Nice, France – February: Each year, for the entire month of February, Nice on the French Riviera is overtaken with celebrations of the Carnaval.
This year, due to recent events in Paris, the festival was reduced to two and a half weeks. At the heart of the festival, is the King and Queen of Carnival, two massive floats that sit in the city centre presiding over each and every day of the Carnival, while the city celebrates with flower parades, parades of light and the very first Queernaval in France, until the final day, when the king is towed out to sea and burned.
The weekend I visited Nice, the sun was shining brightly and the city was warm. Upon arriving at the simply stunning Ellington Hotel a short walking distance from the centre of the Nice old town, I was taken immediately by the old-world charm of the hotel. The interior is decorated with deep colours reminiscent of 19th century French design. The colours are deep and the light fittings opulent. My suite looked out over the street and the king sized bed was so deliciously soft that I nearly fell asleep right there after my flight down from Bremen.CREDIT: Aaron Holloway
However, the days were perfect to wander the streets and explore the little hidden secrets of the Nice old town. While the main parts of the city are easy to find, from the main market square in the old town, right next to Matisse’s old home, along the main shopping area, filled with adorable little shops and cafes, restaurants and bars, up to Place Garibaldi, named after the Nicoise politician who is considered one of the fathers of unified Italy, despite Nice eventually becoming part of France in the 1800’s.
The traditional Nicoise style and architecture is still apparent in the old town, with tall closely huddled buildings in terracotta, yellows and pale pinks lining the streets, often with traditionally green shutters. The street signs are also given in the traditional Nicoise names, as well as the new French names. Sometimes these are simple translations, but other times, the names are entirely different.
If you take a moment to walk away from the crowds, and through the back streets, you get to see a completely different part of the city. The hustle and bustle of the crowds dies away and the streets seem quiet. Looking up, you can see people’s washing hanging from the lines outside windows, it really feels as though you have been pulled backwards through time and the modern world isn’t important. The most interesting thing about these back streets, is that for the most part, there really isn’t anything to do. There are no café’s hidden away, no little secret stores. These are the houses of the people who live in the old town, or the backs of the stores that can be found in the other streets. If you take the right streets, perhaps with the help of Google Maps, you can wander your way through the back streets and find the memorial to Nice’s very own ‘Joan of Arc’ character, Catarina Ségurana who led the army to fight back an invasion attempt by the French king and his Ottoman allies in 1543. Wander further and you’ll find the back steps up to where the Nice castle used to stand, looking out over the city, until Louis the 14th had it dismantled block by block after taking it by siege. The view is incredible over the entire city of Nice, across the Med towards the airport and beyond, and back towards the alps that the city nestles itself against.
Aside from exploring the town, there is another great reason to visit Nice during Carnival, and that is: the parties. Particularly, Lou Queernaval. Organised by the same people who manage the LGBT organisation and the Nice Pride parade, Queernaval is the first LGBT Carnival in France, and this year, returned for a triumphant second year of celebrations. The streets were jam packed with people, both gay and straight, celebrating queer culture in Nice and the surrounding areas. The parade took place in Messina Square, in the heart of the city, between the old and new towns. People packed the stadium seating, and crammed in around the floats on the road, dressed in all manner of costumes and outrageous outfits to celebrate the event.
On the day of the big event we stopped for lunch at the long-time family owned Acciardo restaurant where we were served by the younger generation of the family a delightful pair who served us an incredible selection of traditional nicoise food: a gnocchi made from Shard, a particularly traditional ingredient for Nice, Daube a slow cooked beef stew served with ravioli – a particularly incredible, but heavy dish, alongside nicoise salad and traditional entrées. I honestly have not eaten so much food in a long time, followed by a lemon meringue tart which we had to share, simply because we couldn’t eat a whole one. It was a good thing we had plenty of errands to run in the afternoon, including getting some spiffing costumes to wear to the parade. I decided along with two others who I joined at the festival, to go as French noblemen. I was ‘The Old Comte De Plonge’, joined by Monsignor La Vache, and The Comte de Frou Frou (thanks French & Saunders for the names!)
For dinner we were treated to some more local cuisine at the L’Empire restaurant. Succulent legs of chicken resting on beds of potato salad with a rich mushroom sauce, and fluffy chocolate sponge cake which was just to die for. There is one thing for sure, if you visit Nice, you won’t go hungry, and you won’t be starved for choices.
We quickly moved on to the Queernaval to see the show begin, and it did not disappoint. The event was hosted by the fabulously dressed Erwan, complete with a massive pair of feather wings. He was joined at the celebrations by local bands, local dancing troupes, a sea of drag queens and dancers and Manuel Blanche, a simply stunning DJ from Paris. The party began with a bang and went on until midnight when it moved to local bar Glam to continue well into the night.
The next morning, we met our group after breakfast and walked into town to make a short tour of the old town and the daily market that happens in the square. The market is different every day, but on the weekend it is local flowers, spices, herbs and other foods. Among the stores in the old town there is a store with traditional sweets from Nice made from sugared flowers and candied fruits. Definitely something worth trying while you are visiting Nice.
Through the old town which, like most old towns, is a mess of winding streets containing various stores of locally made produce, pottery, food, gifts and souvenirs. At the end of the plaza is the house that Henri Matisse lived in while he was in Nice. The house is still in use as a house, and there is a Matisse museum a short bus ride out of the main city area. It’s worth taking a few hours to explore the streets, and to wander away from the main shopping streets and discovering the quiet streets where there are less tourists, a more traditional look to the old town, with coloured buildings and shutters, washing hanging across the street 4-floors up. There are hidden treasures around the town, with things such as two holes in a wall where two cannonballs struck the wall during a failed invasion by the French and Turkish forces.
Our afternoon was filled by a visit to the festival of flowers, a parade of locally-grown flowers and colourful floats and giant floating ‘things’. The street parade runs several times during the weeks of Carnaval in the mid-afternoon along the Avenue de Americas on Nice’s beachfront.
Just a few minutes walk along the Avenue de Americas is the Nice Castle Mont. While the castle is no longer on the top of the hill, after being dismantled by the King of France after finally capturing the city after a long siege, there is a park and lookout from which you can see far into the Mediterranean and beyond the mountains behind Nice. The long walk up the steps is worth it once you get to the top and can enjoy the view. There’s even a back-passage you can take down the mountain that drops you at the back of the old town along the main shopping street.
The main event for the Carnaval is the Carnaval parade on Saturday night. When this parade gets going the king and queen, two massive floats with moving parts are joined by a large number of other floats made by local artisans to a theme, this year’s theme was the King of the Media, and along with music and dancers and performers they drive around Messina Square for a couple of hours. The French floats are certainly not shy in pressing the controversial issues, covering ideas of kids consumed by phones and television, politicians being caught with strippers and Chinese and North Korean censorship issues.CREDIT: Aaron Holloway
Les Garcons: Gay restaurant in the gay section of the town has a great selection of local food and wine, and an incredible basement for having a few drinks while waiting for your table.
Attimi: A ‘Slow food experience’ made with locally sourced fresh food. The service is quick and the food is light and fresh and perfect for sharing with a group.
Gaglio: A traditional Nicoise restaurant with a great selection of local cuisine. Located next to the park a short walk from the old town.
L’Empire: A modern dining restaurant in a minimalist style, the food is rich and full of flavour, the staff friendly (and attractive!)
Australian photographic artist living in a small city in Germany. I travel a lot around Europe and blog about my travels, as well as photograph the cities and people I meet.