Paris on a Saturday morning. I am walking down Blvd. St. Germain. I feel strangely and completely out of sorts. This normally bustling boulevard is almost empty, devoid of cars and pedestrians. It’s 11 am. Where is everyone?
Earlier that morning the Champ de Mars is strangely silent. There are only a few couples enjoying the morning sun taking in the always breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower. Even the lines under the world’s most famous tower are weirdly short although that changes later in the day.
I walk past deserted cafes. I take photos in the street. No one honks or tries to hit me. Grocery shopping is easy, the line at our local grocery store is 2 persons deep instead of 10. What is going on?
It is August and Paris is on vacation. Parisians have deserted the city in droves for vacation homes, beaches and country life, making travel almost impossible by train or car during the last weekend in July. Imagine this situation in the United States if you can. Wall Street empty. Walking down the middle of Sunset Blvd. in LA or Market Street in San Francisco. Well we know that will never happen, but in France it is normal to leave your business for 3 or 4 weeks of relaxation and journey every summer. A civilized approach to living that dates back to earlier times when avoiding the August heat meant traveling to the country and now the only time of the year when French families can go away together. This is one habit that we could well adopt in the U.S. but no doubt never will.
Make no mistake, this is a wonderful time of year to be visit Paris and to rent an apartment. But there are some tradeoffs. Most importantly, many of the stores and restaurants you want to visit are closed.
Those little signs seemed to be everywhere. Mostly hand written, posted in the windows of the restaurants and smaller individually owned stores. ‘We are closed for our annual vacation from August 1 to 27’. Some closed as early as July 27. Others waited until August 5. But by the end of the first week of August, there were more closed storefronts to be seen than open ones. Most of my favorite bistros and restaurants were shut tight as were the boulangeries that we prefer (although plenty remained). So were the shoe repair man, the cheese store and the fish market while it seemed that every pizza joint was still open and smelling good.
This is not to say that you can’t eat. You can, it just takes a little more work and if you are going to Paris just to hit the well-known restaurants, maybe this is not the month for you.
Should you go? Absolutely. While traveling to Paris during those week can be a mixed bag, I believe that the positives outweigh the negatives.
You can ride a bike around the city and almost relax. Almost. We actually finally used the Velib system, a subject I will be writing about in the coming weeks.
You can find a parking space.
There are shorter lines at tourist destinations like major museums and they are all open. Last time I went to the Jeu De Paume to see the Robert Frank show the lines were around the block. Just look at this line for the wonderful exhibit of Eva Besnyo’s haunting black and white photography currently showing. That is right, there is none.
Less traffic on the streets.
Less struggle to get around.
The strange sight of Parisians sunbathing on trucked in sand at Paris Plage on the banks of the Seine.
Road work and construction projects everywhere taking advantage of the quiet city.
It is harder to find a good meal, especially on Saturday or Sunday and Sunday was already a tough one. Many restaurants that do remain open close on weekends, this was the case with both Chez Les Anges and La Gitanes in our neighborhood. Do your research whether on Trip Adivsor or CityVox and call or check the internet before heading out. And rest assured, not everyone has left and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes serving them and you.
Shopping is restricted to corporate chains and large businesses as most boutique stores have closed.
Not that bad, is it?
On balance we love being in Paris in August. It is a time to see a different side of the city. A time to walk further and longer and enjoy the now quiet streets. A time to reflect and to enjoy summer. A time to slow down, something unusual in this normally bustling metropolis.
Hang out on a bench somewhere.
Take a nap on the grass. Have a long cup of coffee. Read a book. Slow down. There is an empty cafe waiting for you.
Do what lovers do.
Which these days turns out to be talking on their cell phones, look closely at them.
It’s Paris in August, a city like no other at a time like no other. Go slowly and enjoy it.