Three days in Menton, exploring villages and tropical gardens

I wake up in Menton, at one of my friends’ place, a small lovely apartment with a balcony with a view of the sea. My first thought as I open my eyes goes to breakfast. I can’t think straight without a large cup of tea, or a French coffee for a change. I like the silence of the morning, as the city slowly awakes. The sun shines and a pleasant breeze blows from the sea, while we eat fresh brioches on the balcony and the smell of Provence tea fills the air.

Normally I prefer going to the seaside in spring or autumn, when all the beaches are empty and the weather is mild. Anyways, summer has its charm, too. It smells of salt, coconut cream, grilled fish and pizza with fresh tomatoes. It’s very pleasant to walk on the sand when it’s dark and to dine outdoor, listening to the sound of cicadas.

The old village of Roquebrune

After breakfast we head towards the train station, where we jump on the first train to Roquebrune. Here we leave the sea behind to climb up the long stone stairs to the old village. It’s still early in the morning and the air is not so hot yet. Despite my total lack of exercise, we manage to reach the top, exhausted but happy.

Roquebrune street

The historical town is a maze of narrow lanes built around the church of Sainte-Marguerite. The walls of the old houses are covered with ivy and bougainvillea. Walking along Rue Moncollet, we pass under porticoes and take stairs carved in stone, hardly finding any shop. The small tables with blue tablecloths placed just outside the main door, the smell of coffee that some lady is preparing in the kitchen, the pots of basil on the windowsills –  every little detail helps forming a perfect picture.

Blue table in Roquebrune

Blue door in Roquebrune

Window in Roquebrune

A very old Olive Tree

We follow the street signs to the place where stands a thousand year-old olive tree, l’Olivier Millénaire, one of the oldest in the world. Encouraged by the wind that helps coping with the heat, we climb up to the castle. It’s a Medieval fortress where visitors are led through the various rooms.  We see the kitchen, the prison, the towers and the cells where men used to spend several months, defending their territory and watching the horizon. Centuries ago, piracy was a threat in this area.

Menton Roquebrune

Art and Nature

The view from the amphitheater is spectacular. The sparkling sea is dotted with white boats. Cypresses and maritime pines move softly in the wind, hiding the beautiful Provencal houses. It’s not hard to understand why English travelers fell in love with this region, painters spent their life trying to depict the landscape, poets decided to dwell here looking for inspiration. Roquebrune is also linked to the name of the renowned architect Le Corbusier, to whom is dedicated the long and enchanting walk between Menton and Nice.

The midday sun is hot, so we go back to the station and return to Menton, where we shop at a local market. Baguette, olives, tomatoes, almonds, goat cheese, apricots, surrounded by French ladies who are chatting before the stalls.

Old Roquebrune street

 The Beauty of Beaulieu

At 3 pm we take another train, this time to Beaulieu. The small town was once popular among movie stars and millionaires, who bought houses and spent their winter holidays here. Today it’s quiet, relaxed, with a nice beach fringed by palm trees and historical houses which are worth a visit. One of these is Villa Kerylos, a Greek style villa that was built for the archaeologist Theodore Reinach at the beginning of the Twentieth century. Statues, columns, porticoes, every detail reminds of ancient Greece. From the terrace overlooking the bay, you can see Cap Ferrat.

Cap Ferrat, one of my special places 

And here we are headed now, walking along the pedestrian street that connects the beach to the village of Saint-Jean. On the left, the blue sea breaks against the rocks. On the right, villas are hidden behind trees and flowers. We peer though the gates to see the houses, wondering how would it be if we could live in one of them. Cap Ferrat quickly becomes one of my special places in the world, the ones you travel to in your memory when you need to escape everyday life. The colour of the sea, the quiet atmosphere, the lavish gardens – everything speaks of beauty. This place is a jewel. And I’m happy I’ve found it. Then we reach the characteristic town of Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat, built around the little harbour.

Once a fishermen’s village, Saint-Jean is now a place for tourists. From here we head to the heart of Cap Ferrat, Villa Ephrussi de Rotschield, a fairy tale place. I believe I will never get tired of celebrating the beauty of this splendid house dominating the sea, surrounded by gardens with plants and flowers from all over the world. We spend hours inside, enjoying the rooms and listening to Beatrice’s story. I’m bewitched by the changing colours of the sunset.

Villa Ephrussi gardens

View from Roquebrune

Gardens, and more gardens.

The next day, the last before going back to Italy, we dedicate ourselves to Menton. We leave the beach behind and visit the botanical gardens of Palais de Carnolès, a park that originally surrounded the summer residence of the Princes of Monaco. Citrus, orange, bergamot, kumquat and tangerine trees were planted in the gardens, and now they overshadow statues and contemporary artworks.

In the past, English aristocrats in love with the French Riviera and owners of many villas in this area had plants imported from around the world to dress the landscape. And so we discover more gardens in Menton, such as the Botanical Gardens of Val Rahmeh, created by Lord Percy Radcliffe in 1905. Here he collected a large number of exotic fruit plants: kiwi trees, avocado trees and banana trees, along with exotic flowers such as hibiscus.

Then there are the gardens of Villa Maria Serena, close to the Italian border; of Fontana Rosa, inspired by Andalusian and Persian styles; and of Serre de la Madone, on the hillside, designed by Lawrence Johnston who travelled the world always seeking plants that he could acclimatise on the French coast.

Provence - view

French cuisine

As evening comes, we find ourselves wandering in the streets of Vieille Menton, the old town, among shops, cafés and street markets. The narrow lanes winding down the hill have evocative names, often linked with… pirates. We visit the church of Saint Michael Archangel, a beautiful example of Baroque style that reminds of certain Italian buildings. Menton is also known for citrus honey, which we buy at a local shop. The cuisine is influenced by the Italian tradition, but very typical are the so-called barbajuans, a kind of fritter stuffed with cheese and vegetables, which originates from Monaco. The moon shines over the sea. Groups of boys and girls are gathered on the beach, playing the guitar and singing. The lights of the ships can be seen in the distance. This is the summer I like.