Menton & The Birth of the French Riviera

The gloriously pretty seaside town of Menton may well be lesser known than its Riviera neighbors, but it was at Menton that the French Riviera as we know it truly begun.

It may sound crazy, but it’s true: Pirates founded the medieval old town of Menton in southern France. For six centuries from 1346, the town was under the rule of the Princes of Monaco. France annexed it during the French Revolution.

It wasn’t until 1815 that it had its liberty, under the protection of the King of Sardinia. In 1860, there was a vote to decide whether Menton and Roquebrune would remain in France. It ended when the Grimaldi’s agreed to sell the towns of Menton and Roquebrune to France for four million francs. Soon after that, the Brits surged into the town, and it became the starting point of the creation of the French Riviera.

Menton became popular when a British doctor, James Henry Bennet, visited it believing that the tropical climate can make his tuberculosis improve. He helped popularize the French Riviera as a winter holiday destination in the 19th century with his 1861 book Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean. Bennet has been described as the “Inventor of the Menton resort”. Soon many aristocrats, mostly with infirmities, flocked to Menton for the hope of getting cured.

Not long after, in 1882, the widowed Queen Victoria came for an extended vacation, thus opening the floodgates for royals and high society to follow. She visited eight times after that and told her friends about how much she loved the area. At her suggestion, Winston Churchill chose to paint its’ landscapes, and famous 19th century travel writers like Robert Louis Stevenson started writing about it.

Railways were built, grand villas replaced stone farmhouses, and ornate carriages carrying dukes and princes started showing up along high coast roads above the sparkling sea. And that was how Menton got its start as a the first destination resort town on the newly minted ‘French Riviera’.

Menton retains the same charm today

Since then, many movie stars have spent time in Menton. Sean Connery filmed scenes of ‘Never Say Never’ in the old town of Menton, Jean Cocteau painted his famous frescoes of love here, and English nobles planted exotic gardens around Italianate villas shaded by palm trees. So enchanting is Menton that Eve is said to have planted the first lemon here, and the town, nestled on that last steep stretch of coastline before France gives way to Italy, is widely referred to as ‘The Pearl of France’.

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