Menton’s old town is astonishingly attractive. Seen from the harbour or nearby beaches, the hulking Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel towers over the glorious ochre-hued buildings of the old town as they climb up the steep hillside. Experienced from wandering amongst those same buildings, Menton is an atmospheric jumble of narrow lanes and lung-busting stairways that wind ever upwards. At the very top is a picturesque cemetery with views over the town and ocean.
As an historical footnote, one of the more surprising residents of the cemetery is none other than William Webb Ellis, the man credited with ‘inventing’ the sport of rugby. Menton may well be the last stop in France before reaching the Italian border, but it was also the last stop on the line for some well-to-do Britons. Webb Ellis was just one of many who came here and stayed for the supposed health benefits of the climate.
In fact, wealthy Europeans of all nations were inspired to come here by the writings of English doctor, James Henry Bennett. His 1861 tome, Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean, made the improbable claim that Menton’s climate had cured his tuberculosis. It was the catalyst for a surge in Victorian-era health tourism. Some wealthy visitors stayed and built the belle-époque palaces that are scattered around town.
I’d arrived on an early train from Nice, even at 9am the temperature was fierce. The new town is a 19th century extension to the medieval old town that spreads along the coast for a couple of kilometers. The streets here are lined with magnificent houses, parks and gardens are filled with an array of colourful flowers, lending the town a vibrant feel. After a short walk I was at the beach and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
Looking up and over the town from the vantage point of the ocean, Menton makes for a dramatic sight against the rugged mountainous backdrop of the Alpes-Maritimes. I popped into the lovely looking market. It was filled with tempting food stalls, including freshly caught seafood. Close to the market are pedestrianised streets and squares with plenty of cafes. I grabbed a coffee before heading into the old town proper.
The heart of medieval Menton appears little changed over the centuries. In the lower section of town, the streets are wide enough for cars, although there aren’t many of them, but further up it is foot traffic only on tiny alleys that squeeze between the houses. I found myself at the Basilica of Saint Michael, where a small plaza is the only flat piece of land to be found.
The views from the square over the ocean are wonderful, but the church wasn’t open so I carried on upwards into the warren of streets above the church. It’s an incredible place to simply walk around, but with the heat rising (it was in the low 30s celsius that day), it was also airless and humid in the compact streets. It was a relief to finally emerge sweaty but triumphant into the open air at the cemetery.
Once I’d recovered from the climb, paid my respects to Webb Ellis and absorbed the panoramic views, it was time to head back down along cobbled lanes and through stone archways. Back in the square, the Basilica still wasn’t open, so I took the steep stairway down towards Plage des Sablettes. The stairs are probably the most photographed thing in Menton, but only at the bottom looking up do you see their full glory.
I walked along the sandy beach to the harbour with its red and white lighthouse, where yachts mingle with more humble fishing boats. There is no shade at the harbour so I headed back into the shady streets of the old town, found a nice looking restaurant and sat down for a long lunch. Visiting Menton was unplanned, but I’d choose to stay here the next time the Côte d’Azur beckons.
2 thoughts on “The health giving qualities of Menton”
Menton is lovely, though there is some irony in the number of young victims of tuberculosis who are buried in the cemetry there, as we thought when we first visited. It’s a gorgeous place to spend some time if you are in good health though!
In some far flung future, archeologists will ponder over the devastating TB outbreak Menton suffered in the 19th century, and wonder why it didn’t affect the rest of Europe!