Menton: The Forgotten Pearl of the French Riviera
Queen Victoria adored it; Winston Churchill painted its landscapes, and Robert Louis Stevenson and Katherine Mansfield came here to convalesce among the sunny lemon groves. Sean Connery filmed scenes of ‘Never Say Never’ in the old town, Jean Cocteau painted his famous frescoes of love here, and English nobles planted exotic gardens around Italianate villas shaded by palm trees. So enchanting is Menton that Eve is said to have planted the first lemon here, and the town, nestled on that last steep stretch of coastline before France gives way to Italy, is widely referred to as ‘The Pearl of France’.
So why is it then, that glorious Menton—set against a mighty backdrop of mountains, its cluster of pastel painted buildings and bell towers perched above the deep blue sea—is often left off the French Riviera yacht charter itinerary altogether? How can this be? For those looking for a place that brings the medieval and the gilded ages together with a gentle, well-preserved charm, Menton is paradise found.
A Place to Cheat Death (and Meet the Queen)
Menton sprung to international fame as a health resort for wealthy consumptives in the late 1800’s, when a deathly-ill English doctor named Henry Bennett miraculously recovered from tuberculosis while staying here. He put his unexpected recovery down to the gentle micro-climate of Menton, where the curve of the Alps and Ligurian coastline shelter the little town, delivering mild winters and warm, almost sub-tropical summers. Bennett immediately wrote a book about the town’s restorative powers called Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate, and within a short time 5000 British residents of delicate health were living there, building ornate villas and planting gardens by the sparkling sea, breathing the fresh air, eating the oranges and lemons that dangled heavy from the trees, and hoping to live. Queen Victoria came to stay in Menton with her daughter Beatrice around the same time, propelling Menton to even greater notoriety.
As it turned out, Bennett was correct about the climate, as Menton is several degrees warmer in winter than the surrounding region, but not about the cure: Menton’s atmospheric chateau cemetery is littered with English gravestones with inscriptions of lives cut terribly short. Yet Menton had been forever changed by the onrush of pale nobility in the late nineteenth century, and its stately grandeur lingers today in the opulent casinos and Belle Epoque hotels with names like ‘Winter Palace’ summoning up the language and life of a lost age.
Pirates and Emperors
Menton, of course, had existed long before the English. Its steep medieval streets were laid by pirates—a rabbit-warren of dark shadow and cool stone passageways, emerging into bright sunshine and shady squares with dizzying Mediterranean views. Down on the port, Emperor Napoleon built 16 giant stone arches on Quai Bonaparte, today the home of sophisticated waterfront restaurants and lined with palms. Perched on the Italian border, the architecture and feel of Menton is overwhelmingly Italianate, but with touches of French, Spanish, Moroccan, and Greek influences absorbed over the centuries. Ruled by Genoa during the Dark Ages, Menton passed to control of the Grimaldi family in Monaco for six centuries, before seceding in 1860 to become part of France under Emperor Napoleon III.
One might argue that as a result of its mixed heritage Menton does not feel particularly French, but it is unarguably Mediterranean- a wonderful amalgam of the waves of history that have shaped this glittering coastline.
Exotic Gardens, Festivals, and Gastronomy
The highlights of this town for the visitor are many, including the spectacular baroque Saint Michel Archange Basilica, dating back to 1675 and looming over the town with its splendid 53m belltower. The famed gardens of Menton are unmissable- with standouts including Val Rahmeh garden by Sir Percy Radcliffe, the Fontana Rosa, and the Serre de la Madone. The Jardins Bioves is the home of hundreds of sweet-smelling citrus trees, as well as a thousand year olive grove with a quiet heart.
The excellent Jean Cocteau museum and gallery in the fort is a must-see, and you can also visit his frescoes of love in the town hall wedding room, one of France’s most popular places to get married. The cemetery at the Vieux Chateau is a place of exceptional beauty and sea views, with plenty of interesting headstones, including that of the inventor of rugby, William Webb Ellis.
In February, Menton is transformed by the Lemon Festival into a riot of colour and parades, while August brings the excellent Menton Music Festival to the Basilica.
Menton is a refined and often sleepy town, with none of the glitziness of Cannes and St Tropez. There are sophisticated beach clubs and fine restaurants—such as the superb 2 Michelin star Mirazur, voted the best restaurant in France and always comfortably inside the world’s top 50— but for those seeking nightlife, pretty Menton is a place to stop and savour in the daytime, before hopping back on your superyacht and floating back down the coast to the summertime mayhem of Monaco or Cannes.
Colour and Life on the French Riviera
The overwhelming impression of Menton is one of vibrant colour. The thick medieval stone painted pale pinks, rich creams and pale yellow ochres, the deep cool shadows of vaulted passageways, and the brilliant blue flashes of sky and sea glimpsed through archways and gaps in buildings. Flowers explode from lush gardens, and the orchard trees hang with pearls of colour- lemon yellow, deep orange, and olive green fruits that grow on stone terraces up the steep hillside. The Alps rise above the town, their forested green slopes eventually giving way to grey rocky peaks that glow with snow in the cooler months, when the sprays of yellow mimosa in Menton’s gardens contrast vividly with the wintry Mediterranean. The purity of the air, the sparkling sea, and dazzling colours of Menton leave a mark on the spirit not soon to be forgotten.
You’re unlikely to see Snoop Dog or hotel heiresses dancing on a nightclub table in a rain of champagne— as you well may in other Riviera towns. But for those looking for a reminder of the high life of over a century ago, of the glamour and sadnesses that brought artists and writers and nobles here in their thousands, Menton will surely strike a note in your heart.
One of the lesser-known gems of the Riviera, this stunning Italianate port town deserves a spot on your French Riviera yachting itinerary.
To find out more, contact Bespoke Yacht Charter: