Menton is so close to Monaco that it used to be a part of that country! Visiting by train takes less than 20 minutes with departures every 15 minutes. Tickets start at €2.30 if bought in advance. There are two roads which can be taken from Monaco to Menton. My friend Yanis rented a car to do a day trip to Menton and Sainte-Agnes. On the way over we took the D6007 coastal road that provides gorgeous views and on the way back we took the A8 highway. Driving takes between 25 to 30 minutes depending on traffic.
It is also quite easy to reach Menton from Nice, since it is only 28 kilometers from this city and is connected by train and bus. We only went for the day, but I will definitely return and perhaps spend a night or two hotel in Menton.
History of Menton
For centuries, Menton was the border town between Provence and Genoa. But its history dates further back since the area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Era. The “Grimaldi Man” (two skeletons dating back 22,000-26,000 years) was first found here.
During the Roman times it served as a passage between Piacenza and Arles. But it wasn’t until the 11th century, when the Count of Ventimiglia built a chateau on Pepin hill, that there was an actual settlement. In the 13th century, the area passed to be ruled by the Vento family of Genoa and was incorporated into the Republic of Genoa.
It was first mentioned by the name of Menton on 21 of July 1262 in a peace treaty between Charles of Anjou (Count of Provence) and Genoa. This is when it became an official border town with Monaco at its western limit. In 1346, it was acquired by Charles Grimaldi, Lord of Monaco, and was ruled by that country until the French Revolution in 1789. Then in 1814 it passed back to Monaco, but only for a year since it became a protectorate of the King of Sardinia in 1815 after Napoleon’s Hundred Days.
Monaco placed a tax on lemon exports that caused Menton and Roquebrune (also a part of Monaco) to proclaim themselves as “free cities” during the 1848 revolutions. Two years later they placed themselves under the protection of the Kingdom of Sardinia for a period of ten years. Finally, in 1860 the male citizens of Menton and Roquebrune voted to be annexed to the County of Nice, becoming a part of France. The town of Saint-Agnes also voted the same. As a compensation, Napoleon III paid 4 million francs to the prince of Monaco.
British and Russian aristocrats started building hotels by the end of the 19th century. Since then tourism has played an important role in the local economy. Queen Victoria visited in 1882, making it a popular destination for the Brits. Fishing also was very important, but it diminished in the 1980s and 1990s because of overfishing and hypoxia caused by pollutants. Asian algae discovered by the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco in 1984 (the year I was born!) helped the local sea grass recover by absorbing these pollutants.
What to do in Menton?
As soon as we drove into Menton we saw the beach. Plenty of surfers were waiting on their surfboards to catch a wave. Most beaches in the area are full of pebbles. However, there are some sandy beaches between Garavan Marina and the old port. Some have an entrance fee and most have great views of the old town. Popular beaches include Les Sablettes and Plage du Fossan.
Walking around town is an absolute must! The Belle Epoque villas are simply gorgeous, with faded colors that range from yellow to pink and orange. There are palm trees everywhere. On top of the old town is the cemetery of the Old Chateau with wonderful views. Here is the grave of William Webb Ellis, who invented rugby.
The basilica of Saint Michel Archangel was built in 1619 by the Genoese architect Lorenzo Lavagna. This baroque building is visited by over 100,000 people a year. A 53 meter bell tower stands out in the town’s skyline. There is also a Russian Orthodox Church (Église Russe de Menton) built by the Russian nobility in the 1890s.
Menton is a great place for foodies. Because of the Italian influence you can find great gelato. Try the Pichade Mentonnaise that is a cheese-less pizza with tomato and onion sauce, topped with olives and anchovies and the Socca flatbread. Salade Niçoise is another local speciality with peppers, onions, tomatoes, black olives and tuna or anchovies.
Mirazur is the most famous local restaurant because it has three Michelin Guide stars and is rated fourth of the World’s best restaurants. But there are plenty of restaurants and cafés, as well as the delicious local market.
This city is known as a city garden because of the subtropical microclimate enjoyed by the region. It is supposed to be the warmest winter destination on the Côte d’Azur. Another Mediterranean garden you can visit is Domaine Du Rayol which is almost two hours away, very close to St. Tropez.
Val Rahmeh botanical garden was the work of Lord Radcliffe, once the Governor of Malta. He thought Menton’s mild climate was perfect to grow tropical plants from South America and Asia. He was a fan of tropical fruits, so you will find bananas, avocados and kiwis. Toromiro tree is one of the rarest species in the garden; originally endemic to Easter Island but it is now extinct in the wild.
Jardin de la Serre de la Madone is also filled with rare plants. It was created by Lawrence Johnson, a botanist from America. It is about 4 kilometers from town in the Gorbio Valley, so it is best to go by car since there is little and complicated public transportation to this site. Keep in mind that it is a bit runned down, despite a renovation, since it was not maintained for years. Another garden to visit is the Maria Serena Villa garden near the Italian border. This villa was built by architect Charles Garnier, designer of the Paris Opera House. Make sure to look for the columns and the spiral staircase designed by Gustave Eiffel. It is located in a quarter known as “la petite Afrique” (little Africa) and is supposed to have the mildest climate in France.
We went to the Fontana Rosa Garden which is known as the garden of the poets. However it was closed and very runned down. Palais de Carnolès is another building worth visiting. This palace was once the Grimaldi family’s summer residence. Now it is the Museum of Fine Arts of the city. Its garden is filled with the largest collection of citrus trees in Europe.
Land of Citrus
Menton’s land is extremely fertile, but there is no crop more famous than the lemon. To celebrate it, they do a citrus festival each year (since 1928) between February and March. This festival lasts for two weeks and the city is decorated by sculptures that use tons of fruits and metal to hold the artistic installations. Each fruit is placed by hand, so you can imagine how much time they take to create. This festival is done in front of the casino. There are day and night parades with floats and a garden of lights. Chefs also participate in this festival creating all kinds of dishes with a citrus theme. At the end the fruit is sold at a very cheap price.
In town you can purchase so many things made from lemon, including olive oil, cookies, soap, vinegar, and Limoncello. Herbin Confiturerie makes jams and preserves of lemon and oranges. They do tours several times per week. This craft was brought to Menton by the English aristocracy who vacationed there.
Marché des Halles Market
The market in Menton is quite close to the shore and right next to the Jean Cocteau Museum. This building was built in 1898 by local architect Adrien Rey. It is absolutely gorgeous, following the color pattern of the region: yellow, green, blue and orange. Make sure to pay attention to the details such as flowers and faces on the walls. There are stands that sell all kinds of fruit and produce on the outside, as well as tables for guests to sit to drink wine or delight in some of the local delicatessen.
Obviously, we tried some of the wine, ordered a table of charcuterie and tried two types of cheese with truffles. One of the stall workers spoke some Spanish and started playing music while we were eating, it was quite lively! There are over 30 stalls that sell a wide range of things from prepared food to processed goods that make great souvenirs, think of speciality mustards and herbs of Provence.
Several stalls sold cheese from all regions of France and offered samples. There is also a bakery, dairy products, butchers, seasonal produce and herbs. You can visit Marché des Halles Market daily starting at 5 a.m. “Officially” it closes at 1 p.m., but it stays open for a bit longer.
Jean Cocteau Museum
One of the first things we saw in Menton was the famous Jean Cocteau Museum. This museum is quite new, since the decision to create it was taken in 2003. An international design competition was done in 2007, resulting in the selection of a ‘hedonistic’ design created by French architect Rudy Ricciotti, that had done the Islamic wing of the Louvre. He described the facade as “a fierce set of teeth” which can be appreciated from afar. One of the biggest financial backers was Pierre Bergé, the partner of Yves Saint Laurent. You can also visit their Jardin Majorelle and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakesh.
This museum took eight years to be completed, opening in January 2011. It was created to house Severin Wunderman’s collection of over 1,000 graphic works by Jean Cocteau. Unfortunately, in October of 2018 a severe storm hit the Menton region. Since the museum is quite close to the shoreline, it suffered from inundations. Supposedly, it would reopen in 2019, but it was still closed when I went in October of 2020. With Covid there is probably no rush to reopen the museum.
Jean Cocteau used to frequent Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera. In 1955, he went to a Music Festival in Menton and fell in love with the town. He became friends with the mayor, who asked him to decorate the town’s wedding hall and made him an honorary citizen. After, Jean Cocteau set up a museum with his works in the Bastion, a 17th century fort by the harbor. This museum opened in 1966 (three years after his death) and now houses his paintings while the new museum is being fixed. In the Bastion you can find pebble mosaics done by the artist.