In the far north of France where I live in the lovely Seven Valleys, by the time February arrives, we’re usually feeling a bit soggy after the long winter months. Though heavy snows do happen here, it’s fairly rare, but it sure does rain a lot which makes everything green and lush.
In the south, by late winter, the mimosa trees burst into blossom, heralding the spring. It’s often warm enough to eat lunch out in a t-shirt. One February I took a train from Paris to Nice. I considered myself well prepared. Wrapped up for northern winter weather in a quilted coat, scarf, hat, gloves – like a yeti on a city trip. I left the biting winds and sleet of the north behind and a few hours later arrived in the city. In complete contrast, I arrived to blue skies and sunshine. It felt like I’d taken a train to a different country, not just a different region.
The north does have one thing in common with the south though at this time of the year – it’s carnival time. The big southern one is in Nice which is where I went when I took that train. It’s a fabulously flamboyant affair with flower fights and fantastical parades. It’s joyous, bright, beautiful and bold.
No winter blues at the Dunkirk Carnival – it’s multi-coloured!
Here in the north, we have the Dunkirk Carnival and believe me, it’s every bit as animated and fabulous. Not for the parades though, and there are no flowers – it relies on the revellers to be the carnival. It is the craziest, noisiest and most friendly event I’ve ever been to. It began in the 17th century when local fishermen left for Iceland to spend six months away from home catching herring. They still love their herring here though the fishing expeditions are no longer quite the same. To send the fishermen off, the townsfolk paraded through the streets. The men disguised themselves as women (reflecting that there were no men left. Amateur musicians beat drums and played merry tunes. Everyone enjoyed lots of beer, linked arms and sang rousing songs.
Nothing has changed.
As always in this part of France that adores its heritage and traditions, the street carnival has remained true to its roots. The chilly streets are filled with people dressed in their brightest colours. Think neon coloured feathered boas and colourful tiny parasols on long sticks. Everyone applies make up with a heavy hand, more clown style than make up artist. And if you’re not up to doing it yourself, pop to the tourist office where they’ll help you. Let’s just say they won’t be joining the beauty counters of L’Oréal any time soon.
Blowing the winter cobwebs away
My first time at this carnival I was blown away – almost literally. There was an icy gale whooshing off the English Channel along which Dunkirk sits. And snow flurries swirled around the swirling dancers. The feel good factor of this carnival is off the scale and it’s super friendly. I have never been kissed so many times in one day, possibly not in a year! In a world seemingly inhabited by pantomime dames you’ll also meet the local giants in Roman costume and probably Asterix the Gaul, Superman and Bart Simpson. Imagine a river of colourful, happy, freezing cold, slightly bonkers people singing at the top of their voices, dancing and swaying through the streets and you’ll get the picture.
A sort of hokey cokey/conga is de rigeur. And I’m not kidding when I say that in order to take photos and videos, I tied myself to a lamp post to avoid being swept up by the crowds. And if that’s not all mad enough, at the end of the carnival the mayor chucks hundreds of herring into the crowd from the town hall balcony. Yes real ones though they are wrapped in plastic, they’re not quite that far gone here. He also chucks a couple of plastic lobsters. If you’re lucky enough to catch one, you can exchange it for the real thing. I’m guessing that being hit on the head by a real lobster might not be that much fun.
The glow of goodwill
The fun factor of the Dunkirk Carnival knocks your winter socks off I can tell you. But any time of the year they really love a party in this part of the world. Dancing breaks out wherever there is music, whether it’s in a restaurant, in the town square or simply someone playing an accordion at a market.
No need for southern sun in the north, the glow of goodwill blows the winter cobwebs and blues far, far away…
Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream, My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life and Toujours La France: Living the Dream in Rural France (April 2022), available as ebooks, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online…