FRANCE -- Menton: cheap and stylish on the Riviera
A tile painting of Menton, located in the Hotel du Belgique
Located on the border with Italy, Menton is the first French destination many travelers encounter, however it is also one of the most overlooked. Most people are in a rush to get to Nice, Monaco and Cannes and zip right past this seaside town. They obviously don't know what they are missing.
Do as the locals do
More popular with French and Italian vacationing families, Menton has stayed out of the over-priced tourist riff-raff that effects most of the Cote D'Azur. Here you can stroll amongst it's many gardens (Menton is known as the "Garden Town" and it's 30,000 residents take pride in the many botanical gardens and greenery scattered amonst the town's craggy cliffside) or lie on a clean and uncrowded pebble beach.
There is a plethora of quality restaurants (I particularly liked Cafe de Paris, where the waiter brought me free vin rose on my second visit...must have taken pity on a solo, female traveler), most of which line the promenade du Soleil. Because Menton is so close to Italy, you'll find most restuarants do both French and Italian foods. The bustling pedestrian street in the vieille ville , rue St-Michel, also has numerous cafes and eateries, all ripe for people watching. Rue St-Michel also offers specialty shops featuring provencal postcards, yellow linen and lavender soap, as well as brand-name stores. And to show that Menton isn't too far off the map, they also have a McDonalds (with a McCanada burger that I found most intriguing).
Le Plage du Menton
Of course, you can't come to the Riviera without expecting to go to the beach and Menton has that in spades. From the rocky Italian border, all the way towards Monaco, the beaches at Menton are clean, spacious, and best of all, free. Grab an umbrella and prepare to spend the day lazing on shore covered in Monoi Tahiti oil or floating in the clear, azure waters. And if that ever starts to get boring, there is always the Musee Jean Cocteau, or the Menton Casino.
The Museum by the sea
Accomodation in Menton can seem daunting at first to budget travelers. There is only one hostel, Auberge de Jeunesse, and its quite aways out of town. But why pay money for a hostel when you can get a private room in a quaint hotel for the same amount? Although I've heard good things about Hotel Richelieu, I can honestly recommend the Hotel du Belgique. Despite having zero cash, knowing beginners French and being hungry, the owner of the hotel welcomed me with open arms, fed me in the hotel's onsite restaurant (a surefire way to feel French) and, most importantly, listened to me bitch and whine about the lack of currency exchanges in town (apparently there is only one and, no, I never found it), the transit strike (no trains for 3 days) and the heaviness of my backpack. He also spoke perfect English (though humoured me with my attempts at French).
It helped that the hotel itself was exactly what I wanted. Sure the room was cramped, but at $30 there was no complaining. It was homey and neat, the clean bathrooms and showers were right down the hall, I had a TV and a sink (and a bidet, in which I washed my dirty feet)right in the room, and my shuttered windows opened onto a balcony. OK, so it was just an outside area where the maid stored her cart. Still, that didn't prevent me from climbing through the window with a jar of olives and a bottle of rose wine and enjoying the view of Menton below.
Sunset over the mountainside rooftops of Menton
So, if you are planning a trip to the South of France, but want to stay in a place that is not only affordable but as un-touristed as the Riviera gets, take the train to Menton (2 hrs from Genoa, Italy, 11 minutes from Monaco, 35 minutes from Nice). And because Monaco is minutes away, it makes a great alternative to staying in the principality.
A typical Provencal-style house in the Vieille Ville
Above and right, the Hotel Du Belgique