Carnival on the Cte d’Azur
We had first class tickets for only 5 euros more, straight to Nice on the TGV, a mere 5.5 hours door to door — it could not have been more comfortable. Pascal Fonquernie, neighbor-friend-colleague, of Parismarais.com, and I, had the trip planned for weeks — to stay in his Roquebrune “aerie” overlooking the sea and attend the carnival in Nice and the lemon festival in Menton, neither of which had we ever had the pleasure.
Friday on route to the Côte d’Azur towns, the rain was misting down, the skies uncharacteristically gray, the air nippy. It just didn’t seem fair to have only a few short days in the sun not to have the sun at all. Monte Carlo was the afternoon’s respite, to wander around the Casino and the surrounding shops I can’t afford, ogle the cars sitting out front that cost as much if not more than my Paris apartment and get a sense of this “Disneyland” for the rich and famous. It’s a surrealistic “beauty mark” on the Riviera, with a blend of old and contemporary architecture, perfectly manicured streets and well-heeled civil servants that have power over some of the wealthiest and most prestigious jet-setters the world has known.
We dined that evening on an antipasti from the market in Vintimiglia (the first Italian city of a respectable size after the French border) and omelets with sauteed porcini mushrooms with long-time Parisian friends who have a second home in Cap d’Ail. It’s the town on the other side of Monaco from Roquebrune, making the two communities proverbial bookends. Their terraced apartment profits from a dense and lush garden they have cultivated the last 10 years or more.
Saturday morning, I awoke to a picture postcard scene out the solid glass wall/sliding doors and large terrace. An enormous sun peaked through the thin gray clouds, blue-blue water calm and serene below, the sound of gulls in the distance and a very light breeze touching the Mimosa trees.
The drive to Nice along the Moyenne Corniche affords breathtaking views of the seaside communities below…Cap Ferrat, Villefranche, Cap d’Ail, Antibes…the sun shining brightly hinting at perfect weather for the carnival parades. We met up with Parler Paris team member, Sibel Pinto, and her husband Henry, for an “Aioli” on the Cour Saleya in the heart of Old Nice (a platter of fish and seafood, freshly cooked vegetables, accompanied by two types of aioli), washed it down with a good white wine from Cassis, then headed off for the parade.
Unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans which is open and free to the public, the Carnaval de Nice is private to only those who pay for seats in the grandstands or standing room on the sidelines. This is its 122nd edition(!), titled “Roi des Dupes,” lasting 17 days (February 11 – 28 of this year) and offering dozens of events and parades. Tickets were sold only two hours before each event from booths stationed near the parade sites and children under 8 were free.
I found all this to be surprising, from an American cultural point of view, particularly as a New Orleanian, where Mardi Gras is for everyone, by everyone to enjoy. (In fact, a few of those who also don’t agree with the Carnaval as a paid event, have created their own alternative and free parade.) The Promenade des Anglais, the main road along the seafront, was partitioned off with only a c
ouple of entrances where the crowds filed in showing off their tickets or passes.
The parade seemed to materialize from almost nowhere, but…WOW! This was the flower parade…with float after float of magnificently decorated platforms of floral heaven, adorned by one or more stunning young women, in costume, waving and throwing branches of Mimosa into the adoring crowds. In between were strange acts of all kinds…women on stilts in lobster costume; men on a trampoline somersaulting in mid air; bagpipe players in kilts; a troupe in Venetian costumes and masks; huge balloons flying overhead made of multi-faced heads, dragons and blimps; bicyclers shooting silver streamers from oversized pistols, and on and on and on…making two turns around the parade route. There is no way to describe the ingenuity and creativity of the costumes and the concepts of the performances!…all very, very different from the Mardi Gras I know from New Orleans of marching bands, horseback riders and decorated floats with costumed Krewe members throwing beads and doubloons.
This was only one of dozens of events that took place over the two-and-a-half weeks of festivities and I wondered how the people of Nice had the tenacity to maintain the high spirits…but they do!
In the afternoon we wandered the narrow streets of old Nice and visited the Palais Lascaris, a 17th-century baroque Genovese palace which was once the residence of the Lascaris-Vintimille family classified as a “Monument Historique” in 1946. In contrast to the stunningly elegant and refined rooms, one can see the neighbor’s laundry hanging in the sun over the narrow street below, reminiscent of an Italian lifestyle.
Yes, Nice is nice, no doubt about it. Pascal and I agreed, it could be a good alternative to Paris — a spot on the sea where he claims the sun shines at least 300 days a year, loaded with charm and cultural activities. At 9 p.m. that evening, the Parade of Lights will have rolled down the same route, but we opted to rest our weary bones over a seaside dinner in preparation for another day of merriment.
Traffic to Menton Sunday was bumper to bumper from all directions as the French and Italians filed into the town to witness the last day of the 73rd Annual “Fête du Citron” — having taken place from February 10th. Roadside stands selling lemons and oranges were everywhere. The Jardins Biovés had been transformed into a wonderland of citrus creations…the Taj Mahal, a plantation home (with Dixieland Jazz musicians out front and a sign that read “New Orleans Jazzmen”), a gondola under a bridge of Venice, and a dozen or so more…all lifesize structures completely made of lemons and oranges grown in the region, each fruit secured with a rubber band of yellow or orange appropriately.
At 2:30 p.m. sharp, the parade started slowly winding down the seaside route, making three turns before calling it quits. Float after float of ingenious citrus creations were punctuated by a variety of acts…musicians and dancers — mostly Brazilian in scantily-clad costume in honor of The Year of Brazil. I wouldn’t call it as sophisticated as the Carnaval de Nice, but fun it was, and impressive — these massive monuments to fruit. I loved the big banana best of all, with her big lips and funny face.
In Menton, I bought little black Niçoise olives flavored with garlic, rosemary and peppers; ogled the Provençal shops for linens and other household goods for my new little studio apartment that I intend to decorate and call “La Provençale.” From there Pascal insisted we visit the Villa and Gardens Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a palace built by Béatrice de Rothschild in the early 1900s with 9 magnificent gardens over 4 hectares of land overlooking the sea. Oh, what a charmed life this heiress had created for herself, evident from her ravishing boudoir with views on the gardens and sea. As the sun was slowly setting, the sky turned pink and shed a soft glow mirrored by the pink stucco mansion and the lush foliage.
We stopped in the seaside towns on route back to Nice for dinner, where the streets had emptied out except for a few tourists and local vagrants. It seemed appropriate to have a Salade Niçoise topped by grilled sardines before saying so-long to the beautiful blue coast of France, which is about as charmed a place on the planet to visit or live…except for Paris to which I am headed on the TGV as I peck on this keyboard.
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
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P.S. Pascal rents his Côte d’Azure flat when he’s not there! Visit … for more information.