Bar-sur-Loup Orange Festival
Whenever anyone thinks about special events on the French Riviera, invariably the Cannes Film Festival, Monaco Grand Prix, Nice Carnival and Menton Lemon Festival spring immediately to mind. Digging a little deeper one might think of Mimosa, Violet and Jazz Festivals. Yet there is another festival that brings together both local tradition and artisans, that is all too often over-looked, if not unknown: Bar-sur-Loup’s Orange Festival.
Built on a rocky promontory overlooking the Loup Valley between Grasse and Vence at a height of 320 metres, Bar-sur-Loup has been lovingly restored and still retains some of its historic architecture and original ramparts. As was the case for many perched villages in this region, its privileged position found favour with the Celts, Gauls, Ligurians (750 BC) and Romans (125 BC). It was later ruled by the Counts of Grasse-Bar from 1218 until the French Revolution.
Since the 19th century Bar-sur-Loup’s economy has been centred around the bitter orange tree “bigarade” and the tree has become the symbol of the village. Indeed, driving through the very scenic countryside from Châteauneuf-de-Grasse to St Paul de Vence, you can’t help but notice the vast number of orange trees that flourish here.
In fact, this is a fabulous drive as the incredible far-ranging mountain views interspersed with the closeness of mimosa, lemon, olive and wisteria trees and giant Agave plants makes this journey an absolute delight. It is also along this route that you gain an incredible view of the perched village Gourdon. Only from here do you realise the sheer feat of engineering and building work that went into creating this stronghold.
The best time to arrive is around mid-morning when the festival is in full swing but there are still enough parking spaces left. You’ll find the narrow streets leading up to the main village square packed with artisan stalls selling a variety of local produce. It is difficult not to stop at each one as home-made bread, olives, local goat’s cheese, leatherware, pottery, nougat, wicker baskets, even soaps made from asses’ milk tempt you as you walk along. And of course you’ll find a number of stalls selling the all important orange wine and liquer.
The colour orange is everywhere and the scent of oranges fills the air. Orange bunting and banners decorate the village houses, balconies and cafés or criss-cross over the narrow streets. Enormous decorative round orange panels are at every turn – evoking again Bar-sur-Loup’s attachment to this special fruit.
In the main square you’ll find local artisans re-enacting local tradition of years gone by. Surrounded by curling Bigarade orange peels drying in the warm spring sunshine and wicker baskets piled high with uncut oranges, they sit patiently peeling hundreds of oranges throughout the festival period.
The Bigarade Orange
The Bigarade orange, or bitter orange, is cultivated primarily for its essential oils and used in liquers such as Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, Curacao and, of course, another very French drink, particular delicious in summer splashed with ice-cubes, is Picon.
The Bigarade or Seville Orange, (Citrus Bigaradia, C. communis or C. vulgaris) is cultivated primarily for its essential oils (nero olio) and used in the perfume industry as its essences are of better quality than those yielded by the flowers of the sweet Orange. “Petit grain” is a perfume extracted from the clippings of the tree and from those young fruits which fall soon after flowering.
The Bigarade Orange is stronger and hardier than other species of orange trees and often used as a stock to graft the better varities.
Unripe fruit is pickled by cutting the peel into spirals and then stuffing it with salt. The orange tree is cultivated on terraces or “restanques” and also within the village itself – thus unwittingly organising the rhythm of life for many of the inhabitants.
The harvesting of the orange flowers is the most important time of the year. From the first days of May, men, women and children, many of whom came from Italy specially for the season, picked the delicate flowers one by one, to sell to the Parfumeries of Grasse. Although the Bigarade is particular to the south of France and especially the Nice region, it has found the micro-climate around Bar-sur-Loup very much to its liking.
The day following the end of the harvest, the orange fields became the venue for the “bello souoïdo” a celebration that brought together both producers and flower pickers for a banquet with local orange wine. Today, this tradition has been kept alive every year on Easter Monday with the Fête de l’Oranger that culminates into a competition to find the best orange wine producer.