MENTON: DAY 3
In a nutshell, Menton was unforgettable because the highlight of that trip was narrowly escaping a robbery attempt by seeking refuge in a cemetery. I’ll get to that later.
So, it didn’t matter that we were still sleep-deprived from that 14-hour plane ride from Malaysia to Paris. When my alarm sliced through the silence at 3AM two days later, Gloria and I slowly and agonizingly dragged ourselves out of bed so we wouldn’t miss our flight to Nice, where we would then grab a bus to Menton (pronounced Men-toe).
After hugging Cyril goodbye and thanking him for his generous hospitality, we climbed into the cab and was at the Charles De Gaulle airport in about a half hour.
The sky was still a deep shade of purplish-blue when we boarded the plane out of Paris. It wasn’t even 6AM.
Menton is also known as the “Pearl of France” and sits on the border of France and Italy. We chose to spend a night there because Google Images of the town proved that it was colorful and interesting enough.
That entire morning, I’d felt like a cow lugging through the narrow aisle of the easyJet plane with my bulky backpack in tow. It didn’t help that I had clipped my bright pink donut pillow in front, and I could’ve sworn several passengers’ faces got lightly smacked as I tried squeezing into my seat on the plane. Upon exiting the plane, my backpack got stuck and I literally had to shimmy my way forth with the help of a quick push from the gentleman behind me. I exited the plane shamefully, unable to ignore the slew of passengers who were breezing past with their shiny suitcases and stylish duffel bags.
While standing in line for bus tickets, my veil of shame lifted when I spotted this man in front of me. Suddenly it became a silent competition of whose backpack was bigger, and I was glad that mine looked tiny in comparison. Instantly, I stopped feeling so bad for myself.
We got on the bus and relaxed as it pulled out of the station and onto the highway. Gone were the elegant Parisian architecture. Instead, in its place were beautiful hills and valleys that rolled past our window as we delved deeper and deeper into the heart of Nice. Soon, we were passing through famous towns like Monte Carlo and Monaco. Brightly colored shops and houses were situated on our left and right that I felt as though we had just casually rolled right into a movie set. It was amazing how the bus driver navigated through the narrow cobbled streets. And then the most interesting thing happened: the buildings disappeared and gave way to an unforgettable scene — the most splendid view in all of France.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as I shamelessly snapped away with my iPhone. We were on the border of a hill, rumbling on the rocky path without a railing. I could see the water beneath us — it stretched beautifully across the horizon in a brilliant shade of blue, twinkling in the face of the late morning sun.
I thought scenes like that only existed in postcards.
When we finally pulled into Menton, we thanked the kind bus driver and got off, instantly sensing a shift in atmosphere. Menton might as well have been a different country. It didn’t feel like autumn; it felt like the middle of summer. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to peel off my jeans and denim-pleather jacket and get into shorts and a sleeveless top.
We knew this wasn’t Paris anymore — half the people in this town didn’t speak any English, and unlike the broad racial diversity in Paris, Menton was quite a different story.
As far as we could tell, we were the only Asians there. Everyone else was Caucasian, which wasn’t that big of a surprise. But boy, were they surprised to see us! Some pointed, some stared. Let’s just say I felt anything but invisible.
We managed to track down our accommodation, Hotel Belgique, which was a brief 10-minute walk from where the bus had dropped us off. We parked our bags there, freshened up and were out of there in under 20 minutes.
Over the next hour, we checked out the local shops and the morning market.
We explored most of Menton by foot. We could’ve easily covered the whole town in three hours, but because we stopped so many times to snap photos, three hours stretched into six.
The residential area was a big, colorful mess. We walked through paved narrow alleys, past hundreds of front doors that led to tiny apartments. An old painter was working in his art shop when he saw us walking past, and he called out to offer us two bottles of beer at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We declined and continued walking.
A very important thing I learned about traveling in foreign places: if you don’t have a good vibe about someone, don’t be friendly.
We found the Basilica St. Michel on top of the hill.
I’d never been into an old church before, so this was quite an experience. The interior was very gloomy (lighting retouched on Lightroom), the only light emanating from the flickering candles around the church, and a monotonous hymn was playing subtly in the background. The artwork was beautiful, though. It is said that this basilica is also known as the rare jewel of baroque art.
After that, we made our way to one of the best lookout points in Menton: the Cimitero del Vecchio Castello aka cemetery.
I know lots of people think cemeteries are beautiful and peaceful, but I’m not one of those people. I only agreed to go because I wanted to take some nice pictures of Menton. While we were walking uphill to the cemetery, we passed a row of houses. It was fairly quiet that afternoon and Gloria and I were the only people on the path, until we spotted three French teenagers sitting on a nearby bench.
“Bonjour!” one of them called out. I looked up, smiled back and continued walking.
And that was when things got a little interesting.
After a few minutes, I heard footsteps behind me. Gloria was at least ten steps ahead, and she was already making her way up the stairs that led to the cemetery. I glanced behind my shoulder and saw that the teenagers were on my tail. The leader of the group was a tall blond girl in a white muscle-tee, flanked by a shorter blond girl and a creepy-eyed boy. Something about his eyes gave me the chills. They were dark and ominous for a young boy like himself. I quickened my pace, and so did they.
I managed to reach Gloria and whisper, “I think we’re being followed.”
She turned around, saw the teenagers who had their eyes pinned on us, and cringed. We both knew that this couldn’t be a coincidence. Why would these kids decide to visit the cemetery on a random Thursday afternoon, just seconds after seeing two female tourists?
Two possible reasons:
1) The cemetery was their casual hang out spot.
OR, the more likely…
2) They wanted to rob us.
Gloria was wearing a small backpack, and I had my DSLR around my neck. Even though they were no older than 18, they could’ve easily outnumbered us and taken us down. The tall girl looked pretty strong.
Unfortunately, the cemetery was dead quiet. No surprise there, but we were expecting at least one or two other live souls in there since it was supposedly a popular tourist spot.
They were advancing up the stairs now, when Gloria said, “Run!”
So we zipped through the cemetery, desperate to disappear. I tried my best to avoid stepping on tombstones, but Gloria wasn’t as lucky. I think she didn’t care. We went deeper into the heart of the cemetery, and finally to our relief, found a small gathering of tourists.
I turned around and the teens reappeared, but they passed us slowly. The boy glared at us. There was nothing they could do with ten other adults around. Defeated, they left.
Gloria and I looked over the wall and true enough, the whole beachy town of Menton sprawled out in a burst of colors. The rocky shores wrapped around a rippling blue sea that was dotted with little white ships.
“That was crazy,” she sighed. “What if we’d been cornered by those kids? It’s a good thing we ran fast.”
“You know what’s crazier?” I grinned. “I think you stepped on someone’s dead grandmother back there…”
Fast forward an hour later, we were exploring the busier streets of the town when we stumbled across a tiny gelato shack. I couldn’t resist trying the Kinder Bueno gelato. It was really sweet and nutty — just the way I liked it.
The warm climate permits the growth of fresh, juicy lemons. Lemon is the pride and joy of this town. The people celebrate their love for lemons by churning it into anything you can think of — lemon-scented bar soap, lemon perfume, lemon gelato, lemon vodka.
Lemon vodka. I took one sip of it and had to refrain from spitting it out. Boy, that was the nastiest alcoholic thing ever. It was horribly bitter, punctuated with a lemonny tang but still a lot less addictive than the average vodka. It was so bad, it could turn a drunk man sober… or drive him into comatose.
I walked in because I was curious, and curiosity killed the cat alright.
That evening, we came back to our little room that was just perfect for two people, threw open our window and breathed a sigh of relief at the view that greeted us. I still couldn’t believe that we were actually here.
When Gloria first proposed the idea of a backpacking trip in May, I laughed it off. But she was persistent, and after months of continuous prayer and discussion, I told her I was in. I was so new to the idea of backpacking. I thought if we planned our journey, prepared enough cash on us and avoided all the sketchy places, we’d be fine.
Well, it was only our third day in Europe but I already had a feeling that backpacking wasn’t going to be as easy as those travel blogs painted it to be. The travelers on those blogs appeared like they breezed from country to country without much trouble at all, which didn’t seem to apply to our situation. As we would soon discover over the next three weeks of our trip, my hunch was right. We were going to be in for a lot more drama… but that also meant a lot of new adventures.
It had been another long day on foot, but we hoped the day’s events would make for an interesting story. I swallowed a lungful of fresh air, picked up my travel journal and started to write.