On the 1st of May and then every Sunday throughout the month of May, Nice celebrates the arrival of spring at la fête des Mai. This popular May festival in Nice is all about local culture and language.
Origins of the Fête des Mai
The origins of this fête date back to Roman times. A large pine tree, called a mai, was cut down in a nearby forest and displayed in a temple. It was decorated with garlands of flowers and laurel leaves. Over the centuries the celebrations evolved to include dancing around the mai placed in symbolic locations in the old town of Nice.
These days the fête des Mai takes place amongst the beautiful ancient olive trees in the garden of the Cimiez Arena, itself built on the ruins of the Roman city of Céménelum, in a sense bringing the festival back to its roots. It involves plenty of eating, drinking, songs, traditional music, folk dancing and local cuisine.
Fête des Mai – a family event
The fête des Mai is very much a family affair, with big groups of friends and families picnicking together and feasting on local specialities, such as socca (photo below), pan bagnat, pissaladière and tourte aux blettes. There are stands throughout the park selling these delicious Niçois treats.
Being a family-oriented festival, the fête des Mai has plenty of fun attractions for children. There are puppet shows, a play park with traditional rides from bygone times (Parc Belle Epoque), a carousel, workshops and a bouncy castle. Over the month the programme changes with different shows each Sunday, but there’s sure to be something fun for the kids to enjoy.
Local language and traditions
You’ll also see people playing traditional Niçois games which can get very animated. When we visited, JF and I were surprised to discover we couldn’t understand a thing as the players were speaking in the local dialect Nissart. It’s wonderful that this ancient language is still kept alive and it’s great to listen to!
Shows, concerts and demonstrations take place throughout the day on the Oliveraie Stage (scène de l’Oliveraie) and Little Stage (petit scène) and you’ll find parades and wandering entertainers in the olive grove.
In the gardens there are places to play boules and another traditional Niçois game called pilou, which is a sort of juggling game played with your feet. But possibly the most charming, and certainly picturesque, event at the fête des Mai is the folk dancing in gorgeous Provençal costumes.
Something to take home
Dotted among the olive trees and stands of food and drink there are of course souvenir stalls selling local crafts. We found items made from and inspired by the famous galets (pebbles) from the Nice beaches and t-shirts with Nissart slogans and humour, not something readily available elsewhere.
La fête des Mai is free to enter (though the Parc Belle Epoque charges for rides). Note that glass bottles and sharp knives are not allowed (even if you are bringing a picnic).
It is open from 10 am to 7 pm in Cimiez oliveraie, next to the Roman ruins (les arènes).
Parking can be difficult as it’s very popular so I recommend going early and/or taking the bus n°15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 25 stop Arènes de Cimiez and Monastère.
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