Winter In Paris And Barcelona Offers Low-Prices, Less Tourists

Bargain-Priced And Tourist-Free—Paris In Winter

I’m back in Bangkok now after a three-week winter break in Europe. On the European trip I met a friend in Paris. We traveled to Rennes for a Wine Salon, then back to Paris, and finally down to Barcelona.

I love Paris, and Europe, in winter.

Off-season winter airfares, away from the summer rush, offer good value. From Bangkok I paid US$838 round-trip, all-in, nonstop on Air France. Once in France, hotels had empty rooms, restaurants empty tables. We never waited in line at museums or other shows.

Part of our good fortune was due to Paris’s bad fortune. Terrorist attacks at Paris’s Bataclan theatre and other sites last November hit tourism hard, especially Japanese and Chinese tourism. Japan Airlines even canceled its non-stop flight to Paris from Tokyo’s main Narita airport. Still, even in normal years, I’m told, tourism declines something like 25% in winter.

Another winter benefit: cold weather means richer food with more game, buttery sauces, firmer fish. Paris’ Baron Rouge bar, off the Place d’Aligre, serves up fresh oysters every Saturday and Sunday mornings only in winter. Get a glass of wine at the bar inside, then stand on the sidewalk next to a wine barrel to eat cold oysters and sip crispy white wine. Does life get any better?

A friend says all French cooking consists of different ways to combine butter, eggs, and cream. Somehow butter, eggs, and cream seem better suited to winter. Friends and I ate at Michelin restaurants for lunch every day, ordering foie gras, duck confit, pork pate, and fresh fish with wine sauce, rather than lighter, summer fare.

I chose to arrive in Paris in January to double up on museum shows.

Paris museums, and the Gran Palais and Jeu de Paume and other venues, typically do two shows a year. The first starts in the fall and ends in January. The second starts in January and ends before summer vacation.

I figured in January I could get there before the fall shows closed and after the spring shows opened.

Unfortunately I should have planned a bit better, or stayed longer, or both. I wanted to see “Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850–1910” at the Musée d’Orsay. The show featured paintings of sex workers on Paris streets. But the exhibit closed the day I arrived.

The Fragonard exhibit, and its Louis XIV paintings, closed before I got there, too. And none of the spring shows had opened yet. Better luck next time.

I visited Barcelona on this trip for the first time since 1985.

Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games in 1992 and for the event transformed itself into a lovely host. Rundown neighborhoods along the waterfront disappeared to make room for game venues. Later the venues were converted into parks, athletic fields, beaches, stores and restaurants, and high-rise apartment and office towers. What a stunning urban setting.

Barcelona boomed after the Olympic Games, especially in construction.

Beginning in 2007 the Great Recession took its toll. And now a new plague has hit Barcelona, in its role as capital of Catalonia. Catalonia just elected a government that plans to secede from Spain.

Spain remains firmly against a Catalan secession. And since Catalonia does some 70% of its trade within Europe, seceding from Spain and the EU seems to make little economic sense. But, as in Quebec, Scotland, Basque Country, and other separatist areas, national pride combined with leftist promises can seduce voters.

I saw Catalan flags hanging from balconies. But so far at least the secession movement seems to have little impact at ground level.

Finally, I want to say a word about Air France. I flew exclusively on Air France to France and Spain. The French government retains only a minority interest in Air France these days. But Air France unions still treat the airline as a state enterprise, which means they shut it down with worrying frequency. One of the unions called a strike at Air France while I was in Paris and partially closed the airports. Luckily the strike happened on a day I was staying put.

Air France will never put customers first; French government employees would find the whole notion laughable. Air France is, or was, a state enterprise, with all that implies in a socialist country.

Still, I like the airline and ran into cheerful pilots and flight attendants. I think Air France is slowly getting the message, slowly becoming resigned to a tougher, more competitive world. I’d fly Air France again. We all just need to be lucky enough to avoid the tiresome strikes and other labor actions.

Paul Terhorst