In Menton, Quiet Days and Quiet Nights (published 2002) (2023)


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17. November 2002


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"Menton, c'est trop bourgeois" "Menton is too bourgeois." Too calm, said the wasp-waisted Russian nobleman to Marie Bashkirtseff, the young, beautiful, and slender diarist who suffered from tuberculosis and was thinking. retires to the French Riviera in search of sun and warmth. He and his friends were on their way to Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo: soft, elegant winter days and nights. But that was more than a century ago.

The winter sunshine - last year there were 305 sunny days - brought Menton its first prosperity. (It's midsummer now.) Lord Brougham, an eccentric English socialite, discovered the town in the 1830s when he was looking for a place to escape the cold, damp fog of English winters. Cultivation of the French Riviera began in Menton, but was quickly overtaken by the cities further west, especially after the construction of the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranée railway line. Nevertheless, Menton retained two characteristics: one climatic and the other national. It was and is a microclimate, the warmest corner of the entire French Riviera in winter, sheltered from the mistral winds by the semicircle of mountains beyond. Lemon trees bear fruit all year round and the lush gardens are in bloom most seasons.

Menton, with around 32,000 year-round residents, was and is no longer the most English town on the Riviera. Now there are few English visitors to Menton in winter: there are warmer places in southern Spain, Morocco and the Caribbean where you can fly in a couple of hours, crowds notwithstanding. But the traces of the earlier English presence are almost everywhere: the large statue of Queen Victoria on the seafront, the streets named Avenue Edouard VII, Avenue Winston Churchill, Cours George V and so on. The Hanbury Botanic Gardens, just over the Italian border in La Mortola, were founded in 1867 by Sir Thomas Hanbury, a wealthy Englishman, who filled them with exotic plants from around the world.

If "uncrowded," "quiet," and "stupefying" weren't very welcoming qualities a century ago, they are now, as we long for deserted promenades and undeveloped hills, for ancient cities with their strange smells and sights. What a calm sea, bathed day after day in sunshine that is bountiful instead of unforgiving, soft and warm instead of scorching and scorching. These qualities were what attracted my wife, Stephanie, and I to a short winter vacation, just as they had attracted such luminaries as Robert Louis Stevenson and Katherine Mansfield in previous years. (A later occasional resident, Jean Cocteau, founded the small museum that bears his name and decorated the room at City Hall where weddings are performed.)

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It is now Christmas week in Menton and the hotels only reopened a few days ago. We flew to Nice: Nice Airport is less than an hour from Menton via the motorway. The older routes, the N7 and the Corniche, are slower, but they don't get heavy traffic in winter and their views are expectedly spectacular, including the descent to Menton. Menton's semicircular bay glitters like a pale gold gorge below Roquebrune and Cap Martin. I roll down the car window. The salt-free Mediterranean air rushes in as the gentle evening swallows the last light of the afternoon. Christmas lights are stretched across the long promenade. There is a strange feeling and sound of stillness everywhere.

Menton offers two old fashioned and beautifully appointed hotels, the Ambassadeurs and the Royal Westminster, with gardens opening onto the seafront. We choose the Napoleon, albeit more modern and less elegant, for the views of the Mediterranean Sea from its large balconies that form small terraces. It's half empty, but after Christmas it starts to fill up. We go to a restaurant, l'O à la Bouche, 200 meters away: it has everything a good mid-range French bistro should, specializing in fresh seafood. From the large balcony of our room, above the twinkle of the Christmas lights and a kilometer to the west, the houses and cathedral of Old Menton are bathed in golden reflector lights.

We overlook the Bay of Garavan, one of Menton's two gentle oval bays, with Italy no more than a kilometer away, on the same road along the sea. It is this Italian, not English, spread that is now felt and visible everywhere. By midday, the narrow streets of Menton are full of cars with Italian license plates; the cafés are full of Italian voices; The hotels are filling up more and more with Italian guests. Of course, Menton had a large Italian population for centuries (it was not annexed to France until 1860); But the Italian presence – or more precisely a Franco-Italian symbiosis – is expressed in many ways. There's the food for example. Menton lacks three star restaurants but there are many, many very good, bistros, family hangouts, seaside resorts with solid middle class standards: yet the price in Menton isn't middle class. It's a mix of something different: French-Mediterranean and Northern Italian, wonderfully reliable. (One night I had the best gnocchi west of Genoa, another night Stephanie had the best coquilles Saint-Jacques south-east of Brittany.) We ate well, very well, for eight days.

The border between France and Italy no longer exists today. The large former customs buildings and barracks are deserted, empty and have blind windows to the street. Sometimes I regret that. Train Bleu no longer goes to Menton; Gone is the little excitement that one gets when crossing from Menton in France to Ventimiglia in Italy, two famous and historic border stations. One day we will go to Italy, maybe to San Remo for dinner. Traffic is heavy and there is too much construction around the coastal road (which was probably built on a road more than 2,000 years old, the Roman Via Aurelia). After a while we turn around.

On Christmas Eve the streets of Menton are exceptionally crowded. (The main shopping street is thankfully closed to cars.) There is a presence of an older France in these streets, lots of small shops, women gesturing and talking to each other, the smell of freshly baked bread from bakeries and patisseries, shouts from vendors outside and the chaotic talk show indoors in the covered Stadtmarkt, with such delicious things being dunked on the sliding wooden counters, from lobster and crayfish to almond and marzipan tarts. Around 4 p.m. the first iron shutters rattled on the stalls in the market hall. In the cafés, red-necked old men wave their glasses and drain them for a last sip, happy and drunk. The shops and bars are still open, but the streets are slowly emptying. Some streets are still nicely lit, but it's quiet at 7am.

Long after dinner, I climb up the streets winding between fortress-like walls to Vieux Menton, to the church of St Michel, for the midnight mass, Minuit Chrétien, preceded by an organ recital, not very good, but still. I sit in the back and exit the church - large and baroque, but rebuilt after a small earthquake in the late 19th century - before the crowd. Beneath the small cobbled square, St. Michel falls asleep in its midnight nap in front of Menton. Through quiet stone alleys and narrow streets I walk half a kilometer down to my car, which is now parked in an empty parking lot. Not much light enters the windows of houses and apartments. The old French custom of the réveillon, the champagne-filled family meal at 1am after midnight mass, is now rare.

But the next morning is a Christmas Day, bright gold, blue and warm. The palm trees along the road sway gently in a gentle breeze. The beach restaurant is full of families with children celebrating their Christmas dinner there, which ends with the jubilant fumes of small flames of cognac, armagnac or grappa, poured over many a dessert and lit.

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Then we drive past the large apartment buildings along the coast road, built in the 1930s for wealthy Parisians and occupied today – by their descendants? From others? -- only in late spring and summer. A kilometer away the road leads up to Cap Martin where beautiful villas are hidden behind palm trees, rhododendrons, stone walls and wrought iron gates and fences. From there the view over Menton is exceptional. (Luckily there's at least one good restaurant, Hippocampe, which sits on the cliffs of Cap Martin and faces east.) Then through the village of Roquebrune to Monte Carlo and Monaco, half an hour away, where much of the atmosphere is now an unfortunate mix is from Beverly Hills and Miami. Again we turn around. Back to Menton.

Another bright morning: we drive up to Ste.-Agnès, hairpin bends, a corkscrew. From Ste.-Agnès the view over Menton Bay is fantastic, but there are many other views from the heights of the Eastern Riviera. What is unusual here is the old-fashionedness of the sloping fields and thickets, which are rarely disturbed or disfigured by creeping settlement. Here and there, lonely houses stand at the most dangerous bends, hidden behind trees and protected from the narrow street by iron fences, suggesting the presence of an isolated privacy that – and not only – must be respected. I can imagine small canvas awnings fluttering over their narrow terraces in summer - very narrow as most of them seem to be close to the edge of large cliffs; or olive tree branches burning in their chimneys in winter. I can imagine Merimée or Colette or Willa Cather sitting in their little rooms. (Not the Hemingways, or the Fitzgeralds, or the Murphys.)

Down to Menton with its rich history. Romans, maybe some Greeks before them (in Marseilles, yes); then 1,200 years of sparse and sparse housing, feared pirates and corsairs; rugged stone castles and monks in the high hills; then the Savoyards and the English, and suspected hostilities between the French and the Italians (up in Ste-Agnès there's a strange, huge Maginot Tower, an art deco remnant of 1930s military history). But Menton has been a haven for more than a century that has changed less than the restless Riviera to the west.

I think of the large apartment buildings that were built between 1900 and 1940 along Strandstrasse and the promenade. Did their wealthy Parisian owners return after the 1940 disaster? After the war? Do your sons and daughters still own those sea-view apartments that were more opulent than chic? I doubt it. Menton is no longer primarily a holiday resort. Its substance consists of the citizens of this city who live in fairly good comfort all year round. Comfort: something that has now become synonymous with luxury. Bourgeois Menton.

Our days were full. They were silent too - except for the occasional sound of motorbikes cruising down the beachfront boulevard below our balcony. Beyond this balcony lies the gleaming, calm sea, now untouched by water traffic. Our windows were opened day and night.


Hotels in Menton include the venerable Royal Westminster, 1510 Promenade du Soleil (tel: 4-93-28-69-69; fax: 4-92-10-12-30; email: ) where a double room with water view: $98, plus tax; There is an additional charge of USD 7 per person for breakfast. Both the hotel and the restaurant Le Royal are open from December to October.

The Ambassadors, 3 Rue Partouneaux (4-93-28-75-75; Fax:

4-93-35-62-32; Email:, has double rooms from $122; Continental breakfast, served in room only, is an additional $15 per person. person or 18 USD per person for buffet breakfast. Open all year; Café Fiori is closed in November.

The Hotel Napoleon described in the article is closed for renovations. The reopening is scheduled for June 1, 2003. 29 Porte de France (4-93-35-89-50; fax: 4-93-35-49-22; email: .

L'O à la Bouche, 59 Porte de France (4-93-35-39-25), offers specialties like zucchini flower fritters ($6) and homemade pasta with scampi, clams and mussels ($12).

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In Roquebrune-Cap Martin, l'Hippocampe, Promenade Cap (4-93-35-81-91) offers Duck Galantine for $15 and Sole Filet en Brioche for $19. Set menus are $27 for three courses and $33 for five courses.

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