My parents came to visit for 10 days for my winter teaching vacances. For a home base, we picked Nice, as it’s close to my home of Cannes but considerably more lively. We were greeted with the perfect illustration of “rain on the parade,” as miserable weather threatened to cancel the last few days of the carnaval, the grand Niçois celebration intended to usher in spring and kiss winter goodbye.
Most days were gray and streaked with rain, or else wet snow that sailed upon the Mediterranean winds and hit us right in the face. Day travel was a study in perseverance, as was simply leaving the apartment.
I bought us tickets for the last night of the parade and crossed my fingers it wouldn’t be snowed out.
The Carnaval de Nice, sometimes called the King’s Carnival, is one of the oldest and most well-known carnival celebrations in the world. The fairly small city of Nice (only the 5th largest in France) receives about a million visitors annually to celebrate the carnaval.
Carnaval history can be traced back to 1294, when Charles of Anjou, the Count of Provence and King of Sicily, spoke of the ‘joyful days of the carnival.’ At this time, though, the carnaval was but a big, messy street party, a way to indulge before the stricter days of Lent, when meat, sugar, eggs, and dairy products wouldn’t grace citizens’ tables until Easter. The word carnaval itself is derived from the Latin “carnelevare”: to take out the meat.
Today, the Carnaval is known for its parades, which feature 17-18 grand floats, or chariots, and up to a thousand dancers and performers. The Carnaval is a loud, pulsating confusion of flowers and confetti and silly string. This more modern incarnation of the Carnaval dates to around 1830, when Italian royalty visited Nice around carnival time. The city hosted a parade to mark the occasion. Carriages paraded past the palace balcony carrying elegant Niçois in costume. This first organized carnival was such a success it was revived annually, despite the absence of a king to oversee the festivities.
Instead, citizens constructed His Majesty “Triboulet,” a straw and rag puppet that functioned as a replacement for the king. The mock king came to symbolize the beginning of carnival festivities…a tradition that continues today. Nice has celebrated carnaval most years, save for interruptions by major wars, making the carnival we attended the 134th. This year’s festivities were presided over by the “Roi de l’Espace,” or King of Space. Each year, the carnival king embodies the year’s theme, which is also loosely adhered to by the floats, dancers, and crazy costumed creatures that run through the streets.
This year’s carnival king was a likeness of Thomas Pesquet, a European Space Agency astronaut and all-around badass.
My parents and I had standing room tickets for the 9 pm carnival parade, the last of 2018. We stood on Place Massena’s black and white checkered floor as a spunky French announcer tried to pump up the crowd (which mainly involved versions of make some noiiiise! Un, deux, trois: ouaaais!) We stood facing a set of packed stands. Behind us were the Promenade du Paillon gardens and an enormous ferris wheel, impressive in the bright lights. The best part: it wasn’t raining, blizzarding, or otherwise destroying the spirit of the carnival.
The carnaval launched in an explosion of noise and confetti. Outer space lent itself well as a theme, resulting in a delightful nightmarish party of rockets, robots, planets, Steam Punk flying machines, aliens, and Jedi.
I loved seeing the floats up close. Designed by ‘Ymagiers’, the floats are recognizable by their signature style: colorful and grotesque. As in the world of political cartoons, well-known public figures morph into bloated caricatures with bulbous noses, gaping grins, and larger-than-life heads. They were strikingly detailed, fabulous and a little freaky.
The political cartoon style of the floats was no coincidence: it wasn’t long before things got political.
In the Planet of the Apes float, a grotesque Trump-ape beats his fists against his hairy chest, his teeth bared in a terrible grimace. Joining him are fellow ape-people Theresa May, Putin, and Erdoğan. Even better is the story of this float: it depicts a space explorer who lands in the middle of this strange new world where apes have the run of things.
Soon after came French president Emmanuel Macron, apparently being spun in circles by his wife Brigitte (meaning she runs the show? I’m not up enough on my politics).
Another highlight was Trump and “Rocket Man” Kim Jong-Un.
A bit more beautiful, though, and my favorite float aesthetically, was the Queen of Space.
I’d only ever seen such festivities on TV. To be in the middle of it all, the dizzying sound and color, confetti landing in my hair, was a vastly different experience.
After two hours of joyful chaos, the crowd swelled towards the edge of Place Massena, tripping over streamers and feathers and tiny children dressed as clowns. There, we watched as the King of Space was destroyed in a ritual burning. Soon, nothing was left but a cloud of smoke rising from a metal frame. Any day now, spring.
To read about my carnival experience last year, in Montluçon in the rural Auvergne region, click here