Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Tourrettes en Fête

April 22, 2010

The normally quiet Provençal village square is a mass of shouting people, and missiles are flying everywhere. The young gendarme is in the thick of the fray, but he seems unconcerned ­– he’s seen it all before. Probably, in his youth, he would have been a part of the chaos, pitching in with the rest of them, but now his role has changed. Someone finds their target and he removes his hat, grinning, to brush off the handful of violet confetti that has covered it. Ah yes, policing the annual Tourrettes-sur-Loup Battle of the Flowers must be a tough job…

In the days running up to the Violet Festival and its subsequent orgy of petal-throwing the village is, seemingly, its usual tranquil self but, behind the sturdy wooden portals of its tall medieval houses, acres of chicken wire are being sculpted into fantastic shapes, ready to be smothered in blooms when the time arrives. Every group of citizens, from the local football team to the nursery school, will have their own float and competition is fierce to be judged the finest. Likewise, the local shopkeepers are finding inventive ways of celebrating or replicating their wares in blossom.

By the evening before the festival, it’s hard to believe that there is a flower left to be had in the whole of the Côte d’Azur, but now it is time for the ordinary villagers to do their bit. Stalls in the market are soon bringing in extra shipments of mimosa and violets from goodness-knows-where, so that every window, balcony and doorway can be garlanded in vibrant yellow and purple. Despite warm March sunshine during the day, the narrow streets stay cool and shady and an evening chill means that wilting is an unlikely prospect. As visitors we somehow expect that our little rented house may be excluded but the neighbours are having none of it – “oh but you must, it is tradition!” – and so we, too, are emptying vases and unrolling twine. Then we stand back to admire our efforts, look at the other houses that surround us… and rush to the square for extra supplies, determined not to let the side down for the British effort.

While we sleep, the work continues. Wagons of every shape and size are wheeled out of barns and garages, the vast chicken wire creations are loaded aboard, and then every centimetre of surface is smothered in dew-fresh carnations, irises, violets, mimosa, tulips. Wires are stretched between the houses and strung with smaller shapes. By the time we wander out to the bakery, we are able to laugh at the rows of “washing line” on which clothes pegs hold a white carnation bra, tiny red tulip briefs, striped violet-and-snowdrop socks and a pair of pink carnation “big pants”. And the ice-cream parlour’s huge cone in a visual feast. In the square some late arrivals are struggling to unload a huge multi-coloured duck from the top of a 2CV, to be hung outside a restaurant. At the other end of the scale, one of Tourrettes’ elder citizens sits at her window offering tiny posies of intensely scented violets for us to sniff at as we walk.

As the day progresses the crowds grow – estimates are that some 10,000 people pile into the tiny village to admire the handiwork. Moving among them the eccentric “Pignata de Castille” band play ancient tunes on highly decorated instruments that appear to be made from kitchen utensils and terracotta pots.

Finally, the parade begins. There is no street wide enough for it to pass through and so it winds around the square time and again, giving everyone a chance to see the smiling ladybird of the école maternelle, surrounded by serious-faced infant dressed as bees and butterflies; the goal-scoring boot and ball; the undersea world of the Riviera (schoolchildren dressed as fish) dominated by an imposing octopus.

Behind us, a huge mobile wood-fired over is turning out massive trays of the traditional Niçois chickpea-flour pancake socca, which is eating hot from paper cones, sprinkled with green olive oil and black pepper, but not even that can overwhelm the scent of flowers that now fills the square.

At last the judging is done – we never found out who had won over the cheering of the crowd – and the shout goes up for the battle to begin. In an anarchy of joyful destruction the float-builders who have worked so hard to create their masterpieces grab handful upon handful of delicate blossoms and begin to hurl them towards the upstretched hands of the crowd. The tall and the quick are soon laden with ravishingly muddled bouquets, the slower and less ruthless grab fallen blooms before they can be trampled underfoot. It is impossible not to get caught up in the madness, as even the gendarme found out.

It’s over as quickly as it began. By nightfall the square is returning to normal, save for it’s sweetly-scented “litter”, and the denuded wire ladybird and her fellows have vanished back to their sheds. We were told by an elderly lady, the daughter of shepherds, perhaps a Manon in her day, that the Festival was not always this grand – once, in Tourrettes, the land was so dry that the only things that grew were olives and violets. Maybe this Rite of Spring, part celebration part destruction, commemorates a time when the only thing one dared to waste were a handful of transient, delicate blossoms that showed the land was still alive. Now acres of greenhouses provide the ammunition, but the delicious, pagan joy of welcoming the returning sunlight is as potent today as it ever was in Provence.