In this French Riviera town, a fruitful festival has grown from the love of sweet lemons Marvelous Menton

January 16, 1994|By Dan Klinglesmith | Dan Klinglesmith,Contributing Writer

Residents of Menton, located on the French Riviera near the Italian frontier, recount an interesting footnote to the Book of Genesis. It's the story of the lemon.

As the tale goes, just before abandoning Eden, Eve filched a lemon for the road. Upon finding the purloined fruit, Adam insisted she discard it before God found out -- after all, they had already suffered one gastronomical mishap with the Almighty. Reluctantly, Eve agreed, on the condition she could choose when and where to relinquish the memento. Happening upon a handsome gulf, which reminded her of their one-time paradise, she buried the golden fruit and seeded a legend.

No doubt Eve would still be pleased with her selection. Menton lays claim to the warmest climate on the Cote d'Azur. Sandy beaches, a rarity on this fabled coast, tempt vacationers to dip toes into the cool Mediterranean. Terraced slopes, planted with leafy groves, rise from the shoreline like little patches of the promised land. Beyond the bisque-colored old town, the blue heights of the Maritime Alps thrust heavenward.

Menton's balmy atmosphere ensures a blessed home for citrus growers and, in particular, those who cultivate finicky lemons. Temperature varies little and seldom dips below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunny days and gentle nights sweeten the local lemon, making it a highly prized garnish by chefs and connoisseurs.

Favorable weather also made Menton a must for visitors who transformed the medieval hamlet into a year-round resort in the 19th century. In those days, the House of Grimaldi (the same family now ruling Monaco) governed the petite village, but it relinquished ownership to France in 1848. Well-heeled aristocrats came to rub shoulders with royalty and take the air. Many of them never left. Headstones bearing English, German and Russian names line the cemetery atop the town's fortressed center.

Making lemonade

A burgeoning tourist trade motivated hoteliers to persuade the town council to establish a carnival in 1875. Things went pretty well until the Carnival of Nice, 15 miles to the west, out-paraded their best efforts. But the Menton people are resourceful and believe that if life deals you a lemon . . . then make lemonade. Actually they've done one better.

In 1933, townsfolk inaugurated the Lemon Festival.

For 16 days, beginning in late February, the town drapes itself in its citrus bounty. Nearly 400,000 lemon lovers crowd cobblestone alleyways and sun-dappled streets, and attendance now rivals that of Nice's Mardi Gras.

Bioves Gardens, bordered by towering palms and fragrant fruit trees, sets the stage for whimsical displays at the international Citrus Show. Each year a different theme makes the zesty celebration; years past have showcased romantic cities, myths and legends, and 1993's show focused on Europe's merger as an economic community.

Fruit and imagination

Whatever the topic, visitors can count on a juicy pageant. Tangerines, citrons, kumquats, grapefruit, oranges and, yes, bushels upon bushels of lemons form medallions, statues, bridges and even small-scale buildings. In all, 15 fanciful constructions -- from London's Big Ben complete with a lemony Beefeater guard to an orange-decked Spanish galleon -- invite browsers to marvel at the wonders created with scads of fruit and imagination.

The festival's highlight occurs on Sundays with the Parade of the Golden Fruit along the Promenade du Soleil. Floats fashioned from -- what else? -- more oranges and lemons, and pulled by orange-painted tractors, squeeze through the throngs in afternoon spectacles.

International competition

Subjects mirror those chosen for the accompanying international Citrus Show. All 12 European Union countries participate, and competition is keen for the most tasteful, or maybe delectable, way to represent their homeland. Denmark chose a towering dragon-prowed ship, spangled in fruit, to honor its seafaring past. Spain entered with a mammoth head of a conquistador, faced in oranges and smiling with lemony eyes; a commander never looked so happy. Yet accolades must go to the French, who selected their equivalent to America's bald eagle, a crowing cock (albeit a little too svelte and somewhat droopy-winged), to carry their country's pride.

Brass bands and dancing troops from across the continent round out the street show, while exuberant families follow the floats. Even staid French grandmothers get into the act. Digging deep into bags of confetti, they seem to outdo youngsters at gleefully dousing passers-by with a paper rainstorm.

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