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, irreverant 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 3 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), the batailles des fleurs (flower battles) and since 2015 Lou Queernaval (gay carnival). 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. Last year I also went to the first ever Lou Queernaval which was also free (I don’t know if it was this year), but 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.
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You may be interested in this related post about another carnival on the Côte d’Azur: Menton’s Lemon Festival