Every winter the city of Nice, capital of France’s Côte d’Azur, throws a massive party – Carnival! For a few weeks in late February/early March the people of Nice celebrate with gusto, staging lavish parades, ceremonies, and street parties. And it’s not only the denizens of Nice who celebrate – folks from the surrounding region and all over the world flock to Nice for the festivities. Annually a million people join the fun of Carnival in Nice.
History of Carnival in Nice
Carnival celebrations have taken place in Nice since the Middle Ages, originating as feasts before Lent. Inspired by Venice’s Carnival, more formal elements were added to traditional street festivities in the 17th century. In 1873 the Carnival of today was organized, including its large parades with floats and ticketed viewing stands.
Carnival in Nice – the Main Events
Nice’s Carnival centers around three large events:
- The Carnival Parade – this spectacular production features 18 large floats (often as tall as 18m/59ft.), elaborately designed to complement the Carnival’s theme. The huge figures on the floats are usually caricatures, often satirizing celebrities and politicians. Accompanying the floats are costumed locals and whimsical paper mâché “big heads.” There are massive balloon creatures, maneuvered to interact with the spectators, and marching bands/musical troupes who come from all over the globe to join the parade. Finally, there are dancers, acrobats, clowns, and street performers who engage the crowd and keep the energy high.
- At night, the grand production becomes the Parade of Lights. The towering floats are illuminated and the Place de Massena is ablaze with light, color and music.
- Bataille de fleurs (Flower Parade) – this parade is a celebration of the Riviera’s tradition of florals (nearby Graz is renowned for perfume production). Along with the large balloons, bands, and street performers are bountiful multi-level floats covered in fresh flowers. Costumed Nicoise maidens ride atop the floats, tossing bunches of mimosa to the eager crowd. When their supply runs out, they begin picking the flowers from their floats, which are bare by the end of the parade. Happy parade-goers leave the stands with armfuls of fresh bouquets.
The community joyfully joins the fun. Much like the U.S.’s Halloween, children wear costumes, masquerading as knights, princesses, pirates, animals, super heroes, and clowns. Relishing the occasion to cut loose, many adults don elaborate costumes as well. Around the parade routes vendors sell goofy hats, bags of confetti, and “les bombe” (aka silly string). Kids (young and old) pelt everyone with confetti and fire their cans of silly sting at the parade floats, performers, and enmesh each other in sticky, colorful webs.
NOTE: Due to issues of security, the traditional parade route along Promenade des Anglais will no longer be used. All events are now staged in the Place Massena and the Promenade Paillon. Click here for a map of the route.
Other Nice Carnival Events
Carnival is kicked off on a Friday evening when King Carnival and his Queen (huge paper mâché figures designed to complement the year’s theme) make their entrance on the Promenade des Anglais. Along with their court of smaller figures, they lead the Carnival Parades and Parade of Lights.
The annual Queen of Nice Carnival is elected by online votes. Each mademoiselle has an online profile and video on www.nicecarnaval.com. Last year, 21,000 cyber votes were cast from 113 countries (you can cast your vote as well). The reigning Queen and her two heirs are announced in February.
Nice’s districts and neighborhoods stage their own celebrations, including street parties, parades, and plenty of great food. Check with the Tourist Office for locations and schedules.
Carnival is brought to a close when the Carnival King is burned in a bonfire by the sea, accompanied by a musical fireworks show.
Nice’s 2017 Carnival will take place February 11 – 25, and it’s theme will be “King of Energy,” (so expect some exciting performances). For more information, see the Nice Carnaval website or the Nice Tourism site. Stay informed by following the Carnival Facebook page and via Twitter.
Thanks to Isabelle Billey-Quere and the staff at Nice Tourisme for their help and hospitality.
Have you experienced Carnival in Nice? Which event did you find most memorable? Tell us in the comments below.