Scores of spectacular giant floats feature in the Nice carnival parade.
Scores of spectacular giant floats feature in the Nice carnival parade. CONTRIBUTED

Pelted by petals at Nice Carnival

Combine Toowoomba's Carnival of Flowers, Rio's Carnivale and New York's Thanksgiving Day Parade and you will be only part way to imagining the spectacle that is Nice Carnival.

I know that's a big claim but even for someone like me, who isn't a big fan of parades and the hoo-ha that goes with them, Nice's biggest annual celebration is amazing.

Held over two weeks each February, the carnival draws a million people to the streets of the French Riviera city.

The main drawcard is the series of parades through the city centre - some featuring spectacular floral displays and others focused on music, dance and some of the most amazing floats you can imagine.

I'm not one who would normally line up for a holiday centred on a festival of any kind but if you're going to travel halfway around the world for some singing and dancing, I reckon the Cote d'Azur is as good a place as anywhere.

The mere mention of the French Riviera conjures up all manner of romantic images.

Movie stars parading in Cannes; the rich and famous driving their sports cars through Monaco; high-rollers laying down thousands in the famous casino at Monte Carlo.

And while they're all accurate images, for my money it is Nice that is the pick of the attractions along France's southern coastline.

It's also a good place to base yourself if you want to visit other cities as Nice sits midway between the tourist hot spots Cannes and Monaco and France's well-tuned rail network makes it easy for visitors to travel back and forth along the coast.

Nice is also a friendly city for first-time visitors, although I'm not sure we could afford to visit in peak season when the beaches and cafes are packed with the world's beautiful people.

Thankfully, Nice Carnival is held during a quieter time when the famous beaches are all-but deserted and there's a distinct nip in the air.

We even had the bizarre experience of being snowed on as we walked along the famous Promenade des Anglais beachfront esplanade one afternoon.

Our apartment, a few blocks back from the beach, was small but serviceable and only a short walk to everything, including the old town, with its twisting, turning laneways that hide countless cafes, bars and restaurants.

We made the train trip to both Monaco and Cannes and came away a little unimpressed. If you like high-rise buildings and multimillion-dollar boats then you might be impressed - but they weren't our cup of tea.

What we did stumble on was the seaside village of Antibes, midway between Nice and Cannes, where we spent a delightful afternoon wandering the streets, exploring the port and visiting the amazing collection of Picasso's artworks in Chateau Grimaldi, where he spent a year living and working in 1946.

As it was late on a Friday afternoon, we then settled into a bar near the port and fish markets and enjoyed a few end of week drinks with the locals.

Thankfully, the regular trains along the coast meant we only had to stagger to the train station to catch a lift home to Nice.

But it was the Nice Carnival the following day that was the big attraction and the city centre was closed off with massive grandstands, fencing and security guards.

 

The fact the event is held just a block from where 86 people were killed on Promenade des Anglais by a terrorist in a truck just two years ago isn't lost on local authorities.

So there was a lot of queuing and security checks involved but the show must go on, as they say.

And what a show!

Or shows, in fact.

Saturday afternoon's offering was the annual flower parade, which doesn't sound very exciting until you learn it's original name was the Bataille de Fleurs (Battle of the Flowers) and it originated in the 19th century, when Nice was the carnation-growing capital of France.

The 1876 parade featured young ladies dressed in their finest, parading down the promenade and pelting each other and their audience with flowers.

Not a whole lot has changed.

The young ladies now sit on floats adorned with hundreds of thousands of fresh flowers and do two laps of a circuit about 2km long.

I couldn't work out why they needed a second lap until the parade marshals and young ladies began to literally pull the floats apart and throw the flowers into the crowds, much as happened in 1876.

The idea seems to be that whoever goes home with the most flowers is the winner.

Trust me, you've never seen a frenzy until you've been in the middle of a group of French women fighting for the biggest armload of fresh flowers.

But the locals are a friendly bunch and when our natural Australian shyness stopped us from getting involved in any flower tugging, they made sure we didn't leave empty-handed.

With that parade out of the way, officials emptied the secured area so it could be cleaned and as the sun went down we lined up again for admission to the day's main event - the Nice Carnival parade.

Each year's parade has a different theme - this year's was Space - and the floats quite simply have to be seen to be believed.

Massive motorised structures roll slowly down the street, their limbs twisting and turning while others filled with helium swoop down over the heads of spectators.

A giant ET, Donald Trump blasting Kim Jong Il into space on a rocket ship, a giant spaceman, the French president, Trump again as a gorilla and countless other characters we didn't recognise.

And all that to a cacophony of sound provided by an endless string of marching bands, dance troupes and street performers.

It was a spectacle as hard to describe as it was to survive, as three hours of non-stop music, flashing lights, dancers, lasers, singing, laughing and puppetry on a massive scale had our heads spinning.

Eventually it was time to head home for some peace and quiet as the cleaners moved in to work their magic.

The parades were to be repeated several times over the following fortnight but by then we were on a plane bound for Australia with heads full of memories and hearts that had already decided to return for a taste of Nice.

 

Handy hint: The Nice Carnival sells out every year so buy your tickets online well in advance. Ours did exactly what we had hoped and our seats were waiting for us at both events.



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