MENTON, FRANCE – The woman wearing the colorful Provençal apron insisted we try one of her oranges. She wanted to reward us for being early morning visitors to her tiny stall in this sun-drenched town’s historic outdoor market.
Our taste buds were jolted awake as the sweet fruit exploded in our mouths. There was so much juice in one tiny bite that it began seeping out the corner of our mouths and down our chins.
“Bon?” she asked.
“C’est Bon!” we replied.
This city that juts into tranquil Baie de Garavan like a chin (Menton is the French word meaning chin) is the sunniest place in the country – it basks in warm light on average of over 300 cloudless days a year and produces so much fruit that it has been dubbed the citrus capital of France.
Above: Menton is known as the citrus capital of France.
Festivals are held each year – the biggest is the three week Fate du Citron in February – to celebrate the almost always bountiful crop. Floats are decorated with oranges and lemons and marching bands fill the streets of this town where the Alps sweep down to the sea.
The market lady scooped up some of her sweet, gooey marmalade, another byproduct of the citrus fruits, onto a plastic spoon and shoved it under our noses. The smell was delightful and soon we led the spoon to our mouths. It was the best marmalade we had ever tasted!
The women then turned tour guide and told us about some of the highlights we should visit in this French Rivera beauty that sits just a few miles from the Italian border.
“The gardens here are the best in the world,” boasted the woman who called Menton the “Pearl of France” because some believe it’s the prettiest town on the French Riviera. Few would argue.
The city has nine major gardens, all holdovers from when the aristocratic English made Menton their winter escape from dreary London, including a contemporary one called Square des Etats Unis (United States Square) where locals take early morning walks under a canopy of ancient trees.
The city’s most famous garden is the Villa Maria Serena, where tropical and subtropical plants flourish alongside palm trees and a rare dradon tree brought here from the Canary Islands. The air here is spiced with the fragrances of flowers and fruit. The 3.75 acre Jardin Villa Maria Serena is supposed to be the most temperate garden in France and the terra color villa with the sweeping staircases that sits on property offers camera buffs the best view of the bay.
This is also a city of museums, seven in all, including one devoted to Jean Cocteau, France’s legendary poet, novelist, painter and designer, where some of his paintings, drawings and tapestries are now displayed. Cocteau also painted the walls of the Salle des marriages (wedding hall), a small chapel that sits in the middle of Menton where hundreds come each year to tie the knot.
The highlight of this town, though, is its old quarter – itself a living history where ancient homes have been modernized for the rich of today.
Above: The citizens of Menton like to decorate their homes.
Old Menton flourished as a 13th century seaport but the city actually dates back to the Paleolithic Age. From 1346 to 1848, Menton belonged to the famed Grimaldi royal family and lived under the flag of Monaco before becoming a French town in 1861.
It’s still referred to as “the poor Monaco” because people, who cannot afford to stay in the super-rich principality, come here and take advantage of some of the more affordable hotels that line Promenade du Soleil and offer guests stunning Mediterranean views. You can get to Monaco along a road bordered by billion dollar homes and million dollar yachts or on a local train that costs just a few dollars.
The old town’s harbor – this was once a major fishing port until killer algae infiltrated its waters – is dominated by Saint Michel church and other historic structures. Its casitas, or homes, all have but one narrow window. That, we are told by a local guide, is because homes in the 13th century were taxed on the basis of the number of windows they had. The old town’s cemetery gives people a glimpse into its past but many of the stone graves’ markings have been wiped clean by age. Many of the old town’s buildings have been turned into cafes and restaurants. Some, like A Braijade Meridiounale at 66 rue Longue, offer up some delightful Provencal cuisine.
We make our way back to the market off Rue Michel just in time for lunch. The air is spiced with good smells coming from the outdoor cafes surrounding the market and street vendors tempt us with local dishes like barbajuan, a delicious fried packet of Swiss chard, cheese and rice; and socca, a pancake-like delicacy made primarily of ground chickpeas. Both cost just a few dollars so we sample the lip smacking good treats.
No French town would be worth its weight in foie gras if it didn’t have a Michelin star restaurant and Menton has a great one - Le Mirazur, a two-star establishment that offers exquisite dining and a billion-star view of Menton at night.
The city also has a small casino and its share of fun local bars, like The Big Boss, located next to the Hotel Riva on the Promenade du Soleil, which swings to the wee hours of the morning.
Menton sits in the shadow of a granite mountain called the “Steps of Death”, so called because so many Italians trying to sneak into France under the cover of darkness during pre-European Union days, plunged to their deaths.
Speaking of Italy, the charming seaside town of Ventimiglia and its laid-back lifestyle are just a few minutes away. There’s also a famed outdoor market in this town.
Chances are, you’ll find Menton hard to leave, though.
- May we suggest the Hotel Riva rivahotel.com
at 600 Promenade du Soleil as a good place to stay while visiting Menton. It runs around $150 a night.
- There are smaller hotels in the market area for under $100. They offer very small rooms but lots of charm.
- The closest international airport to Menton is Nice, a 30-minute drive away.
- Menton's tourist office is located at 8 Avenue Boyer.
- For more information on the city go towww.menton.fr
- For more on France go to franceguide.com