Menton celebrates the lemon with La Fête du Citron
They say when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. But what if you are a town on the French Riviera and life gives you extraordinarily delicious lemons? You sell them at high prices, of course! Then you buy truck loads of cheaper ones from Spain and have a big festival. Well, that’s what the city of Menton does anyway. Every year at carnival time, this small coastal city, just down the road from Nice, holds a Lemon Festival called La Fête du Citron.
During this celebration, there are parades of floats, interspersed with marching bands and costumed entertainers, just like any other carnival parade. But there’s one big difference – all of the floats are made of lemons and oranges. It's an all-natural and refreshing change. But the real show-stopper is the exhibition of gigantic citrus fruit sculptures in the Biovès Gardens. Some of these figures can be up to 10 meters (more than 30 feet) tall and use as much as 15 tons of fruit.
They start as metal forms then they are completely covered with lemons and oranges held in place with colour-coordinated yellow and orange rubber bands. They’re simply breathtaking and you won't see just one or two, but about 10 of them! They make quite an impression. All of these structures relate to the theme of the festival which is different every year. In 2014, it's “2000 Leagues under the Sea”, so be on the lookout for giant water creatures (made of lemons and oranges of course).
The first Menton lemon
Why is it that these glorious lemons grow in Menton? Well, they say that it all started when Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden. It seems that Eve “borrowed” a lemon on her way out and tucked it into her fig leaf pocket. As the couple wandered around searching for a new home, Adam discovered his wife’s pilfered yellow prize and was afraid. (He remembered what had happened when she took that apple.) He begged her get rid of the evidence, but she held on to it until she found the perfect spot to plant it. When she saw a place that was so beautiful it reminded her of the paradise she had lost, she lovingly planted it in the rich soil. Thousands of years later, in that very spot, some of Adam and Eves great, great grandchildren settled among the groves of lemon trees which had sprung up from Eve’s lemon and that became the town of Menton. For centuries the “Mentonians” led quiet lives, enjoying their little bit of paradise, and growing and exporting their exquisite lemons.
Then in the 1800s the Riviera was rediscovered by the wealthy Europeans, most notably those famous British Victorians. It was considered healthy and very fashionable to spend the winter on the Riviera. One English doctor raved about the health benefits of Menton’s “perfect” climate and his medical endorsements, along with the arrival of the train, brought a boom in winter tourism to the quiet little town.
Of course, all those visitors needed a place to sleep, so Menton built them hotels – not budget hotels, mind you, but grand luxurious hotels. Because these were wealthy holidaymakers, nobility, and royalty even, they expected a certain level of service and comfort.
They also expected to be entertained. And even though Menton was a lovely, healthful place, it was just a bit boring. So in 1895, in an effort to be more interesting, Menton improved its carnival and added a parade. This, along with a few other activities, seemed to keep the winter tourists happy and things went along pretty well for a few decades.
Budgets and skiing
Then in the 1920s there was another change: summer tourists came on the scene. This new group of visitors was different from the wealthy winter crowd. They were modest folk and they had a budget. They didn’t stay in the suites of the grand hotels or eat in the expensive gastronomic restaurants. And to make things worse, the rich winter regulars turned their backs on the Riviera and took up skiing in the mountains. This was indeed bad news for Menton and its big empty hotels.
A little citrus exhibition
In 1928, to try and bring back some winter business, one of the hotel owners had the idea to host an exhibition of flowers and citrus fruit in one of the hotel gardens. It was such a success, that the following year it doubled in size and moved out into the streets. Gold and silver baskets filled with lemons and other citrus fruit, lined the streets and found their way onto the carnival floats.
The enterprising folks of Menton realised that they were on to something and the Menton Lemon Festival, La Fête du Citron, was officially born in 1933. This lemon-based celebration quickly replaced their carnival and the baskets of citrus fruit along the streets grew into the garden full of monumental citrus structures that we enjoy today.
It’s amazing to think that this colourful festival started with just one little lemon "borrowed" from the Garden of Eden. I think Eve would be pleased to know that an entire festival is now dedicated to her beloved yellow fruit.