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Ready, Set, Summer! : What to Expect During the Summer Vacation Period in France

a beach on the Mediterranean coast
This post is going to be primarily informative about the quirks of summer vacation in France, including the common dates, weather, and other relevant details. First, a little lexique:

Language:

canicule -extended heat wave

bison futé - the 'smart bison' path for car travel, which basically alerts you to the severity of traffic jams in different areas using colors as an indicator (black = heavy traffic jams, green = free flowing traffic)

bouchon - traffic jam (also the work for 'cork' as in a wine cork)

juilletiste/aoûtien - Julyists and Augustists, words French people can use to describe those who go on vacation in July, and those who prefer to go in August

Dates:

The first thing you need to know about France: since the school system is centralized, summer vacation is between July and August, in June school is still in session. The start of the vacation season is literally at the end of the school year.

There are 2 bank holidays in July and August. Not surprisingly, these tend to be the biggest travel periods. The first is July 14, France's Bastille Day and the equivalent of our Independence Day. The other is August 15, or l'Assomption (the Assumption of Mary in English). This Catholic holiday is observed by many European countries, including also Italy and Spain.

As I've stated in earlier posts, France essentially shuts down in the month of August (insert link here).  Stores that do not completely close will often take a four-hour lunch break instead of two, or entire offices will close for two weeks.

Having experienced it, I can say that the month of August can be refreshing. Depending on your sector of work, you can basically assume that most people will be on vacation. In other words, the fact that many offices and work

places are closed really gives people license to take their vacation at this time. On the other hand, if you need to see your doctor, or take care of certain papers, it can be difficult to do in August.
another view of the Mediterranean coast, near Marseille

Places:

During the summer the most common vacation destination are beaches. This also means that everyone is heading in more or less the same direction at the same time (see the next paragraph about traffic jams). The chic place to go within France is obviously somewhere along the Mediterranean. However, many French people also like the Atlantic coast, which provides sometimes cooler weather, larger beaches, and smaller crowds. Those who don't go to the beaches will often prefer the cooler landscape of the mountains, for hiking and other activities. In any case, the majority of the population heads either south (for beaches) or east (for mountains).

Major Traffic Jams:

Throughout July and August, weekends are packed, as the roads towards the beaches become clogged, and the trains become annoyingly expensive.

I had the experience one weekend in August of seeing holiday weekend traffic with my own eyes. I was heading by car from Lyon to the South in the direction of Marseille. A trip that should have taken about 3 hours by car took 7. This was not because of construction, nor because of an accident on the road. This traffic jam was simply caused by the fact that there were so many like-minded vacationers on the road at the same time, that there just wasn't enough space to accommodate them. This is when I understood that vacation time is great and extended in France, but also means a certain level of organization to avoid the huge crowds of people moving in the same places at the same times.

During this experience I also learned that there are frequent radio reports about the suggested travel times (leave before 10 am, or after 9 pm), and descriptions of the length of 'bouchons'.

Interestingly, bouchon in French is also the word for cork, as in the cork used to bottle wine. If anything, I guess it's more romantic to say you are stuck in a 'bouchon' than stuck in a traffic jam!

Weather:

France has a continental climate, but it's also generally milder than what I know from the Midwest in the US. The summers are hot, but not as humid as what I'm used to.

Anyone spending the summer here can expect little to no air-conditioning, at least in private homes. When there is an extended heat wave without breaking a certain temperature, this is called a  canicule. France suffered badly from one of the these in 2003 and many people died as a result of poor preparation. Now the 'alerte canicules' are very well-advertised and taken seriously. Unfortunately we've already had one almost weeklong canicule with several days of 100 degree weather (40 C) this summer.

Summer is the time to celebrate:

The French are also great at celebrating summer, with festivals of all kinds, all over the country. One of the most famous festivals is the theater festival held in Avignon in July.

What I also appreciate is that small, otherwise not as well-known cities can also host very famous festivals. For example, the city of Aurillac, a city of 27,000 people in central France, hosts a very well-known street theater festival.  The same goes for the city of Angoulême and its winter comics festival.


Happy summer to everyone!





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