As I stand packed in with a throng of folk whose average age is 65-70, mixed flowers are being thrown madly in all directions.
A Gallic rave remix of popular tunes (Le Lapin Jive?) is blasting over a powerful sound system, a light icy drizzle is falling and everybody’s blood is up. A carnation hits me damply in the eye, a flurry of rosebuds hurtles past me, then a man dressed in an anorak and a headdress woven from leaves lobs me a bunch of violets.
This is the Battle of the Flowers, the culmination of the Fete Des Violettes and it’s a frenzied floral free-for-all.
When I was little, I decided that violets were my favourite flower.
Roses had a lot going for them, and the two were neck-and-neck in the sweet department, due to the availability of Parma Violets and Fry’s Turkish Delight in the shops, but what swung it for violets were those twee little bottles of green glass filled with “violet perfume” and decorated with a silk violet on an elastic band or a purple ribbon – the kind of thing you find in souvenir shops in Devon or Cornwall.
These seemed to me the most luxurious and charming possible thing, so although I didn’t see an actual growing living violet until I entered adulthood, I used to doodle them in the margins of my schoolbooks, just like Henri Rousseau living his humdrum life in the Parisian suburbs and painting his exotic jungle fantasies. I was like a young female Rousseau if he’d been brought up in Milton Keynes in the 1980’s, EXACTLY LIKE.
When I stumbled across the information that there was an annual Festival of Violets in a medieval French village, I was very in.
Tourrettes-sur-Loup is on the south coast of France, perched on the edge of a vertiginous cliff. At the time of the 2-day festival, floral garlands and images decorate the streets, which are mostly populated with very friendly cats that you find roaming around at all hours looking vaguely purposeful.
The shops and market stalls offer a bewildering variety of violet-based goods.
The whole place gives off a very “Wicker Man” vibe – it’s clearly a very close community, and the images that keep popping up as you explore are those of a watchful eye, wolves, witches and of course violets.
Members of the “Order of the Violette” can be seen casually knocking about in their ceremonial robes, and there is a preponderance of wild-eyed local eccentrics.
You can spend the Saturday quietly shopping the farmers market, eating violet crepes and ice cream, touring the perfume factory and climbing across the expanses of petrified lava flow which dominate the landscape, enjoying the calm before the storm. Because on Sunday, the coaches arrive.
A stream of huge shiny vehicles fill every available empty parking space, spewing out their contents of hundreds of OAP’s, imported from all over Europe and almost uniformly fiercely wrinkled, short of stature and beady of eye. This is the violet fest crowd- a completely different social group to those attending the La Tomatina festival in Valencia, or The Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea.
They wear a lot of real fur pieces, and actual blue and lilac rinses for white hair are not uncommon.
During the afternoon, the main square fills up, waiting for the parade to start. Party tunes blare out over the scene, and everybody tensely waits. Eventually the decorated floats start to slowly circle the area- interspersed with marching bands dressed as harlequins, dancing grandmothers twirling lacy parasols, bored-looking teenagers with flowers in their hair, texting and smoking as they parade, beauty queen types waving from the back seat of a convertible purple Pontiac Firebird and plenty of local mothers who have decorated their children with greenery and are herding them along in the procession. Much use is made of Silly String. There are some extremely sinister-looking clowns.
There is a general understanding in the crowd that this is all very well, this situation – but it’s all from the perspective of gathered vultures, waiting for their chance to strike.
When the vehicles grind to a halt, everybody stiffens for the kill. The music is turned up even louder, and the people in the parade start to pull blooms from the floats and throw them to the crowd. Everybody surges forward and start to tear flowers off for themselves and throw more blossoms back to the masses. Wherever you look, it’s violets and mimosa and carnations in flight.
Within 15 minutes, it’s all over. Nobody hangs around- the visitors all flock back to their coaches, leaving the shattered, stripped wrecks of the floats behind and clutching bunches of flowers in their wrinkled claws. The locals disperse, trampling over the last few bruised petals and leaves that line the pavements.
When adrenaline rushes briefly through the body after a period of inertia, it often leaves you a little giddy afterwards, and this is no exception. It’s wise to keep your buzz going a little longer via the time-honoured methods of sugar and alcohol.
They aren’t big on cocktails in rural France, but you can get a Kir Violette in most places- white wine and Crème de Violette are copacetic bedfellows, and they give the exciting visual impression that you are drinking methylated spirits.
Violets are used in witchcraft to make love spells, so if you wish to increase your luck in love, carry the image of the violet flower as an luck-piece. These were widely available at the festival of course, in addition to some very interesting amulets which claimed to combine the healing power of crystals, copper and gold along with harnessing electro-magnetic healing rays by putting all these things decoratively into a resin base for use as a pendant.
Although all these healing properties have been viewed with doubt by the medical community for some time, you simply cannot be too narrow minded in life, so I prudently bought two.
Protected by crystals, surrounded by flowers and sipping a Kir, you could be forgiven for imagining you were in Ogygia, from Homer’s Odyssey: “the beautiful land of parsley and violets”.