisovas with tomatoes, peppers, onions, black olives and anchovies or tuna.
Socca flatbread couldn’t be easier. It’s just chickpeas and flour mixed with olive oil, roasted and seasoned with pepper.
Both complement the rosé wines of Provence.
Finally, Pichade Mentonnaise is something you’ve probably never seen before.
It’s the cheese-free relative of Italian pizza, with a tomato and onion sauce spread thinly on the dough, topped with olives and anchovies, and baked in a very hot oven.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Menton, France
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