A local’s guide to Menton, France: five great things to do

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A specialist in trompe l’oeil art and frescoes ancient and modern, Fabien Gauthier has lived in Menton since 1972

Food

Le Petit Port, on a leafy square next to the harbour, is a great family-run restaurant whose owner, Gaby Santucci, I have known for 40 years. It specialises in local dishes such as courgette flowers stuffed with cod, giant scampi and octopus salad with porcini mushrooms. Being on the border, Menton’s cuisine has a huge Italian influence but we have our own version of Nice’s socca (chickpea pancake) and pan bagnat (a big bread roll filled with tuna, eggs, anchovies and tomato and soaked in olive oil). The streets around art-nouveau food hall Les Halles – a great place to buy Menton’s fragrant lemons – are home to street-food joints such as Sini, which sells pichade (tomato and anchovy tart) and barbajuan (chard and ricotta fritters).
4 rue du Jonquier

Inspiration

View of Menton, France, on a sunny day.
Photograph: Getty Images

Menton was a simple fishing village before the British arrived in the 19th century and turned it into a health resort. European aristocracy built huge belle-époque palaces overlooking the sea but my inspiration comes from the friezes and artistic decoration on Menton’s older buildings. In the Basilica Saint Michel-Archange, there are some breathtaking trompe l’oeil paintings on the inside of the dome. The one above the Chapelle du Saint-Sacrement is for me the Rolls-Royce of fresco painting.

Neighbourhood

Menton is a calm, serene place, where you always feel as if you are on holiday. As an artist, it provides a very visual experience, full of reds, yellows, peach and ochre tones. I feel very attached to the old town. My first art studio was on rue Longue (the original Roman road), which is all ancient staircases, shutters and medieval doorways. At its southern end is Place du Cap, which is surrounded by little bistros with water fountains, and in Place aux Herbes nearby, site of the original market, you can still see the gently sloping stone slabs where traders laid out their vegetables, herbs and fish.

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Green space

France, Menton, Serre de la Madone garden, nymph in the pond and Cyperus papyrus.
Serre de la Madone. Photograph: Herve Lenain/Alamy
Magnolia flower. Illustration: Hennie Haworth.
Magnolia flower. Illustration: Hennie Haworth.

I’ve always preferred English-style botanical gardens, which leave some of the landscape natural and wild. Lord Hanbury built his Giardini Botanici just over the Italian border in Ventimiglia in the 19th century, and a British general created Menton’s Val Rahmeh gardens in the 1920s, but my favourite among Menton’s many gardens is Serre de la Madone, on the road leading up towards Gorbio. Major Lawrence Johnston filled his seven-hectare estate with tropical plants, parrots and wading ibises, all brought back from his travels. Visitors can wander among the magnolias (pictured below), yuccas, giant eucalyptus and a prehistoric-looking Nolina longifolia from Mexico, then climb the stone steps to a citrus grove, lotus pond and dense woodland beyond.
74 route de Gorbio

Nightlife

Menton’s seafront was strung with nightclubs in the 1970s. Mini Pub (it sounds a lot cooler in French) is one of the few survivors – I know because I used to work there as a barman. With its suede banquettes, soda siphons, framed photographs of Johnny Hallyday and Claude François and poster for Crazy Horse, Mini Pub is a padded-walled fortress of a bygone swinging France. The swing seats on its terrace look out across the marina, quayside and towards the Italian border. The porticoed Esplanade des Sablettes below was built on reclaimed land and is now popular for late-night gatherings, with a transparent lift to sea level, ice-cream parlours and a walkway under the palm trees.
51 quai Bonaparte

Stay

Just behind the promenade and within walking distance of the old town, the 17-room Pavillon Impérial hotel is in the former grounds of one of the huge belle-époque palaces on the seafront. It has a shady garden, a library and a bar.
Doubles from €57 room-only in October