les grandes vacances – a great french tradition

by Sharon Santoni

When I first arrived in France – many, many moons ago – the month of August, for most of the country, meant everything was closed. “Fermé pour vacances!” was the sign posted on all the doors of the boulangeries, butchers, flower shops and other essential stores. Les Grandes Vacances were regarded as sacred.

The long, hot days of August were when the French believed it was the right time to close down, take a break and go away for a whole month. Traditionally they headed to Provence, to Brittany and some to the mountains. The warm temperatures and the slower pace of life providing a welcome break to their year-round routine. Businesses shut down for weeks on end, schools closed from late June through to September, and France dozed through a glorious, carefree summer.

Today, to some extent that is still the case. And we often have to search to work out which of our five local boulangeries has remained open during the summer weeks.

Interestingly, although a large part of the population headed down to the South for their Grandes Vacances, there was no motorway, simply a main road winding its way down from Paris to Provence, with simple hotels and gas stations dotted along the way. Whole towns thrived from the passing trade, and the annual seasonal migration most certainly helped the French economy. This particular road is so deeply anchored in French culture that there is even a famous song about it: National Road Sept, by Charles Trenet.

Today, as the evolving economy changes our ways of living, there aren’t many families who can afford to simply disappear for a whole month, but old habits are hard to break. It is now a time when – thanks to the internet and the ability to plug in from anywhere in the world – the boundaries between work-time and holiday tend to blend.

This year, my family and I went on holiday to the South of France, with all of the kids and quite a few friends. It was a lively, noisy, happy couple of weeks, with long shared meals and plenty of time to rest. But for the first time, it seemed totally normal to find a few people (me included) set up in the shade with a computer, putting in a couple of hours work each day. We joked about our co-working space, and paused regularly for a dip in the pool, lunch with the family or the ‘obligatory’ summer siesta. But we were effective, and we were relaxing and we managed to find a balance that allowed us to spend some oh-so-precious family time while continuing our professional duties.

Maybe this is one of the luxuries that our digital age has brought to us. At least for those whose work doesn’t require a physical presence at a set address. Maybe this is the new Grandes Vacances!

10 comments

Ceew August 31, 2022 - 4:01 pm

Just lovely! I can only dream of such an escape…!

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Gae Nunes August 31, 2022 - 6:27 pm

Ah….the same in Italy!

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solange August 31, 2022 - 7:14 pm

It sure Makes me a little lonely since I was born and raised in France, I feel like I don’t go back enough. I love that basket with the flowers.

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Carol August 31, 2022 - 8:30 pm

The photo of the pretty Cafe de France reminds me very much of a cafe in L’Ile sur la Sorgue, is that where you were?

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Pam S. August 31, 2022 - 9:22 pm

Hi Sharon!!

How beautiful and relaxing, just what we all need. I love the idea of shutting down and spending time with family and friends.

I love all the pictures and the one of National Road showing the migration to beautiful summer vacations.

I’ve never seen or can’t remember seeing such a perfect beautiful basket as the round one in your picture. How beautiful!!

Love hearing about traditions like this. Thank you for sharing.

Take care.
Pam xox

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Adrianne Bowes August 31, 2022 - 11:04 pm

Like others who posted…where can I get that perfectly functional round basket?

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Debra August 31, 2022 - 11:13 pm

My husband and I were fortunate enough to be able to take a six month sabbatical at L’Universite de L’Ouest in Angers about forty years ago. How time flies!!! Anyway, although we had travelled in France we really didn’t know about Les Grandes Vacances and couldn’t quite understand where everyone was when we arrived in Angers in August! We figured it out when we went to the beach. I love the whole concept of that lovely amount of time off and then the wonderful Rentree. It was so great to read your piece on that custom in the recent copy of your magazine. Even in our tiny state of Connecticut we can’t manage to have a true Rentree.

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Linda Hovgaard September 1, 2022 - 4:50 pm

Once again – beautiful article and photos. Any chance you can inform me where I can purchase that lovely white basket?

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david terry September 1, 2022 - 5:46 pm

For better or worse, My French partner’s Father, Mother, two grandmothers, AND his little brother all had birthdays that, unfortunately, fell between 23 and 26 December. Improbable, of course, but entirely possible. In any case, they simply made a corporate decision to celebrate a joint-birthday party during le Grande Vacance, rather than trying to compete with Christmas. That said?……these are/were four highly opinionated, somewhat snobby academics, whose spouses were all high-toned engineers or doctors. I suppose you’d just have to know the family. In any case. the problem of “Where to go?” was solved by letting the little brother decide…..starting when he was five or so. Consequently, the family ended up, each year at EuroDisney or whatever equivalent struck a chord with a five year old boy’s imagination. Most of the adults would try to tempt the boy with brochures from lovely places with, say, beaches or mountains….somewhere THEY wanted to go. He still inevitably chose some place with a space-ship, dinosaurs, or a cowboy park…..and they were all stuck with the decision, because they had PROMISED that the youngest of only two grandchildren got to make the choice. Apparently, this went on for years. I wouldn’t find this so amusing if I didn’t know, quite well, how stubborn and relentlessly “in good taste only” the family was/is.

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