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The places at the end of the road are always the most interesting. After the glitz and gloss of Antibes and Cannes, after the bustle of Nice and Monaco, you might at first think there is not much left to the French Riviera. Yet the best is yet to come. For Menton, the very last town in France before the Italian frontier, gets our vote as by far the most appealing community on the Côte d’Azur.
Hints of Italy
Menton hints of Italy even before you cross the border, with its bilingual street names and Italian-style architecture. Curiously, the town only became French in 1860, having historically been part of Monaco until in 1848 it seceded from the Principality in a spat over taxes on lemon exports. Menton then enjoyed a brief fling as an independent republic before throwing in its lot with the Kingdom of Sardinia and eventually joining France.
Mentonasques are quick to remind visitors even today that Menton is in France merely by choice, and the town’s window shutters in that distinctive Ligurian green are a reminder that this most Italianate of French Riviera towns still has a part of its heart in Italy.
Menton’s health resort history
Climb up to the cemetery high above the Old Town and you will quickly discover how Menton established its credentials in Riviera tourism. A hundred years ago, Menton was one of Europe’s premier health resorts, with thousands of northern Europeans taking their bronchial bacilli to sunny Menton to try and rid their lungs of tuberculosis. The crowded cemetery, full of those who died of consumption, attests to the fact that a few months of indolence in Menton did not always guarantee recuperation. Russians, Germans, English and Irish share the same burial ground, all victims of a disease that indiscriminately struck down poets and philosophers, counts and colonels.
The pulmonary pilgrims of yesterday have been replaced by a new generation of traveler, often anxious to find the quieter side of the Riviera. Menton is always a great stopover on routes from Provence to Genoa —made easy by the frequency of trains along this stretch of coast. Both westbound towards Nice and eastbound into Italy, trains generally run twice hourly.
Exploring the town
But with direct daily TGV services from Paris (and a useful direct overnight train, too), Menton is a place worth visiting in its own right. Our best Menton days have involved nothing more demanding than wandering around the produce stalls in the Moorish market on the waterfront and then drifting from café to café.
Our favorite local curiosity is the “salle de mariage” (wedding hall) in Menton’s City Hall, which is a striking piece of interior design by French artist and film director Jean Cocteau. Further afield, the attractive mountain town of Sospel is reached by direct bus from Menton. And the stunning Giardini Botanici Hanbury (Hanbury Gardens), just over the border in Italy, which we featured last year on EuroCheapo, are only four miles east of the city.