If you plan a trip to Nice for next year carnival, you should consider a 30-km detour on the east to visit Menton, the “Pearl of France” as one welcome sign says. The beautiful hotels of the city center are a testimony of the town’s glorious past when wealthy European tourists used to spend winter here. The Mediterranean Sea and the hills where the old city was built guarantee a mild weather that has allowed the citrus fruits to grow since the 15th century. Lemon and oranges are subjects of some unusual winter festivities here.

Golden Fruit Exhibits

In the Bioves Gardens, which lead to the seafront, 13 giant metal structures carrying lemons and oranges are on display. They all represent a famous Broadway musical, the theme of this year. Mary Poppins, the Wizard of Oz, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera or the Lion King, Caroline Gervais drew every design. “From the beginning, I though the skyline could represent New York for West Side Story or the giant rose at the foot of Notre-Dame de Paris,” she says.

Up to 15 tons of citrus fruits must be put on every structure in the two weeks leading to the opening. “We place the fruits one by one using 750 000 elastics, add boxwood garlands to separate oranges and lemons. We also replace damaged fruits early in the morning”, says Franck Roturier, manager of the city parks and gardens. Electric garlands are all over the structures. That’s because of the sound and light show happening on Friday nights, when comedians and musicians playing the musicals’ songs join in.

The Citrus Parade

The biggest event for the three weeks’ festival occurs on Sunday afternoon. 10 floats decorated with lemons and oranges representing Broadway musicals parade on the waterfront Promenade du Soleil for several thousand locals and tourists. Like the carnival parades in Nice, the floats are separated by groups of entertainers and burlesque carts. Flag twirlers, singers, dancers, costumed groups, stilt-walkers parade about, some throwing confetti. There are also nightly parades followed by fireworks.

The History of the Lemon Festival

The lemon festival, which draws 240 000 people, was created in the 1930s to boost tourism at a time it was declining. An initial exhibition of citrus fruits and flowers in the gardens of the Riviera Hotel extended to the streets. “There used to be small carts of fruits and flowers pulled by donkeys”, Franck Roturier told hiEurope. In 1936, The event moved to the Bioves Gardens and 10 000 lemons and 12 000 oranges were necessary. The city now imports the fruits it needs (500 000 lemons and 250 000 oranges in 2017) from Spain.

The Rebirth of the local Lemon

Since the creation of the festival, local production declined and in some cases even stopped from 1956 to 1989. But over the past twenty years, the culture of lemon has been re-introduced. 5,000 lemon trees were planted. In 2015, the “Lemon of Menton” became an PGI, a European quality label. Now, around 150 tons of lemons are produced every year, including “lemons of Menton.” Franck Roturier brought us to a citrus grove above town to taste that special lemon. “It’s a perfect fruit. It does not have stains. You can eat it right away, cutting thin slices, and even the finely granulated peel,” he says. The lemon of Menton has an elliptical form, and its colors vary from greenish pale to gold yellow – aromas and a soft acidity with no bitterness.