It’s August and that means it’s a mad month. Last Saturday was officially billed as a ‘black’ day on the roads. The first Saturday in August is when traditionally in France the juillettistes (those who take their holidays in July) return home and the aoûtiens start their holidays. This year though there were ‘only’ 880 km of traffic jams across the country, as opposed to the record 980 km last year. It’s so predictable that the government produces a 13-page document (Le Panorama d’été 2015) to show where all the blockages are expected, which days to avoid, and possible alternate routes.
And where do many of these holidaymakers head to? To the south of France of course. Driving back from church last Sunday it sometimes seemed as if the whole of the north of Europe had descended on the Côte d’Azur. Everywhere you looked there were hire cars full of pale skinned people who were obviously lost, Belgians with their distinctive red number plates aggressively charging around and what seem to be several thousand soberly coloured Volvo estates full of the Dutch. There were some British cars but not as many as you might expect; it’s a long and expensive drive from the main channel ports to this corner of “the Hexagon”.
The result however of this extraordinary influx of visitors is that everything is crowded. The main impact is seen on the roads. Normally empty motorways become nearly as clogged as the M25 and innovatively parked cars can render any dual lane road near the seafronts a constricted vehicle-lined single lane. Anywhere near a remotely swimmable beach will have cars parked on the pavement, by the side of the road and most likely, in the road.
The mood is obvious: having driven all the way across Europe to get to the Mediterranean no one is going to let a little “No Parking” sign get in their way. Near Cannes some enterprising individuals had parked their cars actually on a roundabout, something that we thought was rather clever until we saw that the police were following them round giving them parking tickets. To get into certain towns (St Tropez is a good example) requires a military style early-morning manoeuvre along cunningly chosen routes.
And it’s not just roads. All sorts of things are closed for the month and lots of shops have signs hung up suggesting that there’s not much point in knocking on the door before the end of the month. To his horror Chris broke a bit of tooth off the other day and it took six phone calls to find a dentist who had not closed their practice until September. (Mind you, he did in the end to get the tooth fixed in two days: something that would be far from easy in the UK.)
In our area a lot has changed. There are clearly a number of people here on holiday but from the fact that a number of houses are heavily shuttered it is quite plain that some of our residents have (possibly sensibly) fled the Côte d’Azur. The number of empty properties may well explain why our neighbourhood policewoman has been driving around twice a day. But then given that she doubles up as the lollipop woman and schools are closed, perhaps she’s just desperate for something to do.
Sensible folk avoid supermarkets on Monday morning because that’s when the tourists are stocking up. It’s easy to spot them: they are generally found sunburnt and utterly bemused in either the cheese or wine aisles. The British however can often be found gazing in horror at some of the things to be found in the meat section.
Inevitably, in August Cannes becomes even sillier than usual. Last Sunday we noted outside the Carlton hotel – a little stone’s throw away from church – a line of cars that went as follows: Rolls-Royce, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Lamborghini, Lamborghini, something unrecognisable made out of carbon fibre that was clearly very expensive (later research showed it to be a KTM X-Bow), Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. Most had Arabian or Gulf states number plates. And it’s very possible that some were associated with the multi-million-dollar visit of the King of Saudi Arabia and his thousand-strong entourage which achieved a certain notoriety because it closed off a rather small beach nearby. In theory, France of course is a liberal, non-religious republic and doesn’t much care for any monarchy, especially an Islamic one with a dubious human rights record. However France is bankrupt and anyway this is August.
But if we are in August now can September be far behind? The summer is moving on, and not just because the sun is starting to set earlier. The sales are over and autumn clothes are beginning to appear in shop windows. Supermarkets are stripping out all their summer garden sections to replace them with stationery and pens for La Rentrée, the great return to school which happens on the same day (1 September) all over France. But for the moment it’s time to get in the car and try to get to the beach.