Menton is a charming coastal town located on the French Riviera, only six miles from Monaco and within sight of the Tête de Chien cliffs which overlook the over-developed principality we called upon last time. As well as its grand mansions and gardens, Menton is known for its mix of Mediterranean cultures and stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps. Menton is famous for growing lemons and has a unique microclimate perfect for lemon trees. Visitors can enjoy shops selling various lemon products and attend the annual lemon festival held in February. The town is affordable and less crowded than neighbouring Monaco and Nice.
Must-see attractions include the old town with its medieval buildings and the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange, as well as the Plage des Sablettes, where visitors can enjoy the beach and scenic restaurants. The Jean Cocteau Museum is dedicated to the famous artist and film director who loved Menton. If you must, a day trip to Monaco is possible to explore the grand palace, casinos, building sites, awful architecture and crass super-yachts. Additionally, Menton is situated near the Italian border settlement of Ventimiglia and is a town in the Alpes-Maritimes département of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
The area was inhabited since prehistoric times and was known to the Romans as the Villa Montis. The township was founded in the 13th century by the Genoese family of the Lascaris, who were granted the land by Charles II of Anjou. Menton was part of the County of Nice until 1860 when it was ceded to France. The town became a popular destination for English and Russian aristocrats in the late 19th century, and it is still popular for its mild climate and beautiful gardens.
While the town was not then as bustling and cosmopolitan as it is today, it was already a popular destination for those, including royalty, seeking a taste of the good life on the French coast.
My grandparents arrived by car in 1958. From the harbourside, a twisty road leads to the Cimetiere du Trabuquet. Along this, my grandparents were able to snatch this classic view of the bay and the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange and her tower. Although difficult to replicate these days on Street View because of all the trees, the very same viewpoint remains and – beyond the tide being out – allows a reassuringly familiar comparison to be made. Have a look around via the following link.
Menton in the 1950s was a popular destination for artists and intellectuals seeking inspiration and relaxation. The town’s mild climate, stunning landscape, and vibrant cultural scene attracted many famous figures, including Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, and Pablo Picasso. The Menton Festival, which began in 1950, featured a range of music, theatre, and dance performances, drawing crowds from across Europe. Menton’s elegant hotels and casinos also made it a popular spot for high society. Despite its glamorous image, Menton remained a tranquil and picturesque town, with its traditional markets, hillside gardens, and charming old town attracting visitors of all kinds.
Unlike my grandparents, many of the famous and not-so-famous arrived by train. The Blue Train was a luxurious overnight service that operated from Paris. Introduced in 1886, it ran until 2003 connecting the French Riviera to the capital. The train made stops at various cities, including Dijon, Chalons, Lyon, Saint-Raphael, Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Nice, and Monte Carlo, before reaching its final destination. The service was popular among wealthy and famous travellers, and early passengers included Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The popularity of the train declined after the introduction of scheduled airline services and the replacement of night express trains with high-speed trains in the 1980s.
The harbourside is distinctive. The beach pictured is the Plage des Sablettes. The quai above the arches is the Quai Bonaparte. A bus stop commemorates Princess Victoria. Alighting there the visitor may swim, sunbathe, and enjoy a day out with family and friends. The beach is also equipped with various facilities, including showers, toilets, and sun loungers. Additionally, there are several restaurants and cafes nearby where visitors can enjoy a delicious meal or a refreshing drink while taking in the beautiful scenery. Seven decades later the visitor is still allowed to park there although the other way around (facing the next car, not the sea), this part of the town having avoided many of the excesses we saw in nearby Monaco.
The hilltop Cimetière du Trabuquet is known for its stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea and the town and is home to many elaborate tombs and memorials. It is the final resting place of many notable figures, including French author and playwright Sacha Guitry, and Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Victoria. The cemetery is open to the public and is a popular tourist destination for those interested in history and architecture.
Princess Victoria, also known as Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa, was the eldest daughter of our own Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. She was born in 1840 and married Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858. The couple had eight children, including Wilhelm II, who later become notorious as Kaiser Bill – the last Emperor of Germany. In less complicated times, Princess Victoria was known for her charitable work and was heavily involved in nursing during the Franco-Prussian War. Only months prior to her mother’s passing, Princess Victoria died on 5th August 1901.
Suffering from breast cancer, which had spread to other parts of her body, Victoria had sought relief from the pain by travelling to the warmer climate of the French Riviera. Despite the efforts of her doctors and family, she eventually succumbed to the disease at the age of 67. Her death was a great loss to her family and the British nation, as she had been a popular and widely respected member of the royal family.
Sacha Guitry was a French playwright, actor, and film director who lived from 1885 until a few months before my grandparent’s visit. A Puffin before such a thing had been characterised, he was known for his witty and sophisticated dialogue, with his works often exploring the complexities of human relationships. Guitry wrote and directed over 30
unread comments and articles films, including “The Story of a Cheat” and “Pearls of the Crown”, and he also acted in many of his own productions. Despite his success, Guitry’s personal life was often controversial, and he was known for his numerous marriages and affairs. Today, he is remembered as one of France’s most influential and talented artists of the 20th century.
The Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel is a Roman Catholic church, built in the 17th century and known for its stunning Baroque architecture and beautiful frescoes. The church is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, who is considered the protector of Menton. The interior of the church is adorned with beautiful works of art, including a painting of Saint Michael defeating the devil. Visitors can also admire the church’s impressive organ and enjoy its peaceful atmosphere. The Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel is a must-visit attraction for anyone interested in history, architecture, and religion.
These days the long rooftop close to the layby viewpoint belongs to Sciences Po Paris – Campus de Menton. This is a branch campus of Sciences Po, a prestigious French university specialising in social sciences. The campus is known for its strong emphasis on language learning and cultural immersion and offers undergraduate programmes in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean studies. Students are required to study Arabic or another Mediterranean language alongside their main programme. The campus also offers various extracurricular activities, such as a Model United Nations club and a student-run radio station.
Continuing an educational theme, the nearer building with the shorter roof is ‘Institut de Formation Transfrontier en Soins Infirmiers et d’Aides-Soignants.’ This translates to a self-explanatory ‘Cross-Border Training Institute For Nurses and Caregivers.’
Although our other 1950s image is captioned ‘The Band, Menton,’ it appears to show the French Navy marching behind drums. A local sea cadet accompanies, no doubt feeling ten foot tall despite his young stature.
Beyond the harbour and Basilique Saint Michel, the built-up area enters another bay which runs to Cap Martin on the other side of which sits Monaco. All of the coast is urbanised. At first glance, the narrow streets, balconies and shuttered windows pictured above could be anywhere. But there are clues. Note the hills in the background and the ornamentation along the roof line of the building to the right. Note also the decorated neo-classical column in the exact centre of the photograph. Is that a flag being flown on a mast to the right of the column?
Without too much difficulty the location was traceable to 26 Rue de la Republique, outside the old Hotel de Ville.
My grandparents were standing outside the Eglise Reformee de France and captured that most French of institutions the town hall’s Salle de Marriage as well as the Hotel de Ville.
Once more, we are reassured. The flag still flies. The four-story building on the corner still enjoys tall windows and wooden shutters. We shall forgive the Mentonnnais (Mentonasque?) the white vans and parked cars, at least – unlike disappointing near neighbour Monaco’s billion tons of concrete and steel – they can be moved.
© Always Worth Saying 2023