Menton, France has a Secret Garden beauty, rich as it is in dilapidated grandeur.
There are candy pastel hotels tucked in the hills, once wedding cake-grand but now closed with broken windows. The small downtown area houses murals, fountains, and statues that show their age. A striking yellow staircase leads from the Basilique St. Michel down to the sea, but it begs for a fresh coat of paint.
This pearl of France could use some polishing.
That’s what makes it special, though. It’s cozy, instead of glamorous and glitzy like other spots on the Côte d’Azur. It’s calm (though admittedly I’ve never been here in prime tourist season).
Menton has long been a haven for foreigners, so much so that the town holds a sort of “tourist cemetery” high on a hill with a view of the sea.
Menton also contains a number of botanical gardens, many of them created by foreign botanists attracted to Menton’s unique climate. Menton is typically about three degrees warmer than other parts of the Riviera on any given day. It’s sheltered from harsh weather by the hills surrounding it, meaning that plants found nowhere else in France can still flourish here (not the least of which is the Menton lemon, celebrated every year with a monthlong festival. To see what I thought of that, click here).
I visited Serre de la Madone, a garden designed by Lawrence Johnston, a wealthy American (though he died in 1958 before he saw the project come to fruition).
Like much of Menton, it’s a cozy contradiction: nine hectares of manicured wildness.
Despite the villa, greenhouse, and mossy statues, the garden lacks a human presence. It feels as if it was designed and then left alone, left to the elements. Actually, that is what happened, to a certain extent. When Johnston died the development of the unfinished garden was left to the plants, as he didn’t leave any plans.
There’s upkeep of course; there was a man weed-eating when I was there, the noise cutting through the tropical tweets of the birds, but the garden cast a spell even so. It seemed beautifully abandoned, despite evidence to the contrary.
I slipped over stones and ducked under vines, noticing subtle movement everywhere.
Frogs startled, splashing into algae-green pools, thick like pea soup. They croaked from lily pads, perhaps motivated by mating season, so loudly it actually hurt my ears.
Beetles and dragonflies whirred, and ants marched steadily.
Brilliant orange fish bobbed, friendly, to the tops of pools.
At the end of a shallow pool sat a greenhouse that looked both abandoned and ready for guests, a Mad Hatter’s tea. Fat lizards scurried up the walls.