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Nice’s spectacular flower festival has ancient Bacchic origins

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, Plants, Religion, Travel on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Nice, picture, image, illustration

Hotel des Anglais and the Promenade des Anglais

Blue sky, blue sea, golden sunshine, waving green palms, the great sweep of a fashionable promenade lined with huge hotels; it seems a strange background for a battle! The sounds of battle are curious too. Bands play stirring tunes, but they are cheerful rather than martial; and the “warriors”, many of them women and girls, instead of yelling war-cries, egg one another on with laughter and song.

Strangest of all is the ammunition flying in every direction – flowers.

Round the lovely, beautifully-named Bay of Angels clatter the war-chariots, little two-wheeled carriages driven by gnarled old men, drawn by ageing nags, each one crammed with pretty girls elaborately or skimpily dressed, armed with flowery “hand-grenades” which they hurl, enthusiastically, rather than accurately, at their high-spirited victims crowding the pavements.

The more skilful catch them, and lob them back. The wise ones duck the bigger bunches. Soon the air is a mist of fluttering petals, white, blue, pink, yellow and violet. The roadway and pavements are ankle-deep in colour and the air heavy with the scent of crushed blossom. On the roadside flower-sellers do a roaring trade in “missiles” with the spectators.

In between the little carriages, huge floats lumber and rumble, decorated with banks, canopies, and arches of close-set flowers. On one a girl in 18th-century costume sways lazily on a swing cushioned with carnations, holding ropes of marguerites. On another, white doves perch in flowered cages, hanging from blooming cherry trees; on another wine-makers tread violet “grapes” in a vat covered with mimosa whose pollen floats through the air in clouds like solid sunshine.

Pirates man a model galleon plastered with tiny petals; a be-goggled and helmeted driver pilots a vintage car smothered in orange-blossom. Venus rises from a sea of foaming lilies, attended by mermaids whose tail-scales are hundreds of dyed rose-petals.

The day is the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, any year since the 1870s; the place is Nice, one of the most famous and popular seaside resorts on France’s south coast, and the event is the Battle of the Flowers.

Since the dawn of time, the first spring flowers have been a source of rejoicing, heralding the end of the dark, cold days; promising not only colour and beauty, but, in time, fresh food.

To the people of Provence, the south-eastern-most province of France, the flowers themselves mean harvest. Backed as Provence is by the foothills of the French Alps, which protect it from cold northern winds, spring comes early there. Hardly is Christmas over before the first buds appear. There are literally millions of them, for flowers in Provence are big business.

On the sandy hillsides facing the Mediterranean are acres of lavender, forests of mimosa, hectares of carnations, roses, jasmine, mignonette, narcissi, jonquils, tuberoses and violets, all carefully tended.

As they reach perfection they are cut, carefully packed and sent to Nice’s huge flower market. From there they go to cheer up the northern countries of Europe still in the grip of winter. Some even go to Canada and the USA.

That is not all. Twenty-five miles up into the mountains from Nice stands Grasse, the perfume-centre of the world. Here, every year, thousands of tons of flowers are turned into the fragrances which are one of France’s most important exports.

No wonder there are flowers to spare to scent and colour Nice’s spring party. And no wonder the people of Provence flood down to the Bay of Angels to hurl them at each other in an ecstasy of delight!

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the flowers had a festival all to themselves. This happy day grew out of a much older celebration, held in Nice ever since the 13th century. This also celebrates springtime and at the same time allows everyone to let off steam before the solemn, self-denying period of Lent.

It is founded on a mixture of pagan and Christian beliefs. Bacchus, the Greek God of wine and good living, has a part in it. King Carnival, whose name comes from two Latin words meaning “put away meat” (for the period of Lent) reigns over it for two weeks before Shrove Tuesday. He is a huge, papier-mache figure crowned with golden pasteboard and surrounded by a ceremonial court.

For the past century, his entry into Nice has been attended by mock-solemn rites, storms of confetti and streamers, fireworks, bands and cheering crowds.

Stands are erected all along the route to hold thousands of tourists who join the locals in their revels. The grand procession starts at 2.30 on the two Sunday afternoons before Lent, and takes an hour to pass. Then it comes round again, like the next house in a cinema. In the evening, it is repeated with the streets and floats brilliantly lit by thousands of electric lights.

There are gaily dressed men and girls on white horses and decorated floats, some thirty feet high. Most important of all are the “Big Heads”: men who prance along on foot, wearing enormous masks weighing up to thirty pounds. The more grotesque these are, the louder the crowds shout and applaud them. They may be animals, birds, vegetables or fruit, cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Dougal, Florence or Zebedee; and caricatures of local or political figures. Some have two faces pointing in different directions.

Floats and heads are beautifully and carefully designed, not just by those who ride on, or wear them, but by trained artists, some working as far away as Paris. Fashioning them is a highly-skilled job, handed down in Nicoise families from father to son. The carnivaliers, as they are called, start work at least six months beforehand, and work all through the winter. One float (there could be twenty) might use up a ton of waste paper and six hundred pounds of flour.

As they trundle by, floats and spectators become ever-increasingly linked by coloured paper streamers and showers of confetti (once meant to represent Ash Wednesday dust, though by now most people have forgotten this). But throwing paper alone soon became too boring for the high-spirited revellers. Paper-wrapped sweets joined the confetti, followed by beans, and sometimes even eggs! Then, when the floats of pretty girls came along flowers, single blossoms and even bunches, paid tribute to their attractions.

The idea caught on. Rich visitors began to decorate their carriages with flowers from their own lush gardens. More and more people threw flowers to the girls. The girls began to throw flowers to the crowds.

In 1876, the flower-throwing ceremony was separated from the carnival. It was moved to the day following Ash Wednesday, and to the Promenade des Anglais, the wide, curving boulevard which borders the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

Now it is a festival all on its own; a battle beautiful, a joyous tribute to spring and a thanksgiving for the fragrant harvest which, from February onwards, paints the slopes of the Alpes Maritime with gentle colour and scent.

And it fills the local banks with a jingling harvest of francs.

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