Travel in winter can be challenging, although off-season can be deeply satisfying–no crowds, cheaper prices, you can really experience the local lifestyle. All it takes is being prepared for the whims of the weather.
Depending on where you’re from, the temperatures might feel downright balmy. According to the site Où et Quand (Where and When), Paris has an average January high of 6 Celsius (43 Fahrenheit) and low of 3 C (37 F), and rain an average of 13 days, or 40% of the time. (For reference, London is nearly identical, with two more days of rain.) Down here in Carcassonne, it’s warmer–average high of 9 C (48 F) and low of 4 C (39 F), with 15 days of rain. However, the sun often comes out even on rainy days (we have 35 more hours of sunshine than Paris). On Saturday’s drive to the market, I needed the windshield wipers and my sunglasses at the same time.
This year, though, we’ve had one tempête (storm) after another. Carmen, David, Eleanor, and a series of nameless storms that have brought unusually warm temperatures, plentiful rain and merciless winds across France and Europe. We went from T-shirt weather (in January!) to four days of intermittent downpours and wicked wind. As I started to write this, the wind had calmed, the sun was out, and it was 9 C (48 F) at 8 a.m. Later, with it was 17 C (62.6 F). An absolutely glorious day.
But when you’ve made your reservations six months earlier, you don’t know whether you’re arriving for the week of unseasonably mild weather or the week of storms. My advice:
Pack layers. Duh. But not just one layer; if you have three sweaters, can you wear them all at once? It can mean the difference between enjoying your trip or being miserable during a cold snap. Wear them together in Paris and separately in Carcassonne.
Have a hood. While a knit cap is good for covering your ears and keeping warm (and not blowing off in the wind), this winter you wouldn’t have needed it (not a problem–a knit cap doesn’t take much space). But what about the rain? A very chic friend of mine abhors umbrellas, and it’s true that it’s a pain to cart one around. She chose coats with hoods that she could just pop up as needed. Water-resistant fabric is even better. Hoods don’t blow off, don’t need to be carried around, don’t mess your hair as much as a hat and are always there when you need them.
Or get one of those little fold-up rain ponchos. Yes, you will look like a tourist. Like a smart tourist, whose trip (not to mention health, coat and bag) wasn’t ruined by some water.
Treat your shoes with waterproofing products before you leave. If you didn’t do this, never fear: they sell the stuff at any shoe store or supermarket here. We have all the mod cons. The downside of doing it during your trip is that it will stink up your room and you have to let it soak in and dry well before wearing the shoes. Plan ahead!
Make sure your bag is waterproof, too. Or have a waterproof pouch for your electronics.
Bring a hat and gloves. They take no space in your bag and make a huge difference to keeping you warm.
Pack a swimsuit. See below.
Think about ways to get out of the weather. My favorite thing to do when traveling is flâner: wandering around, taking in the architecture, shop windows, and above all the people. This is less fun in a storm. Here are some alternatives:
Museums. It may be time to check out some of the more obscure options.
Cafés. You can sit all day with a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. Classic.
Shopping. Duck out of the rain and into some shops, including some that you might have passed by. French shopkeepers often have very clever goods that you never would have thought of. And as for clothes shops, they’re an alternative to people-watching.
Malls, aka centres commercials or galeries. They are mostly in the International Ugly style, but you can be oblivious to the weather. Often they’re anchored by a hypermarket–like a Wal-Mart with groceries and everything else. This can be interesting as a sociological exercise–I am not being sarcastic. The products are different! Most are on the outskirts of towns and require taking a car, bus or taxi to get to.
Malls in Paris here. Carcassonne is more or less surrounded by centres commercials on its periphery: Pont Rouge, LeClerc, Salvaza, Cité 2.
Hit the books. FYI, a librarie is a bookstore and a bibliothèque is a library and a médiathèque has other media besides just books. Either way, you can browse for free, even though you can’t check anything out. Bibliothèques are better for people-watching (the French love books), but bookstores offer the possibility of finding a good souvenir to take home. Bibliothèques also host events–I went to a ballet presentation once.
Paris bibliothèques here. Carcassonne médiathèques here.Get a haircut. This was one of my go-to options on my regular trips to Paris. I would get sick of walking and being cold, and you can only drink so much coffee, so I would find a hair salon that took walk-ins (look for a sign that says sans RDV–without rendez-vous, or appointment). I never went to the same place twice and never got a bad cut. It was delicious, too, to have a nice, warm, shampoo. Nervous? Just get a shampoo and blow-out (shampooing et brushing–sounds like shawm-pwan, kind of) or ask for a trim–une coupe d’entretien. Other possibilities: mani-pedi, massage or hammam (you’ll need a swimsuit for that).
The hammam at the Paris Mosque here. It’s amazing. Separate days for men and women.
Spas and hammams in Carcassonne here.
Go to church. The Catholic church for centuries had a tighter hold over daily life in France than any king. It was a main sponsor of the arts, too. Some churches have museum-quality paintings and sculptures. The stained-glass windows are full of stories, and the architectural details are fascinating, if you take the time. Some churches have crypts or areas that have been excavated for archaeological research. If you’re lucky, a choir or organist will be practicing while you’re there. Sometimes churches also host concerts, especially in the evenings. The local tourism office can give you details.
In Carcassonne, there’s often a choral group singing at the Basilique Saint-Nazaire in la Cité. And the Chapelle des Jesuits in the Bastide, with exceptional acoustics, has concerts on Thursdays, starting at 8:30 p.m.
Take a class. Tourism offices are good resources for one-off class options. I used to do Argentine tango, but you have to make sure the class takes walk-ins. Yoga and Pilates are easy to find. Cooking is another possibility, but you might have to arrange that at least a day in advance. Classes are also a good way to expand your French vocabulary–usually whatever is being taught is also being demonstrated, so even if your French is basic you can understand.
Paris dance lessons here.
A wide variety of activities in and around Carcassonne here.
Go swimming. If there’s no indoor pool at your hotel, never fear. There are plenty of public pools, almost always indoors. You will be required to wear a swimming cap, and baggy swim trunks aren’t allowed (hence the famous Speedo reputation).And, of course taste wine. You can find a tour, go to a wine bar (Carcassonne has a large choice) or just visit a wine shop if you can’t get to individual wineries; many offer tastings at reasonable rates.
We’ll do this again for spring and summer!