Monaco, Menton and Ventimiglia
"We’re nearly at the Italian border now, towards the point where the French Riviera changes to the Italian one and there’s a little more of an Italian feel about the towns and cities"
The home of the Grimaldi family might be on the French Riviera but it’s definitely not French. It’s a principality in its own right and a wonderful place to spend a few days.
The benefit of Monaco is that it’s compact and almost entirely urban but has several ‘quarters’, each with a different function within the principality.
The two that are of most interest to tourists are Monaco-Ville and the Condamine.
The best place to begin your Monaco visit is in Monaco-Ville. There you’ll encounter the medieval part of Monaco, with pedestrianised streets and narrow passageways that would be too small for vehicles anyway. The highlight of the neighbourhood is the Palais Princier where the Monegasque royal family live. Every day, at five minutes to midday, there’s a changing of the guards which attracts thousands of spectators for the pomp and fabulous uniforms. You should head next to the Oceanographic Museum, a world renowned institute for the study of marine life and fascinating to young and old. You might think that this would be the highlight of a visit to the principality but the Jardin Exotique holds that title. It’s quite expensive for entry - €8 for what is basically a walk around the garden but the ticket price covers the magnificent view of Monaco as you rise higher and higher up the hill that accommodates the gardens.
Leaving regal Monaco behind we head to Menton, the last major settlement before reaching the Italian border.
Menton’s history is one of disease and death but don’t let that put you off. Sufferers of TB in the 19th and early 20th centuries came here for the fresh air in the hope of gaining a cure, some did, but the packed cemeteries are a testament to those for whom a cure was too elusive.
The town is linked to the artist, writer and poet Jean Cocteau whose works are seen everywhere around Menton and especially in the museum dedicated to his work. You’ll also find several beautiful and shady gardens woven through the narrow streets of the old town. Finally, if you happen to be in Menton in February then you’ll find yourself in the middle of the world’s biggest lemon festival. The whole town goes mad for the fruit and everything lemony is on display in the streets.
Finally we cross the border into Ventimiglia whose name means ‘twenty miles’. The city has stunning architecture with a medieval heart that has not been glammed up for tourism. There you’ll see life in an Italian city as it would have been lived a hundred or more years ago. Climb to the highest point of the old city for a panoramic view out over the weathered sandstone buildings and down to the beach. If you're lucky, when travelling around Ventimiglia, you’ll discover the remains of the old city walls and a Roman theatre from the 2nd century AD.
From here on into Italy, the French Riviera becomes a distant, beautiful memory and you’re underway on a new journey on the Italian Riviera that follows the coast to La Spezia.