The other day, I had a few spare hours on a scorching hot day in Athens. I say scorching hot – it was actually only about 34 degrees Celsius, so not too different from the predicted temperatures in the UK this weekend. But it was unpleasant enough not to want to wander around taking in the markets and outdoor sights.
So instead, I went to the Acropolis Museum. With a splendid view of the Parthenon, it opened in 2009 to showcase the marble friezes and sculptures which once decorated the monument (and also to pile pressure onto the British Museum to return the Elgin marbles). It was the first time I had visited and it proved an excellent choice. Not just because it really is an impressive museum, but because of a highly efficient air-conditioning system. There was nowhere better to spend three hours during the hottest part of the day.
A few weeks earlier, in June, I had been in Aix-en-Provence, where it was so unseasonably hot that some of the restaurants were already using misting sprays to cool down diners in the evenings. But the most bearable of places in the middle of the afternoon? The climate-controlled Musee Granet and – even more perfect because the air-conditioning is entirely natural – the city’s St Saveur cathedral. Here some of the immensely thick walls date back to Roman times, the temperature is always cellar-cool and if you want to warm up a little after spending some time in the nave, you can walk through to the wonderfully shady 12th-century cloisters with sun-dappled gardens in the central court. They didn’t need electricity to cope with the heat in those days, they did it by design.
So why not learn a lesson from these hotter climates? When temperatures build in the UK the gut reaction of many is to head for the coast. For the sea breezes. For a dip in the waves. For an ice cream on the promenade. But it often comes at a price – a couple of hours in a traffic jam or on a train with failing air conditioning.
Head instead, I suggest, for the cathedrals, churches and museums in the town and city centres. The former may be hard to keep warm in winter but, as in Aix, they remain ideal shelters from the summer heat. Meanwhile any museum displaying paintings is bound to have an excellent air-conditioning system because the works are highly vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature and humidity. The National Gallery in London for example, keeps its galleries at 23C in summer with relative humidity at 55 per cent (apparently this humidity level is considered dry and comfortable). And Tate keeps its galleries slightly cooler at around 21C.
Don’t bank on every museum being a good refuge though. Sometimes there are variations. I visited the British Museum on a hot day last week and found the exhibition galleries beautifully cool, but some of the others were getting rather warm. For example, an outside door had been opened to try to get some air circulating in the Duveen gallery. Ironically, this is where the Elgin marbles are displayed. It seems at the moment, at least, they are warmer in London than Athens.