A hundred years ago, travel writers commented, there was something peculiarly depressing about Menton — or Mentone as the British would say, recalling the days when the town situated on the Mediterranean border between France and Italy was an independent Italian-leaning state. It was depressing because wherever you looked there were people tottering palely along the promenade past the statue of Queen Victoria (who used to stay in a discreetly grand villa tucked among the hills) or lurking in the numerous hotels with Anglophone names. Since Dr James Bennet in the 1870s had declared that the town’s microclimate and its almost unfailingly good weather offered a hope of recovery for those suffering from lung problems, a foreign colony of the ailing had sprung up. Predominantly British but also German, Swedish, Russian, many settled in the generous villas that spread through the olive groves on the luxuriant slopes above the town’s two bays, although such commentators as Augustus Hare who had known the earlier town felt that a once-lovely place had been wrecked.
The principal beneficiary of this nostrum for consumption was Dr Bennet, who opened a clinic and became very rich. The patients were less fortunate: the climate of Menton did not heal tuberculosis, and the patients often died. The cemetery that rises in picturesque tiers above the Old Town holds the graves of such seekers for health as Aubrey Beardsley, the historian J.R. Green, and William Webb Ellis who is credited with having as a Rugbeian thrown the first ball to a footballing teammate to create the game of rugby. They lie in the Protestant section of the cemetery beside the massive (and now often rotting) family mausolea of the Catholic Mentonnais, equipped with enamelled photographs of the dear departed. Katherine Mansfield, also in search of recovery, spent months in Menton before dying young elsewhere.
In the 1920s the Cote d’Azur changed character, at least as far as its foreign visitors were concerned. Until then it was evacuated by the foreign colony during what was considered the excessively hot summer, a period when the Menton and Monte Carlo News, the not very intellectually demanding weekly paper that catered for the English-speaking community, was silent. But when a group of artistic and social types discovered the joys of swimming and sun on the Mediterranean, almost in one season the demographics changed. From 1924 came such sophisticated social adventurers as the dashingly named Prince Johnny de Lucinge, Scott Fitzgerald (who described this world in Tender is the Night) and Zelda, and their friends Sara and Gerald Murphy (Gerald being a rare and brilliant painter) who explored the region; painters had long known about the beautiful clear light of the French Mediterranean coast, but this chic group were more interested in beautiful clear cocktails. They went to Nice and Cannes and Antibes. Menton did not attract the fast crowd, even with the new casino on the seafront and the massive Palais de l’Europe looking over the municipal gardens, with its theatre and concert hall. Like a respectable maiden aunt, ‘dowdy governess Menton’ remained the terrain of older quieter families. As A.P. Herbert wrote:
If you think Mentone is dull
You should try a wet Sunday in Hull.
Menton distinguished itself in other ways. It became renowned for its horticultural possibilities, especially because its microclimate made it especially suitable for growing a great variety of plants. Famous though the whole of the Cote d’Azur has long been for its gardens, Menton is exceptional. This is where Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote created La Serre de la Madonne, abandoned to wildness for many years but recently restored by the City of Menton; where the Campbell family created in Val Rahmeh a serious horticultural garden, now the town’s Jardin Botanique; and where the boldly scenic Les Colombières, the brainchild of the artist Ferdinand Bac, displays a series of playfully classical gardens along a picturesque promontory. And this is where my own family — grandparents, uncle and brother — have nurtured the Clos du Peyronnet, modest in scale but described by Charles Quest-Ritson in 1992 as ‘the best modern garden in the south of France, but also the best example outside England of a garden made in the Hidcote style’. Menton deservedly styles itself ‘Ville des Jardins’.
It is the relative lack of glamour that has preserved much of the town’s character. Whereas Monaco has turned into a millionaires’ ghetto, and Antibes is so clogged with cars in summer as to be almost unreachable, Menton retains much of its green individuality. During the 1960s and ’70s many of the old villas that lined the Boulevard de Garavan were pulled down and replaced by apartment buildings whose flowery names belie their concrete uniformity. But the authorities have come to their senses, realising that if Menton is to prosper it needs to retain its character. On the whole it does, and a walk along the high-winding Boulevard de Garavan overlooks pink and cream and ochre villas, lemon groves and the terrace walls that recall the agricultural history of the place. The rebuilding is less violent now, and when old buildings do go they are replaced by cheerfully zany multi-coloured tributes to postmodernism. The sickly Northerners have been replaced by very unsickly Italians, who appreciate the security of owning property on the more reliable side of the border. The town has a quality that is both festive and innocent, with highlights such as the annual festival of music in August. From here, Nice and (even worse) Cannes seem distant and over-sophisticated and really not worth the journey.
If it is sad to see, even at the height of the summer season, so many shutters closed and apartments empty, the town is pretty animated in the summer and appealingly quiet in the winter. But for the garden-lover spring is the time. One of the many varieties of mimosa first indicates the pleasures to come in January, and in a really good garden there may be mimosa in flower every month of the year (though usually it stops flowering in March). From March to May the gardens burst into an array of colour that is hard to rival anywhere.
Menton has its drawbacks. In spite of one or two excellent new restaurants, there is a long tradition of indifferent food, energetically maintained by a string of restaurants along the front. The nightlife, they say, is nonexistent and has to be found in Monte Carlo or Nice, just along the coast. When it rains (as it quite often does in the spring, with extreme violence) the place looks like a stage set with the lights turned off. The beaches tend to be very full, with families perching for hours on the hard stones that line the sea. But for anyone who’s attracted by a balmy climate and an atmosphere of civilised gentleness, and appreciates the scenic sweep of the Old Town topped by the Baroque Basilique Saint Michel, and Jean Cocteau’s paintings in the town hall’s wedding room, and the town’s site between the mountains and the sparkling sea, Menton is still one of the most charming places to visit that one can imagine.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 December 2012