We arrived at the far end of the French Riviera in the early evening, in a ruinously expensive taxi from the Airport Côte d’Azur, to discover Menton, la perle de la France a small, bustling tourist town once conjoined with Monaco, lying beside a Mediterranean that resembled molten mercury in the setting sun.
The next morning, after a night spent dining far too well and far too late in a pretty square below the Basilique Saint Michel, we followed the Rue Saint Michel (obviously St. Michael is a popular saint in Menton), an attractive pedestrian mall that meanders behind la Promenade du Soleil, past shops selling swimming costumes and sandals, past countless cafés and restaurants. We found a covered market, a fountain, a wisteria-draped pergola, a narrow lane that clambered up cobbled steps to the ornate basilica on the hill, an ancient sea wall, a marina, a sign to Italy and another to Cannes, a shady square in which to indulge in a lazy, lengthy lunch of Salade Niçoise and an icy bottle of the ever-popular rosé. (There is an entire wall dedicated to rosé in the local supermarché.)
Rugged, craggy, crusty mountains loom over the coast, smudged with mist. Tall, pencil-slim church towers point skywards, attempting to compete with nature’s greater height. Gentrified hotels line the broad boulevardes, or stand proudly-important on rocky outcrops above the town. In the heat of midday, mad, lobster-impersonating bathers lounge on thick mats on pebbled beaches or submerge their heavily tanned bodies chin-deep in the glassy sea. In the early evening, as we strolled along the seafront, people were waking from afternoon siestas, emerging languorously from the shadows as the heat receded with the tide, to indulge in moules marinières and more rosé in the open-air restaurants along la Promenade du Soleil.
On our last day, I sat on a railway platform opposite banks of oleander bushes in pale pink, white, blood red, admiring pistachio-coloured shutters on apricot-coloured buildings embossed with black, finicky wrought iron balconies. The scent of eucalyptus invaded the air. A notice beside the low-lying platform reminded passengers not to cross the tracks, but to please use the stairs.
The railway line heads west to Monaco, east to Italy. I would go only as far as Ventimille just so I could say that I had been to Italy for lunch. My One & Only had already headed off westwards on the bus to see an antique car museum in Monte Carlo.
As the train pulled out, I looked up at the leggy, modern viaducts carrying Renaults, Citroens, and Fiats, Alpha Romeos, Porsches and Ferraris up the coast à toute vitesse, racing into long, dark tunnels or skimming precariously around the mountain rim. The train, however, hugged the coast, nodding to bougainvillea and palm trees, to stone walls draped in morning glory, to orchards crammed with dusty olive trees.
We dived into yet another tunnel, and the world on the other side was almost the same, but subtly different. The pace of life slowed infinitesimally. There were more trees, less paint, more graffiti, less people. We left behind the sound of the sophisticated, lip-pursing, frisson de français, to emerge into the more rounded, robust, operatic, melodramatic italiano.
I strolled off il treno and down the Via Roma almost to the sea, where a long pedestrian bridge carried me across the broad, shallow, La Roya river, flowing limpidly, serenely to the Ligurian sea. Here placid ducks and giant, ungainly seagulls had gathered on the pebble-strewn sandbanks in the centre, while fishermen clustered on the left bank above still, deep, jade-coloured waters, and trout swam merrily into the current of the flowing stream along the right bank.
Feeling decidedly peckish, I found a tiny pavement café and lurched from French to Italian to English – fringlish? – until the poor waitress looked more confused than I. “Cannelloni, pomodoro, mozzarella, insalata, Milanese con patate,” I chanted the menu like a mantra as I tried to realign my brain. Squeezed into a Hobbit-sized space at a tiny round table, I dined on a rich melanzane lasagna and green salad dressed in oil and vinegar from spray cans. Later, when the plate was wiped clean with thick, crusty bread, I sipped on a fiercely strong, tonsil-tearing espresso and listened, fascinated, to a large group beside me converse in a dubious mixture of Dutch, English and Italian.
Afterwards, I found a gelateria around the corner and gazed, enraptured, for several minutes, upon a glorious bouquet of colours and flavours before choosing pistacchio and limone. “Delizioso.” Next door, one solitary market stall remained open, and I couldn’t resist picking up a large box of apricots for my One & Only, which the smiling grocer would not sell me until I have tasted one, which he tore in half for me.
And then it was a slow, lethargic potter home on a sleepy, double-decker train. Blocks of apartments, sunflower yellow and apricot, clung together in a united effort to balance on the steep, almost vertical hillside and prevent themselves sliding down into the river. The wide pebbled beach stretched out towards the horizon to dip its toes in the warm sea. The train chugged back along the rocky coast, while a slender strip of sandy beach sheltered in the shade of the railway line, the crystal water thick with basking bodies. A lone fishing boat rested out beyond the rocks. Further on, and I peered out at market gardens trimmed with olive trees and threaded with beans and grape vines.
When did we cross the border? The water looked the same, the sky was just as blue, the sun as bright. Was it the subtle signs of extra polish? The array of wealthier looking boats anchored off the beach? Accents, dialects, languages drift back and forth across the long-forsaken passport control. The grass always seems greener on the other side, n’est-ce pas?
Bigliettera, biletterie. Direzzione Milano, direction Marseille. Ventimille, Ventimiglia. I made it safely back to la belle France, trailing a lingering aroma of il bello Italie in my wake.
*With thanks to Google Images for the photo, until I can get my hands on the ones taken by my One & Only.