Set between the mountains and the Mediterranean, Menton is the last town on the French Riviera before the Italian border. Its soft ochre houses spill down the hillside to the sea.
The town of 30,000 may lack the celebrity glitz of its neighbours along the coast, such as Monte Carlo, Cannes or St Tropez, but the mix of Belle Époque architecture and calm streets is part of its charm. “It is a breathtaking village on the water. You can walk easily, it’s safe, has good gardens and clean beaches,” says Mark Harvey, head of Knight Frank’s French residential network.
Property prices on the Côte d’Azur have been depressed since the 2008 financial crisis, but some confidence is now returning and buyers are reappearing, says Harvey. At Knight Frank, inquiry levels for Côte d’Azur properties are up 300 per cent in the year to date, with sales rising 35 per cent over the same period – “still a long way from pre-2008 levels,” he adds.
Joanna Leggett, an independent property agent, has seen “an increase in sales of 42 per cent in the area in the first six months this year” compared with the same period in 2013, although sales are still about 25 per cent below those achieved before the 2008 crash. She adds that the rest of France is not experiencing a similar upturn. “It’s different in the Côte d’Azur because of the high number of international buyers who are attracted to the area.”
The Provence Alps and Côte d’Azur (PACA) is the top area in France for international sales, accounting for 25 per cent of all international sales in the country, according to 2013 data from Perval, the French notaries’ real estate database. Perval figures show that Italians were the biggest buyers last year – although this is expected to fall off with the introduction of new Italian tax laws on second homes – followed by Belgians and the British.
Before the financial crisis, prospective buyers would sometimes clinch a property deal over a weekend on the Côte d’Azur, but now they are taking more time look closely at the additional costs, such as the price of employing a gardener, particularly for villas with many exotic plants to maintain.
Menton enjoys a microclimate that allows its famous citrus trees to thrive in winter ahead of the town’s annual lemon festival in February. It was this climate that helped to attract discerning travellers and writers, such as New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, to the town more than a century ago.
Less glamour and fame mean that prices for apartments, modern houses or Belle Époque villas are more accessible in this part of the Côte d’Azur. “Villas tend to be priced between €1m to €2m in Menton, while apartments, depending on size, location and terraces start at about €550,000 to €1m,” says Jessica Dellepiane, who set up the Menton estate agency European Villas International in 1998.
A four-bedroom hillside villa, dating from the 1920s, facing the picturesque old town and overlooking the sea, is on sale at €1.48m with European Villas International. It has a split-level garden, a pool and dining terraces.
On the east side of Menton, at Boulevard de Garavan, a five-bedroom, restored Belle Époque-style villa, built in about 1900, with a pool and terraced gardens and views over the bay, is on the market at €2.75m with the same agency. Garavan was once a cluster of elegant mansions on the fringe of Menton but is now a high-end residential extension of the town.
The domestic market is largely focused in the town itself. Local buyers often include those who work in Monaco but cannot afford the principality’s high prices.
The cemetery, in the charming old town perched above the sea, demonstrates how the area has long drawn foreigners. Gravestones here mark the final resting place of various Russian princes, the Danish architect Hans-Georg Tersling – a prolific designer of Belle Époque buildings on the Riviera – and William Webb Ellis, credited with inventing the game of rugby.
In the town centre, period hotels, such as the Belle Époque Winter Palace, have been converted into elegant apartments set in lush gardens. A seven-bedroom apartment here, spread over three floors with a terrace at garden level and two first-floor balconies, is for sale with Leggett for €1.19m. A new-build, one-bedroom apartment at Hambury Palace in Garavan, with a shared pool, gym, spa and underground parking, is on the market at €495,000 with European Villas International.
About 80 per cent of Menton’s inhabitants are French and the rest largely other Europeans. Given its proximity to Italy, the second language is Italian and locals switch easily between the two. Border hopping for lunch, dinner or shopping is easy and adds another cultural dimension, which Harvey describes as “a nice marriage. A lot of people buy in Menton because of its proximity to Italy”.
One possible downside to the town is the lack of nightlife. “A family with teenagers would be looking to buy in Antibes or Monte Carlo or Nice for a lively nightlife,” says Dellepiane. Although there are plenty of cafés and restaurants, including one with two Michelin stars, Menton remains genteel and family orientated with a wide range of schools and a generous sprinkling of retirees.
If night-time entertainment is a bit thin on the ground, there is plenty of cultural activity to make up for it. The Jean Cocteau museum, a waterfront contemporary art gallery dedicated to the French artist-poet who first visited the town in the 1950s, is a striking recent addition. Across town the Musée des Beaux Arts, built as summer palace for the princes of Monaco, is also rich in art work.
● Menton is a 40-minute drive from Nice airport, and has good public transport links along the coast
● Temperatures range from 5C to 17C in the winter and 18C to 28C in the summer
● Crime rates are low
● Nightlife in Menton is limited
● Property taxes are about 7 per cent of the purchase price, including registration fees and stamp duties
What you can buy for …
€500,000 A one-bedroom apartment with a terrace
€1m A two-bedroom, top-floor flat with a terrace and a sea view
€3m A four-bedroom hillside villa with a pool and terraced gardens
Photograph: Hans-Georg Eiben/4Corners