The Weather Report
The highs and lows of the French climate
Here in the UK we consider ourselves experts when it comes to the weather. Expert in grumbling about relentless rain, masterful at observing how biting the wind is as it cuts through solid walls, proficient at complaining when a few leaves or a dusting of snow stops train networks in their tracks.
And, of course, moaning when it gets rather hot and humid in summer and we are unable to function.
In France, they are more likely to just get on with it but the weather patterns are not so vastly different, just more extreme.
A big country
The first point to make is that France is a big country. Really big. Stretching 1,000 km north to south, it covers 551,000 km sq, the third largest country in Europe. So it stands to reason its farthest flung extremities are very likely to be affected by some challenging weather conditions from time to time.
Its northern tip is on a par with the southern reaches of the UK, while its southernmost points are not so far from the deserts of north Africa. To the east it comprises some of Europe’s highest peaks, and the west coast ranges from serene sands to incredibly rugged, storm-lashed cliffs, pounded by maritime storms.
France’s topographical features play a major role in its climate: bordered on the coast by the North Sea, the Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and on land by the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Jura, France has plenty of natural boundaries.
These natural boundaries help create very different weather patterns, largely dictated by the clash between oceanic weather to the west and continental anticyclones from the east. Where they meet and mingle is where the meteorological action is.
What this all means
The oceanic zone – broadly the entire west coast stretching inland over 100 km from Biarritz to Lille – has a broadly mild climate, with plenty of rain. Of course, to the north the weather is generally cooler and windier, especially throughout Brittany and Normandy.
The inland zone, north-south roughly between Toulouse and Reims, sees less rain being more dominated by high pressure sweeping in from the continent to the east.
The eastern continental zone, from the mountains of inland Provence up through the Alps to Alsace and including the Massif Central, is much drier and with cold winters and very hot summers.
The French south coast of course is affected by the Med so is generally very dry and rarely sees cold winters.
On a walking or cycling holiday weather plays an important part. While we are talking easy going holidays here – nothing too extreme – it still pays to be suitably equipped. Nobody wants to be chilly or drenched to the skin unnecessarily.
Bear in mind where you are: if in Brittany and the north west you might have a greater need for a light rain jacket than in Provence. If at slightly higher altitude, or perhaps along a coastal stretch, it will be cooler so a light fleece might be useful.
Many of France’s most picturesque landscapes are lush and green. They are lush and green for a reason: a decent amount of rain! The Dordogne is many an Englishman’s home from home, partly due to its verdant countryside, so remember this when packing and prepare for the chance of a shower or two.
Winds of change
The French have long embraced the notion of naming winds, at least the regularly occurring seasonal winds that seem to have their own characteristics. If you’ve ever been caught in the Mistral or been buffeted by the Tramontane you’ll understand why, though in the UK we have no equivalent.
Le Mistral - Perhaps France’s most famous wind, this is a dry, hot wind that hair-dryers down the Rhône Valley to Provence. In winter it can be ferociously chilly.
Le Tramontane - Coming from the north, this blows round or over the Massif Central heading south to the Med.
Le Vent d’Autan - This blows up from the Med, heading north-west to Toulouse and on to Bordeaux, bringing very balmy autumn weather and often heavy rain.
La Bise - This is the dry, east wind that sweeps in from continental Europe, depending on season it blows bitingly cold in winter and baking hot in summer.
The magic of microclimates
Many a French region or locality trumpets the virtues of its very own microclimate. Whether rooted in fact, or the imagination of tourist office officials, the Ile d’Oléron off the west coast and the Quiberon peninsular near Carnac in southern Brittany are cases in point. The far south-east corner of France, the Côte d’Azur around Nice and Cannes, professes to have a uniquely balmy microclimate, being shielded from the Mistral by the sheer bulk of the Alps in the interior.