When life gives you lemons, it’s time to visit Menton. You can be sure that someone there will find a creative use for your fruit.
Shops in the bustling traffic-free Rue St Michel teem with products from candles, soaps and soft toys to food and drink. The town’s claim to be lemon capital of the world is underlined each February when it hosts the Fête du Citron. Around 200,000 visitors descend on Menton for a two-week programme of colourful displays and noisy processions, using around 145 tonnes of citrus fruits in a range of events.
However, while the festival has been going for more than 80 years and is reason enough to make the trip, Menton, dubbed the pearl of France, has much more to offer besides, including a successful music festival each summer and a relaxed vibe that makes it an ideal pace to relax and unwind.
Sunshine and citrus fruits
And if the lemons life has served are affecting your health, the town, which is the last stop before Italy for passengers on the coastal train that meanders along the glitzy Cote d’Azur, has much to offer.
With a microclimate that is gentler than elsewhere on the coast, largely due to being hemmed in between mountains and sea, it’s easy to see why the town, with a population around 30,000, has been a destination for travellers since the 19th century. Around every corner in the old town is another stunning collection of buildings, drawing on every pastel hue in the Mediterranean palette.
Menton’s allure for visitors
Queen Victoria was a regular visitor, a fact recognised by a statue and square bearing her name in the Garavan area around the harbour. Other street titles offer further evidence of Menton’s popularity with influential travellers. Among them is Rue Henry Bennett, which is a tribute to the London doctor who popularised the area through his book, Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean.
A nearby street bears the name of James Bruyn Andrews, a New York lawyer who moved to Menton in 1871, looking to benefit from the kinder climate. He died in the town 38 years later.
Take a stroll around Le Cimetière du Vieux Chateau high above the town and with a view to the Italian border for an insight into the number of foreigners who chose to see out their lives in this sunny corner of France.
Rugby legend William Webb Ellis lived in Menton
Among them is the Englishman William Webb Ellis, who was credited with inventing the sport of rugby. History does not record why he travelled to France, but Webb Ellis was living in Menton when he died in January 1872. One theory is that he was working at the Anglican Church which served the town’s large British population, many of whom had moved there to benefit from a benign climate. Another suggestion is that he, too, had chosen Menton for health reasons. Webb Ellis was staying at the Hotel d’Italie at the time of his death. His grave went largely unnoticed until the 1980s.
Today, the entrance to the cemetery features an impressive statue of Webb Ellis, created by British sculptor Graham Ibbeson. His grave has become a rugby shrine, with the gravestone now featuring plaques, balls and strips from clubs around the world.
Also buried here is Charles Carroll, a founder of the American Hospital at Neuilly near Paris, who died at Villa Himalaya in Menton in 1921. His grandfather, Charles Carroll of Carrolton, was a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence.
Museums, beaches and gastronomy – Menton has much to offer
The town’s cobbled streets lead back to the seafront, past the St Michel Basilica which rises proudly above the traditional buildings that surround it. Back amongst the bustle, Musée Jean Cocteau features examples of the artist’s work from the private collection of Severin Wunderman, a watchmaker, philanthropist and art collector.
Over the road, the pebbly beach draws sun worshippers at all times of the year, with a refreshing dip in the sea the ideal relief when the mercury soars.
Then, in the evening, when thoughts turn to aperitifs and food, runners prepare for their meals with a jog along the seafront promenade, dodging the less energetic amblers who are already debating where to dine.
Mirazur Menton – one of world’s best restaurants
While there are many excellent restaurants in the town, the place that has boosted Menton’s profile among foodies around the world is Mirazur, which enjoys an elevated position just a few paces from the Italian border.
It received a third Michelin star in January 2019, making it one of only 133 places (2019) around the globe to hold that accolade. Then, six months later, it was further garlanded, topping the list of the World’s Best Restaurants. Booking many months in advance is essential, but the reward for those who manage to bag a table are exceptional food, service and a wonderful setting.
Full length windows look out over the Mediterranean, providing a spectacular vista as you feast on an array of dishes that showcase the talents of chef Mauro Colagreco, who uses top local produce to deliver a parade of spectacular flavour combinations that form the tasting menu.
Depending on what is in season, you could be starting with amuse bouches such as smoked burrata cheese before settling down to eight sumptuous courses that rely heavily on local ingredients and produce from the restaurant’s gardens. They might range from the simplicity of a melon and cucumber combination served in seawater to a langoustine accompanied by vivid green pesto, swordfish with trout eggs, and a pigeon dish with wild strawberries that is exquisitely balanced. A floral inspired orange sorbet with almond foam rounds off an unforgettable experience, and with coffee comes petit fours that are another fiendishly clever exhibition of the restaurant’s innovative cuisine, including an edible candy wrapper.
Service is, of course, impeccable but not intrusive from an army of multilingual staff dressed in classy blue uniforms that represent the sea which dominates the view from every table.
So for a sunshine break in a historic town with plenty to see, do and eat – Menton might just be perfect for you…
Enjoy a taste of Menton at home with this delicious Lemon tart recipe created 3 Michelin Star chef Gérald Passedat
Colin Renton is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh. He writes about a range of subjects and is a restaurant reviewer. Colin is a big Francophile and loves French food and wine.