STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

La Fête du Citron
Celebrating the Lemon in the South of France

February 26, 2022

Everyone’s familiar with the saying, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” If you buy a new car and it’s a piece of junk we call it a “lemon.” If you’re playing a slot machine in Las Vegas and get a whole row of lemons, you might think you’ve hit the jackpot, but in reality you get nothing. Somehow this small yellow fruit has gotten a very bad rap and quite undeservedly so. Lemons are good for you! They can help boost your digestive and detox systems. They can reduce the risk of kidney stones and help with weight loss. They are full of vitamins and nutrients, including vitamins B and C, potassium, calcium, magnesium and more. They can be used to create wonderful cleaning products and insect repellents.

When it comes to food lemons are just as versatile. If you’ve ever had a “tarte au citron” in the south of France you’ve tasted heaven. Doesn’t just about everyone squeeze some lemon on their lobster? An ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer afternoon is perfection. And what about lemon cake, lemon bars and lemon-herb butter? Somehow, somewhere this little fruit became synonymous with bad luck and it’s just not right. The French know better and they even have a saying, “Tout est bon dans le citron” (“all of the lemon is good”).

In sunny Menton on the Côte d’Azur (the biggest lemon growing region in France) the lemon is celebrated once a year at the annual Fête du Citron, a wonderful, unique, extraordinary festival that lasts almost three weeks and attracts well over 200,000 visitors. Huge sculptures made from lemons (and oranges), amazing designs and patterns on the ground, vendors selling everything you could possibly imagine related to lemons, day and nighttime parades, light shows, concerts, exhibitions, arts and crafts, hikes, discovery tours and more make this festival one of the highlights of February in France. The last two years the festival was cancelled due to COVID, but this year it returned in all its glory. I made two trips to the festival, one with Carole and one by myself. I was not disappointed.

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A Little About Lemons

It is thought that lemons were first grown in northeast India, Burma and/or China. They made their way to Europe during the time of ancient Rome, probably around 200AD. By 700AD they had been introduced to Persia, Iraq and Egypt. The first recorded reference to lemons comes from a 10th-century Arabic treatise on farming. An article on lemon and lime tree cultivation is part of the “Book of Agriculture,” a famous 12th century agricultural work.

It was Christopher Columbus who brought the lemon to the Americas in 1493. The Spanish spread the plant throughout the territory during their ensuing conquests. Florida and California saw a large increase in lemon production during the 1800s.

Lemon juice (as well as the rind and the peel) are used in a variety of culinary activities. The whole lemon is used to make various lemon liqueurs, lemon curd and lemon preserves. The juice is used in lemonade, soft drinks and cocktails. Lemon peels are used to manufacture pectin, lemon oil is used in many recipes and lemon leaves are used in teas as well as cooked meats and seafoods.

Apart from food related uses lemons are used in aromatherapy, hair coloring and many cleaning products. India, Mexico, China, Argentina, Brazil and Turkey account for almost two-thirds of the world’s lemon production.

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The Lemon and Menton

Menton has only been a part of France for the last 150 years or so. In Roman times the Via Julia Augusta, a famous Roman road connecting Italy and France ran through the town. It was a territory of Monaco until the French Revolution when it briefly became part of France for a few years before it was again returned to Monaco. In 1848 Menton seceded from Monaco, in part because of a tax levied on lemon exports. In 1860 it officially became a part of France (along with Nice and other parts of the Côte d’Azur).

If you’re looking for a town with a lot of sunshine, it’s hard to beat Menton. On average the town sees 316 clear or partially sunny days each year. Its very mild subtropical weather conditions mean pleasant winters and warm summer nights, even more so than the rest of the Côte d’Azur. This particular “micro-climate” makes Menton (and the immediate surrounding area) ideal for the growing and cultivation of lemons, clementines, tangerines and oranges. Frosts and snow are very rare (though they do occasionally happen) and summer temperatures rarely climb above the mid-80s (30° centigrade).

Lemon cultivation in Menton began sometime in the 1400s. By the 1800s there were over 80,000 lemon trees in the area. In 1956 a huge freeze wiped out almost the entire industry and cultivation came to an end for about 30 years. Thanks to a determined effort by the city of Menton and other local enterprises a large campaign of replantation was born in the 1980s. Thousands of new trees were planted and the industry was given a second life. In fact, Menton has its own special variety of lemon, the SRA 625. It is said to be sweeter, juicier and more fragrant than most other varieties. Its oval shape sets it apart from the round lemons found elsewhere and it has a brighter yellow color. More fruits grow on each branch of the tree than with other varieties.

Today there are over 15 official growers scattered between Menton and nearby Sainte-Agnès, Roquebrune, Castellar and Castillon. Almost 200 tons of lemons are harvested each year. Menton lemons are harvested by hand and are not treated with any chemicals.

La Fête cu Citron

What began almost 100 years ago, in 1934, is now one of the most popular, well-attended winter festivals in all of France. Its origins go back to the end of the 19th century when elaborate parades were created during the winter in Menton to seduce travelers from all over Europe who migrated to the south of France in the winter for the mild climate. Kings and princes, artists and celebrities, businessmen and industrialists from all over Europe (and the world) built elegant villas and lavish mansions here.

In 1929 the owner of the Hotel Riviera had the idea to organize an exhibition of flowers and citrus fruits in the gardens of his hotel. It was such a success that the following year saw the exhibits expand out into the streets around the city. City officials, hoping to increase winter tourism ran with the idea and organized the first festival a few years later with a parade introduced in the second year. During World War II the festival was halted but came roaring back when the conflict ended. The giant sculptures that are so popular today were introduced in 1957.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate for a span of almost 10 years between 1956 and 1963. Rare snow fell in 1956, torrential rains disrupted everything in 1962 and hard frosts brought things to a halt in 1963. Today almost 140 tons of fruit and over 20,000 hours of work are required each year to bring this celebration to the public. A wide variety of activities make it appealing to almost everyone, from very young children to senior citizens. Each year a new theme is introduced. Over the decades we’ve seen such topics as “Bollywood,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Broadway,” “Tintin,” “The Four Seasons” and many, many more. This year’s theme was “Operas and Dances.”

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The Sculptures

The heart of the Fête du Citron, and what most people come to see, are the giant citrus sculptures made with lemons and oranges. Arranged along Biovès Gardens in the center of Menton the sculptures astonish and delight everyone who passes by. It takes thousands upon thousands of hours to assemble these sculptures as each and every piece of fruit is placed one by one by hand on a large metal framework. Large colored rubber bands hold the fruits in place and the yellows and oranges when viewed against a bright blue sky are simply dazzling.

There were five sculptures in place this year designed with the theme of “Operas and Dances.” An oriental dancer, a British king and queen aside a large violin, an Egyptian queen above two sphinxes, a flute player and a young woman dancer. It’s not just the sculptures themselves that are so impressive. Around each one are huge patterns and designs on the ground also made with lemons and oranges. It can take up to fifteen tons of fruit to assemble just one of these massive sculptures and the surrounding configurations.

The Biovès Gardens run for several blocks north of the Menton Casino and in addition to the sculptures there are numerous “chalets” (small wooden booths) with vendors selling all kinds of local wares. Everything from oils to breads and jams to knick-knacks and souvenirs and much more. The sculptures are beautifully lit at night for an almost entirely different experience and on Friday nights an elaborate light show takes things to an even higher another level.

The city does an excellent job displaying numerous panels and signs throughout the gardens that feature tons of information about the history of the festival, the Menton lemon and much more.

Nighttime at the Fête du Citron with wonderful light shows.

The Parades

Parades are held each Sunday afternoon and on Thursday nights. A large block is cordoned off from the general public and tickets are required to see the show. Bleachers are set up on three sides of the streets where you can sit comfortably and watch as the parade makes a big loop through the streets next to the Casino. If you’d rather you can also purchase tickets to stand alongside the road and watch as the procession comes by.

I attended one of the Thursday night parades and it was quite impressive. Lasting almost 90 minutes it featured a large assortment of floats, dancers, stilt walkers, marching bands and more. Almost all of the floats had confetti canons (or people throwing confetti) and the air was thick with the tiny paper particles. People were scooping it up from the street and throwing it back at the floats as they passed by.

The floats were pretty impressive, but the bands and dancers with equally exciting. There were several groups of stilt walkers (all in splendid costumes) that were quite extraordinary, walking, running, jumping and dancing down the street. The crowd loved everything and had a wonderful time, especially those down on the street. Though I had paid for seat in the bleachers I realized very quickly that the views from the street were much better and that everyone there was having a lot more fun, so I quickly left my seat and hung out on the street for most of the parade.

Stilt walkers/dancers at a parade during the Fête du Citron.

The Orchid Festival & Arts & Crafts Show

Beside the Biovès Gardens (just next to the Tourist Office) is the Palais de l’Europe, a large conference and display hall. During the festival this year was an amazing display of orchids put on by the Association of Orchidophiles and Epiphytopiles of France. Arranged throughout the hall there were hundreds of plants placed alongside antique furniture, musical instruments and statues. Along the sides of the rooms were a variety of arts and crafts booths selling a wide array of goods. Wooden utensils, candles, soaps, pottery, honey and jams, candy, olive oil, beer, limoncello are just a few of the items (many of which were handmade) available from the vendors.

Other Events

In addition to all of the above the festival features a children’s carnival, hikes and excursions in the citrus orchards, a gala dinner, discovery tours of several magnificent gardens, an outing into the hinterlands to explore some of the perched villages of the area, a mimosa hike, a guided tour of Menton’s old town and even more. Most of these events are paid and limited in attendance, so if you are interested you need to sign up early. You can do so online or in the Menton Office de Tourisme.

About Those Lemons

What most people don’t know is that the lemons used in the Fête du Citron do NOT come from Menton! There are a few reasons for this. First, the entire yearly production of Menton lemons would not be near enough to create the various sculptures, designs and displays for which the festival is so famous. Second, the Menton lemons are considered far too good to be used for this type of venture. Better that they are saved for the public to consume at home and in restaurants.

On a Friday morning near the end of the festival I noticed several workers meticulously picking through the lemons and oranges, pulling out those that were starting to rot and replacing them with new ones. It’s also good to know that as little of the fruit as possible is wasted. After the festival is over the lemons and oranges are carefully examined and sorted and everything that is still usable is sold to be used in juice, liqueurs, oils, jams and more.

Access

Menton is the last French town on the southeastern coast of France before reaching the Italian border. It’s easily accessed via the A8. There are multiple places to park in the town, but be aware that during the festival most of them will be full. Additionally, many streets will be closed and traffic is rerouted. Carole and I drove to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin where we easily parked at the train station and then took a 5 minute train to Menton.

The citrus sculptures and designs in the Biovès Gardens are open and free to the public, as is the Orchid Festival and the Arts & Crafts show. Tickets must be purchased for the parades with prices running from 7€ to 26€. Other other events have various prices.

Juste les Faits:
What: La Fête du Citron
Where: Menton (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: Almost three weeks in February each year
Phone: +33 4 83 93 70 20
Website: www.fete-du-citron.com
Facebook: Fete-du-Citron-de-Menton
Download an official PDF flier with the 2022 Fête du Citron schedule

2 thoughts on “La Fête du Citron
Celebrating the Lemon in the South of France

  1. Thanks so much for this informative post AND the videos. LOVED the jumping stilt folks! I’m averse to crowds and I don’t like cold weather but I wanted to at least see the sculptures in the garden. I visited in 2018 and arrived too late for the festival but was able to see over the fences enough to know I wanted to come back! After reading this, I’m re-thinking about the crowds and the cold to see the night parade and light show:)

    1. Hi Trishia, I sent you an email with more information. But, I would definitely avoid the Festival anytime there is a parade because it gets very, very crowded then.

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