Flattened by the heat: French advised to take siestas as temperatures soar

Heat dome blights southern villages as wildfires threaten to cause losses

A man cools off at a public fountain in Colmar, eastern France, on August 21.  AFP
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For the tranquil hilltop village of Vinsobres, beautifully set amid cypress, olive and cherry trees just 25 minutes off one of France’s busiest motorways, the Autoroute du Soleil, the “absolute record” mentioned in a TV newsflash could hardly have been less welcome.

Deep in the hefty chunk of southern France beset by sweltering conditions blamed on the “heat dome”, Vinsobres registered a temperature high of 42.1ºC on Sunday, a level not reached in the 33 years since a weather station opened locally.

The narrow streets offered a little shade as people scurried indoors for respite from the sun and to take cool refreshments.

Claude Somaglino, the affable mayor of Vinsobres, was making sure that the old or vulnerable among the village’s 1,100 inhabitants were safe, especially those living in isolated locations.

“We have been telephoning their homes to make sure they are all right and to check if anyone needs medication brought to them,” he told The National from the town hall on Monday.

Mr Somaglino said Vinsobres has been forced by successive heatwaves to adapt life to extremes of temperature.

Despite radio warning of worse to come, local conditions have eased slightly and thunderstorms are expected by the end of the week.

“I think we’re managing,” Mr Somaglino said. “Children don’t go back to school until September so there is no need for special measures for them. But it’s very, very hot.”

But the village became hotter still later on Monday, peaking at 42.4ºC, with even higher temperatures recorded elsewhere including Lapalud in Vaucluse (42.5ºC) and Puy-Saint-Martin in Drome (42.7ºC), and reportedly rising to 44ºC elsewhere.

The heat dome or la canicule, as the French call the wave of intense heat and humidity, has divided the country.

Fifty departments, broadly three-quarters of France south of the Loire Valley, are on weather warnings – and the second-highest level orange alert has now been upgraded to red in four of them, among them Drome, which includes Vinsobres.

Temperatures farther north have been much more bearable, even cool at times.

The Opal Coast, between Picardy and the Belgian border, has been described as the new Cote d’Azur in French media, drawing visitors unwilling to boil on the Riviera.

French TV recently showed images of people drenched by rain in the Channel port of Calais and apparently enjoying every moment.

Even there, however, it is becoming warmer, if nothing like as hot as in the south, ahead of the sharp falls in temperature predicted from the end of this week.

Vinsobres attracts tourists, too, those admiring out-of-the-way rural idylls with good hiking trails and plenty of sightseeing opportunities, from the 12th century church with walls built from round pebbles to remnants of 15th of 16th century town walls. These are not pursuits guaranteed to appeal in present conditions.

Mr Somaglino says the number of visitors is noticeably down on last year. He blames the weather rather than economic hardship.

“In this sort of heat, more people this year have preferred to go to Brittany or Normandy, where it’s fresher.”

But the people who live and work in and around Vinsobres are hardy folk.

Not everyone sees the record-beating temperature as such a big deal. Aurelien Aubert, whose family owns the Domaine Autrand vineyard, is philosophical about the spotlight falling on his village but feels it exaggerates reality.

“There was a big difference in the village yesterday, from the afternoon to the evening when people started to go out again," Mr Aubert said.

"Yes it’s hot but if you’d asked me at the end of June, I’d have said it was hotter.”

Learning to live with and adapt to heatwaves is essential. The French government held a crisis meeting to bring together relevant ministers such as transport, health, environment and agriculture.

A hotline offering advice on protection from the heat was activated and the national rail carrier SNCF was instructed to distribute bottles of mineral water to passengers.

Health experts recommend siestas – but lasting only between 10 and 30 minutes – and avoiding strenuous physical activity.

The national weather service Meteo France said the heatwave is "intense and long-lasting" and "particularly late in the season".

Formal office etiquette must make way, too, to immediate needs.

The Europe 1 radio station asked whether lighter clothing was acceptable at work. Raphael, in public relations in Lyon, cycles to the office in shorts and does not then change unless he has to meet clients.

“We have an image to protect,” he says.

The weather service said temperatures should peak on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But from Friday, it expects a “drastic change” as the heat dome retreats towards the Mediterranean, giving way to cool northerly conditions.

Updated: August 22, 2023, 8:01 AM