The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Saturday, March 10, 2007

La Bataille des Fleurs, Nice

Nice is not Rio, though it does have a grand sweep of beaches, and it is not New Orleans, though it does have its proud historic district colored with the patina of grander days past. So it's not surprising that Carnaval in Nice is a little different from Rio's samba-ing bacchanalia and Nawlins' midwestern-college-kids-puking-up-hurricanes.

Nice's Carnaval centers on a series of parades, mostly by night but some during the day, along the Promenade des Anglais, the kilometers-long walkway that stretches along the beach from the Chateau at one end, past the Hotel Negresco (where Isadora Duncan met her end via a bizarre combination of her extra-long scarf and her open-topped Bugatti with wire wheels), all the way down to the airport at the far side of the bay.

Our decision to go to Nice for Carnaval was rather last-minute; we had been planning a trip to southwest France but rethought things after, when I mentioned our plans to my boss, he said "It's gonna be cold." The warmest place in France in February is the Riviera, so we reformulated. Upon learning that Carnaval would be happening the same weekend we planned to be in Nice, we immediately tried to get tickets.

Tickets? Wait, what? They sell tickets to an open-air parade that covers public streets? Yep. In a move that somehow seems very American, the city erects green 3-meter barriers all along the parade route to prevent the nonticketholding public from getting a peep at the festivities [which they do anyway when topography permits, see photo]. In the center of the parade route there is a grandstand, the only place with guaranteed seating for a good view of the action. By the time we decided to get tickets, only one parade still had seats available--the Sunday-afternoon Bataille des Fleurs.

As it turned out, we must have got some of the very last seats, because we were on the very top row of the grandstand: by turning around, we had a pleasant view over the beach. It would have been more pleasant if a steady 40-mph wind wasn't coming off the water.

[photo: keeping each other warm. The water was remarkably blue and clear, even on this blustery day.]

There are worse places to be a bum [photo].

Despite the name, the Bataille is not especially combative; the only salvos exchanged are the bouquets of flowers tossed into the crowd by participants, not unlike the beads thrown at Mardi Gras, minus the flashing of boobs.

[photo: Look, mom, I caught one! Taken from beneath the grandstand]

Each year the Carnaval has a theme; this year it was La Grande Melee, which translates loosely as The Big Free-For-All. That doesn't make too much sense unless you know that Melee is also a French term for a rugby scrum, and that France is hosting the Rugby World Cup this fall. Also, the presidential election, described as a melee, is this year... which goes a long way toward explaining the giant statue of Jacques Chirac in a rugby uniform.

I'm trying to imagine this happening in the US--a giant statue of President Bush at a major festival--but I can't picture a scenario that doesn't end in mass boycotts, protests and counter protests, violence and a giant bonfire. The French must take their politics a lot more lightly than Americans do, or at least be able to take a little ribbing of their guy when it's all in fun.

Well, besides flowers being launched, Silly String also seems to play a major part in Carnaval; vendors hawk it for 5 euros a can on every street corner, and people launch surprise attacks to cover the unsuspecting in pink or green string. Boog got stringed (strung?) as we walked through the market to get a bite to eat beforehand. Some of the marchers in the parade had backpack-mounted silly-string launchers--something like silly-string flamethrowers--and would occasionally gang up and bury somebody [photo].

As for the parade itself, general Gallic quirkiness and whimsy prevailed.

There were marching bands and elaborate feathered costumes...

breakdancing robots [pic],

floating rugby footballs covered in bizarre humanoid shapes [pic],

giant stiltwalking black velociraptors directed by a similarly stiltwalking Cruella DeVille [pic],

and scantily-clad women bravely displaying their, erm, professionalism on a chilly, windy day [pic].

All in all the affair was rather tame, more Rose Parade than Mystic Krewe of Zulu, but I suppose that's fitting of a town that echoes of a more genteel age.


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