Nice Carnival is over for another year. The biggest winter event on the French Riviera, attracting around one million visitors over the two week period, left me divided in opinion this time. Having always been an outright supporter, keenly participating every year and loving the satirical, irreverent humour of the “big heads” decorated floats, it just didn’t quite click this year. Read on as I muse on why and how this has come about.
Nice Carnival has 2 separate types of events: the main corso carnavalesque, consisting of parades of the aforementioned satirical “grosses têtes” (big heads) in a theme (this year was King of the Media), and the batailles des fleurs (flower battles). I’ve always chosen to go to the corso carnivalesque, not only because it’s the main focus and the floats are huge, imposing and very clever but because there are sections of the parade which are free. However, the flower battles are never free and this is what gets my goat.
For me the essence of carnival is that it is popular entertainment for the people, for free! Perhaps it’s because the first carnival I ever went to properly (other than a few hours in a squash at Notting Hill many years before) was Trinidad Carnival, where for 3 days I partied hard in the streets, surrounded by all walks of life, mingling with the bands, performers and entertainers, free to go wherever I liked, not held back by barriers. I have no idea if it’s still like that in Trinidad (oh I hope so), I know the world has changed and security measures have to be in place but my experience there set the standard, and it set it very high. Nice Carnival is very different and as I said earlier I used to love it, until this year I always managed to find a spot for free without barriers where it was possible to get up close to the performers and really join in.
This year, having resisted the flower battles for 9 years I thought it was time to find out what they were really like. So I put aside my misgivings and paid the 11€ entry fee for a standing ticket (it’s 25€ for a seat in the tribunes). France is still under a State of Emergency as a result of the terror attacks in Paris last year, which meant massively heightened security, including bag searches and body pat downs on entry. This obviously set a rather different tone from previous years though I understood the need for it and I guess it was reassuring to see the enormous police and army presence (urgh what times we live in….) Even the parade was scaled down with fewer floats and bomb checks before setting off.
Not anticipating the queues to get in (caused by bag and body searches) we only just arrived in time for the start which of course didn’t bode well for finding a good viewing spot…particularly as we were not only fenced in by solid black metal fences – no peeping if you haven’t coughed up your money, but held back by barriers. And they were 4 people deep. My fault entirely for not expecting this and getting there early but I must say I was fed up at not being able to mingle or even see the length of the parade. It didn’t make for good photography, these photos are the best we (JF too) could do.
The premise behind the flower battle is that the floats are decorated with flowers, loosely following the theme of the main carnival (this year media hence pictures of magazines and news kiosks). There is a queen (above) and each float has its followers made up of dancers, acrobats, giant machines, balloons and guests from other countries. This year there were troops from Korea, Montenegro, Italy and Brazil amongst others.
The first bataille des fleurs took place in 1876 as a way of boosting local horticultural production and entertaining winter visitors at the same time. Floats are decorated with roses, lilies, tulips, gladioli, strelitzias, gerberas and mimosa, nearly all of which are still grown locally especially for carnival. Each float uses about 4000 flowers and takes 3 days to put together. This year 5 tonnes of mimosa were used!
The reason it’s called a “battle” is because flowers are thrown out at the crowd as the parade goes around. Everyone scrambles to catch a bunch or two and at the end the floats are stripped bare with all flowers hurled into the spectators to fight over. Now this leads me to another little problem I have with the flower battles part of carnival. While they are undoubtedly pretty (and unique) I can’t help thinking about the environmental impact of growing all these flowers in glass houses to be ready for mid February. I’m sure they’re not organically grown either. The mimosa is naturally in bloom at this time of year and doesn’t worry me as much, but without getting all bah humbug about it, it doesn’t sit easily in my conscience. Perhaps I’m wrong, I haven’t done any research. Growing the flowers and carnival in general are both defintely good for the local economy which is obviously a positive thing and the parades give people pleasure so I’m not anti, just musing….
To finish on a positive note, what I always love about carnival in Nice is the colour. February can be a dreary month and there’s nothing like a riot of colour to lift the spirits. Living nearby I only go if the weather is good (which it mainly is) and the decorated floats, the costumes, flowers, confetti, streamers and balloons against the bright blue sky are most definitely a wonderful tonic for the winter blues. This is February folks – in EUROPE not Brazil or the Caribbean! Look at the costumes, the women in bikinis aren’t frozen (though I personally wouldn’t ike to be wearing so little…it’s not that hot!)
To get back to my original gripe about paying for carnival. I guess if you just take this at face value (and without comparison) as a fun parade with great costumes, loud music and a party atmosphere (that you can only watch not join in, sorry I couldn’t help myself) then the batailles des fleurs at Nice Carnival are fabulous events. I’m glad I’ve been to a flower battle as it is very much part of the Nice experience but next year I’ll definitely be back at the main parades with those humourous grosses têtes (in the hope that there’s still a free section!)
So what do you think about carnival? Should it be free for all? Is it free in other parts of the world? Please do let me know. I’ll leave you with more photos of the day and if you want to see even bluer skies (this year there were a few high clouds!) and those famous “big heads” pop over to some of the other articles I’ve written about carnival. Nice Carnival – a photo essay and Nice Carnival, a colourful tonic for the winter blues.
By the way, the rusting metal in many of the photos (as seen below) is not scaffolding or part of a bridge, it’s a controversial sculpture by Bernar Venet entitled 9 oblique lines. I like it, many don’t. It’s large (30 metres high) and completely out of keeping with its surroundings on the Quai des Etats Unis (seafront) in Nice.
And finally, one last shot….a picture of our haul of mimosa at the end of the show when the sun had gone behind the clouds and coats had gone back on.
You may be interested in this related post about another carnival on the Côte d’Azur: Menton’s Lemon Festival
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We’ve just been to the bataille des fleurs in Vence which was fun and on a much smaller scale. Perhaps next year I’ll try to get to Antibes.
Thank you Kara, I’m glad you agree with me.
Crowds are a hazzard of any event like this; the festival wouldn’t really be the same without! But do try and get to a carnival one year Liene, they are all different and definitely worth experiencing at least once.
I agree, it should be about choice. I have no problem with people paying to sit in the tribunes if that’s what they want, it’s more that there isn’t anywhere free at all any more and that is, to me, not in the spirit of carnival. This year 5 tonnes of mimosa alone was used, so the answer to your question is A LOT!
It is fun Sara, though it can get a little ugly when people fight over the flowers!
Beautiful photos! There are so many flowers – so bright and pretty, but I see your point. It does seem like a waste, and an environmental strain to produce all these plants to be enjoyed for a fleeting moment. I appreciate that you raised the question, because I wouldn’t be inclined to think about the impact of the event in that light. I don’t particularly like crowds, but I suck it up to participate in festivities – though I wouldn’t enjoy being jostled around as everyone tries to catch flowers. Other than that, it looks like a really fun way to break up winter!
This is an event I would attend without a doubt. The floats and decorations are so intricate! I wonder how many flowers are used in here. As for your question, I think it can be answered in many ways. In my case, I am more of an observer. I will be ok sitting and watching a parade or floats. However, I think there should be space for the part of the public who wants to join the celebrations. Seems like that is the idea behind a carnival. In Puerto Rico, the most popular carnivals are free and people can walk next to the actors and/or performers. I think the essence would be lost if people are restrained to a space (but those who want to remain in an area are free to do so).
Oh what fun. Loved the post. Loved the pictures. I appreciate the idea of flower gathering, but I can see how it might become aggressive.
I’ve never been to a carnival, free or otherwise, but seeing these pictures I think it’s something I would like to do, at least once. What fantastic colors, definitely breaking up the monotony of winter! However, the issues that you mentioned – the crowds, the environmental impact – might keep me from a repeat visit.
We don’t have carnivals like this where we live and I think they are missing a trick as its a massive tourists attraction. It looks amazing and I would love to experience it one day but not sure I want to pay for it. Carnivals should be free
Some great photos Phoebe! I love Carnival time here though I also despise paying as I feel it is actually a great family-friendly event and not everyone has the funds to always pay out for theme parks, school holiday programmes etc – why not make the entire festival free as the atmosphere is always great? I usually go to the smaller Bataille des Fleurs in Antibes or the satellite towns, still lots of fun but you do need to be quick to get the flowers – some people are so aggressive! I’ve never considered the impact of the flower production leading up to Carnival, something else to think about…
Paying to sit in the tribunes is acceptable I think…but there should always be free areas too. I prefer mimosa on the trees too Lisa!
It was a shame you didn’t make it this year…next year hopefully? Then I can join you as you become a flower-throwing anarchist !
Paying to have seats is fair enough as long as there are free areas. Please do come next year Catherine and we’ll battle the flowers together!
I don’t think you’re being naive assuming carnival should be free…..it really should! You’re right about at least the flowers are local and not flown in from Kenya or elsewhere and it is good for the local economy which is why I’m so torn over the issue.
I’m pleased you agree with me on the paying issue Kerri.
Exactly! Imagine if Macy’s parade was a ticketed paying event…it’s just not right! I hope you get here next year Jen.
The main parade is heading towards having no free access left…. I’m glad you enjoyed my post though, tough having to “report” on these events!!!
The old ladies tend to be the most aggressive I find! The most unlikely but definitely not timid! Shame you went in bad weather, living so close by I simply don’t go if it’s not sunny!!!
Thanks Ema 🙂
I know tons of flowers are grown for valentine’s day etc but they don’t just get thrown away. I guess you have a valid point though and it makes it seem more acceptable.
The flower battle has always been a paid event, so it can’t be justified as funding the extra security. It’s just a funny attitude I think. However, if you get over that then yes it is a fun event!! (And one of the biggest in Europe and the oldest in the world according to some sources!)
You really don’t like big events do you Jacqui? I’ve come to realise that as I’ve got to “know” you!
Yes I guess that’s one positive way of looking at it Emily….
Exactly Linda, carnival should be FREE!!
This is the first time I’ve heard of charging admission for Carnival. We lived in Panama and never had to pay for the public concerts, parades, fireworks and so forth. I love the flower battle idea, but I’m not sure it’s worth paying for when it’s free to celebrate elsewhere.
Beautiful pictures! And it is lovely that it could take place when so many other big events have been cancelled in the last few months.
Looks fabulous, but way too crowded for me.
I’m betting that some of the entrance fee had to go to pay for security, increased insurance costs etc. As you say it’s a sad reflection of the times but perhaps it’s the only way it could go ahead. Your photos are great though and a good advert for the carnival (which I’d never heard of before). #AllaboutFrance
I had no idea there even was a carnival like this in Nice! I love the first pictured costume. I don’t know how I feel about the environmental impact. You’re right; but the same could be said for Valentines Day, or mother’s day or here in France, Grandmother’s day. I suppose I would rather waste energy growing flowers than wasting energy doing some of the other things we humans do.
wow! Those pictures are stunning. Looks well worth a visit. So much of France still to explore…
LOL! Lots of aggressive flower gatherers were present when I was there, but then I guess the point is to gather the most flowers out of everyone… It should be free, I agree. And I, however, didn’t benefit from those glorious blue skies but rain and drizzle and more rain. Plus, it being the last day (I should have taken in your previous advious to attend earlier in the season), the evening parade floats were covered in that icky silly string stuff. Will try again next year, but I definitely prefered the atmosphere of the evening “light” (actually few lights in my opinion) parade over the flower parade.
I see what you’re saying about the environmental issue at hand. I feel like a lot of “spectacles” and festivals are mostly just a punch for the local economy – so where is the balance between what’s good for the world and what’s good for the wallet?? I hate paying for stuff, too. I’ve never really done the carnival party, but this year in Germany it was a big deal for one day. All of it was free; in the morning, the stores were even handing out free alcohol to customers! I hope your main parade stays free and accessible, and thanks for at least paying to go once to the flower battles for our reading benefit! 🙂
Wow – beautiful! Your pictures are stunning. I think I will need to venture your way some February break to attend Carnival as I hear Nice’s carnival is one of the best in France!! Bordeaux does a small parade – not too back but definitely not to the level of Nice’s! I unfortunately missed Bordeaux’s parade this year – but I’ve enjoyed it in the past and yes – It’s FREE – crowded but Free. I agree with you – we pay enough taxes and they could also use corporate sponsors so why do people need to pay? In the States, things like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are free to watch – along with most citywide festivals. Rant over! Beautiful post and I look forward to enjoying it at some point!
What an incredible parade. I’ve been to Nice several times but not at this time of year so have never seen this. Looks amazing. I would think that something like this in a public space should definitely be free. Such a shame that the world we live in now brings with it such a need for security but I would still prefer that than the alternative. I guess we all just have to make extra time allowances now 🙂
You know Margo I think the true Niçois are fed up that it’s become so commercial, it used to have much more scope for free viewing.
You really managed to get some great photos – even from your limited vantage point.
I think a lot of people feel the same as you do about the carnival. It just doesn’t seem right to have to pay to watch a parade. But maybe that is just from the viewpoint of those who have experienced carnivals and street parties somewhere else… Maybe you have to be a true Niçoise to appreciate it. 🙂
First things first – you’ve got some FABULOUS photos there (well done that man) and the parade looks fantastic and, as you say, absolutely perfect for banishing the winter blues. But, I am so with you on the environmental impact of of producing that many flowers out of season which must use huge amounts of heat, water and chemicals. I suppose that may be better than importing them from Africa or South America, where so many florist flowers come from and whose production is far from organic as well as adding air miles into the equation but ….
As for charging I would never have thought that street carnivals would charge. I thought there might be a few stands where you could pay for a better view if you wanted to but I just naively assumed all carnivals would be free. I suppose those flowers have to be paid for somehow. I have just checked Brixton Carnival and that is free as is our very own Normandy Carnival in Granville.
Very interesting food for thought although on absolute face value I have to say I would love to go to any of the Nice Carnivals as they do look stunning.
Yes you have given us something to think about. I have never been to a carnival and I probably would not like the crowds. I’m sure I would like somewhere to sit and if this ment paying well so be it . I would love to see the flowers so next year perhaps I should book into Lou Mesugo and come and see the flower parade. I could perhaps have some of your mimosa (wattle) and not have to fight to get some. Great photos. It does look amazing.
Hmmm. Looks fabulous and I love the idea of throwing flowers around. I think it is the anarchist in me – I also loved the incongruity of firing ‘flaming balls’ into the crowd during Tet in Vietnam. Hoping that noone lost an eye. As an Event Manager of course I wouldn’t condone it! Also as an event manager I watch the rugby games in Paris and the massive police and army presence. My first thought is about how much all this costs (! – clearly got an odd focus). So I’m pretty sure the ticket fees in Nice would be contributing to rubbish collection, security etc. It is a difficult balance. Sorry I couldn’t make it down here to see it first hand.
You managed some lovely photos Phoebe – in spite of the barriers! I didn’t go this year so it was good to see them. As for whether we should pay or not – when I did go a couple of years ago, we paid to sit in the tribune – I don’t know. I must admit to never having been to a carnival before Nice and so “to pay” seemed the natural thing! Where does the money go? Do the participants get it to help with the amazing costumes and flowers or is all that provided by the City [ie the local taxpayers?] I so admire the people who put so much time, love and energy into creating the spectacle for us all. Or does the money go to the City to pay for the police, tribunes, stewards etc etc. Either way I guess it’s a reflection of the times and neither individuals nor local authorities feel they have sufficient resources – and all our priorities differ! As for growing the flowers, wow, I’d never thought of that! What I would say is the battle of the flowers can bring out the worst in some people. I witnessed very aggressive “flower gatherers” with arms full of blooms whilst others [including myself] who weren’t prepared to push and shove, went away with none! I absolutely adore mimosa – but prefer it on the tree to be honest! Thanks Phoebe, you’ve given me something to think about!