A Carnivalesque Time in Nice
Thursday I headed back down to Nice for one primary reason: the annual Carnaval de Nice. I’ve witnessed the carnival in Nice many, many times, but it never gets old. Last year there was no carnival. The year before I arrived in Nice just when the parades were cancelled. Now, it’s back in business and in a big way.
Every year the theme is different and from what I’ve witnessed, the quality of the floats and “Grosses Têtes” improve year after year. This year’s theme is “Roi des Animaux” (King of Beasts).
When not rolling down the route, the king and queen of Carnaval sit poised on either side of the Fontaine du Soleil in Place Masséna looking very regal indeed. These floats, 18 in all, are serious works of art. “La Reine” looked as if she was holding up the full moon from a particular angle. The detail on the floats is impressive. Their themes or messages are satirical, very keeping with the culture.
The 2.5 week carnival ranks way up there with Mardi Gras, Brazil and Venice, as it attracts more than one million visitors every year. It’s much older than we can even imagine—going back to 1294 when the Count of Provence, Charles Anjou, wrote that he had passed “the joyous days of carnival.” This means it likely could have been the first in the world.
In 1873, Andriot Saëtone from Nice took the initiative to found the “Festival Committee” which, under the patronage of the municipality, was responsible for organizing and expanding the festivities. Processions of floats, illustrators, paying stands and a structured staging appeared. Thus, the modern carnival was born, to which Alexis Mossa and his son Gustave Adolf brought, until 1971, an astonishing particularism, topicality, grotesque and fabulous, realizing the models of the most spectacular floats that have paraded in Nice. Three years later, the Batailles de Fleurs was created. Originally, simple exchanges of flowers became the poetic and elegant side of the carnival and the showcase of a local production.
On February 14, 1882, His Majesty “Triboulet” (a bouffon/court jester de Louis XII et François 1st) made a triumphant entry into the city as a modest straw and rag puppet having participated for the first time in the procession, enthroned on the “Char Royal.” The first and second world wars prevented the Nice carnival from reigning for several years. In 1991, the carnival was supposed to be “King of Fools,” but the Gulf War forced it to be given up as well. In 2019, 204,000 spectators had attended the night parade (Corso Carnavalesque Illuminé), including 157,000 paying visitors. This year, 85,000 paying spectators were expected—a sharp decline related to the health crisis. Thanks to the lifting of some of the restrictions, they increased the capacity in the stands to accommodate 12,000 people.
My friend from Provence, Barb, and I chose to see the night parade (Corso Carnavalesque Illuminé) from the bleachers and that was well worth the price of admission (28€). In fact, it gave me a whole new perspective. Our seats were dead center facing the Ferris Wheel, so the scene was beautiful. We arrived very early to avoid the long lines of checking our “Passe Sanitaire” and then going through a security check.
Along the way to the seats, the “BAT” were practicing on the space that is normally the fountain on the Promenade de Paillon. The BAT, or Brigade d’Agitateurs de Tribune, created for the event, is a troupe of 60 dancers, acrobats, circus artists, in charge of the animation of the processions. It was like a pre-show show. We immediately fell in love with the energy of the group who were clearly having loads of fun in their illuminated costumes. This seemed to be the costume à la mode this year—costumes illuminated with small bright bulbs, sometimes changing color, other times just bright white.
The spectators filed in little by little until every seat was filled in four sets of bleachers. Vendors were selling bags of confetti. A family seated not far from us must have made 10 trips to purchase more and more confetti, hinting to us that we were doomed to be inundated with the the little paper squares. Confetti was also spurting out of special confetti guns sometimes obliterating the scene entirely.
The parade lasted two hours. I was enthralled by the sheer beauty of the spectacle and massive effort on the part of the producers and the city to put on such an elaborate show. The performers were talented. One acrobat dancing from aerial straps from King Kong’s hand, had no safety net that I could see.
The floats often carry very strong satirical messages. “Orwell’s Farm” illustrates where animals rebel against humans. Another float, where a praying mantis is enthroned, denounces the patriarchy. Ecology and animal protection were also represented with a giant turtle chewing plastic and the costumed riders were throwing plastic bottles from garbage bags. As in 2017, political satire was invited to the party with caricatures of the contenders for this year’s election to the post of President of the Republic: Éric Zemmour, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, Valérie Pécresse, Yannick Jadot and Emmanuel Macron were all represented in a basket as crabs.
One thing I always notice, is how the caricatures are almost always a bit frightening, sinister or foreboding. The faces almost never have a congenial look and instead are the visages of nightmares. This is completely contrary to what you find with a Mardi Gras float that is inevitably simply about fun and frivolity. I offer up a comparison so you can get the gist of my observations.
In addition to the carnival this past weekend in Nice, Barb and I had the pleasure of two meals at two of Armand Crespo’s restaurants: Bistrot d’Antoine (27 Rue de la Préfecture, 06300 Nice, 04 93 85 29 57) and his newest one (the 6th) Type 55 (1 Rue de la Préfecture, 06300 Nice, 09 73 60 49 82). As always, he hits the mark with exceptional cuisine at very affordable prices, always surrounded by beautiful decor. The menus are always changing. At Bistrot d’Antoine, the salad of scallops with avocado, beets, pomegranate seeds and other tidbits was a symphony of flavors the likes of I have never had. Type 55 is primarily serving brilliant and different pizzas, but we chose to partake of his other fare…all at the same incredible quality. On your next trip to Nice, don’t miss an opportunity to dine at least one of them…and be sure to reserve in advance and tell Armand that Adrian sent you!
It wasn’t part of the plan, but the producers of House Hunters International called on Friday to ask if I could tape a show this week and over the weekend in Montpellier. How can I say no? This makes episode #49!
The train to Montpellier is indirect, via Marseille, but not a big deal. Making and breaking train reservations was the easy part. The toughest part of living up to such a last-minute request was “wardrobe.” What did I have with me that I could wear on the show? Nothing is what the answer was. I had packed very light knowing there is a complete closet and dresser filled with clothing for Nice. But in that collection is very little that fits the bill for House Hunters International.
With very little time to spare, I set out on a mission to find the right outfit. You can’t just wear any old thing—the camera likes color and hates small patterns. I have a certain image to uphold, too…nothing subdued for me! Within two hours, all in the immediate vicinity of my apartment, I scored the basics of what I needed—jacket, sweater, scarf. Not to give too much away, just know that the ensemble is “primary” in every way and very “carnivalesque!”
The colors fit with the colors of Nice. As usual, the weather was beautiful and the sea was a stunning color being enjoyed by everyone out and about for the festivities or just for pleasure…under very warm and sunny skies.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian with her friend Barb at the Carnaval de Nice parade
P.S. Tune in to Paris Underground Radio Monday, February 28th and the following Monday, March 7th for an interview with Adrian Leeds by Gail Bosclair and Marie Pistinier about Fractional Ownership in France!