French Riviera Walks
How about this…
… a short walk through the prettiest town in France, topped off by a visit to one of the world’s most famous gardens, with splendid views over the Mediterranean Sea throughout?
Menton, in the extreme southeastern corner of France, combines the best of France – a downtown area of tastefully proportioned apartment buildings, Deuxième Empire street statues and well-behaved trees – with the best of Italy – an old town perched upon a hill featuring a maze of narrow medieval lanes – and is so well kept and immaculately preserved throughout that you suspect it is actually run by the Swiss.
Much of modern Menton was, in fact, invented by the English. Queen Victoria loved it here, as did her son Bertie (later to become Edward VII) and there is quite a lot of stuff in the town – beyond the names of streets and hotels – that serves to remind the modern visitor of Menton’s Belle Epoque heyday when the British high aristocracy and grand bourgeoisie regularly spent their winters here.
The British heritage would certainly include Menton’s famous gardens, of which there are about half a dozen, scattered across the outskirts of town.
Now, Menton may not be a big city – it counts about 30,000 inhabitants – but since it is rather sprawly, once you leave the historic centre ville, it covers a fair amount of ground, and as a consequence, it is nearly impossible to visit all the town’s parks and gardens in a single day. Best really to concentrate on one or two.
And we decided to go for the Parc du Pian and the Val Rameh Botanical gardens, conveniently located next to each other in the northeastern corner of the town.
But first, time to explore the town a little.
From the train station, cross over to the Place des Victoires – the splendidly Edwardian “Winter Palace” in your back (no offence, Menton, but it actually looks a lot like the hotel in “The Shining”) – into Avenue Edouard VII.
Continue until you meet the coastal promenade, the Promenade du Soleil, and turn left. Walk back into town behind the Casino, leaving the modern Congress Centre (the “Palais de l’Europe”) on your left and walking right into Avenue Felix Faure past the roundabout until you turn left into Rue Barel.
Turn right into Rue de la Republique on the next corner and continue past the Town Hall – you are now in the heart of Menton’s 19th century downtown district – and eventually past the Karl Marx bust on your right (actually Henry Wadsworth Longfellow but the similarity is striking) into Rue du General Gallieni.
After the bend in the street, you will have arrived at the foot of the Old Town, the place where well-ordered French Menton turns into Italian Mentone, a sort of Montmartre on steroids. (The town actually changed hands several times between France and Italy and was, in between, part of the Grand Duchy of Monaco as well – before seceding and becoming, for a few years in the middle of the 19th century, an independent “free city”. A lot of turmoil, you might say, for what appears to be such a peaceful and sedate small town.)
Walk through the old town at leisure, but try to keep in an uphill direction until you reach the Place du Cimetière at the end of the cemetery. Several streets intersect here, but you should take the one leading to the right, called the Boulevard de Garavan. Continue down this road for another 15 minutes or so, the Mediterranean Sea (and some pretty posh real estate) on your right hand side, until you reach the entrances to the Parc du Pian and the Botanical Gardens of Val Rameh, which are side by side.
Have a brief look at the park (there is not really that much to see, frankly) before taking the lane downhill that leads you to the botanical gardens, created in the early 20th century by a former British governor of Malta.
The garden is mainly famous for its large variety of exotic species that could not survive anywhere else along the northern coast of the Mediterranean but in the micro-climate of Menton, where the thermometer hardly ever falls below 50° F. (When we were there, in early February, the whole of Europe was in the icy grip of the coldest spell for years. Ukrainians and Poles were literally freezing to death, and even Paris had not seen temperatures above freezing for more than a week. Meanwhile, in Menton, people were sitting outside in street cafes enjoying their drinks in the balmy sunshine. Some guys just have all the luck, eh.)
There is a “walking by numbers” path through the garden that takes you through the various sections – a tropical landscape, a water plant garden, a bamboo forest and much more including a few, quite frankly, rather naughty looking protuberances.
One final piece of advice: resist the temptation of snatching an orange from one of the trees. They were obviously bred for looks rather than for flavour. (We did and it took me almost an hour to get rid of the taste in my mouth.) The Botanical Garden charges a fee of € 6 per head and is closed on Tuesdays.
After visiting the garden, you can walk down to sea level and return to the town centre through the old harbour. There are also quite a few restaurants at hand ready to feed you if you feel a little peckish after all this walking.
So, for your next trip to the area – whether you are here to play golf in France or to receive your long overdue lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival or to break the bank in Monte Carlo – make that short trip to Menton. It is only 30 minutes away from Nice by train, and a round-trip ticket will cost you less than 10 Euros.