A local guide from Menton, France: five great things to do | Holidays in France

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Specialist in the art of trompe l’oeil and old and modern frescoes, Fabien Gauthier has lived in Menton since 1972

Food

Le Petit Port, in a green square next to the port, is a large family restaurant whose owner I have known, Gaby Santucci, for 40 years. It specializes in local dishes such as zucchini flowers stuffed with cod, giant scampi and octopus salad with porcini mushrooms. Being on the border, the cuisine of Menton has a huge Italian influence but we have our own version of Nice socca (chickpea pancake) and Pan bagnat (a large bun filled with tuna, eggs, anchovies and tomato and soaked in olive oil). The streets around the art nouveau market hall Les Halles – a great place to shop for Menton’s scented lemons – are home to street eateries such as Sini, which sells pichade (tomato and anchovy pie) and barbajuan (chard and ricotta fritters).
4 rue du Jonquier

Inspiration

Photograph: Getty Images

Menton was just a simple fishing village before the British arrived in the 19th century and made it a spa town. The European aristocracy built huge Belle Epoque palaces overlooking the sea, but my inspiration comes from the friezes and artistic decoration of older buildings in Menton. In the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel there are breathtaking trompe-l’oeil paintings inside the dome. The one above the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is for me the Rolls-Royce of the fresco.

District

Menton is a calm, serene place, where you always feel like on vacation. As an artist, he offers a very visual experience, full of red, yellow, peach and ocher tones. I feel very attached to the old town. My first art studio was on Rue Longue (the original Roman road), which is all old medieval stairs, shutters and doors. At its southern end is the Place du Cap, which is surrounded by small bistros with water fountains, and near the Place aux Herbes, site of the original market, you can still see the gently sloping stone slabs. where traders have placed their vegetables, herbs and fish.

Quick guide

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Green area

France, Menton, Serre de la Madone garden, nymph in the pond and Cyperus papyrus.
Greenhouse of the Madonna. Photograph: Hervé Lenain / Alamy
Magnolia flower.  Illustration: Hennie Haworth.
Magnolia flower. Illustration: Hennie Haworth.

I have always preferred the English-style botanical gardens, which leave part of the landscape natural and wild. Lord Hanbury built his Giardini Botanici just across the Italian border at Ventimiglia in the 19th century, and a British general created the Val Rahmeh gardens in Menton in the 1920s, but my favorite among the many gardens in Menton is Serre de la Madone, on the road to Gorbio. Major Lawrence Johnston filled his seven-acre estate with tropical plants, parrots and wading ibis, all brought back from his travels. Visitors can walk among magnolias (photo below), yuccas, giant eucalyptus trees and a prehistoric landscape Nolina longifolia of Mexico, then climb the stone steps to a citrus grove, lotus pond, and dense forest beyond.
74 route de Gorbio

Night life

Menton’s seafront was dotted with nightclubs in the 1970s. The Mini Pub (it sounds a lot cooler in French) is one of the few survivors – I know that because I worked there as a bartender. With its suede benches, soda siphons, framed photographs of Johnny Hallyday and Claude François and its poster for Crazy Horse, the Mini Pub is a fortress with padded walls of a swinging France of yesteryear. The swings on its terrace overlook the marina, the quays and the Italian border. The porticoed Sablettes esplanade below was built on reclaimed land and is now popular for nighttime gatherings, with a transparent lift to sea level, glaciers, and a walkway under palm trees.
51 quai Bonaparte

To stay

Just behind the promenade and a few steps from the old town, the 17-room Pavillon Impérial hotel is located in the old park of one of the immense Belle Époque palaces on the seafront. It has a shaded garden, a library and a bar.
Double from €57 rooms only in October


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