Nice Carnival Guide

Nice Carnival
Getty/Frederic Nebinger

Nice Carnival is one of the oldest carnivals in the world. From pagan and humble beginnings way back in the 13th century, it has become a glorious, annual 12-day party. It runs on different days (no parades on Mondays for instance.) The city of Nice erupts with parades of floats, street events and stalls and culminates with Mardi Gras on the last day. The biggest winter event on the French Riviera, it now attracts 1 million visitors each year.

The Parades

It all begins with a grand parade of around 20 floats that make their way through the crowded streets. At the head is the carnival king in his Corso Carnavalesque (Carnival Procession).

Around 20 floats take the theme of the year using around 50 giant puppets (called grosses tetes, or big heads). Making the papier-mache figures is a work of art in itself, using centuries-old techniques involving layers of paper glued one by one inside a special mould. Once the figures are created, they’re painted by specialist craftspeople. Finally the costumes to dress the characters are made, the more flamboyant the better. Placed on the floats, monsters weighing over 2 metric tons and 7 meters long, 2 meters wide and 8 to 12 metres high, the figures moving and weaving as the floats move forward. At night, it's an extraordinary sight.

The Battle of Flowers

The world-famous Bataille de Fleurs takes place on various dates throughout the Carnival.

The battles began in 1856, specifically aimed to entertain the foreign visitors who were beginning to flock to the south of France. Today, two people on each float throw some 20 kilograms of mimosa and fresh-cut flowers into the crowd as they make their way along the Promenade des Anglais beside the azure blue sea of the Mediterranean.

Over the festival, around 100,000 fresh-cut flowers are used, 80% of them produced locally. Finally the floats arrive in the place Massena.

For the best view of this perfume-filled, colorful extravaganza, buy a ticket for a seat in the stands or for the designated standing area along the road.

The streets are full day and night with stalls selling gifts, Provencal items, lavender, brightly colored fabrics and food. It's a heady festival and one that is designed to make you feel that winter is behind you and the spring season is beginning here on the French Riviera. On the last night, King Carnival is burnt. Then there’s a wonderful huge firework display to music over the Baie des Anges, the soaring fireworks reflected in the Mediterranean.

Nice is just one of the many Carnivals in France but it is one of the best and most well known.

The Origins of Carnival

The earliest reference dates back to 1294 when Charles d’Anjou, Count of Provence, noted "some joyous days of Carnival" on a visit he had just made to Nice. It’s believed that the word "Carnival" comes from carne levare (away with meat). It was the last chance for rich dishes and excess before Lent and its forty days of fasting. Carnival was wild and abandoned, offering the chance to disguise your identity behind fantastic masks and enjoy pleasures forbidden by the Catholic church during the rest of the year.

For centuries it was a private rather than public event, with balls in grand surroundings attended by the rich aristos and their friends rather than street entertainment. In 1830 the first procession was organized; in 1876 the first Flower Parades took place. Plaster confetti appeared in 1892 (it lasted until the last fights in 1955 which must have been uncomfortable), and in 1921 the first electric lights were installed to light up the nighttime activities. It’s been an annual event since 1924.

The King of the Carnival has always played an integral part in the festival, but has only received a second official name since 1990. Since then, he’s variously been the King of the Cinema, the Arts, the 20th Century and more oddly, the King of the Deranged Climate (2005), and the King of Bats, Cats, Rats and Other Legendary Creatures (2008).

Practical Information

Getting tickets to Nice Carnival Events
Many of the events around Nice Carnaval are free, but there are charges for the parades and it’s worth it to get the best view. Tickets range from 10 euros standing to 25 euros on the seated stands.

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