Menton: Big, Busy and Overlooked

An overlooked part of Cote d’Azur by travelers from places other than France and Italy is Menton and its immediate environs.  This is understandable for travelers with limited time as it has no airport, film festival, famous casino or reputation for extravagant living, but it is a busy place with lots to see and do – and very typical of Cote d’Azur.  It has beaches; its share of Belle Epoque hotels and16th century churches; an old town; a beachfront casino; a new Jacques Cousteau museum; and its fascinating Citrus Festival.  Within a five mile drive are a well-preserved hillside castle in nearby Roquebrune and Ste.-Agnes, the highest perched village along the sea in France with its castle ruins and a 1930s fortress.  Because of the mountains behind it, Menton also has Cote d’Azur’s warmest weather.

Menton FranceIt has not always been overlooked, and what you see today in Menton represents a lot of what Cote d’Azur once was.  In the late 19th century, it was Nice’s main rival for tourists from northern Europe, particularly from England and Russia.  It was a bit unique in its appeal at the time, though, in that its attraction was based more on health than revelry.  Nice and Cannes owed much of their 19th century growth to the belief that their climate benefited health problems, but Menton went so far in that direction that Ted Jones, a writer of a book on Cote d’Azur, entitled his chapter on Menton, “Sanatorium City.”

Menton is no longer a refuge for the wealthy and ailing, but Cote d’Azur’s best year-round weather is still there and has made it a major retirement center.  Even in the late 19th century it was unfair to think of Menton as only a place for the ailing since its sunny climate and location attracted many others as well and this is equally so today relative to being just a place for retirees.

In 1870, it was a book by a British doctor, James Henry Bennet, Menton and the Riviera: As a Winter Climate, that helped bring a colony of 5,000 English citizens to the city, and as a result, Menton has its share of Belle Epoque hotels and villas from this era.  The Grand Hotel des Ambassadeurs dating back to 1865 is still taking guests, but the two largest hotels of that era, the Winter Palace and Rivera Palace, built in the early 1880s, like so many Cote d’Azur’s grand hotels, have been converted to residences.  Even as residences filled with retirees, they sit majestically on the hills above the city and an early 1890s hotel, Palais d’Europe, which once housed a casino, is now a tourism center.

Menton FranceWhat makes Menton special today besides its weather and a touch of nostalgia is a lengthy beach stretching from Roquebrune- Cap-Martin to the Italian border – a distance of at least three miles; its gardens and fruit trees; the mountains behind it; and a citrus festival.  The beaches bring crowds and with them endless hotels and restaurants, but the city is best known for its gardens, fruit trees and February fruit festival.  The festival features miniature castles, houses and people over a two block area constructed totally of lemons.

Being so close to my home base at Nice, I am no expert on its hotels, but Menton, like Cannes, is place where you want to be near the beach – and not just to swim.   This is where most of the hotels and restaurants are – and its old town, which has a very picturesque combination of 16th century religious churches with the Basilica de St.-Michel and Chapelle-de-l’Immaculate Conception facing each other and overlooking the beach and harbor.  If day-tripping this is a must visit, and there are a couple of excellent harbor-side restaurants right below the churches, La Belle Escale and Cote Sud.

If one is going to Menton, the mountain village of Ste.-Agnes, which is the highest in France overlooking the sea, should be part of that visit.  It was mentioned in one of my earlier blogs on Saorge and other perched villages in Cote d’Azur, but it is worth repeating here with a little more detail as is it only about five miles north of Menton and an easy drive.  There is also a bus that leaves Menton at 9:30 AM and one that comes back from Ste.-Agnes at 2:35 PM.  It is busy place since it is not only a pretty village to visit, but a popular luncheon destination for Menton’s many retirees as well as visitors.

While most people are up there to eat with a view, Ste.-Agnes has two historic spots, each of which is by itself worth the trip.  These are the 12th century castle ruins and the much more recent Fort Ste.-Agnes that was constructed between 1932 and 1938 as part of the Maginot Line that was to protect France from invasion from the east.

The castle ruins are on a 2,625-foot peak that overlooks the Mediterranean and provides spectacular views of both Menton and Monaco down below.  It was supposedly built by a Saracen prince that had married a local girl; was rebuilt in the 15th century; and then destroyed by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the 17th century.  It is a bit of a walk up from the village, but it is quite doable on a well-constructed pathway.

Even more spectacular, and certainly more unique, is Fort Ste.-Agnes.  It is several stories high, totally encased in the rocks and was built to hold a military contingent of 350 men.  Only one level is open to visitors, but it is extensive and has many rooms, some of which include displays of what they were like during the war. The cannons that were intended to protect Menton harbor can be seen from the outside.  The fort is open June through September from10:30 in the morning until noon and reopens in the afternoon at 3 o’clock.  The rest of the year, it is open from 2:30 PM to 5:30 PM.  Right inside the entrance is a movie with English subtitles of scenes taken within the fort when it was still active.

Lunch, though, seems to be what Ste.-Agnes is about, and it has good restaurants.  Le Righi with its location outside the village near the cannons is the best, but Le Saint Yves in the village also draws large crowds.  The latter’s central location; large outside dining area; and reasonably priced food are good reasons why; but it also helped by being open all the time – and being able to handle the large weekend demand.

Roquebrune village is a nice stopover for lunch high in the hills on the Moyenne Corniche between Menton and Monaco, and about 15 minutes from each.  It is a well-preserved medieval village with a 10th century castle that was restored in the 19th century.  It has its own hotel, Les Deux Freres, and several restaurants.  My favorite is the very unpretentious Fraise et Chocolat with a terrace overlooking the water.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

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