eye candy: a guide to Menton (a South-of-France staycation, i)

As much as I would love to run away every weekend, this year I am going to be motivated by money.

And money is telling me (to borrow from an internet meme I saw this week): “girl, you can afford to walk downstairs.”

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What luck, then, that my home base of Cannes can easily satisfy the travel bug in its proximity to a wide range of landscapes, cultures, and activities. From here, trains, buses, boats, a quick car ride, or a good walk all serve to transport the weekend traveler to a variety of interesting locales.

It seems the Côte d’Azur is the ideal setting for a staycation.

When my friend Erika came to visit in October, she brought with her the motivation for me to wander away from my favorite stretch of beach in Cannes la Bocca and to do some exploring. Some destinations were entirely new to me, while others saw my second or third visit and I wanted to show them off. Though Erika and I saw a lot, often packing two destinations into a day, we didn’t even scratch the surface.

First up was Menton.

Candy-colored Menton feels like home, surely because it’s tiny and I have visited thrice in the past year. What is a twenty-something American doing in a sleepy ville that mostly attracts English retirees? Well, largely just wandering around and appreciating my surroundings. The town is home to my favorite boulangerie (they know me there), which may have something to do with it. Ever had pain au chocolat you’d take a train for? I hadn’t, not until Menton. The café is on a main shopping street and near the carousel. That’s all I’ll tell you (or can tell you. I don’t even know the name).

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Exploring Menton

Originally lured by the well-known Fête du Citron (not, in my opinion, worth a visit on its own), I spent a week here with Mom last winter, and two weeks with Mary in May to celebrate the end of our teaching year. Menton (“chin” in French) is definitely not the It destination on the French Riviera. Its glamour is dilapidated, its opening hours are frustrating (why must a botanical garden close for two hours at lunch, or completely shut its doors on a Tuesday?), but it is beautiful and it is quiet. Menton’s old town is a pastel wonderland reminiscent of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

I knew Erika would appreciate the colors (and the pain au chocolat), but once we were kicked out of one of the gardens only ten minutes into our visit, and found the rest of them closed, we decided to keep our time in Menton short and try to see another town that day. Still, it got me thinking about my other visits here, and, combined, I’d say I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge (or opinions, at least) about how to do Menton right.

Menton mentality: come here to relax, not to be entertained.

For a day-trip visit: I’d recommend spending all your time outside. Get a brightly sour lemonade from Au Pays du Citron and walk to Italy (seriously, the border is just a short ways down the coast) or wander through one of the botanical gardens. Make sure to check opening hours and check again. Once you’re inside, the fussy planning is worth it. I particularly enjoyed the secret garden atmosphere of Serre de la Madone.

In early May, this garden is low on tourists but teeming with life (mating frogs, mostly). Next, climb the buttercup-yellow steps to the top of the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange for a stunning view of the sea framed by palm trees. Keep your eyes out for trompe l’œil paintings: those that fool your eye into thinking there are objects (such as windows) that aren’t really there.

From the basilica, it’s easy to get to the Cimetière du Vieux Château, a sprawling cemetery that sits atop the old town.

For lunch, save your money and keep it simple. Despite the drool-worthy menus displayed on chalkboards all over town, Menton’s food scene leaves much to be desired. Instead of getting suckered in by a perfectly average tourist trap, opt to walk around Menton’s covered market, Marché des Halles, and grab food for a picnic. I recommend getting bread from local boulangerie Au Baiser du Mitron and picking out several cheeses and seasonal fruits. I like goat’s cheese with herbes de Provence and sheep’s milk tommes, as both are indigenous to the warmer parts of France.

If you don’t want to do the picnic thing, I’d suggest stopping at Sini, right next to the market, for really excellent pizza that you can eat sur place or take to go.

For a longer visit: Bring plenty of reading material or a project to work on. There’s nothing like a Mediterranean sunset or a walk through an olive grove to ignite creativity. I would recommend staying in an AirBnb in the vieille ville. Particularly in the off-season, you can find some really good deals (think 20 euros a night!). Find a place with a decent kitchen, stock it with the basics: olive oil, salt, pasta, a basil plant…and you can walk to the market daily for fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish.

Above: live music in a small square near the Marché des Halles. I definitely felt exactly like Rick Steves while taking this video. 

Menton is well-situated for day trips to even smaller towns. I’d recommend Èze (take “Nietzsche’s footpath” and be ready for some serious walking) and Villefranche-sur-Mer, both easily accessible by train for just a few euros.

Otherwise, visit the Jean Cocteau museum, as well as his bastion by the sea. Cocteau, an artist, author, and the director of the original Beauty & the Beast, was a contemporary of Matisse and Picasso, and apparently had a bit of a Napoleon complex about keeping up with them. If you visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, you can see the chapel Cocteau decorated, motivated by an effort to compete with the other master artists and their own “spiritual” chef-d’œuvres.

For a dinner out, try the plat du jour at Les Enfants Terribles (named for Cocteau’s 1929 novel). They put the daily catch on special, which is fun considering the restaurant’s proximity to the sea.

 Other things to do:

Visit the fine arts museum

Take a boat to Italy: for about twenty euros, you can get to Italy via a small boat in about two hours. (I haven’t tried this, but it looks like a great experience!) Just walk around the port and look for the chalkboard signs advertising departure times.

Take a train to Italy (Ventimiglia). The town isn’t as striking as Menton, but it’s still fun to hop over the border and have some real Italian lasagna, or at least a cappuccino, and get a taste of a different culture.

 

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bordeaux: à la foire

Bordeaux began as all good trips should, as a decision made at two in the morning the night before. Blame train travel for enabling my dangerously spontaneous ways: the luxury (or gamble) of the young and single.img_3612-1

Bordeaux was another city I knew nothing about, but for its association with red wine. It was closer to Montluçon, though, and I wanted to avoid another six-hour train ride, if possible.

I’d like to write about epic dinners enjoyed in grand chateaus, but the truth is Mary and I spent both nights in Bordeaux running around the carnival. There was something deliciously wrong about this, a feeling akin to skipping school and eating pancakes in bed.

Bordeaux’s Place des Quinconces is one of the largest public squares in Europe, and every foot of it was covered in roller coasters and kebab stands, ferris wheels and trampolines.img_3604-1

Dressed for dinner in silk, ankle boots, lipstick, and after a dinner of seafood pasta and wine, at the fair I felt like an elegant Charlie let loose in the chocolate factory. It was kitsch and bright lights and the smell of sugar, just like anywhere, but with a more insouciant (and much skinnier) crowd. We dodged groups of French teenagers, the straight hair, skinny jeans, and cell phones, to climb aboard dizzying rides like the inexplicably-named “Sexy Dance.” The magic ended at midnight, so we had to act fast. It helped that there were no lines. Maybe the French aren’t as accustomed to putting their lives in the rusty metal hands of carnival machinery.

We rode a Halloween train, in which you sit in a monster’s claw and visit a cave containing all sorts of melted-wax-looking monsters, and tried the flying carpet ride, a breathtaking view of Bordeaux that required trying to keep your balance in a metal cage as a pair of mechanical arms lifts you over the city.

We ate fair food–overly-sweet crêpes–and rode the French “Octopus,” La Pieuvre, a spinning ride that played Olé Olé Olé and released clouds of noxious strawberry smoke that smelled like a trip to the dentist. The only ones on the ride, the controller gave us the choice to keep spinning longer than was probably healthy. Continue?! He yelled.

On the Mouse Coaster we had the front seat next to a grinning six-year-old and her big brother. C’est bien? I asked them. With several teeth missing, the little girl breathlessly recounted how great the ride was. We’ve been on it trois fois!

So the fair was expensive and gave me whiplash, but a French city isn’t all cathedrals and art galleries and stained glass. My best travel memories don’t come from completing checklists of must-see attractions, following in the footsteps of every tourist before, but rather from those things I’ve done naturally and spontaneously. Chasing the incongruities. I’d recommend it, the view of Bordeaux under neon lights, drunk on laughter and music (not to mention half a bottle of red wine).