In the city of Nice it is said that “a home without a gourd is like an empty nest”. Margo Lestz investigates the famous festivals of Nice France and visits the quirky gourd festival that takes place in the hills above the city…
Nice is a French city, of course, but it also has a strong and proud culture all its own. It was Niçois long before it was French and the people work hard to keep their Niçois traditions alive. It has its own language, anthem, traditional costumes, dances, songs, and food. The language is taught in schools and there are dance groups that perform at many events throughout the year. These associations ensure that the traditions are passed from generation to generation. And the calendar is dotted with several events each year that are typically Niçois.
One such event is the gourd festival that took place each spring in the park, in the hills of Cimiez (above Nice). It is the perfect place to see all things Niçois. You can sample the traditional food, enjoy the music and, of course, discover numerous ways to decorate a gourd.
Cougourdon or cougourdoun is the Niçois name for this inedible vegetable that was introduced to the region in the 16th century. The special type of gourd that is grown here has a long history with the people of Nice and was so important to them that it was given its own festival.
Historically, the gourd contributed in many ways to Niçois life. The vines were used on trellises to shade patios and windows from the hot Mediterranean sun. When the fruit was dried it could be made into lightweight waterproof kitchen utensils or used as a thermos to carry water or wine out into the fields. The clever Niçois even made musical instruments from gourds.
“A home without a gourd is like an empty nest.” This Niçois saying shows how important these gourds were to the local life.
Gourds are used less today because we have so many other items that take their place. But the festival that started in the Middle Ages to celebrate the gourd continues. Today they are used for more artistic purposes. The gourd’s unusual shape inspires artists who come up with countless ways to decorate them. If you have been wondering what you could do with a gourd, this is the place to go for inspiration.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when the newfound tourism industry was booming, the decoration of gourds started to flourish. These painted gourds made great souvenirs for the tourists. It’s said that Queen Victoria bought a few of them herself.
And speaking of Queen Victoria, this is her old stomping ground. The grand Hotel Regina (now private apartments) that was built to accommodate her on her winter visits to Nice is just across the street from the park and the monument to her is just a bit further down the hill. She probably rode in her little donkey-cart through this very park.
It’s easy to see why she liked it here. The park is worth a visit even when there isn’t a festival going on. It sits on a hill with views overlooking Nice and the sea. Its olive groves make a great picnic spot and there are gardens, a monastery, the Matisse museum and, of course, the roman ruins.
Cimiez was not always a part of Nice. It was a Roman hilltop settlement and Nice was its Greek sea-side neighbour. Around the 6th century, the Roman town went into decline while Nice continued to grow until it eventually enveloped Cimiez.
Another traditional Niçois celebration, the May Festivals take place here in the park with festivities every weekend in May. Check the Office of Tourism’s site for details of events throughout the year.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.