Masks and Mardi Gras-style carnivals have a long association, stemming from the Middle Ages when the celebrations allowed oppressed peasants to mock the aristocracy. Masks and disguises protected them from what might be a beheading offense. The modern Nice Carnival dates from 1873 and continued with only brief interruptions for the more serious events of wars. Unlike the carnivals of Venice, there’s no real expectation that visitors should wear costume or masks. Far from grey skies and full of excitement, Nice at Carnival time is a riot of colour and commotion.
It all begins with a grand parade of around 20 floats that make their way through the crowded streets. At the head is the carnival king in his Corso Carnavalesque (Carnival Procession).
Around 20 floats take the theme of the year using around 50 giant puppets (called grosses tetes, or big heads). Making the papier-mache figures is a work of art in itself, using centuries-old techniques involving layers of paper glued one by one inside a special mould. Once the figures are created, they’re painted by specialist craftspeople.
The final aspect are the costumes used to dress the characters, the more flamboyant and colorful the better.
Two people on each float throw some 20 kilograms of mimosa and fresh-cut flowers into the crowd as they make their way along the Promenade des Anglais beside the azure blue sea of the Mediterranean. Over the festival, around 100,000 fresh-cut flowers are used, 80% of them produced locally. Finally the floats arrive in the place Massena.
For the best view of this perfume-filled, colorful extravaganza, buy a ticket for a seat in the stands or for the designated standing area along the road.
The streets are full day and night with stalls selling gifts, Provencal items, lavender, brightly colored fabrics and food.