Nov 2019 - Menton: The Pearl of France
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
It was with a bit of sadness and regret that we departed Italy, should we not stay longer here? It's such a great place on so many levels.
The drive to Menton was pretty intense, really heavy weather. I would later hear that one of the highway viaducts we drove over was washed away by a landslide. We also watched a Fiat 500 explode on the motorway, it was in front and kept generating huge clouds of blue smoke. I kept saying "that thing is gonna blow", then bang it was all over, stuck in the middle lane of a 3 lane, 130km/h motorway full of trucks. Glad I wasn't in that car!
So Menton, an apparently under-rated town on the French Riviera, just across the border of Italy and 8km from Monaco. The Airbnb was in an apartment complex that had a traffic light system for a steep spiral shaped ramp with room enough for one car up to the carpark, interesting design that relied on trust. If you did encounter someone coming up/down it would mean a tight spiral reverse of up to 3 levels. Never happened thankfully.
The Airbnb was stunning, set fairly high up the mountain with glass balcony doors looking over the bay and old town. The bed was in the living room, which meant sunrise over the Mediterranean could be seen from the bed, not bad for $40 a night!
Some facts about the town:
The area has been occupied since the paleolithic era, it's the site of the "Grimaldi Man" find of early modern humans, as well as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.
Major settlement started in 11th century when the Count of Ventimiglia built the Château de Puypin (Podium Pinum) on the Pépin hill. My relatives?
Used to be a frontier town serving as the border between Provence and Genoa, and at that time was part of Monaco but has been French since 1860 (Napoleon III paid 4 million Francs for it).
After becoming French it became popular for tourism resulting in many mansions and gardens.
It was the only French town captured by the Italians in WW2.
It has a uniquely warm climate and is particularly good for growing citrus; the lemon features heavily in its culture - I never travel without lemons so this place was always going to be good.
Due to its climate, it was a site for recuperating from tuberculosis and for troops in WWI.
It's nicknamed the Pearl of France.
That nickname is suitable; Menton is a magical place and Italy was soon forgotten (kidding). It's funny that it's known for a place to recuperate because that's exactly what the plan for the week was after some pretty full on travel in Italy. The Airbnb had Netflix so many episodes of Rome (seemed fitting) were consumed.
Getting to the old town meant a decent walk down many stairs weaving through very old French houses in tiny streets (houses accessible by foot only). So much character in this part of the town, and many cats.
Highlights here included:
buying food at the covered market built in 1898 that is open ever day selling all sorts of French delicacies
coffee and croissant in the cafes on the main square
on each walk to town passing the beautiful cathedral that overlooks the sea
a swim in the sea during a balmy 14c day, yes the water was very, very cold but it had to be done.
the sunrises over the Mediterranean were extraordinary because the combined with really unstable weather hitting the Italian coast.
Using Menton as a base, we also did some day trips.
Firstly by train to Nice (which was ... nice), highlight was the Ancient Roman Bath ruins and Matisse gallery. That same trip also included Monaco, which was purely visited because it's there. It was a grim, wet walk to the famous Casino of Monaco to gawk at absurd wealth and get looked down upon by the ultra wealthy locals - not a recommended place.
The second day trip, by car, was memorable. It was to the highest coastal town in Europe, Sainte Agnes at 1,200m. The 20km trip takes 45min thanks to the narrow, winding mountain road. The town is tiny, authentic, arty, and full of ... cats. We were basically alone, which makes exploring that much more fun. There was a steep climb up to the really impressive ruin of a castle that gave incredible views toward the Maritime Alps (with snow peaks) and down across Menton and the Mediterranean coast, one of the best views I've ever seen and that while standing in the remains of a castle tower with nobody else around; My Castle!
At Sainte Agnes I looked on Google Maps and chose a random town called Peille to try to get to. The drive there was across a mountain pass on a road that a driver will never forget. The road is about 12km on a road only wide enough for one car with occasional passing bays, to the left is a sheer drop, to the right towering cliffs with signs warning of possible avalanche. It also has short tunnels that look like they've been hacked out by hand. It's a technical but amazing drive with views toward the French Alps.
Peille was deserted except for one conversation-hungry artist who once we were lured into the shop stood at the door chatting our ears off. I felt for him and bought a small trinket.
Thanks to an incorrect Google Image photo, I thought Peille was home to a famous WW2 fortress but it turned out it was actually back at Sainte Agnes! So, back along that hairy road!
At the fortress, we walked to the front door and all seemed closed (it was) but the door was ajar. The naughty boy in me took over and we sneaked in but after 5min or so ran out after hearing voices. We then bumped into a French couple and we agreed to all sneak in together. We spent a good 15 min walking the corridors and rooms of the fortress, the place was gigantic and still contained WW2 shells, artillery guns, heating systems, the lot. It even had elevators and rail tracks to transport ammunition, a massive place you could easily get lost in! While walking in one of the corridor we were spotted by a security guy, who was not at all impressed and escorted us out. Apparently visits are only through pre-organised tours. The trespass was worth it!
Just before leaving Menton there wasn't other day trip, back to Italy, all of 5 min by car. Went to a town called Dolceaqua, which like most places here was built as a fortified village with a castle to protect from invaders. You would think Europe was a place of war for its entire history.... The town is surrounded by mountains and olive groves.
The two parts of town either side of the river are connected by an elegant cambered bridge with a single arc span of 33 metres. The bridge was painted by Monet who called it "a jewel of lightness". The town is known as one of the most picturesque and famous views of the Ligurian inland. After exploring the tiny, ancient streets in the ancient town and various ... cat encounters ... we did a short tour of the 11th century castle and then had a cafe late machiato by the old curved bridge.