Go on. Think festival and then tell me which nation instantly comes to mind.
It’s got to be Brazil surely? Closely followed probably by Italy with its tomato throwing competitions and enormous statues of saints paraded through the streets on stilts. Or Spain, which loves celebrating the battles between the Moors and the Christians and that crazy bull-chasing festival in Pamplona. But France?
France, the nation that invented that untranslatable word ‘chic’; France that gave us the world’s richest food and the world’s snootiest waiters; France with ‘sophisticated’ as its middle name couldn’t possibly go in for crazy festivals. But there we were, in search of winter sunshine down in the south and everywhere we turn it’s festival time.
Menton is an enchanting little seaside town on the edge of Italy. It’s very elegant, very understated, and surrounded by lemon groves. So naturally, when the great and the good of Menton decided to have a festival it had to be in honour of lemons. So come February, for the past 81 years, floats are built, costumes are designed and pretty girls are found to parade along the ‘corso’ to much fanfare and hooting and tooting. The ‘Fête du Citron’ could never be called ‘chic’ and Parisians would probably turn up their smart noses at such goings on, but we loved it.
Each year there’s a special theme, which this year was ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, so the parade was all about marine life, but made out of lemons. My absolute favourite was this scary monster, which, in the absence of the Great White – there are no sharks in the Mediterranean – we called The Great Lemon. There were also ships, mansions and all kinds of contrivances, most of which required several thousand lemons and quite a few oranges.
Everyone gets in on the act of course. All the shops and stalls in the old town have their share of lemon memorabilia; lemon honey, lemon comfiture (jam to you and me), lemon cleaning products, from soap to shampoo, to stuff for cleaning the sink, all presented alongside lemon coloured hand-towels with matching lemon featured table cloths. But is there a happier colour than yellow? And doesn’t the town look jolly with such a sunny fruit to celebrate?
We feel quite sad to be leaving it, but are reassured that festivals erupt all along the coastline around this time of year, but most especially in Nice, whose ‘Battles of The Flowers’ are famous.
It all started around the mid 19th century when winter visitors, mostly from Britain, flocked to the South of France to escape the British winter. They paraded in their carriages along the sunny Promenade des Anglais discreetly exchanging floral bouquets to each other, celebrating the fact that spring appeared to have sprung. There is nothing discreet about the parade today. The band plays, the jugglers juggle, the street entertainers whip us into a frenzy as pretty girls on floats covered in flowers throw some 20 kilograms of mimosa and fresh-cut blooms into the crowd. I worry slightly that there won’t be any flowers left to buy in the market the next day, but apparently, over the festival, around 100,000 fresh-cut flowers are used, 80% of them produced locally. So I really shouldn’t worry.
Can you smell the flowers? Yes, you can. The atmosphere is quite literally intoxicating and gets you in a really good mood for the main event, which is the Festival Gastonomique of Nice. This is the one with enormous figures, metres high with huge papier maché heads celebrating the re-discovered cuisine of Nice. They call it Cuisine Nissarde and it is one of the few named regional cuisines of France. There is Lyonnaise (not a favourite), Provençale and Nissarde and for me, Nissarde is, forgive the pun, the nicest. In fact, when you’re called Nice and your food is good, why not just call it Nicest and be done with it? But there you are. They are still French, and therefore it must be a little more complicated.
Nissarde cuisine takes many of its flavours from neighbouring Italy. Lots of vibrant coloured vegetables like tomatoes, aubergines, sweet peppers and courgettes. Pulses like lentils and chickpeas, sprinkled with spices and drizzled with lemon and local olive oil. Fish can be John Dory or Sea Bass, but more comfortably are octopus, squid, scallops and lots of spiky shellfish. My two favourite restaurants in Nice operate on the same level in quality and organic ingredients, ‘biologique’ as it’s known in France. But one is casual and almost rustic. The other gastronomique, but in the Nissarde tradition. I couldn’t recommend them or Nice at festival time more. February may be cold and grey elsewhere, but in Nice it’s nice. In fact, it’s nicest.
Attimi Restaurant – casual, delicious. French waiters with smiles.
10 Place Massena.
Luc Salsedo – gastronomique, delicious. Maitre d’ has perfect English and manners to match.
14 Rue Maccarani
Au Pays du Citron – specialist boutique for all things lemon
If all this sounds too good to be missed and should be relished over weeks if not months here are a few suggestions.
2 bedroomed house in Ventimiglia just along the coast after Menton. Beautiful views, lovely warm stone house covered in bougainvillea.
Top floor flat in Nice, with views and everything within walking distance
5 bedroomed house with a pool in Nice for families.
Sandra has been a freelance broadcaster, journalist and writer all her working life. She has reported on TV for Thames Television, London, presented on radio for the British Broadcasting Corporation and has written for The Sunday Times, You Magazine, Punch, Times 2, She Magazine and High Life where she became commissioning editor. Later she became editor of Business Life and created the highly successful sister magazine to High Life for British Airways Club World and Frequent Flyers. She became an enthusiastic home exchanger after writing an article about it for the British national daily newspaper, The Guardian when she interviewed Ed Kushins, the founder of Homeexchange.com. Since then she has traveled to Rome, Sicily, California, Melbourne, Perth, Morocco and Venice, writing about her adventures not only for various glossy magazines, but for HomeExchange.com. Sandra has been married to Jafar Ramini for 40 years and has three adult children and four grandchildren.