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Menton Cruises

Menton, town (1990 pop. 29,474), Alpes-Maritime dept., SE France, near the Italian border and on the Mediterranean Sea. A popular resort of the Riviera, it was a part of Monaco until 1848 when it declared itself a free city under the protection of Sardinia. It passed to France after a plebiscite in 1860. Menton has a 16th-century fort overlooking its harbor and a 17th-century Baroque church. The town is noted for its music and art festival.

Of all the Cote d'Azur resorts, MENTON - the warmest and most Italianate, being within a couple of kilometres of the border - is the one that retains an atmosphere of aristocratic tourism, being even more of a rich retirement haven than Nice. It doesn't go in for the ostentatious wealth of Monaco nor the creativity cachet of Cannes and some hilltop towns, but glories chiefly in its climate and year-round lemon crops. It's ringed by protective mountains, so hardly a whisper of wind disturbs this suntrap of a city; you'll notice the difference in winter, when you'll need a change of clothes between here and the exposed central resorts.

The promenade du Soleil runs along the pebbly beachfront of Menton's aptly named Baie du Soleil, stretching from the quai Napoleon-III past the casino towards Roquebrune. The most diverting building on the front is a seventeenth-century fort by the quai Napoleon-III south of the old port, now the Musee Jean Cocteau (Wed-Mon 10am-noon & 2-6pm; 20F/3.05), set up by the artist himself. It contains pictures of his Mentonaise lovers in the Inamorati series, a collection of delightful Fantastic Animals and the powerful tapestry of Judith and Holofernes simultaneously telling the sequence of seduction, assassination and escape. There are also photographs, poems, ceramics and a portrait by his friend Picasso.

As the quai bends around the western end of the Baie de Garavan from the Cocteau museum, a long flight of black-and-white pebbled steps leads up into the vieille ville to the Parvis St-Michel , an attractive Italianate square hosting concerts during the summer and giving a good view out over the bay. The frontage of the eglise St-Michel proclaims its Baroque supremacy in perfect pink and yellow proportions, and a few more steps up to another square will reward you with the beautiful facade of the chapel of the Penitents-Noirs in apricot-and-white marble, with pastel campaniles and disappearing stairways between long-lived houses. The cemetery , at the very top of the old town on the site once occupied by the town's chateau, is low on gloom and high on panoramic views, and is a good place to find yourself at sunset.

In the middle of the modern town, the Salles des Mariages (Mon-Fri 8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-5pm; 10F/1.53), or registry office, forms part of the Hotel de Ville on place Ardoiono and was decorated in inimitable style by Jean Cocteau in 1957. It can be visited without matrimonial intentions by asking the receptionist at the main door. On the wall above the official's desk, a couple face each other with strange topological connections between the sun, her headdress and his fisherman's cap. A Saracen Wedding Party on the right-hand wall reveals a disapproving mother of the bride, the spurned girlfriend of the groom and her armed, revengeful brother among the cheerful guests. On the left-hand wall is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice at the moment when Orpheus has just looked back. Meanwhile, on the ceiling are Poetry Rides Pegasus and tattered Science Juggles with the Planets , and Love , open-eyed, waiting with bow and arrow at the ready. Adding a little extra confusion, the carpet is mock panther-skin.

On avenue de la Madone, at the other end of the modern town, an impressive collection of paintings from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century can be seen in the Palais Carnoles (daily except Tues 10am-noon & 2-6pm; free; bus #3), the old summer residence of the princes of Monaco. Of the early works, the Madonna and Child with St Francis by Louis Brea is exceptional. The most recent include canvases by Graham Sutherland, who spent some of his last years in Menton.

If it's cool enough to be walking outside, the public parks up in the hills and the gardens of Garavan 's once elegant villas make a change from shingle beaches. The best of all the Garavan gardens is Les Colombieres , just north of boulevard de Garavan (Mon-Fri 10am-noon & 3-5pm; but check first with the Service du Patrimoine, tel 04.93.35.32.83, as it is sometimes closed for works; 20F/3.05; bus #8, direction "Bd de Garavan", stop "Colombià ¨res"). Designed by the artist Ferdinand Bac, they lead you through every Mediterranean style of garden. There are staircases screened by cypresses; balustrades to lean against for the soaring views through pines and olive trees out to sea; fountains, statues and a frescoed swimming pool. The rest of the year, you'll have to make do with the public Parc du Pian , shaded by olive trees, nearer to the vieille ville on the same bus route as Les Colombieres, and the Jardin Exotique (daily except Tues: June-Sept 10am-12.30pm & 3-6pm; rest of year 10am-12.30pm & 2-5pm; 20F/3.05), both below boulevard de Garavan.


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