The Nice Carnival France is one of the major festival events in the world and it can only mean one thing: Carnival Kings, silly strings and blooming things… Margo Lestz looks at the history of the Nice Carnival, the famous flower battles and just why silly string is so popular at this fabulous event on the French Riviera.
Every February in Nice, a different king comes to town to celebrate the carnival and participate in the parade on his own special float. A riot of colour, more than one thousand musicians and dancers from around the world participate in this fantastic celebration to chase off the gloom of winter and bid a welcome back the spring. But it wasn’t always this way…
Kings and parades at the Nice Carnival France
The Nice Carnival is one of the oldest in the world – the earliest records establish its existence in 1294 when the Count of Provence enjoyed “the joyous days of carnival”. In the beginning, the carnival resembled a big unorganized street party – there wasn’t a parade in sight. But in 1830, the King and Queen of Sardinia (Charles-Félix and Marie-Christine) visited Nice and the city council organised the first carnival parade in their honour. The royal couple sat on their palace balcony and waved as prominent Niçois ladies and gentlemen, dressed in elegant costumes filed past in decorated carriages.
That parade was such a success that in succeeding years, when the king wasn’t present, the Niçois took some straw and old clothes and made themselves a king. They placed him on the palace balcony where he approvingly watched the passing revelry. Then in 1882 they decided that this mock king should participate in the procession.
This was the start of the modern carnival parade in Nice which is always presided over by a gigantic, kingly character. His arrival on the royal float signals the beginning of the festivities. Each year brings a different king who sets the theme for the entire event. In 2014 the event introduces His Majesty, King of Gastronomy, so all of the floats will have something to do with food. Unfortunately for His Majesty, his reign is soon over and on the last night of the carnival, he is put out to sea on a little boat and burned while the carnival-goers celebrate with fireworks.
Even though His Majesty’s reign in Nice is short, he has a full schedule. For more than two weeks there are parades every day and evening. The Nice Carnival King oversees the line of decorated floats, interspersed with marching bands and costumed characters, as it makes its way along the carnival route. The King’s helpers (the people on the floats) throw confetti and candies into the crowd and in return they are targeted by children with cans of silly string.
Experience the Nice carnival in video:
Confetti and silly string at the Nice Carnival
One thing you can’t escape at the carnival is silly string, that aerosol spray that sends out foamy streamers that stick to everything but are easy to remove. It can be annoying but it’s actually the modern version of, and an improvement upon, a long-standing tradition. In the earliest carnivals, people threw things at each other: sugar-coated seeds, confetti made of plaster, egg shells filled with soot or flour, rotten eggs, fruit and vegetables. Those who had a window overlooking the parade route stocked up with “ammunition” and bombarded those in the streets below.
The masks and costumes worn during the carnival were not only to hide your identity, but also to protect your face and clothing from all of those objects flying through the air. Some masks were even made of iron for extra protection. In our day, throwing eggs, vegetables, and plaster have, thankfully, fallen out of fashion, leaving us with harmless paper confetti and silly string and largely mask-free.
Flower battles at the Nice Carnival
While those early rowdy, egg-throwing free-for-alls were taking place in the Old Town of Nice, another more genteel battle was born on the Promenade des Anglais. In 1876 the first “bataille des fleurs” (flower battle) took place. It was an elegant parade of carriages covered in flowers, reserved for the elite who didn’t like getting hit with eggs and vegetables. It is said that Queen Victoria herself participated, throwing flowers at young soldiers. It was more of a show with polite flower exchanges – not really much of a battle.
The modern flower battle is still a separate event from the carnival parade. A procession of bloom-covered floats rolls along the Promenade des Anglais, showcasing the variety of flowers grown in this region. Each float is manned by beautifully costumed ladies showering the admiring crowd with colourful blossoms. Today, we don’t normally throw things back at them, but they do sometimes get attacked by a child with a can of silly string.
Even though the Nice Carnival has changed over the years, it has retained three essential historical ingredients: A king to preside over the parade, good-natured battles, and lots of blooming flowers.
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”.