It’s often said that Menton is three degrees warmer than anywhere else on the French Riviera. Situated beneath a circle of mountains at the Italian border, Menton is blessed with a micro-climate conducive to growing tropical plants, fruit (hence the annual Lemon Festival!) and vegetation that can’t be cultivated elsewhere in Europe. In other words—this beautiful Italianate city isn’t just an inspiration for artists, but it’s also a dream setting for landscape designers and horticulturalists looking to go wild with their gardens.
Today visitors can explore a number of paradisiacal places tucked away on terraced hillsides, not far from the Mediterranean beaches where vacationers soak up the sun away from the glitz and glamour of nearby Monte Carlo. Many of them are classified as Jardins remarquables. Two of these must-visit gardens are the Val Rahmeh botanical gardens, and the Serre de la Madonne.
High in the hills above Menton, the Serre de la Madonne was created by Lawrence Johnston, an American born in Paris, starting in the year 1924. Lush and luxuriant, this garden features rare, exotic plants that Johnston sourced while traveling the world. A Magnolia delavayi from China’s Yunnan province, the Nolina from Mexico, interesting succulents, orchids, a tropical oak from the Himalayas… all planted within a grove of ancient olives. From the villa at the top of the terraces, the views are endless: to the mountains and the shimmering sea. There are ponds and pergolas and pathways winding through 25 acres; you can actually get lost amongst the extravagant vegetation and sculpted statues. The entrance fee is 8 euros. Tel: 04-93-57-73-90. Open every day except Mondays, public holidays, and in November, from 10 am to 5 pm (this is extended to 6 pm between April and October).
The botanical gardens of Val Rahmeh were created by Lord Percy Radcliffe, a former Governor of Malta, in 1905. He collected “Labiacées” and “Solanacées” (from the datura family) and lots of exotic fruit plants like Kiwi trees, Avocado trees and Banana trees. Now owned by the French Museum of Natural History, this magnificent garden boasts 700 different species of plants and trees including the rare sophora toromiro tree from Easter Island. What is so remarkable about this mythical, sacred tree—classified in the legume family—is that it has totally disappeared in its original Easter Island habitat.
The entrance fee is 6.50 euros per adult, free for children under the age of 7. Open every day except for Tuesdays, May 1, and December 25. Tel: 04 93 35 86 72. For more information on Menton’s many gardens, see the Office of Tourism’s website.