A bridge too far? Stephen shares his tips on negotiating those long weekends so beloved of the French
It’s spring and to your average Parisian that means long weekends. And this year is ideal for long weekends. Well, almost.
One of the first New Year’s messages I received was from a gleeful French friend announcing, “2023, c’est une année à ponts”– a ‘bridge’ year. No, it’s not a gap year. A French ‘pont’ is also the ‘bridge’ between a weekend and a midweek day off. And ‘faire le pont’ may sound like a yoga exercise but it means to take off the ‘bridge’ day, thereby creating an extra-long weekend with minimal loss of paid holiday. For example, if May 1 falls on a Thursday, you take the Friday off and hey presto, a four-day weekend.
The promise of these ponts brings huge pleasure to the French, and if you’d taken a survey on January 1, mentioning the upcoming long weekends, I’m sure that a vast proportion of the population would have predicted an exciting year ahead.
If you google ‘ponts 2023’ you’ll find a swathe of magazines, newspapers and websites explaining how to make the most of the months to come. And you can bet that on the first Monday of January, HR departments all over France were deluged with requests for specific days off, reaching as far ahead as November.
But as I said above, 2023 is only almost ideal because the tally of ponts is not quite as high as it could be. May 1 and May 8 are on Mondays, so the French can take ‘only’ a three-day weekend. Similarly, July 14 is on a Friday.
However, Ascension Day (May 18), Assumption Day (August 15) and All Saints’ Day (November 1) will all produce generous ponts.
This is all excellent news for your average Parisian office worker, but to me, a freelancer, it implies something different: I’ve made a note to avoid at all costs travelling on the first and last days of those long weekends. Traffic in and out of the city will be like wildebeest migration time. Long-distance trains will be sausages stuffed with humans, pets and luggage.
If you’re visiting the city, you might decide, in a spirit of innocent cultural exploration, ‘Oh, I’ll be in Paris in mid-May, maybe I’ll hire a car and drive up to Honfleur for the day’. It’s an attractive idea – a seafood lunch on the quayside, a stroll around the Eugène Boudin museum (dedicated to the greatest painter of Impressionist beach scenes), a musical trip through the birthplace of composer Erik Satie…
Excellent in theory, but one sunny Sunday in May, at the end of a pont, I drove out of Honfleur around 6pm en route for the Paris autoroute and ran into an immediate traffic jam that had me crawling towards the capital so slowly it would have been faster to ride on the back of an oyster. After an hour of going nowhere, I took the first opportunity to exit the autoroute and return to the coast. There I joined all the other Parisians who were lucky enough not to have bosses waiting for them next morning.
Life in the slow lane
I found a room in a half-empty hotel, enjoyed a relaxed dinner on the seafront at Trouville, and spent the following morning in the glorious 50m seawater swimming pool in Deauville before cruising towards Paris in the mid-afternoon, along motorways littered with cars that had suffered damage when post-pont drivers had given into frustration and accelerated to a wild 10kph, straight into the car in front.
All in all, my advice to travellers this spring and summer would be simple: consult one of the many calendars of the French ponts to come, and plan to remain in Paris on those days. The city will be gloriously empty and wonderfully relaxing – well, as relaxing as this beehive of activity ever gets.
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : Paris can be delightfully empty during the long bank holiday weekends © Shutterstock
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