What is winter really like in France?
Whether the weather be cold or whether the weather be hot, France’s different climate zones affect the weather you’re like to weather, whether you like it or not, finds Ruth Wood
Escape to a château by all means, but first find out what it will be like in the winter. That’s the lesson estate agents Jerry and Caroline Green always try to pass on to French property hunters, having learned the hard way. Back in the summer of 2005, the couple fell in love with a château while visiting friends in a Limousin village. “It was a stunning place,” remembers Jerry. “There was a lovely restaurant and a lovely lake where the children swam. We went to see the local school and were very impressed. We made an offer, which was accepted, and went home very pleased with ourselves. What could go wrong?”
Quite a lot as it turned out. By the time the couple returned to sign the compromis de vente, it was winter. Limoges airport was closed due to bad weather (a rare occurrence but it can happen), the local restaurant had closed for the season and the couple’s dream village felt more like northern Scotland than southern France. When they double-checked school arrangements they were shocked to learn that local lanes were sometimes impassable in winter and so when their children went to secondary school, they would be expected to board with host families in the nearest town, returning only at weekends.
To cut a long story short, Jerry and Caroline literally got cold feet and pulled out of the sale. Instead of escaping to the château, they ended up having a narrow escape from it. Eventually, they moved further south and west, settling in Duras, in Lot-et-Garonne. There they run their estate agency Clé Rouge and live next door to a meteorologist who waxes lyrical about the microclimate.
If you plan to overwinter in France, you really need to think about more than latitude and altitude. The term ‘microclimate’ is a tad overused by estate agents but it’s true that the lay of the land and the proximity of the coast can influence the weather. If you are interested in a particular town or village, it’s worth consulting the climate pages on the website of the national meteorological service meteofrance.com/climat. Type in the name of the commune and you can find out about average temperatures, rainfall and sunshine in any given month or for the year.
For a more a general understanding, France can be divided into these five climatic zones.
Covering the Atlantic and Channel coastlines, and extending 100km inland or more, this zone encompasses the whole of Brittany and most of Normandy. It is marked by mild temperatures all year round and relatively high rainfall, especially in winter.It gets colder as you move eastwards along the Channel towards the Belgian border and drier as you move south over the Loire into Vendée and Charente-Maritime. Winter and spring rainfall increases again in the far south-west around Biarritz because of the influence of the Pyrénées.
Estate agent Carolyn Pratt is based in Charente-Maritime, a famously sunny part of France halfway down the Atlantic coast. “The last couple of winters the weather has been unsettled here but generally the winters are mild,” said Carolyn, who works for Agence Idimmo/Prestige & Châteaux in the town of St-Jean d’Angély. “The last time I saw snow was 15 years ago, but it wasn’t the wet, damp snow you get in the UK. We were on the beach on 1 November last year and swimming in the sea. Usually you can be back on the beach by the end of April, but this year it was May because of some unusually cold weather.”
Changeable oceanic climate
Charente, Dordogne, Lot and the Limousin are typical of this transition zone between the oceanic, mountain and semi-continental climates. The further you move from the Atlantic, the colder it gets in winter and the warmer in summer. Rainfall is lower than on the coast except in hilly areas.
Kate Jones and her husband Simon have lived near Bergerac in Dordogne for over 10 years and help to run Duck & Truffle, which holds truffle and wine weekends in the quieter winter months. “We visit the local black truffle market in Ste-Alvère where you can meander around the truffle stalls taking in the smells and ambiance,” says Kate. “We love winters here. They’re short and not as damp as in the UK. The year before last we had a New Year’s Day picnic on the river and the sun was beautiful. In October we had days when it was 25°C, but that doesn’t always happen. We’ve had snow a couple of times but it’s gone within a day or two. It does rain hard sometimes but again it goes quite quickly. We usually have our heating on from mid-November to mid-March; by April we’re having barbecues.”
Winters are harsh and summers hot in this climate zone, which covers much of Grand Est and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté in the north-eastern quarter of France. Although the summers are slightly wetter that in oceanic and Mediterranean zones, the winters are relatively dry because Alsace is protected by the Vosges mountains and, indeed, the town of Colmar is drier than the Côte d’Azur in February.
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Krishna Lester and his wife Mandy live in a village near Auxerre in the department of Yonne, which is right on the cusp of the semi-continental and changeable oceanic zones. “The climate has changed so much in the 40 years that I’ve lived in France,” says Krishna, who lived in Côte d’Or for 10 years, then Maine-et-Loire for 20 years before moving to the department of Yonne 10 years ago. “We used to get a lot of snow and a lot of cold weather down to -15°C every year, but now we hardly get any snow, though it’s very wet. “Winter used to start properly in November and end around the beginning of March, but now it’s very chaotic. You can’t really predict what’s going to happen.”
January 2018 was exceptionally mild in Burgundy while February had some of the coldest days since 1945, with temperatures plunging to -14°C in Châtillon-sur-Seine in Côte d’Or. Although the department of Yonne is not a big tourist destination, Krishna says it’s noticeably quieter in the winter, even in the main towns such as Auxerre and Avallon. “If you want somewhere with more life in the winter, I’d recommend buying in or near a university town such as Dijon,” he said.
Clear, blue skies are a hallmark of winter in mountainous areas, although summers tend to be cloudier than in other zones. Temperatures drop, of course, with altitude, but wind and rain vary with location.
The coldest temperatures ever recorded in France have not been in the Alps but in the lower Jura mountains to the north of them, which are further from the Mediterranean and more influenced by the continental landmass. The Pyrénées are warmer because of their proximity to the Atlantic.
Jerry and Jan Blease moved to La Clusaz with their triplet sons in 1989 and spent 25 years in the close-knit but welcoming Alpine village that thrives on farming, forestry and Reblochon cheese, not just ski tourism.
“We soon discovered that the freedom and outdoor life that the Alps could offer three 10-year-old boys was in a different league to what we could give them in London,” says Jerry. “A child’s ski pass only costs £30 for the season and they had skiing and ice-skating lessons at school. Within a season they were better skiers and better French speakers than us.”
Though the family sometimes got snowed in, Jerry recalls only one occasion when the road out of their hamlet was blocked by a fallen tree. Luckily, it was Christmas Eve and they didn’t need to go anywhere. “We never felt trapped,” said Jerry. “And there were very few power cuts. Mostly people drive 4x4s and have snow chains for the winter, and there is always someone on hand to help with problems. During the winter, the local construction companies stop building and their machinery is used to clear roads. The commune has its own snow ploughs and if it snowed overnight, they would be out before 6am clearing roads, even minor dead-ends like ours. The only times it could get difficult was if it snowed during their lunch breaks, or after 5pm, because they would usually leave it till the morning.”
Jerry and Jan ran their home as a luxury chalet for corporate clients and hosted the likes of Sting, James Taylor, Mark Knopfler, Seal and Simon Cowell through their work for MTV. They have now retired and put the 12-bedroom property on the market for €2.1m.
Winters are dry and mild in the Mediterranean zone, typified by the Riviera and the Rhône valley. Summers are hot, with frequent strong winds, while autumn and spring can be wet and stormy.
Regular French Property News contributor Carolyn Reynier lives in Nice and points out that the seaside city was a winter resort long before becoming a summer one, attracting Queen Victoria and various other European royals, thanks to its mild climate. “I have lunched outside in sunshine in Beaulieu on 1 January, and a few years ago at a beach restaurant with my family at Cannes,” she said. “But obviously it is much cooler in the evening and we have been wrapped up in rugs watching the illuminated corso during Carnival in February. “We are quite sheltered here in Nice but we can get cold weather on the tail end of the Mistral wind and occasional downpours of biblical proportions, though they are short-lived and the sun usually dries everything up fairly quickly.”
Most of the beach restaurants remain open during the winter, says Carolyn, as Christmas, New Year and the February carnival are busy. And going for a dip? “From memory the latest I’ve been in the sea (I don’t mind cold water but must be able to dry off in the sun with no wind) was one mid-November, and my earliest dip was in early March,” she says.
Pick and mix winter
Edward Landau’s estate agency sits at the meeting point of three climatic zones. Agence Le Bonheur is in Maubourguet, 125km east of the Atlantic coast and some 60km north of the Pyrénées mountains, yet also on the cusp of the changeable oceanic climate zone. “Every year is different,” he laughs. “It’s one of the mildest areas of France, but that doesn’t preclude a cold winter. This year we had a long, wet winter followed by 90 days of uninterrupted sunshine. “I lived in the Alps and I would say that we often get more snowfall in the Pyrénées but because of the warmer temperatures, the snow melts more quickly and is replenished. “Autumn is mild, often in the mid 20s. Then the temperature drops, often quite suddenly, around mid-November before warming up again in March. In a great year you can be swimming outside on the 1 April. In a dreadful year you will lose your fingers!”