“Old Menton with its steep tiers of houses huddled one on top of the other, its mysterious myriad of rippling patches of light and dark, its sudden flashes of sun and of blue church towers, all projected against the velvet opalescence of the mountains.”
Octave Mirabeau (1848-1917).
A natural stronghold
Menton is a small town once cut off from the world, encircled by walls pierced at each point of the compass by gates - once carefully guarded. Here, the streets and alleys are dark, winding and often vaulted ; they follow the contours and are linked together by narrow passages leading down to the ancient Roman road, the present Rue Longue.
Gates pierced in the ramparts linked the city to neighbouring states. To the north, the gate of Jean II led to Castellar ; to the south, a gate allowed the inhabitants to go to the Val de Menton ; to the east, the Via Julia Augusta entered through the gate of Saint Julien and to the west, the gate of Saint Antoine gave access to the district beyond the walls, called “Cap Saint Sébastien”. Skirting the sea, a cluster of tower-houses, still to be seen, protected the town.
The castle of Menton
The original castle of Menton was built in the late 1240 s. During the wars between Provence and Genoa and the quarrels between Guelph and Ghibelline, the Genoese led by Ansaldo Spinola besieged Menton in May 1274. The caste was badly damaged and had to be pulled down. With the Comte de Provence’s aid, Guillaume Vento, Seigneur of Menton, had a new castle built which subsequently suffered badly from the rivalry between the Mentonese and their seigneur. It was besieged in March 1477. From 1497 onwards Jean II undertook its restoration committing the work to Philippe Carlone. The site of this final castle became the cemetery after 1808.
Menton in the seventeeth century
Prince Honoré II transformed Menton radically. In 1618 beyond the Gate of Saint Antoine a new road was built, the Rue Neuve, which led to the Convent of the Capuchins then located in the open country. The district of Saint Sébastien expanded around the Chapelle de la Miséricorde which Honoré II entrusted to the Brotherhood of the Pénitents Noirs in 1630. To protect the neighbourhood, the prince had the Bastion built in 1636-1639. The Prince of Monaco’s Palace in the Rue Longue was restored in 1650. The Church of Saint Michel was enlarged from 1640 to 1653, and consecrated in 1675. All evidence of the growth of the town.
The development of road and rail links
After the attachment of Menton to France (1861), new roads were built during the Second Empire which opened the Alpes Maritimes, and especially Menton to the outside world. The Grande Corniche was modified. The construction of the port started in 1867 and was completed in 1878 ; the construction of the Basse Corniche started in 1867 and ended in 1881. But it was the railway that really transformed the Riviera. In December 1869, the railway line (P.L.M.) between Monaco and Menton was opened. Consequently, it took only 24 hours to go from Menton to Paris.
As the town expanded, the neighbourhood of the Condamine where citrus had grown so luxuriantly became a vast building site. H.G. Tersling, a Danish architect, repeating the haussmanian tradition, laid out the area with a large artery descending from the railway station to the sea : before the first World War apartment buildings, hotels, family mansions, villas and tennis courts sprang up. On the hills surrounding Menton the vast hotels of the Winter Palace and the Riviera Palace were built with all modern facilities ; in the town centre the Orient-Palace, the Hotel de Venise, and the Hotel de Malte and their gardens embellished the streets. The Royal Westminster, Balmoral, and Vendôme hotels lined the sea front.
By 1914, all the most important hotels had been built, yet James noted in his guide-book “...although Menton has been trying to get more modern these recent years, life there is still very quiet”. By the 1950s holidays in the summer became more usual. The sea-front became bordered by a long continuous strip of buildings whereas villas and apartment blocks moved up the hillsides.