Britain is not built for extreme heat. Our buildings are thick-walled, our people thick-blooded, our food warm and hearty, our train tracks… well, they’re not great in rain or snow either, obviously – but in extraordinarily hot weather, they melt. So, when the temperature rises into the thirties and beyond, as it has tended to do in recent summers, we cling to routine, turn on the fan, and wilt – a land of sweltering stoicism.
But it needn’t be that way. Our continental cousins have long been dealing with scorching summers, and over the centuries, they’ve learned a thing or two about how to keep cool. True, it helps when your nation’s basic infrastructure is geared towards hot summers (adapted working hours, in-built air-conditioning, al fresco culture), but there are nevertheless plenty of simple day-to-day dos and don’ts which hot and bothered Brits would do well to adopt. Our destination experts share the best of the bunch.
Keep the sun out: With temperatures rising up to 47C in some parts of Portugal, people are meticulous about closing their curtains or shutters during the day on whatever side the sun shines in, then opening all the windows at night to allow air to circulate.
Have a cold one: To cool off in the hot weather, big, frosty beers are the Portuguese go-to, with gin and tonic or sangria flowing later in the day. It might feel too hot to eat, but you only have to sniff the Portuguese summer air to know that the traditional meal of sardines – light, flavoursome and grilled outdoors – make the perfect summer food.
Avoid the beach: The Portuguese still head to the beach – a national pastime – but many do so very early in the morning, leaving at lunch time, while others go late afternoon and stay for the sunset.
Begrudge your electric fan: The biggest problem in Portugal is the cost of electricity – which has risen sharply there, as it has in the UK. Although many Portuguese homes have air-conditioning, most can’t afford to run it non-stop. They compensate, just as Brits do, with electric fans and small portable air-conditioning units.
By Mary Lussiana
Choose a frappe: Greeks will gather on vine-shaded terraces after sunset to play tavli (backgammon) and sip the frappe – coffee in a narrow glass beaker packed with ice cubes and whisked to a meringue peak. An integral part of the Greek summer experience.
Have a nap: Whether it’s town or countryside, an essential part of staying cool in summer involves an afternoon nap – the Greek version of the Spanish siesta. There is even a law that forbids making noise in the middle of the day.
Sleeping in the hottest part of the day – usually between 3pm and 5.30pm – is an acquired habit, but once you’ve mastered it, it’s like having two days rolled into one. You wake up refreshed, you shower and dress, and then continue with your working day before returning home to eat out under the stars at around 10pm or 11pm.
Stay in the city: Fleeing to the ta choria – the villages – in summer is standard practise in Greece, and hamlets with only 300 inhabitants in winter double in size, as children (who have three-month summer holidays) and other family members who can get the time off, return to these calmer, usually cooler, climes.
Go to bed early: Great big parties – or glendis – with music and food are a vital element of summer in Greece: don’t skip social soirees entirely when the weather’s hot, just do as the Greeks do and avoid the sweatier hours of the day by kicking off at midnight, and then carry on until the first hot blush of dawn.
By Heidi Fuller-love
Go dark: My early years living in Italy were spent with a Roman family, with whom I shared some cauldron-like summer months. They had shutters, of course, but also some of the thickest curtains I’ve ever seen. Not to keep out the dawn, but to draw mid-morning in mid-summer, the windows having been open all night. It worked. Not cool exactly, but not stifling. Wherever they are – home, hotel, villa – Italians know the afternoon sun is an enemy to be kept at bay.
Adopt the wet look: My Rome friends shared two tips for sleeping through hot nights that have stood me in good stead ever since. First, a light sprinkling or spray of the sheets with water. Cool to lie on, and by the time the sheets are dry, you’re asleep. When you wake hot, same again. Or – in extremis – similar principle: soaked T-shirt, wrung out, put on, cold as you like. Wake hot, struggle out of T-shirt, reach for the spray. Sleep and repeat.
And while a soaked T-shirt may not make for a strong daytime look, it’s also wise to avoid too much bare skin when you’re out and about – Italians don a light outer layer of cotton or linen, knowing that the skin stays cooler that way than in direct sunlight.
Forget the mountains: Italians have a summer holiday choice: mare o montagna – sea or mountains. You may think you want swimming and the beach. Do you really? Counter-intuitive to leave the coast maybe, but Italians know that altitude brings relief: fresher air, cooler nights and daytime temperatures that actually let you do something. Average July highs in Milan, for example, are 88F/31C; in the resort of Alta Badia, in the Dolomites, they’re a positively chill 70F/21C.
Bother with afternoons: When holiday time is precious, it’s hard to accept that you have to surrender a chunk of the day. But in high summer Italians, like the Greeks and Spanish, accept that afternoons are simply written off. In Rome, my family’s outdoor tasks – shopping, morning espresso – were done by 11am. After that – unlike the city’s summer tourists – it was off the streets till 5pm. Time is made up later, much later, in the balmy bliss of the hours until dawn.
By Tim Jepson
Take a long lunch: It might surprise many a Briton to know that Spanish siestas are largely a stereotype, and one which has had little basis in reality for many years. If ever. What is true is that lunchtimes are long (and I mean long) in Spain, with most clocking off around 1.30pm and not returning for the afternoon shift until around 4.30pm or 5pm, deftly avoiding the worst heat of the day.
Keep things light and fizzy: Inventive cooling drinks vary by region. The south, for example, has its ‘rebujito’, a refreshing muddle of soda, sherry and mint, while ‘Aigua de València’ (Valencia water) is an ice-cold mix of cava, orange juice vodka and gin. Forget about sangría in summer – it’s usually mass-produced in tourist areas, so you won’t find many Spaniards ordering it.
Bother with carpet: In Spain, homes are kept beautifully cool in traditional, eco-friendly ways. In the south, many houses face onto an internal patio and are therefore shielded from the full blast of the sun. Tiling is ubiquitous and carpets non-existent. The ‘persiana’ – an external roller blind made from wooden or aluminium slats – is everywhere, often staying down for months on end, draped over balconies to allow a chink of light either side but nothing more.
Make a meal for one: The Spanish are also masters of adapting their diet. Ordering rice or paella for dinner, for example, can earn you a raised eyebrow – rice is considered too difficult to digest in very hot weather, or late at night, which is when many Spaniards sit down to dinner in the summer months. Tapas and platillos (sharing plates), however, are the ideal food for sweltering days, prefaced with a bowl or glass of iced gazpacho.
By Sally Davies
Get a culture fix: Many of France’s tall, city buildings are devoid of air-conditioning, so rather than sweating in a chambre-de-bonne-cum-sauna, the French head to a museum or gallery to cash in on public AC. Cinemas, bars and even the local pharmacy can be quite literally a breath of fresh air. It’s also a great time to visit the cool cloisters of the country’s many impressive churches and cathedrals.
Refrigerate everything: Nothing, not even summer temperatures of upwards of 40C, can mess with French mealtimes. Do as the French do and prepare hearty, fresh salads. Anything that requires cooking is prepared in the evening when it’s cooler and refrigerated for the following day. Much of the fridge is filled with glass carafes of water, and there are generally a few bottles of white wine chilling, too.
Underestimate the power of shutters: Countryside gȋtes with periwinkle shutters might look straight out of a Provençal postcard, but they’re practical too. In hot weather, the French keep shutters closed during the day before dousing themselves in mosquito repellent and opening them at night to allow airflow.
Skip the weekend trip: French cities become ghost towns on summer weekends, and citydwellers flee stifling streets for the cool allure of the mountains, the coast, or rivers. Even getting just outside the ring road can be enough, and many French cities have large green spaces and lakes which are easily reachable by public transport.
By Anna Richards
For more inspiration, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in Europe.