Nancy Heslin visits the “Maison du Carnaval” in Nice where preparations are made for one of the world’s best carnivals
Nice Carnival, now in its 136th year and the inspiration for Rio Carnival, takes place over two weeks ending on the first day of Mardi Gras. I met up with Denis Zanon, Nice’s Director of Tourism (see Reporter n° 139), who spoke about what reader Suzy Nothard calls “a superb, well-organised and world-class event for the city”.
“In the beginning Nice Carnival was a day that allowed the public to make fun of the rich and powerful, a gentle revolution if you like. That’s why they used to have those grotesque faces and throw plaster – it was their spring break. Then it became bigger and bigger and we’ve since replaced plaster with flowers but we’ve kept the core caricatures making fun of politics – we’ve had Sarkozy, Chirac and lthe year before last, Obama. Our goal is to get people coming back so even if Carnival’s trademark procession of floats looks identical, we try to improve every detail so that it’s not the same story the following year. It costs €7 million to stage this event and just putting up posters is not enough these days – you need to build a global campaign to attract new younger and upscale markets. Last year, for the first time, we had people coming just for Carnival and staying at 5-star hotels.
“Reclaiming Place Masséna three years ago after the tram work was a rebirth; we brought a traditional show into the 21st century with technology, screens, anima- tions and DJs. Until then, the people of Nice were forced into this event: it was a hassle for us and nothing was gained by the peo- ple not involved. So we launched Carnaval de quartiers – we hire local bands and help children with costumes generating a competition between neighbourhoods and whoever wins can participate in the big parade. This local link is our major project so that the whole city is in tune with Carnival and if the event succeeds, it’s because the people made it.”
Theme is everything
So where does it all start? “Let me first point out that we are the only tourist office in France in charge of the tourist economy and such an enormous event. We actually strategise more than a year in advance, so even now the 2012 edition is already administratively underway. As we are a public institution, every year we are obligated to put out tender – for the grand- stands, flowers, floats, security. This takes a huge amount of time and is very controlled by the French administration.
“We start with a theme. Attracting future generations is part of our agenda so the internet is important for our PR as are the visuals for Carnival, which have totally changed – we are now more in a Pixar mode so that kids will look at the posters and want to go. Second, we need to be able to translate the theme into floats.”
Preparing a float
“Once the theme is decided, artists draw their interpretation of it. We receive about 200 submissions of which we have to choose 20, and these become our 20 sequential floats. From here, we then approach the carnavaliers – who build the floats – and get them to transform the selected drawings into afloatof12x3x8to17metreshigh.We select 20 and they start the building in the Maison du Carnaval warehouse in town.”
Eric Dubreil (photo with drawings of last year’s theme – “King of the Mediterranean”) has been the artistic coordinator for the floats – les chars – for seven years and oversees the adaptations from drawings to floats (pictured) at the Maison du Carnaval. “There are about 30 people that work here in the warehouse in the months before the event. It’s a very traditional artistic process; there are no 3D techniques. A float costs about €30,000 and from each one 80 to 100,000 flowers – 80 per cent locally grown – will be tossed to the crowds. The grosses têtes are made from pasteboard and weigh about 10 to 12 kg per head. The floats take about 90 minutes to drive from here to the Promenade and by the end of Carnival, the têtes will have travelled the distance of a marathon.”
Security and insurance
How is security addressed? Explains Denis Zanon: “When you have 40,000 people in one place, safety and crowd con- trol are priority. The security commission at the Prefecture looks over our proposal – civil security, medical, national police, local police, gendarmerie – and fortu- nately we haven’t had any major incidents. When Carnival returned to Place Masséna, the crowd was so dense that we decided, for safety reasons, to have a paid entry to a closed secure area for the kids. People really appreciated this; the area can hold about 6000 standing and has a massive 100 sqm screen, light shows and space to walk around in comfort.
“Carnival has costly weather insurance. We have an agreement with the airport to access their fine-tuned weather forecasts. When you cancel an event, like last year when we called off a parade one hour before, you have to have solid reasons and I am the one who pushes the button. Think about it, you have 8000 spectators in the grandstands and 10,000 people around. The floats and five tonnes of Mimosa at the end of the Promenade are ready, security is in force, 1000 workers are in place just before the event.
Immediately you have to coordinate with security to refund money and then take back the floats and dismantle them before distributing the flowers. In France, it’s prohibited to give flowers to hospitals so local retirement homes receive van loads of flowers.”
What are we missing? Denis Zanon insists, “You are missing an XXL event and without attending Carnival you can’t imagine it. When I came here three years ago, I couldn’t figure out why everyone was talking more about Carnival than tourism. When I saw Carnival for the first time, and everything that we had built piece by piece, I was astonished. It’s light years away from the old idea you have of Carnival – the floats, the crowds, the music, the taking over of the city. Carnival is the DNA of Nice and it’s addictive.”