For over 90 years, the Fête du Citron in Menton, has been one of the major winter events on the French Riviera, rivalled only by the Carnival of Nice. Despite having been around here now for the best part of 30 years, until now I had never bothered to go to visit it, so this week I decided to take advantage of the fact that I have more spare time than I have had over the last 7 years to check it out and I really loved it: the friendly vibes, the bright colours, the amazing creativity, the positive energy radiating from the town, clearly the fruit (pardon the pun) of thousands of hours of hard work.
This article will first explain the background of the festival and how it’s organised, then I’ll share some photos from my recent visit for you to get a general feel of it and I’ll finally finish up with some practical information on how to make the most of your visit and avoid some easily avoidable logistical mishaps.
- So, what is all the hype about?
Basically, it’s a festival to promote lemons and all other citrus fruits of the Menton region, which played a very important part in the success of the local economy from the 16thcentury until very recently. Things started in 1928 as a general exhibition for citrus fruits and flowers organised in one of the sadly now defunct Belle Epoque hotels, the Riviera Palace.
Following this exhibition’s immediate success with the local glitterati, the Menton Florists’ Association launched the actual Fête du Citron in 1934 and the first elements designed from citrus fruits were created in 1936 alongside a carnival style event marking the end of the winter and the start of Lent in a festive manner.
The official charter of regulations for exhibitors stated the main aim being “to show the public all the fruit varieties in the citrus family which were grown in the gardens of Menton and in the surrounding countryside, as well as the plants, flowers and exotic fruit which typified agricultural export and were a result of the gentle climate”. Basically an early way of promoting the local economy to potential foreign investors!
The festival carried on growing and in the 1950s, the first metal structures were used to create the giant sculptures that stand today. Exciting themes were also launched to give a specific identity to each year’s festival based on countries, films or anything else that captured the public’s imagination. From a logistical point of view, somebody had the stroke of genius, in order to avoid the sight of putrefying fruits, to use elastic bands to attach them to the metal structure instead of impaling them on spikes.
Nowadays, the event lasts 20 days, averages 240.000 spectators each year and uses over 140 tonnes of citrus fruit for the gardens and floats. It employs 400 workers from the council services to produce the structures and each edition requires a full year of preparation so needless to say, it’s a massive event that uses up a lot of resources!
The festival has several major events which you can choose to visit, buying either tickets à la carte or as packages.
The static events:
- The most famous part is the exhibition of citrus patterns, ie. the giant citrus sculptures located in the Jardin Biovès, the nice landscaped gardens that stretch from opposite the casino up to the train station. You can enter these every day for the whole duration of the festival (which in 2019 is from 16 February to 3 March).
- On 3 occasions, the gardens are also open at night and the sculptures are illuminated, snazzily marketed as the “Garden of Lights”
Then there is the whole carnival component: sadly, I didn’t have the time to attend it this year but that’s the plan for the upcoming editions:
- The Golden Fruits Parade, also known as a “Corso” in carnival style vocabulary, with special floats made out of citrus fruits of course and live performers. There are three of these, generally on Sunday afternoons, taking place on a loop around the waterfront just east of the Casino.
- The night time parade: the same thing but, as the name kind of indicates, at night, followed by fireworks. This takes place twice, generally on Thursday evenings.
For both of these parades, you can either get seated tickets in temporary stands or just standing room (at half the price).
2. Visiting the citrus patterns exhibition
Given the preparation required (see practical information below), I was wondering whether it was a big deal and if I should actually be bothered to go, blog reporting notwithstanding – after all, we’re talking about giant sculptures made out of lemons that mainly attract kids. However, I was wrong and very much enjoyed myself because the whole atmosphere is tailored to transport you into a magical dimension that reminded me a bit of Disneyland (which I last visited in the 1980s), the theme for 2019 being “The Fantastic Worlds” (Des Mondes Fantastiques).
- Entering the gardens from the southern tip, the ticket check takes place at a wonderfully elaborate wall with grandiose music, sound and attention to detail (note the spinning witch on top).
- After entering, you are totally immersed in a magical world that touches all the senses, with huge attention to detail in each sculpture, here are the major set-pieces in the southern part of the garden.
- Half way through, you need to pass over a footbridge to get to the other side of the gardens: from the top, you can get an amazing view over both sets of sculptures.
- The art works on the northern side of the gardens are perhaps slightly smaller and less impressive but this enables you to get a closer look at them and enjoy the attention to detail.
- Once you get to the top end, you have a nice chill-out area with trees and benches as well as a small snack bar where you can relax before going around for another walk. There are also plenty of speciality stores where you can buy local products (lemon-based soap, limoncello, sweets etc).
I’d just recommend to have a few walks around and soak in the atmosphere – the day I visited, on a Monday morning just after it had opened, there was a bright blue sky with amazing light that really brought out the colours of the fruits and made the moment unforgettable. When you leave, if you walk back towards the train station, the outer wall of the exhibition shows lots of behind the scenes photos of the staff taken on the job, designing and creating the different structures, from start to finish – the task is pretty Herculean, especially when they winch themselves up onto the structures to place the fruits, one by one…
3. Practical information
a. Buying tickets
Unless you’re part of a guided tour negotiated by a travel agency, these are best purchased online via the official Fête du Citron websitein order to avoid queuing, online prices are also a bit cheaper (this year, 10€ for the visit to the gardens instead of 12€ on the spot). You can get either individual tickets for the events or packages. Full details of rates and packages are on the website but to give you an idea, a seated ticket to one of the parades currently costs 25€ for adults and 10€ for children under 14.
If you buy online tickets, you don’t need to print them out if you can’t do so, I got through by displaying the bar code of the PDF on my phone screen, the guards have a scanner and it all went pretty smoothly even though I only bought the tickets an hour before I got there.
If you want to buy them on the spot, you can do so at the tourist office which is located half way down the Biovès gardens, on the left hand side if you are facing towards the sea, on the ground floor of a large domed building called the Palais de l’Europe.
b. When to go
You’ll have the choice if you’re not planning to attend the parades and just visit the sculptures: if you can, try to go in the middle of the morning on a weekday. I went on a Monday morning at around 10.30am (30 minutes after opening) and it was busy but by no means crowded and the light was perfect: I still had to wait a while to get the best photo angles though. I can assume that if you go on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, it will be absolutely packed and a nightmare to get around so avoid if you can and at least pre-empt the queues by buying the tickets online.
If you are going to the parades, make sure you get there at least 90 minutes early as there are security checks and it’s tough to get around the city centre especially if you have a pushchair and children.
How to get there
- By car: unless you really have an overriding reason to do so, don’t even bother, especially on a parade day… There were 4km of traffic jams on the motorway before the Menton exit on the opening day and that’s before driving into the city centre and once you eventually get there, you’ll waste 2 hours trying to park…
- By train: by far the best option if you can take it, trains to Menton (40 minutes from Nice, 15 from Monaco) are generally crowded but it’s the least stressful option and the station is just a 10 to 15-minute walk from the heart of the action. Just pay attention when the last train heading east or west leaves if you’re attending one of the evening events so you don’t end up stranded and having to take out a mortgage to pay for a taxi…
- By bus: line 100 from Nice (75 minutes) or Monaco (30 minutes) is pretty reliable and the views are beautiful but plan in advance if heading there before one of the parades as some of the buses coming from Nice may already be quite full (and you won’t be able to enjoy the views as much!).
- Useful links:
- The official Fête du Citron websitewhich provided me with lots of helpful background information to research my trip
- The city of Menton tourist office website(in French only… ???!!!)
After your visit, carry on enjoying your day and soaking in the other sites of beautiful Menton: why not visit the Jean Cocteau Museum and its Severin Wunderman collection, have a walk along the coast to the Italian border or else get lost in the alleys of the old walled city on the way up to the Saint Michel Basilica? Find out my best tips in the article dedicated to Menton.
If you’re staying for a week or so, you can also combine with the Nice Carnival (which I still need to visit!) in order to enjoy the full French Riviera winter experience.
I hope that this article will have helped you live through the Fête du Citron and that you will enjoy the experience as much as I did. If you have any feedback, please get in touch in the comments section below and see you soon!