I THE SPIRIT OF DIS­COV­ERY Town and gar­dens

In France’s south­east cor­ner, Men­ton is ideal for lovers of things botan­i­cal In the 1920s the Cote d’Azur changed char­ac­ter, at least as far as its for­eign visi­tors were con­cerned

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - GILES WATER­FIELD THE SPEC­TA­TOR

ONE­hun­dred years ago, travel writ­ers com­mented, there was some­thing pe­cu­liarly de­press­ing about Men­ton — or Men­tone as the Bri­tish would say, re­call­ing the days when the French town sit­u­ated on the Mediter­ranean bor­der be­tween France and Italy was an in­de­pen­dent Ital­ian­lean­ing 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 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 thrown the first ball to a foot­balling team­mate to cre­ate 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, F. 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 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, Men­ton re­mained the ter­rain of older and qui­eter fam­i­lies.

Men­ton dis­tin­guished it­self in other ways. It be­came renowned for its hor­ti­cul­tural pos­si­bil­i­ties, es­pe­cially be­cause its mi­cro­cli­mate made it par­tic­u­larly 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 (in Glouces­ter­shire) cre­ated La Serre de la Madone, 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 Colom­bieres, 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 as a ville des jardins. and 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.

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 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 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.

But Men­ton has its draw­backs. In spite of one or two ex­cel­lent new restau­rants, there is a long tra­di­tion of in­dif­fer­ent food. 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) 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. 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, and the town’s site be­tween the moun­tains and the sparkling sea, Men­ton is still one of the most charm­ing places to visit.

PIC­TURES: ALAMY; THINKSTOCK

From above, Men­ton’s his­toric Serre de la Madone gar­den; the pic­turesque port; and Clos du Pey­ron­net gar­dens

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