In the Belle Époque, Europe’s aristocracy fell head over heels for Menton, the last French Riviera resort before Italy.
Queen Victoria stayed in 1882 and the Imperial Russian expat community was so big they built their own church.
There are still lots of hints about this past, from the cemetery with the tombs of gentry on a roost high above the town, to a bewitching botanical garden adorning the mountains slopes that plunge to the sea.
These slopes are made for citrus, and Menot has more oranges and lemons than it knows what to do with.
So every February there’s the Lemon Festival, a public event even bigger than the Monaco Grand Prix.
Lets explore the best things to do in Menton:
1. Val Rahmeh Botanical Garden
You may be sceptical about a botanic garden being top of the things to do at a French Riviera resort.
But Val Rahmeh is a little piece of paradise that has blessed the slopes above Menton for more than 100 years.
The garden is a living remnant of the days when only the nobility and ultra-wealthy had the means to retreat to the French Riviera.
Val Rahmeh was the handiwork of Lord Radcliffe, once the Governor of Malta, and he harnessed Menton’s balmy microclimate to grow tropical and subtropical plants from Asia and South America.
He also had a thing for tropical fruit, so kiwis, avocados and bananas abound in Val Rahmeh.
Of all the species the rarest is the toromiro tree, endemic to Easter Island but now extinct in the wild.
2. Jean Cocteau Museum
We’ll soon see that the multi-talented Jean Cocteau spent a lot of time in Menton towards the end of his life, and the city now has the first and largest public resource on his work in the world.
The museum was established in 2011 after the Cocteau expert Séverin Wunderman had donated his multimillion-dollar collection of the artist’s works to the city in 2003. This titanic assemblage of 1,800 pieces makes up most of the museum’s exhibits, which, as you’d imagine for Cocteau are in all kinds of formats: They’re composed of graphic art, film and photographs, mostly taken while he was shooting the Testament of Orpheus.
3. Salle des Mariages
In the late-50s Jean Cocteau was given free rein for two years to decorate Menton’s Wedding Hall in the Hôtel de Ville.
Everything was left to his discretion, from the faux-leopard rugs to the carved wooden doors, chairs and bronze candelabra.
But it’s the brightly-coloured murals that will grab you, and these are suffused with rich symbolism inspired by ancient mythology.
Some are accompanied with information plaques, but the way to get a full explanation is to show up for the guided tour on Thursdays or to get yourself an audio guide from the Town Hall’s reception.
4. Saint-Michel Basilica
Just looking at buildings like this sumptuous baroque church you’ll be left in no doubt that Menton was more Italian than French for most of its history.
Saint-Michel was commissioned by Honoré II of Monaco and wouldn’t be completed until the 19th century, although later architects remained faithful to the original baroque plans.
A trip to the basilica is best made first thing in the morning before things start to warm up, as you have to hike up a series of zigzagging stairways from Promenade de la Mer.
For a more adventurous route you can negotiate the corridor-like passageways and alleys that entice you up the hill from Rue Longue.
5. Old Château Cemetery
Even higher than the basilica is the site where Menton’s medieval castle once stood.
This is long gone, but was replaced by a cemetery with astonishing vistas of the city, port and the mountains that press Menton against the coast.
You’re at the resting place of many rich and aristocratic British and Russian holidaymakers during the Belle Époque.
One famous burial is William Webb Ellis, credited with inventing the game of Rugby in the early-19th century when he picked up the ball and ran with it during a football match.
6. Plage des Sablettes
Menton’s best beach is a small bay beneath the city’s basilica.
Les Sablettes is screened from the sea by Menton’s port and is bookended by long breakwaters.
Relaxing on this blend of shingle and sand you can gaze east at the villas perched in the mountains and identify Mortola Point, where France becomes Italy.
At Les Sablettes you can call on Palmes Beach, a diving and watersports centre providing trips to 30-odd dive sights in both French and Italian waters, including wrecks and epic drop-offs, or shallow coves for newcomers.
7. Musée de Préhistoire Régionale
Despite the name, Menton’s Museum of Prehistory deals with many different eras of the French Riviera’s past.
For instance, there’s a new and absorbing exhibition, “Trésors d’épaves”, about the history of shipwrecks on this coast, with pottery, glassware and weapons plucked from their watery graves.
But the main man at the museum is “l’Homme de Menton”, the fosslised body of an upper Palaeolithic (between 10k and 50k years old) cave- dweller, discovered in the Cave of Cavillon in 1872. The original is in Paris, but this museum has a complete cast of his body.
And finally, there are models, artefacts and reconstructions of local historic trades like olive pressing, lemon cultivating and fishing.
8. Plage du Fossan
For convenience you can’t beat the beach next to Menton’s old town on Quai Général Leclerc de Hautecloque.
Plage du Fossan unfurls gently for almost half a kilometre on the Baie de Soleil, has both sand and pebbles and a strict no smoking policy.
The sea shares Nice’s pale tone, and Fossan Plage is completely free for the public.
If there’s one drawback it’s that if you prefer shade you’ll need to bring your own parasol.
But then again, when the sun gets too much you can always escape to the shelter of the swaying palm fronds in the park that traces the beach to the east.
9. Jardin Serre de la Madone
Tumbling over nine hectares this park on steep terrain, just in from the coast, blends terraced sub-tropical gardens around reflecting pools and Mediterranean forest with umbrella pines.
Serre de la Madone was plotted by the rich American Lawrence Johnston, who had already made his name with a French garden at Hicote in Gloucestershire, England.
Here in the Gorbio Valley, out of the breeze and with lots of sunshine, Johnston picked a perfect patch for exotic plants to thrive.
Hedges and walls form boundaries between each garden containing bamboo, palms, succulents and a wealth of other exotic plants from across the globe.
10. Musée des Beaux-Arts
The lavish 18th-century Palais de Carnolès is a former summer residence of the Princes of Monaco, and has a considerable hoard of art for such a small city.
One person to thank for this is Charles Wakefield Mori, the curator for the National Art Museum in Monaco, who donated his personal collection of modern art to Menton in 1959. Pieces by Salvador Dalí, Chagall, Picasso and Francis Picabia are waiting for you, and there’s also a breathtaking sculpture garden that opened in the palace grounds in 1994. Modern and classical sculpture are sprinkled around a research garden, with 137 different citrus tree species.
11. Lemon Festival
Menton has been one of Europe’s big citrus producers since the 1400s but to experience the city’s devotion to lemons first hand, come to the Menton Lemon Festival in February.
In terms of visitors it’s just behind the Nice Carnival, but ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix, and runs for almost three weeks.
Every Sunday chaos erupts in Menton, with dancing, musicians, lemon and orange mosaics and processions of lovingly-designed floats ten metres high, decorated with tons of lemons and created according to an annual theme.
In years gone by these have been “Tintin”, “Alice in Wonderland” or “Around the World in 80 Days”, and in 2017 it will be “Broadway”.
12. Herbin Confiturerie
On an alley off Rue-Saint-Michel you’ll learn how the rich harvest of lemons and oranges is put to use.
Herbin is a family-run artisanal jam and preserve maker that opens up for tours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10:30. The jam and marmalade craft was brought to Menton by the English aristocracy, and naturally the location couldn’t be better given the bounty of fruit every year.
Herbin uses around 400kg of fruit a day to make 1,500 individual pots, with some eye-opening flavour combinations like strawberry and basil.
You’ll be talked through everything by the owner Jean-Claude Bineau, who has earned the title of master jam-maker.
13. Église Russe de Menton
Just like France’s other resorts that lured the Russian nobility, Menton was endowed with a splendid Russian orthodox church in the 1890s.
The church has the typical onion dome, here painted a cobalt blue.
In the interior the showstopper is the iconostasis made from Tuscan carrara marble, with icons painted by Russian master Karl Bryullov in the Byzantine style.
The church is attached to La Maison Russe, a four-storey mansion set in lemon, orange and palm gardens.
This was actually here before the church and was a charitable foundation for sick and needy Russians on the French Riviera.
14. Marché des Halles
Head straight to the covered market hall on Quai de Monleon for your food shop or even just to soak up the noisy ambience.
Menton is fabled for the warmth and friendliness of its inhabitants, so don’t be surprised if you get a friendly welcome and are treated to big tasters by the stallholders.
From Tuesday to Sunday there’s a cornucopia of cheese, meat (cured and raw), fruit, vegetables and pastries.
And dig a bit deeper in Mentonnaise food culture and pick up the city’s famous preserves and other citrus fruit products.
15. Food and Drink
The cuisine in Menton is simple, accentuating the quality of the local vegetables without a great deal of elaboration.
Take the exalted starter, salade niçoise, with tomatoes, peppers, onions, black olives and either anchovy or tuna.
Socca flatbread couldn’t be simpler either; it’s just chickpea and flour mixed together with olive oil, then baked and seasoned with pepper.
Both are superb with rosé wine from Provence.
Last of all, Pichade Mentonnaise is something you may not have seen before.
This is a cheese-less relative of Italian pizza, with a tomato and onion sauce spread thinly over dough, topped with olives and anchovies and baked in a very hot oven.