The people of Nice have been celebrating in February for centuries, making this one of the oldest carnivals in the world. The earliest recorded reference to these festivities dates back to 1294 when the Count of Provence is said to have « spent the joyous days of carnival » in Nice which, at that time, would have included balls, masked parades, dancing, juggling shows and mimes.
It is, however, unlikely that the niçois waited for him to start partying ; the event is actually of pagan origins and was simply tamed and claimed by the Catholic church during medieval times.
Disapproving of the masks and merriment, the Church tried (but failed) to prevent the people of Nice from participating in these frivolities. So, feeling a little disarmed, in XVII Century they introduced an ecclesiastical law forbidding priests from « dancing ; watching others dance ; growing their beard ; wearing red or green shoes ; walking the streets at night ; wearing a mask, playing music or singing in the streets ». What party poopers !
The name Carnival comes from « Carne Levare » which can be translated as « Flesh off » in reference to a celebration period full of festivities and binging leading up to Mardi Gras « Fat Tuesday », the beginning of 40 long days of fasting during Lent.
During the Belle Époque, late 19th early 20th century, Carnaval de Nice became one of the world’s biggest carnival event. At that time, the newly installed railway had kicked off the metamorphosis of the French Riviera from a poor and rural farming region to the most popular winter holiday retreat for British & Russian high society. The niçois people adapted their carnival traditions to suit the new VIP visitors they were entertaining. Out with the egg, flour and chickpea throwing, replaced by confetti and flower throwing from carnival floats during elaborate parades called « Batailles des Fleurs ».
Since the creation of the official carnival committee in 1873, the festivities, floats and costumes have been improved year on year. Each carnival King is given a name which sets the general theme of the event. In past years we’ve seen the King of Sport, King of Music, King of Europe and King of the Med, to mention but a few. On the first day of Carnival the papier maché King takes centre stage in Place Massena until Mardi Gras when he is paraded along the Promenade des Anglais before being burned on a bonfire during the grand finale fireworks display.
Nowadays, Nice welcomes around 200,000 people for Carnival each year, so it looks set to be around for centuries to come.
Some facts for you…
- In 1914, 1939 & 1991 Carnival King was christened King of Madness and, strangely, all three events were cancelled at the last minute due to war (or the threat of).
- Around 100,000 flowers are thrown each year during the « Batailles des Fleurs ». 90% of the flowers are grown locally and it takes 40-50 hour to arrange them on each float.
- 18 floats are built for carnival between October – February. Each one weighs 2 tones, a total of 5 tones of paint are required to decorate them and they can reach up to 18m in height.
These beautiful images were borrowed for this article from the following sites: