Menton, France celebrates the Lemon

Menton France lemon festival, fête du citronThey say when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade.  But what if you are a town on the French Riviera and life gives you extraordinarily delicious lemons? You sell them at high prices, of course!  Then you buy truck loads of cheaper ones from Spain and have a big festival.  Well, that’s what the city of Menton does anyway. Every year at carnival time, this small coastal city, just down the road from Nice, holds a Lemon Festival called La Fête du Citron.
Menton France, lemon festival, fete du citron

During this celebration, there are parades of floats, interspersed with marching bands and costumed entertainers, just like any other carnival parade.  But there’s one big difference – all of the floats are made of lemons and oranges.  It’s an all-natural and refreshing change.  But the real show-stopper is the exhibition of gigantic citrus fruit sculptures in the Biovès Gardens. Some of these figures can be up to 10 meters (more than 30 feet) tall and use as much as 15 tons of fruit.

They start as metal forms then they are completely covered with lemons and oranges held in place with colour-coordinated yellow and orange rubber bands.  They’re simply breathtaking and you won’t see just one or two, but about 10 of them!  They make quite an impression. All of these structures relate to the theme of the festival which is different every year. In 2014, it’s “2000 Leagues under the Sea”, so be on the lookout for giant water creatures (made of lemons and oranges of course).

The first Menton lemon

Why is it that these glorious lemons grow in Menton?  Well, they say that it all started when Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden.  It seems that Eve “borrowed” a lemon on her way out and tucked it into her fig leaf pocket.  As the couple wandered around searching for a new home, Adam discovered his wife’s pilfered yellow prize and was afraid.  (He remembered what had happened when she took that apple.)  He begged her to get rid of the evidence, but she held on to it until she found the perfect spot to plant it. When she saw a place that was so beautiful it reminded her of the paradise she had lost, she lovingly planted it in the rich soil. Thousands of years later, in that very spot, some of Adam and Eves great, great grandchildren settled among the groves of lemon trees which had sprung up from Eve’s lemon and that became the town of Menton. For centuries the “Mentonians” led quiet lives, enjoying their little bit of paradise, and growing and exporting their exquisite lemons.

Menton France lemon festival, fête du citron

Menton rediscovered

Then in the 1800s the Riviera was rediscovered by the wealthy Europeans, most notably those famous British Victorians. It was considered healthy and very fashionable to spend the winter on the Riviera. One English doctor raved about the health benefits of Menton’s “perfect” climate and his medical endorsements, along with the arrival of the train, brought a boom in winter tourism to the quiet little town.

Menton France, lemon festival, fete du citronOf course, all those visitors needed a place to sleep, so Menton built them hotels – not budget hotels, mind you, but grand luxurious hotels.  Because these were wealthy holidaymakers, nobility, and royalty even, they expected a certain level of service and comfort.

They also expected to be entertained. And even though Menton was a lovely, healthful place, it was just a bit boring. So in 1895, in an effort to be more interesting, Menton improved its carnival and added a parade.  This, along with a few other activities, seemed to keep the winter tourists happy and things went along pretty well for a few decades.

Budgets and skiing

Then in the 1920s there was another change: summer tourists came on the scene. This new group of visitors was different from the wealthy winter crowd.  They were modest folk and they had a budget.  They didn’t stay in the suites of the grand hotels or eat in the expensive gastronomic restaurants.  And to make things worse, the rich winter regulars turned their backs on the Riviera and took up skiing in the mountains. This was indeed bad news for Menton and its big empty hotels.

Menton France, lemon festival, fete du citron

A little citrus exhibition

In 1928, to try and bring back some winter business, one of the hotel owners had the idea to host an exhibition of flowers and citrus fruit in one of the hotel gardens. It was such a success, that the following year it doubled in size and moved out into the streets. Gold and silver baskets filled with lemons and other citrus fruit, lined the streets and found their way onto the carnival floats.

The enterprising folks of Menton realised that they were on to something and the Menton Lemon Festival, La Fête du Citron, was officially born in 1933.  This lemon-based celebration quickly replaced their carnival and the baskets of citrus fruit along the streets grew into the garden full of monumental citrus structures that we enjoy today.

It’s amazing to think that this colourful festival started with just one little lemon “borrowed” from the Garden of Eden.  I think Eve would be pleased to know that an entire festival is now dedicated to her beloved yellow fruit.

The 2015 Lemon Festival runs from the 14th of February to the 4th of March.  See the Festival Site for full details.

All photos from: http://www.tourisme-menton.fr/

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18 thoughts on “Menton, France celebrates the Lemon

  1. This post is absolutely fabulous! I’ve never seen pictures like this or even heard of this celebration. So, to see the “buildings” up close is a real bonus! Thanks for the background on the event, too.

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    • Thank you. We can visit Menton when you come, but unfortunately there won’t be any lemons then. Maybe in 2015 😉 I just hope that it won’t be raining during the festival this year. We are having very heavy rains this winter. But it is still a lovely place to live. 🙂

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  2. well done coverage..fantastic photos and floats..never heard of this..we have the tulip festival in april with floats covered with tulip petals..but this is truly amazing.would love to know what they do with the fruit after the floats are done? Make lemonade, lemon tarts, limoncello??

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  3. Thank you. Actually, they sell the fruit after the festival. Of course, they wouldn’t use the best quality fruit for decorations, so they import lower grade produce from Spain. It’s good for making marmalade and things like that after it has served its time as a castle or car or…
    The tulip festival sounds really lovely. Isn’t it nice being in Europe where there is always some kind of celebration going on? 🙂

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  4. Margo- I don’t think France has ever had a PR Ambassador on your level… simply beautiful! Growing up in California, we looked forward each New Year’s Day to the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade (http://www.tournamentofroses.com/History.aspx) which is similarly spectacular on a floral, rather than citrus theme. It started in much the same way. The local Hunt Club (vs Eve) looked for a way to bring attention to their “Mediterranean” climate out west and it has been going and growing since the 1890s.

    I’d love for Margaret Leon to provide additional details about the Tulip Festival, as Tulips are one of my favorite flowers. I may plan a vacation someday to take advantage of all the lovely festivals!

    Thanks for sharing this- great post!

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    • Oh, you are too kind! Do you know that there is a connection between the Pasadena Parade and the Nice Flower Battles that make up part of the Carnival? Supposedly the Pasadena Parade was inspired by the Flower Parades in Nice. One of the members of the Hunt Club came here in 1890 and decided that they could do the same thing in California. It seems to have worked out pretty well for them. 😉

      Yes, the tulip festival sounds just beautiful – I would love to see photos.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  5. Well, I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t just done a lot of research on the Nice Carnival for my article. And I will probably forget it very soon 😦 so the subject came up at just the right time 🙂

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  6. What a fun and amazingly colorful post Margo. I can’t imagine all the work that goes into the sculptures and floats. Also, it’s funny that you mention the farmers exporting the best fruit. We lived in Florida, and it was really hard to find good oranges. We now live in Georgia, and my sister in KY can get better peaches than we do. As you say, I think that the best fruit and produce is exported. ~James

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  7. The Lemon Festival is really beautiful. I was a bit worried about it this year as we had so much rain and even mudslides near Menton. But it started last weekend so all is well. Their lemons are supposed to be some of the best, but I think the people of Menton never get to taste them unless they have trees in their garden. Thanks for taking the time to comment. All the best – Margo

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