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This winter has been the coldest Paris (and France) has experienced in the past 20 years. Global warming or not, the European continent is suffering from the big chill. Parisians are not used to below 0 (Celsius) temperatures and now that it’s the winter school vacation (vacances scolaires), flights to sunny destinations are fuller than full.
In parts of sunny and temperate Provence, more than 20 inches of snow fell. Residents of the area were captives in their homes since the municipal road maintenance people aren’t equipped with snow plows. For that matter, few people even have shovels other than the garden kind. Fortunately, a rain storm followed right on the heels of the snow and washed it down the storm sewers, so life soon returned to normal.
But for a couple of days, French homes went into their winter energy-management mode. Since the cold weather and snow had been forecast, wood was stacked by fireplaces, groceries hoarded, and normally chic Parisiennes encased themselves in layers of clothes like Russian women in those grainy photos of World War II. Families gathered in the kitchen where pots of soups simmered cozily on the stove. Anything to conserve heating fuel, now killer expensive or – God forbid — to turn on the electric heaters (electricity here costs double what it does in the US).
Judging from some of the emails we get at BP, many Americans came unprepared for cold weather. We’ve been asked what they should do and where they should go, and naturally, what they should wear. For men the best bet for outerwear in the city is a raincoat with a warm – preferably real wool – zip-out lining. For women – well, it depends on when and where you’re going. In general, the lined rain coat works well in daytime, and a dark wool coat or a fur coat is fine for the evening.
One of the many reasons I like France is that after living in Boston, I was delighted to give away the heavy down coat that made me feel like a snowman, my (ersatz) fur-lined boots, my collection of ugly warm gloves and the hideous knit hats that made my head itch. (In Paris, I can wear a mink coat without worrying about dirty looks, comments and/or being decorated with red paint.)
In fact, winter in Paris is one of the optimum times to visit – for fun or for business. Airfares are lower, hotel rooms are plentiful and prices often lower, there are fewer tourists and during the winter sales, you may find the perfect gift at a fraction of its original price — and maybe just to take home as a reminder of your trip to the City of Light.
Companies, professional groups and convention planners know this is the ideal time to schedule conferences. Since there’s little competition from the other “musts” in Paris’s event schedule — the fashion shows, the French Open, the trade fairs and the art markets – upgrades on flights are more available and tickets more affordable. Ditto for hotels, so now you don’t have to settle for the room overlooking the parking garage, or in some out-of-the way location. Internet booking sites can often turn up genuine bargains. Even at luxury hotels. We especially recommend (Venere.com)
There are other pluses to winter travel. Restaurants which frequently require reservations months in advance may be able to accommodate you with substantially less notice. If you’re the type who really suffers from the cold, do an Internet search for restaurants and/or bars with fireplaces. (I googled “Paris restaurants with fireplaces” and found page after page of listings).
If you’re here on business, try to manage a weekend in Paris – and maybe cash in some of those frequent flyer miles and bring over your significant other. And if you miss Valentine’s Day, it’s the thought that counts, right? If the cold really gets to you, keep in mind that there’s a sauna and a heated indoor pool at L’Hotel, an elegant new Left Bank hotel, as well as in several airport and suburban hotels.
In winter and early spring, Paris skies may be gray often, but heavy rains are unlikely and it’s easy to find shelter under store awnings or in one of the many arcades and passages (covered pedestrian shopping streets). Taxis are easier to find (and usually cleaner) than in most major cities and the Paris metro can usually get you within a couple of blocks from where you’re headed.
Another recent plus for business travelers: there now are wi-fi hot spots in the bars and lobbies of good hotels so you can put between-appointment time to productive use. To find the nearest Paris hot spots (and I don’t mean the ones in Place Pigalle), check out www.Wi-FiHotSpotList.com.
Besides all that, there’s a special beauty to Paris in the winter. If you wake up to see snow on the ground (a rarity, alas), go to the Luxembourg Gardens and admire its statues wearing snow hats. Down at the Seine folks living in peniches are sweeping snow off their decks, and kids in courtyards are trying scrape up enough snow to make a mini snowman.
There’s no way anyone, not even www.weather.com, can give you an accurate take on the weather here. That’s one of the charms of Paris. You never know what to expect, so it’s probably a good idea to pack some warm underwear. You may need it unless there’s a heat wave…and that can be here today and gone tomorrow.