In Nice, France we are preparing for the carnival and that means another royal visit. Every year in February, a different king comes to town to celebrate the carnival with us and participate in the parade on his own special float. But it wasn’t always this way…
Kings and parades
In the beginning, the carnival resembled a big unorganized street party – there wasn’t a parade in sight. But in 1830, when the King and Queen of Sardinia (Charles-Félix and Marie-Christine) were in Nice, the city wanted to do something special, so the first carnival parade was organised in their honour. The royal couple sat on their palace balcony and waved the royal wave 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 beginnings of our modern carnival parade 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 2015, it’s His Majesty, King of Music, so all of the floats will be music related. Unfortunately for His Majesty, his reign is very short-lived. France isn’t known for being merciful to its kings 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 2 ½ weeks there are parades every day and evening. He 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.
Silly String and other projectiles
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: things like 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. Many of us now even feel brave enough to attend the carnival “maskless”.
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. This is where Queen Victoria is said to have thrown 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.
2018 carnival in Nice runs from the 17 February through the 03 March. See the tourist office site for full details. http://www.nicecarnaval.com/en/
*More About Nice – You can read more about the history of Nice in my book, Curious Histories of Nice, France.
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