Let’s head to the South of France to find out more about three iconic events in Provence: Nice Carnival, Menton Lemon Festival and Mandelieu Mimosa Festival. The annual celebrations are packed with history, parades, local flavours and zesty colours basking under the warm winter sun on the Med.
Get dressed up, have fun and dive into an ocean of flowers and fruit beneath the bright blue sky. This is your final boarding call for the Côte d’Azur, a go-to among French as a foreign language students from all over the world!
Nice Carnival: a sight for sore eyes
History of the UNESCO World Heritage Nice Carnival
1294: The Nice Carnival was first mentioned in writing by Charles d’Anjou, Count of Provence, who detailed his visit to Nice to celebrate the “joyful days of the Carnival”.
The festivities were heavily regulated in the 15th century and based on social class: Nice celebrated with 4 balls (noblemen, merchants, tradesmen and workers) presided over by the fool’s abbots or “abbés des fous”.
1830: The Nice Carnival became what we know it as today. The city was named the “winter holiday capital” and Nice noblemen were in charge of the festivities.
A “festival committee” was founded in 1873 and the carnival pulled out all the stops! Float processions, ymagiers or illustrators, ticketed stands, epic displays by Alexis Mossa and more. The Nice Carnival has always known how to put on a good show. Plaster confetti or Italian confetti rained down on the parade floor. The poet and gardener Alphonse Karr inspired the first flower battles which appeared in 1876.
A carnival with a language of its own
The Nice Carnival has a group of characters that come back every year in different guises to suit the theme. The King, Queen and dolphin mascot open proceedings with a procession worthy of royalty.
One of the carnival’s iconic characters is Lou Paillassou (“the straw man”): a huge puppet filled with straw that flies through the sky on a taut line. It has been interpreted in lots of different ways but the most popular is that the straw man is filled with all the pain and worry of the past year. So when he’s dipping and diving through the air, he lets go of all our troubles so we can face the future with a free spirit. How about that for a spring clean?!
They’re part of the folklore surrounding the carnival and make it what it is: the floats are meant to make people smile and have a laugh at some of the world’s biggest names in sport, politics and fashion. Everyone from Jacques Chirac and Karl Lagerfeld to Trump and Depardieu have been turned into instantly recognisable big heads crafted by ymagiers and carnival masters.
The opening ceremony is a show-stopper uniting the carnival’s stars, floral floats, heralds, flagbearers, bands, dancers and a sound and light show. These processions are traditionally called “corsos” and parade down the Promenade des Anglais and the entire city. The Tourist Board chooses the amazing floats from hundreds of designs and puts them on show near Place Masséna so you can feast your eyes on them before the parade.
Nice buzzes with street art and performance for all ages for days: it’s the heart and soul of the Nice Carnival. Local and international performers bring the festival and corsos to life and perform all over the city to the delight of children and adults.
The carnival ends on a high with the traditional burning of the Carnival king!
Have you heard the expression “go through fire and water”? Well, that’s what the carnival does with the traditional Carnival Bath when brave souls dive into the Baie des Anges with a bracing average temperature of 12 degrees in February…
The Flower Battle is the most spell-binding and heart-warming moment of the Nice Carnival. It’s magical no matter your age. The one-of-a-kind procession of floats covered in flowers celebrates local species as 80% of the flowers are grown in the region. Performers in eye-catching outfits throw armfuls of mimosas, daisies and lilies into the audience! Visitors pick up the flowers later and put together their own bouquets to remember the carnival by!
Menton Lemon Festival: When life gives you lemons…
The history of the Lemon Festival
Why does the pretty town of Menton celebrate citrus? Because it’s the European capital of lemons! It’s a surprisingly popular event: over 200,000 people take to the streets of Menton every year to be part of the unique festival.
It all began in 1875 when Menton’s hotels were looking for a new festival to entertain and attract more people to spend their winter holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Mission accomplished! Processions, costumes, masks, music and dance: the very first carnival won over locals and wealthy winter holidaymakers. Princes, artists and even kings flocked to Menton’s palaces and coastline!
Menton became Europe’s biggest lemon producer in the 1920s. 1936 saw the first citrus fruit and flower exhibition in the Jardins Biovès before lemons and oranges adorned corso floats at the major February festival.
Visitors from all over the world still come to experience the Menton Lemon Festival which was listed as Intangible French Cultural Heritage in 2019.
Lemon Festival highlights
It has classic corsos and show-stopping processions just like the Nice Carnival, but Menton’s are bright and zesty because they’re covered in citrus fruit! The parades take place on Thursdays, Sundays and at night: the corsos are illuminated and joined by brass bands and traditional dancers. The floats are painstakingly and expertly decorated with a creative spin on the year’s theme.
The Golden Fruit Corso is the most famous parade and the one that everyone looks forward to. It’s a Lemon Festival institution that captures Provence’s citrus fruit in all its zesty glory. Visitors have over 2 weeks to feast their eyes on the fruity creations at parades or the zingy structures on display at the Jardins Biovès.
Last but not least: the Mimosa Festival in Mandelieu
The Côte d’Azur is bursting with colour and aroma all February long. The region’s most precious winter gem takes centre stage in Mandelieu: mimosas! The fluffy yellow little balls imbue the winter air with their soft and soothing scent…
The Mimosa Festival is a local institution held in mid-February: a corso (parade) covers 1.2km in the Le Capitou and La Napoule districts along the coast. Show-stopping processions and floral parades light up every street, market and square in town to turn Mandelieu into mimosa land. We always recommend our visitors go on a hiking trail to Tanneron, the biggest mimosa forest in Europe.
Have you got a February holiday in Provence on the brain now? These floral, zesty or Nice events are a great way to experience the wonder of local produce and the idyllic Mediterranean coast.
It’s warm here in late winter, making a language stay and French course extra special. You can even pick up the lovely Southern French accent!
For us, it’s a golden opportunity to put together exciting breaks exploring nature and culture for our visitors and French as a foreign language students: museum and gallery tours, seaside and inland trips, cookery and perfumery classes and more.