Menton, situated on the French Riviera and just over the Italian border, may be best known for its annual Lemon Festival. Its pastel colored houses are a trademark of Liguria, Italy, but visitors leave with a deep impression of Menton’s Baroque style, thanks to the Basilica that dominates the old town skyline.
Menton once was the property of the Italian Ventimiglia family but was acquired by the Grimaldi’s of Monaco in 1346. For centuries it remained under the Grimaldi rule until 1848 when Menton declared itself a free city under the protection of the King of Sardegna. In 1860 Menton chose to become part of France.
The city developed during the Italian Renaissance period, stretching its ochre-colored fingers over the steep Colla Rogna. At its nucleus stands one of the best examples of Baroque architecture, the Basilica St. Michel. Near the top, the buildings are typical of medieval times, small at the base and increasing in size on the upper levels, many times creating vaulted streets.
In the late 19th century, in an attempt to boost Menton’s winter tourism, hoteliers proposed organizing a town parade. The project was designed with wealthy holiday-makers in mind and eventually Menton became THE place to pass the winter months. Kings, princes and artists alike filled the luxury hotels or their own magnificent villas.
Menton became the continent’s premier producer of lemons in 1929 and the first flower and citrus exposition was organized at the Hotel Riviera gardens. It was so successful that the following year, the exposition extended into the streets with wagons beautifully planted with oranges and lemons. In order to develop tourism, the parade was given a title reflecting the feel of Menton and in 1934 the Lemon Festival or Fête du Citron was officially born.
Today, the celebration continues to attract spectators from all around the world. It occurs in February and March at the end of the harvest season, and during Carnival. There are Sunday parades, Thursday moonlight parades complete with fireworks over the bay, Citrus exhibitions and flower displays at the many public gardens.
Basilique St. Michel
From the old harbor, a double staircase, Ramps Chanoine Ortmans, leads up to the square where the Basilica St. Michel stands. Building began during the Grimaldi reign in the early 1600’s but did not take off until 1640. In 1653 most of the building was completed and the very Italian bell-tower was added during the years 1701-1702.
The lower facade is adorned with four pairs of ionic columns. The central statue housed above the entrance in an arched cove, depicts the archangel Michael triumphantly standing over the devil. The upper facade, built symmetrically over the lower, sports two pairs of smaller columns that flank a wall of windows.
The courtyard itself bears witness to the town’s early history where dark pebbles create a permanent carpet, bordered with the diamond shaped pattern of the Grimaldi coat of arms.