Every summer, Paris seems to shut down for July and August as its residents leave on their annual vacations. They travel to holiday homes and resorts in Normandy, on the Atlantic and, of course, the Mediterranean in the south.
I became familiar with this phenomenon when I was sent to run a division of our company that had operations in several European countries. Newly appointed, I scheduled visits to our locations in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland and France — all of them in smaller towns. It was late July. All the locations confirmed for an August visit, except France. It seemed the plant was closed in August for vacation, something I had never heard of in my American experience. I learned that all French workers are entitled to 25 working days each year, which factory workers take at one time, usually in August. Others who work for the government or in offices or in office can take vacation in July.
Apparently, the prime vacation spots cannot handle the entire population and the corresponding traffic at one time, so, the vacationing French are characterized as two groups depending on their preference. Those who always travel in July (Juillet in French) are known as “Juilletistes” and those in August (Août) as “Aoûtiens.” (I love how the French invent beautiful words.) Hence, there are two months of downtime in the summer. Legendary traffic jams occur when the Juilletistes are returning home on the same days the Aoûtiens are leaving for their holiday destinations.
Hot, hot, hot
There is a French word “canicule,” meaning “Dog Days” or “Heat wave.” It stems from the Latin diminutive for “dog” and refers to the hottest time of the year, coinciding with the rising of Sirius, the dog star. It is usually applied to the months of July and August. In 2003, Western Europe experienced its hottest summer on record as August temperatures in parts of France exceeded more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for eight consecutive days. There was little relief at night either. Air conditioning is rare in France and the heat wave occurred when medical institutions had only vacation staffs. The elderly in rest homes or living alone were the most vulnerable and represented most of the 14,000 deaths. (Sound familiar?) Since then, summer temperatures have been less severe, but steps have been taken by the government to prevent heat related deaths in the warm months.
In an ironic twist, several years later, on a visit to Chinon in the Loire Valley, our waiter in a local restaurant implored us to try the 2003 vintage Chinon Rouge. “So much sun” he said, “the vintage of the decade”!
We are usually in France for the month of June. We tell American friends that it’s the best month. The French school year runs through June, so families are not yet on vacation. In June we always spend a few days in Saint-Martin, an old fishing village on the Ile de Re, just a short train ride from Paris. There are no crowds, just some retired couples like us and younger couples with pre-school children. Last year, we extended our time in Paris to experience the canicule. We observed that July in Paris has two parts. While some Parisians leave for vacations in early July, the feeling of an empty city does not start until after Bastille Day on July 14, properly called La Fête National. You will know it’s coming a week ahead of time when formations of every type of aircraft in the French military begin practicing their flyovers above the Champs Elysées. Thousands line the parade route paying tribute to all branches of national service, including the Foreign Legion. Later that night, thousands more crowd the blocks around the Eiffel Tower and from across the Seine to watch the best fireworks show on earth. We watch it on television and hear the noise through our open windows. Many shops and restaurants close the next day until mid-August.
The following weeks quieted down, but the city still didn’t have an empty feel. Tons of sand were dumped and sculpted on the city’s riverside quays to form the “Paris Plage,” a beach in the city! After seeing it on-line we decided against a day at the beach, being a few generations too late for the swimwear.
Paris temperatures hit the mid-90s Fahrenheit in July and August. Our fifth-floor apartment has French-style windows on both the street side and the courtyard, giving us cross-ventilation. We leave them open to catch the breeze and supplement it with portable fans at night. We awake to the sound of pigeons in the morning.
All cinemas in Paris are air-conditioned. Remember going to movie theaters in the 1950s just for the cool air? Some say that the French lead the world in the cinematic art and we love French films. We watch them on Netflix and Amazon, but only with English subtitles to avoid getting headaches. In France, their own films have no subtitles. The Internet lists all the showings in each cinema.
American and British films are noted “VO,” for Version Originale which denotes they are in English, but with French subtitles. All seats are reserved. Our favorite cinema, the Gaumont, is a short bus ride away in Montparnasse in the 14th Arrondissement. We usually seek starting times between two and three in the afternoon. We buy our tickets then have lunch at our favorite pre-cinema place around the corner, the Brasserie Saint-Malo, which stays open all summer.
Most museums remain open during the summer but may have reduced schedules. The buses and Metros continue to run with no crowds. Long lines are rare, even at the Eiffel Tower. The big department stores, Les Grands Magazins, remain open. The summer sales start in early July throughout the city. The famous Paris Flea Market, Le Marché aux Puces, is open on its usual schedule of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Summer spots to dine
Restaurants in high tourist areas will be open and will have tourist food at tourist prices. Most visitors to Paris find themselves at least once in the neighborhood around the Eiffel Tower, which also includes the Hôtel Des Invalides (Napoleon’s tomb) and The Ecole Militaire sitting on the Champ de Mars facing the Eiffel Tower. There are great, inexpensive places around this area where the locals go that open early and close late and serve all summer. La Terrasse is not on a quiet street, but at a busy intersection by the Ecole Militaire. Everyone should know a place like this where they can go morning, afternoon or night, year-round, without a reservation and with little or no wait, be seated. Their menu will have the predictable standard main courses such as roast chicken, duck breast and lamb as well as quick choices like omelets, salads, quiches, onion soup and croque-monsieurs, all at reasonable prices. It takes up the entire corner of Avenue Bosquet and Avenue de la Motte-Picquet and has dining rooms on two floors, as well as a broad outdoor terrace. Its young, busy, efficient wait staff navigate among the tables, wasting no time in bringing carafes of wine and water with the plats du jour. As busy as it is, there is never any feel of being hurried. It is usually packed equally with locals and visitors alike.
Smaller and on the hip side is the Malabar, on the rue St-Dominique, several blocks away. We have lunch there once each week when in Paris. It is relaxed and friendly and fills with locals. It is open early to late every day. I usually order the salade de chèvre chaude, a warm goat cheese salad. My wife likes the salade de tomate et burrata or the smoked salmon. Glasses and carafes of wine are also inexpensive. Being hip, they have hamburgers and frites, which the young patrons eat with a knife and fork. But beware! Friends tell me their burgers are only served rare, the way the locals prefer them.
The Avenue de la Motte Picquet turns into the Rue du Commerce a few blocks on the other side of the Ecole Militaire and enters the 15th Arrondissement. It is one of the best shopping streets in Paris, but not for luxury brands. A visit during the July sales is a must. Clothing and shoe stores for men women and children line the street of this quiet neighborhood that was one a village across the city line. The Café du Commerce is at number 51. It opened in 1921 as a bouillon, serving beef and broth to workers from the nearby automobile factories and expanded the menu over time. The recently updated dining room has a retractable skylight ceiling. Wait staff climb the stairs between the three levels with full trays amid the noise made by hungry locals. Leeks vinaigrette, eggplant with goat cheese, roasted chicken and steak frites highlight the lunch entries. We always go there when we are shopping in this pleasant neighborhood.
It is now late August. Many restaurants are reopening, their kitchens deep cleaned and any remodeling complete. September 1, the day school starts in all of France is looming. Paris is on the verge of the annual rentrée, or re-entry when traffic piles up on the north-south highways as Les Aoûtiens rush home to buy backpacks, school supplies and of course, back to school clothes for their offspring. Paris is coming to life. For the past six weeks we’ve had Paris all to ourselves! Everyone, even the Parisians, seemed more relaxed during la canicule.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris.