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 is all about the culture and language of Nice.

folk dancing at fête des mai in Nice

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.

dancing around the mai in 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.

olive grove with picnickers at fête des Mai in Nice

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.

socca at fête des Mai in Nice

Being a family-oriented festival, the fête des Mais 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.

entry sign at traditional children's park belle époque

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!

traditional Nissart game being palyed in Nice

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.

crowds watching a stage at fête des Mai in nice

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.

traditional folk dancing

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.

art made with galets from Nice

stall selling t-shirts with Nissart art and slogans

Useful information

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 and this year in 2022 takes place on 1 May, 8 May, 15 May and 22 May 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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maypole folk dancing in Nice

 

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