“Nowhere have I felt such complete happiness,” declared Franz Liszt of Menton. Sheltered by mountains, Menton basks in an enchanted setting with 300 days of sunshine a year. In this tropical greenhouse, Mexican and North African vegetation flourishes in a climate at least 2°c warmer than in Nice. Belle-époque villas aside, one could easily be in Sicily. But in the 19th century Menton’s charm was as a winter sanatorium rather than as a hot-house. Royal visitors such as Queen Victoria and Edward VII helped Menton acquire a reputation as the most aristocratic and anglophile of all the Riviera resorts.
Nowadays the dowager-like image has softened: Menton is cosy rather than genteel, anglophile rather than aristocratic. But even this image is passé, since Menton has more young people than any other Riviera town. Certainly, the presence of Italian executives and day-trippers has revived the resort. But Vieux Menton, the Italianate old town, appeals to all lovers of the Cote d’Azur. With its pinkish cathedral, cobbled streets and lavender stalls, Menton almost feels like a pastiche of the Mediterranean.
Set just behind the seafront, the sweetly-scented Jardin Biovés is a natural introduction to flowery Menton. Facing inland, one’s eye is drawn to the gentle gradations of colour and height: lush pink borders and serried ranks of palms and citrus trees that fade to distant mauve hills. The lemon trees are carefully decorated with fairy lights. In the evening glow, the park’s cosy prettiness envelops passers-by in a cloying embrace.
Originally Genovese, Menton became part of the Principality of Monaco in 1346 and by and large remained a Grimaldi possession until 1860. However, the Grimaldi astutely placed Menton under the protection of the rising political powers, a form of opportunism still practised by the present Monégasque rulers. In succession, Menton became a Spanish, French and Sardinian protectorate. Given such a cosmopolitan past, it is hardly surprising that Menton can feel so deliciously foreign.
In 1848 Menton rebelled against high Monégasque taxes on oil and fruit. Along with Roquebrune, the town declared itself a republic but this was short-lived and in 1861 Monaco sold both towns to France. This coincided with the beginning of grand tourism and Menton was one of the first health resorts to benefit, thanks to the favourable publicity generated by Dr Bennet. The English doctor promoted Menton‘s mild climate as perfect for invalids so British and Germans flocked to winter there. Still now, Menton has an air of an expensive nursing home, albeit a ritzy Riviera nursing home. In the tearooms life is meted out not in coffee spoons but in ice cream scoops.