I thought of that scene at the end of last month. It was the culmination of the three-week-long Menton Lemon Festival, but we were not just celebrating lemons: it was a carnival for all the members of the citrus family. Every shop displayed heaps of oranges and lemons, grapefruit and limes, withering mouldily under strong lights. Acid-coloured handbags, shoes, coats, dresses, skirts, overalls, spectacles and wigs decorated every show-case and windowsill. In all the town, it seemed that the only merchandise to resist a citric make-over was the tasteful arrangement of ruggedly flesh-pink surgical trusses so beloved of French window-dressers. But the people had really tried. Waitresses, street musicians, even grandmothers had all kitted themselves out in Dayglo colours and taken to the streets. The very scaffolding was garlanded with yellow, orange and green plastic.
Away from the crowds and the bunting, Menton is a quietly respectable place. Tucked in between Monaco and Italy, it clusters around the base of its mountain, stealing what land it can from the sea. And it has a curiously English air, like a slightly frivolous Eastbourne. There is a huge stone memorial to Queen Victoria, in whose honour the station was built; there are at least three gardens created by English naturalists and, in the cemetery high on the hill, repose the mortal remains of many a young Englishman, lured there, the theory goes, by the empty promise that the air would cure them of consumption.
Near them is the grave of an erstwhile vicar of St Clement Danes, a man called William Webb Ellis. His tombstone declares that he, "with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game"; France, as Scotland fans know all too well from Saturday's drubbing, soon caught on. And not far from him is the grave of an historian called Green, whose inscription ends, cryptically, "He Died Learning". Learning what, you wonder - how not to cross the road, eat bad seafood, fall off ladders?
Just outside the town is a place where you can really appreciate les agrumes in their natural beauty. It is the serene, enchanted grove owned and loved by M Mazet. M Mazet is a retired bank-manager who has created his own little Garden of Eden on the edge of the town, terraced up the steep sides of the mountain. Whippet-thin, his bony brown face engraved with smiles, he chain-smokes skillfully while propelling himself up and down the terraces of his estate on crutches. All around him, his harvest ripens: oranges, mandarins, clementines, huge grapefruit and, of course lemons. Even better, M Mazet has bred a citrange, with, he hopes, all the virtues of both orange and lemon: he thinks it will soon be ready to try.
Fruit, flowers and leaves appear together on his prettily scattered trees, and a mimosa takes up the colour scheme, loosing a few little yellow pom- poms on to the breeze. A little further up the hillside is a tall banana palm. For me, it was like being a small insect in a giant bowl of fruit salad.
But alas, we had to leave Paradise, and get back to the carnival. Down in the centre of town, the Bioves gardens were filled with enormous structures made out of countless millions of oranges and lemons. Attached with rubber bands to wire frames, they were fashioned to look like cathedrals, boats, palaces, planes: the air had the smell and the fizz of a cold-cure, our lungs filled with zest and scarcely controlled hysteria.
We had reserved seats in a stand by the sea-front for the parade so we joined the huge throng flocking to the beach and got there just as it began. The public address system was playing tinny Club Med disco music but it was soon drowned by the oompahs of marching brass bands, each of them heralding the arrival of an enormous float piled high with lemons and oranges, rubber-banded into more bizarre images - there was a heap of giant books with a quill pen, the masks of comedy and tragedy, a Formula One racing car. One band contained men playing plate-racks, salad-shakers and an artificial leg; another featured Italian boys in motley, throwing flags. Behind this one danced a middle-aged woman in a green polka-dot ra-ra skirt, glasses slipping down her nose, hand on hip, tossing her grey perm like a thoroughbred, swirling and twirling solemnly in time with the mediaeval banners.
Three times they paraded, more and more people joining in, clapping and showering them all with confetti and streamers. Then, quite suddenly, it was over. The floats disappeared down the street to be judged in private, the bands disbanded and started drinking, men in blue overalls came out with their industrial vacuums and began to clear up. A cynical chap told me that it was all rather bogus, an idea begun by some hotel which had grown into a huge money-spinner, attracting bands and contestants from all over Europe. It should, of course, end on Shrove Tuesday but it does so well that it has expanded well into Lent: most of the lemons are imported from Spain these days, he added. I remembered the dominant tune of the afternoon: Viva Espana.
Well, the sea was real enough. We wandered down to it, kicking stones along the quay as a light rain began to fall. Something prompted me to glance up at the small street sign, high on the wall. We were in Quai Gordon Bennett
Making for Menton: Low-cost flights from Luton to Nice are available for pounds 105 return (including tax) on easyJet (0990 292929). From Nice airport, a local bus runs to the railways station, whence there are fast and frequent trains to Menton.
French Government Tourist Office: 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123).Reuse content