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“Bad start, good finish.”
This little piece of wisdom eluded me when my husband and I arrived in Nice on March 3, 2014. All I could think of was that we’d just spent the better part of a day flying from wintry, rainy Portland, Oregon to enjoy the fabled, perfect-year-round weather of the French Riviera – only to be met by a deluge of nearly biblical proportions.
But those unwelcoming rain clouds evaporated by morning. The sun came out. The cerulean waters of the Mediterranean sparkled. And precisely because the heavens had opened up and dumped on our jet-lagged bodies, the Combat Naval Fleuri (Naval Battle of the Flowers) in Villefranche-sur-Mer (about 10 miles east of Nice and our ultimate destination) was postponed to March 5 so we could experience it. We were treated to a slice of Traveling Serendipity that still makes us smile to this day.
What the Heck is a ‘Battle of the Flowers?’ A Primer
I had never heard of this event – nor of neighboring Nice’s land-based Battle of the Flowers (Bataille des Fleurs) – before seeing it myself on that perfect French Riviera day in 2014. A “battle of flowers” is a parade with a delightful twist. Nice’s involves elaborate floats and equally over-the-top costumed participants; Villefranche’s “on the water” version features boats lovingly decorated with mimosas, carnations, and more. Here’s the twist: As the parade moves along, participants throw hundreds (in Nice’s case, thousands) of flowers at the spectators. The “battle” part occurs when the spectators throw the flowers back at the floats/boats – or, in fact, tussle with each other over those prized blossoms. (What?? Throw them back? More about that in a bit.)
Nice’s first Bataille des Fleurs took place in 1876. Villefranche-sur-Mer joined in the fun with its water-based version in 1902. Both are part of the Carnaval celebrations – France’s sensational Mardi Gras events that lead up to Lent (and, ultimately, Easter).
A dazzling parade with flowers being thrown to spectators. What a lovely idea! That makes sense! But then there’s the “battle” part. What’s that about?
The “Battle” of the Flowers
Here’s the backstory: Nice’s Carnaval celebration dates back to the middle ages (1294 is one year given) and, like many traditions, evolved over the years. The festivities became quite rowdy – this is, after all, a celebration of excess before the restrictions of Lent are (or were) enforced. Part of that rowdiness eventually included participants essentially engaging in a communal food fight, throwing eggs, vegetables, fruits, and more. The “battle of the flowers” may have been introduced as a more civilized alternative to the bordering-on-debauchery festivities. Instead of rotten eggs and tomatoes, participants and spectators would be “pelted” with colorful blossoms. (Plus it was a boost to local flower producers.)
You can google “Villefranche-sur-Mer battle of the flowers” (and “Nice battle of the flowers”) and view videos from the early 1900s that depict flower free-for-alls, with blooms arcing back and forth between the floats and the spectators. Over the past century, the event evolved into a tamer version of itself, with some flowers being thrown back at the floats/boats but most simply being grabbed by spectators who end up with a nice bouquet as a memento.
These parades are, not surprisingly, hugely popular. Indeed, Nice’s Carnaval now includes five separate flower parades. You’ll pay handsomely for the once free privilege of participating: 26 euros for a reserved seat, 12 euros for standing.
Nearby Vence and Antibes host similar events. To my knowledge, Villefranche’s version is the only one that takes place on the water (well, water for the “floats” and land for the spectators). Plus it remains absolutely free.
On the rescheduled parade morning my husband and I grabbed a ringside seat at a sidewalk cafe along Villefranche’s Quai de l’Amiral Courbet facing the Port de la Sante, Villefranche’s idyllic harbor where the parade boats were gathering. We were literally 10 feet away from the colorful parade that precedes the flower boat convoy. After the parade – a micro-version of Nice’s legendary Carnaval events – we moved dock-side and waited as the pointus, traditional French fishing boats, began circling the port, coming closer with each passing. As they drew near, the flowers began to fly.
Because I knew nothing about this tradition – I didn’t even google it before I went! – I was baffled by the behavior of a few of the spectators (who were mostly French and local). One young boy – maybe 12 – directly in front of me, started grabbing flowers right before they landed in my hands – and throwing them back at the boats. What the hell? I blurted out – in very rudimentary French: Pourquoi est-ce-que vous faites ca? Donnez moi ces fleurs! (Why are you doing this? Give me those flowers!). I was so stunned I didn’t even add my usual s’il vous plait!
In hindsight – after learning more about the Naval Combat Fleuri – I was embarrassed. That boy likely thought I was nuts because, indeed, HE was doing exactly as he was supposed to.
I doubt that that French youngster is reading this blog. If he is – please accept my apologies! The next time I participate in Villefranche-sur-Mer’s amazing Combat Naval Fleuri, I’ll throw a few flowers back with you.
But I think I’ll keep some too.
Villefranche-sur-Mer’s Battle of the Flowers in 2018
This year Villefranche-sur-Mer’s Combat Naval Fleuri takes place on Feb. 19, 2018. The fun begins at 1:30 p.m. with a colorful parade. The boats will arrive around 2:00 p.m. Don’t miss it. For more information, click here.
Where to Stay in Villefranche-sur-Mer
Hotel Welcome is clearly the accommodation of choice for those who want to be in the thick of the flower battle action – it’s located right on the Port de la Sante.
Written by and photos by Guest Contributor Marie Sherlock for EuropeUpClose.com. Marie Sherlock is an award-winning travel writer (and editor) based in Portland, Oregon. She has had a life-long love affair with all-things-French and tries to visit yearly.