Menton and Montecarlo, gardens and cafés on the French Riviera

It’s no secret that I love the French Riviera, and that I dream of moving there someday. Although I’ve always been attracted to everything Nordic, I cannot deny I’m also bewitched by the beauty of some warmer places, as far as the sea, many palm trees and a sandy beach are included. The Côte d’Azur is one of these places.

Menton is a very coloured city, between the mountains and the sea, on the French Riviera.

At the beginning of March I was desperately in need of a gateaway. A whole winter without snow and too little rain has left me exhausted. The air in Milan was has been so polluted lately that I feel like crying every time I had to go out. I spend my Sundays on the couch with a blanket, baking cakes and watching films. I needed a change. Being a single girl in a big city, with married friends and little courage to travel alone, I find it hard to decide where to go. Not too far, not too close. So I always opt for the French Riviera, knowing that my Mom will follow me.

Exploring Menton

We usually go to Cannes, but this time we’ve decided to stay in Menton and book a room in a little, comfortable hotel in a strategic position. Hotel de Londres is just a few minutes walking distance from the station, thirty seconds from the sea.

Half Italian, half French, Menton has a nice old town and many villas and gardens turned into museums. I had already been there before, but it was summertime and too hot to walk around the city during the day. I saw its beautiful gardens though, and I went to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. In the spring, everything looks different. In the late afternoon we walk to the old town and climb up the hill to the Basilique Saint-Michel Archange, among coloured houses, stone stairs, lazy cats and a great view of the bay.

Sunset in the French Riviera

The weather is perfect, the streets are almost empty. The old town is  as charming as ever, with its coloured houses and old streetlights. Lazy cats sleep on the stone steps. The sun is slowly setting, painting the sky purple. Old Menton was founded by pirates, and there’s something mysterious in the labyrinth of alleys around Saint Michel.

We head for the sandy beach that lies between Menton and the suburb of Garavan, where we spend some blissful moments watching the sunset. It’s easy to feel relaxed here, so much easier than in Milan (where I never ever could feel relaxed, actually). We deliberately take a slowly stroll by the sea and then start thinking at dinner. Yes, I’m hungry and I tired, so I open my dear old notebook in search for a restaurant not too far from the hotel. I’ve written down the names of some places I would like to try, and one of them is only a few minute walk.

In the Japanese Gardens of Montecarlo, on the French Riviera, one finds a zen plance by the sea.

The Loving Hut

The name inspires me at once: The Loving Hut is a vegetarian restaurant owned by a nice lady who knows how to make her guests feel at ease. Soft music, oriental style posters, good food and the feeling of being somewhere in the East. This is how I would describe it. I’ve had a big bowl of sushi rice, fried tempeh, vegetables and avocado, and a coffee vegan cake. Delicious. And if you decide to have a walk by the silent sea after dinner, well, life becomes suddenly easier.

Vanilla Bakery

The next morning we go hunting for a café and we bump into Vanilla Bakery, which is actually Italian. A lovely  shabby-chic café crowded with both Italian and French people, couples, mothers with children, boys and girls enjoying a day off. This will become our favourite place for breakfast. I’ve tried their chocolate cookies and tarte tatin, but I must confess that what I’ve liked the most is their vegan croissant (made with quinoa flour). Coffee and tea are also good. Vergnano coffee is one of the best in Italy, and Løv Organic offers an organic range of teas which come in an eco-friendly packaging. Besides, Løv Organic has taken on a minimalist design inspired by Scandinavian culture, so how could I not love it?

Coté Sud

We spend the day in two of the most beautiful places of the French Riviera, Cannes and Cap Ferrat. I will write about this in another post. For now, let’s just skip to the twilight, when we come back to Menton by train, tired but happy. I’m not very hungry; I bought and ate a big piece of nut & caramel cake in Saint Jean, after a long walk, so I am still quite full. But dinner is a special moment for me, a moment of pleasure and relax. And I’ve got a table booked in one of the most popular restaurants in Menton, Coté Sud.

This Italian style restaurant serves delicious food in an elegant atmosphere, and has a good choice of vegetarian dishes, in addiction to fish and pasta. The influence of the ligure cuisine is very strong, and it’s a plus. Did I mention I was not hungry? Well, I’ve ordered pizza with rocket salad and tomato, one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. And then quinoa in two way: pecorino and mushrooms, and parmesan and coffee powder. End your dinner with their home-made apple crumble and you’ll be a happy person.

The sun sets on Menton, French Riviera.

Japanese Gardens in Montecarlo

I’ve been in Montecarlo three times, and I cannot say I like it. The royal city is home to luxury, and you can breath wealth everywhere you go. Many people go there to visit the Casino, but the most interesting things to see are not right in the town center. One is the old town of Monaco. On the hill stands the Prince’s palace, protected by the fortifications called Bastion de Serravalle. The elegant Italianate porticoes of the Palace, the fake-medieval clock tower (built in the 19th century), the small pedestrian streets, the gardens and the panoramic view are part of a tour which I will not describe here. Instead, I will tell you about the Japanese Gardens, a small park by the sea, a peaceful places where Princess Grace used to go.

Created in 1994 by Prince Rainier for his beloved wife Grace, this little garden is an oasis of peace and serenity, a miniature representation of Nature and its elements. The only sound you’ll hear comes from the stone fountain, which symbolizes a spring flowing towards the lake. Peace is represented by the lotus flower of the Stone Lantern, whereas the traditional arched Japanese bridge stands for happiness. Because it was a cloudy day, I couldn’t appreciate the wonderful colours of all the flowers and shrubs, which were not in full bloom yet. But I did enjoy stepping into the Tea house, where five water stones invite the visitors to purify themselves before entering the house.

Finally the zen garden, with the gravel representing the ocean and the rocks symbolizing the islands, makes me feel like I’ve taken a trip though a whole culture, so far from the materialistic perspective we’re unfortunately used to. Another reason why I love the French Riviera.

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