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Mer & montagne: communes in the east of the Alpes-Maritimes unite

Following the enactment of the Loi NOTre (Nouvelle Organisation Territoriale de la République), in the summer of 2015, a whole raft of powers was decentralised from the French state and transferred to its départements.

Menton: the headquarters of the new tourism bureau © SFAmong these new responsibilities was the possibility for communes in a geographical area to unite under one banner – an intercommunalité or cooperation between municipalities – such as the Pays de Grasse for the towns that surround the famous perfume city, the wider Communauté d'Agglomération de Sophia Antipolis that tracks back from Antibes to the technology hub and beyond or the Métropole Nice Côte d'Azur. At the start of 2017, 15 communes* in the east of the Alpes-Maritimes came together as Menton, Riviera & Merveilles.

“Menton is, of course, the motor of the machine,” says Pierre Dabout, the general director of the Menton, Riviera & Merveilles tourism office. “It’s the biggest of all the communes with around 30,000 inhabitants (compared to a combined 42,000 in the other towns) and by far the strongest tourism industry.” According to 2017 statistics, Brits represent 16% of hotel guests in the city, coming second only to the French in terms of numbers (59%). In third place are the Italians, followed by German tourists and then Americans. “Anglophones in particular have close ties with Menton,” he says, “and our special micro-climate that first attracted European ‘high society’ here over a century ago continues to be a draw.”

Perhaps the most touted fact about Menton is its unusually old population: more centenarians live here than anywhere else in France.“Our city is calmer and in many ways offers more serenity than the other large cities on the Côte d’Azur,” Dabout continues. “After Nice, Cannes and Antibes, Menton is often viewed as the fourth city of the French Riviera and I would say that the tourists who come here have a special affinity with the place. They haven’t ended up in Menton par hasard...”

He describes the Menton, Riviera & Merveilles target audience as a ‘niche clientele’, arguing that rather than aim to attract masses of people to the area purely in the name of profit, he wants to establish the public image of a destination de qualité. “We hold all the cards in our hands. No matter how long they have been coming here, there is a great number of tourists who still don’t know about the beauty and diversity of our mountain communes, says the tourism director, who moved to Menton in July last year from a post as Directeur de l’Agence de Développement Touristique his native Alpes de Haute-Provence. “We want to make discovering these amazing places much easier for them.” 

Saorge in the Roya Valley © D.R.

But with barely a thousand people living in some of the towns, such as Gorbio and Sainte Agnès, are these rural resorts even equipped to welcome more visitors? “We do have to look at the hospitality sector,” admits Dabout. “For example, there are no luxury five-star hotels in our mountains (although two new projects are underway on the coast: a new site in Menton and the redevelopment of Vista Palace in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin) and even camp sites are few and far between. The biggest hotel is a three-star in Castérino to the west of Tende.”

Getting people into the mountains should, at least, be easier now. After several months of works on the Train des Merveilles track, the rail link will fully reopen this summer. The train departs from Nice and travels via villages including Peille and L'Escarène before reaching the Menton, Riviera & Merveilles ‘border’ at Sospel. From there, the route continues north through stunning valleys and along cliff edges to Tende. Connections are also available on the Ventimiglia-Cuneo line.“We need to establish better links between mer et montagne,” says Dabout, “so that our visitors can better experience the region. The coast and our beaches are always going to be popular, but why not also the Vallée des Merveilles and provincial towns?”

Each of the municipalities involved in the new communauté d'agglomération is very different, but Dabout is keen to point out their shared history and similarities. “There is the Genoese-Grimaldi link, a part of the region’s heritage that gave rise to the many fortifications of the area,” he explains of former rulers and kingdoms in the east of the Alpes-Maritimes. “The Baroque era has also had a marked impact on its architecture and culture; there are some beautiful sites to be discovered. Sport is a common theme too with a whole range of activities – canyoning in Breil-sur-Roya, which has some of the best canyons in the Europe, cycling, hiking... And we can’t forget agriculture! People have been growing lemons and olives, for example, for thousands of years in these lands and we continue to celebrate these products today with events such as the famous Fête du Citron in Menton. Finally there are the many incredible gardens that will inspire botanists and the average visitor alike, from the Maria Serena, Val Rahmeh and Fontana Rosa on the coast to the magnificent Monastère de Saorge in the north.”

The trophée d'August in La Turbie © D.R.The area has within it numerous important historical sites, such as the Trophée d'Auguste in La Turbie that was built in 6BC to celebrate Roman Emperor Augustus’ victory over the Alpine tribes. Two UNESCO applications have been submitted for the region: one for the historically and geologically important Vallée des Merveilles and another (accepted to the World Heritage List) for Le Corbusier’s Cabanon in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Other ongoing projects include the building of eco-friendly hikers’ refuges in the Castérino area and the development of electric-powered 4X4 excursions.

Considering the complex refugee crisis on the Franco-Italian border, Menton has done well to protect its positive image in the press.“Despite what the newspapers say about people crossing over into Menton, we’ve been no more affected than any of France’s other cities,” says Dabout. “Tourism is up and we are feeling very positive about the future as the new entity. Physically there have been almost no changes – we still have the same people in the same towns in the same roles – but what’s different is the way we function and the way we think about promoting tourism in this area. The creation of Menton, Riviera & Merveilles aimed to unite our strengths – be it in action sports, history or, in the case of Menton, great beaches and city life – and to bring the communes closer together. There shouldn’t be any fears about sites losing their unique identities: these are what we want to protect, promote and enhance.”

*Menton (headquarters), Beausoleil, Breil-sur-Roya, La Brigue, Casterllar, Castillon, Fontan, Gorbio, Moulinet, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Sainte-Agnès, Saorge, Sospel, Tende & La Turbie