They 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.
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.
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.
Of 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.
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.
See the Festival Site for full details.
All photos from: http://www.tourisme-menton.fr/
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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.
Thanks! Yes, the citrus sculptures really are breathtaking. It is quite a sight to see – something a bit different from the usual carnivals. Glad you enjoyed it.
You might find it interesting to know that the Crown Princess of the Kingdom of Hawai’i – Princess Victoria Ka’iulani – was a participant in one of the parades that predated the Citron festival. It was probably 1895…she was 20 (she died back in Hawai’i at age 23)…and she won first prize for her floral decorations on a carriage. A photo of her and her entourage in this early parade appeared in a Menton paper.
Thanks so much for that interesting bit of history. The French Riviera attracted royalty from all over Europe, but I didn’t know it brought in royalty from Hawaii too. Fascinating!
Margo…if you have any knowledge of newspaper archives in Menton, perhaps the photo is traceable. We only know of it through a poor reprint in a Hawaiian paper after Ka’iulani died. She also had a horrific experience in Menton…a lightning strike that took out a window by her writing desk…destroying the desk as well. She had altered her usual time for luncheon because of an appointment…had she been writing letters as she normally did in late morning, she would have been killed. I can’t help but think such a dramatic and destructive event must have made the news in Menton. In Hawai’i it is known about because a friend she had written leaked the frightening story to the local press.
Hi Mindi, Sorry for the delay in answering. I’ve been away for a while.
I’ve had a look online in French and came up with nothing. It’s possible that if someone was in Menton and went to the library there might be something – but I don’t know and I don’t get to Menton often. If you really want to find it, you might try writing the tourist office in Menton and see if they could give you an idea who to contact. Their address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck and let me know if you come up with anything.
What a great article! Beautiful pictures. Menton looks like a great place to visit.
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. 🙂
Astounding! Never knew!
Thanks so much. They claim it’s the only festival of its kind in the world.
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??
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? 🙂
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!
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.
Of course you would know a fact like that… 😉
You never cease to amaze me! And that’s what keeps us coming back, isn’t it?
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 🙂
Love this post and learning about this festival. I’m going to try to book tickets down there today — may be impossible, but I’ve got to see this before I leave France. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Good for you! It really is something to see – a one-of-a-kind event. So glad I could bring it to your attention. Enjoy!!!
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
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
As usual, Great articles! Both the Fete de Citron and Carnaval!
Thanks Julia, glad you enjoyed them. Hope you enjoyed the real festivals as well! 🙂