Sunday, March 3, 2013

Vive le Carnaval de Nice


When most Americans hear the term Mardi Gras, they think of the wild partying that goes on in New Orleans on the day before Ash Wednesday. However, Mardi Gras is part of a season of partying that takes place in the Crescent City, and it’s just as popular in other parts of the world. The festival dates back to the thirteenth century in Nice, France, which is considered one of the first cities to hold the event.

If you’re looking for a fun winter getaway in a mild climate, Carnaval season is an excellent time to visit the South of France. It usually runs from late February to early March, when temperatures are in the upper 50s to low 60s, and the sun is generally shining. While the price of lodging is higher than the rest of winter, it’s still cheaper than the summer months. In addition, flights are much cheaper, and other than Carnaval events, crowds are significantly thinner. While the temperature is not quite high enough for sunbathing, it’s still nice enough to enjoy a stroll or a bike ride on the Promendae des Anglais, the pedestrian area that runs along the sea. You can also relax with a picnic on the beach or a drink at one of the beachfront cafés.

Performers at the Bataille de Fleurs
The Carnaval experience
Carnaval is fun for both adults and kids. The festival starts off with opening ceremonies on a Friday night at Place Masséna, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. People come from miles around to enjoy the circus performers, music, dancing, fireworks and super-charged atmosphere. Throughout Carnaval, visitors can attend daily events until the closing ceremony, including the nighttime parades called the Carnavalesque Illuminés or the daytime Batailles de Fleurs, which are best described as a scaled-back version of the American Rose Parade.

Carnaval traditions
While Carnaval in Nice and Mardi Gras in New Orleans are held for the same reasons, the traditions are a bit different. 
Mardi Gras mask
  • You won’t find women exposing themselves for beads in Nice, but everyone in the crowd will try to catch the flowers thrown from the floats during the Bataille de Fleurs.
  • On Mardi Gras, New Orleanians enjoy king cake, but in France, this treat is served on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Pancakes are common for dinner in both cities, but in Nice, where they are known as crêpes, they are flat and stuffed with meat and vegetables. Dessert crêpes are sweet and covered with a variety of toppings, including fruit, jelly, Nutella or powdered sugar. Fried dough, similar to the beignets found in New Orleans are another Mardi Gras treat sold in all the bakeries in Nice.
  • Whether you are in new Orleans, Nice or any other city that celebrates Mardi Gras season, you will find the famous Mardi Gras masks and fun-loving people dressed in crazy costumes.
  • In addition to throwing confetti, spraying silly string at other Carnaval-goers is a popular tradition in Nice. Since there are vendors selling cans on almost every corner, it’s easy to join in the fun.
More interesting Carnaval facts
  • At least 75 percent of the plants and flowers that cover the floats that participate in the daily Bataille de Fleurs parades in Nice are grown in the region. The floats cover the parade route several times until the people aboard them have tossed all of the flowers to the crowd.
  • Most of the parade participants are circus and carnival performers who come from other parts of Europe and the rest of the world.
  • Carnaval attracts more than a million visitors every year.
  • Many neighborhoods throughout the city throw their own traditional celebrations throughout Carnaval season. Schedules are available throughout the city.
Bataille de Fleurs, Villefranche

If you're going to Carnaval, you can also enjoy some nearby festivals that take place at the same time:

  • The Lemon Festival, which celebrates the special lemons grown in the area, takes place in Menton, a lovely city about 30 minutes from Nice by train. 
  • Villefranche sur Mer, a stunning seaside village five minutes by train from  Nice, has a one-day Bataile de Fleurs that takes pace on the waterfront. Ask for the date at the tourist office. 

Ready to go?
Carnaval season ends this year on March 6, but it takes place every year, so you can start panning for next year. The Nice Convention and Visitors Bureau has produced a website with plenty of information on this year’s Carnaval, and it should be updated for 2014 in a few months.

If you're looking for lodging, be sure to read my previous post on renting an apartment.


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