We’ve just returned from our 3rd visit to the Cote d’Azur for our February fix of colour and fun at the Carnaval de Nice and (of course) the superb Fete du Citron that takes place in the beautiful setting of Menton from mid February until early March each year.
If you haven’t read one of my previous posts about the Festival, it’s a vibrant event that celebrates the local citrus fruits and has been taking place in the town for over 80 years, in fact this year saw the 87th event, designed around the theme of ‘Les Fêtes du Monde’
Happily not only is the Fête a bright distraction from the dull, dreary and positively wet days of February, but it also happens to coincide with our wedding anniversary, so for the last 3 years we have headed to the coast and enjoyed the spectacle, raising a glass on our anniversary too.
This year we lengthened our stay a little and instead of staying in a hotel, booked a little place through Air BnB so that we had our own space in a quiet part of the pretty old town, where we could lock the door and just relax.
It would be fair to say that it was a bit of a busy lead-up to our trip this year with Andy arriving in Provence with the dog and cat, just in time to welcome our first ever house-sitters, before leaving at 5am to drive down to the coast, with the aim of making the most of the time we had there.
We decided that our day would start with a cycle from Antibes to Nice. It’s a beautiful ride along the cycle-path and onto the Promenade Des Anglais, the views are incredible and the sea shimmering under the bright blue skies was simply beautiful, but unfortunately proved rather a distraction for me.
In yet another ‘happy-place’ (when I just seem to become a danger to myself) I failed to see the yellow and black cable-cover across the path, caught it at slow speed, crashed into the kerb and went over the handlebars.
I like to think that I did it with great elegance, landing in a perfect tucked roll, which would have been worthy of a round of applause and a ‘perfect 10’ in any gymnastics event. Andy, however soon put pay to that, describing it as being more like watching a sack of potatoes fly through the air, landing with a loud thud, followed by a rather inelegant ‘oof’ to the shock of the bystanders who stood in shock as I got up, dusted myself down and hopped back on the bike with an exclamation of ‘I’m fine’ before cycling off, leaving Andy to deal with the concerns.
Happily I made it back without further incident (albeit rather sore and a bit bruised) before we pottered on to Menton, where we could finally settle in and relax.
Unfortunately one of the outcomes of my little tumble was that I couldn’t lift anything, other than a couple of coats, so poor Andy was left to struggle up the huge flight of steps in front of The Basilica to the house with our case, 2 rucksacks and another bag, but I think by this time he was so tired he didn’t feel the pain.
A trip to the Festivals is never a relaxing experience, so after a brief stroll and an early supper we headed off to watch the first event we had booked in to see… The Corso Nocturne (illuminated evening parade), followed by fireworks off the beach.
Normally we have just watched the daytime parade and visited the exhibition of structures in the gardens in daylight too, but decided this year to visit the evening events for a change. We arrived about 15 minutes before the parade started, entering through the gates on the beachfront road, which were much quieter than those in the centre of town.
The pavements were already packed with eager visitors waiting for the parade to start, watching as the floats, all formed from oranges and lemons started to be lit up in coloured lights.
On time the parade set off and it quickly became clear that this is a very different event to the daytime Corso. It’s set on a much shorter course and just feels much more intimate than the daytime event with more people in a smaller space and the lights shifting the colours of the floats from the natural bright fruits to an eclectic mix across the whole spectrum.
The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) played a big part in the parade, with 3 giant characters taking a key place, their large bobbing heads standing almost 2 storeys tall nodding over the crowd.
The floats, each representing a different festival towered above the crowd, whilst people on them threw confetti across the visitors, covering everything in a shower of brightly coloured paper.
In between the floats entertainers took centre stage with their costumes dotted with lights and the sequins glittering brightly.
Some displays looked simply incredible and had been purposefully designed with the night parade in mind with beautiful Egrets lit from within taking centre stage…
And the Chinese Dragon mesmerising everyone with the trail of lights along its flanks….
Even the drum band gliding past on their single wheel ‘Segways’ glowed with eerie green light.
In the evening the parade passes twice around the shorter course, with the whole event lasting about an hour, before everyone leaves and finds a space on the pavement, back along the beach road towards the headland to await the Fireworks display.
It’s fair to say that by this point we were tired after the early start and Andy was struggling (and failing) to stay awake, whilst the Pompiers finished priming the display.
Then all the streetlights along the front were turned off, plunging the beach into darkness so that the fireworks could be seen at their best, with the explosions reverberating off the mountains behind the town adding to the effect. Not even Andy could have slept through this!
But as the last explosion echoed into the distance we ambled back up through the town to the house, having had a very lovely evening, filled with all the colour and fun we have come to expect from the parades at the Fete du Citron.
The following evening we had booked to go to the illuminated gardens, when the superb structures in the Jardins Biovės are lit up and entertainers fill the spaces in between, so we spent the day on our bikes again, taking a ride out of the town up to the Col de La Madone, with incredible views en route back down to the coast.
… Spending the afternoon sitting in the shelter of a fence, reading our books ahead of going out again in the evening.
Just before we left the house we saw that the event was sold out for the evening, so we’re pleased we’d booked our tickets back in December.
When we arrived, about 30 mins after the gardens had opened, the queues to get in via the main entrance were huge, so we walked up to the entrance on the top garden and happily walked straight in.
Once we got in it was clear to see why the queues were so big as the gardens were packed with people standing in awe at the incredible sight of the illuminated structures.
Being used to visiting the gardens during the day when you can pick your time and avoid the crowds, this came as quite a shock, but it was so different and quite spectacular.
Again the displays are based on the theme of Festivals from around the World and we immediately walked into the sight of a huge person sitting astride a barrel, celebrating the Munich Beer Festival… Quite incredible.
We then squeezed our way along the paths taking time to enjoy the other displays…..
….And the different entertainers from Fire Artists….
To a ‘Beatles’ tribute band playing under the Tower Bridge….
Seeing the displays at night under the lights was just so different to seeing them during the day. The rainbow of colours was simply beautiful and so many had aspects that had been designed with the lights in mind….
… but whereas I loved seeing the illuminated floats the previous night, if I’m honest I have to say that I prefer seeing the gardens during the day when the natural citrus fruits take centre stage….
The talent of those who design and build the structures is easy to see when it is unmasked by the lights…..
…. And the simple yellow and orange of the fruit is so vibrant and cheers my heart in what can be a very grey time of year.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed seeing the gardens lit up, but will probably revert to just going in during the day again when we’re back next year, but you never know…
So onto next year… Here are some tips if you fancy going to visit the Fête in 2021…
1. Book early to avoid disappointment The tickets go on sale in late November /early December and as some events sold out this year it is worth buying your tickets in advance via the website Fête du Citron
2. Book parking. During the Festival, parking in the town can be really difficult and we have now started to book our parking in the secure Les Sablettes car park via Interparking this year it was such a relief to drive up when the car park was showing as closed, to be able to drive straight in, when others were being turned away.
3. Book accommodation. There is a huge choice of accommodation in the town from budget, chain hotels to elegant seafront establishments as well as plenty of private rentals. If you want a sea-view or a view of the parade directly from your window then it’s best to book early as many sell out early.
4. Seek out the quieter entrances Understandably, security is tight at all the entrances to the events and some access points are busier than others. The main entrance is always the busiest, but accesses at the top of the gardens (closest to the station) and along the seafront (for the evening parades) tend to be slightly quieter.
5. Don’t be in a rush to leave. Last year Andy and I sat on the terrace of our hotel room watching cars sitting in a queue to get out of the town after the Sunday parades for over 2 1/2 hours. The Town is such a pretty place to walk around, there are plenty of restaurants to eat in or places to buy food for a picnic on the beach. The shops are open and I should think it’s much nicer to amble and relax, enjoying the atmosphere for a couple of hours before leaving, rather than sitting in a car just getting frustrated.
6. Use the train. If you are staying outside the town, make use of the excellent local train service that runs to the town from towns along the coast. The trains are efficient, quick and good value (eg Nice to Menton 11e return) and the views from the line are stunning. The station is just above the Jardin de Biovès and it is a quick walk into the town centre.
Perhaps we’ll see you there…..