Back in college, a friend of mine realized a long-cherished adolescent dream: Spending April in Paris.
It’s a phrase immortalized by the Jewish lyricist Yip Harburg, lyricist of “April in Paris,” which was recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong, and made into a Doris Day movie.
Who knows if Harburg, a New Yorker, ever made it to Paris in April. If he had, he might have been disenchanted along with my friend, who shivered through several gray, treeless months in the damp French capital.
Paris, like all great cities, offers urban delights any time of year — but there are better places to specifically savor springtime, and I am here to let you in on them.
Personally, I never understood how riotously lovely the season can be until I started spending spring holidays in the Balkans, my husband’s native turf. Before meeting him, I spent many a March and April shivering amid cherry blossoms, and searching for the poetry in bone-chilling rain.
Broadly speaking, since the oceans take a while to warm up from winter, so do ocean-adjacent regions. The converse explains why Atlantic denizens enjoy long, golden autumns and relatively late winters.
(An extreme example of this phenomenon is my family’s house on the windswept ocean side of Martha’s Vineyard, where trees stay bare right up until June; just a few miles away, along the protected north shore, spring comes a full month earlier.)
If you, like me, have always been disappointed by March and April, perhaps it’s time to sojourn east — to Southeastern Europe, where summer weather awaits long before Memorial Day.
Popular lore holds that the jarring rhythms in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” were inspired, in part, by the abrupt violence of a Russian thaw — the frozen earth literally cracking apart in loud, jagged thrusts, as blossoms burst forth amid brilliant sunshine.
It’s an equinox hard to imagine on the chilly East Coast, or in Paris, for that matter. But statistically, Paris afternoons don’t hit 70 degrees until well into June.
In Tirana, meanwhile, May highs average 75 degrees. From Ljubljana to Bucharest, Kishinev to Istanbul, you can expect April weather warm enough to sit outside at lunch (and often well into the evening). And by May, you might as well go to the beach.
Much of Southeastern Europe is mountainous, which helps: Inland valleys are protected from harsh winds and oceanic humidity. But the eastern Mediterranean is also distinctly warmer than its western waters, which helps explain why Tel Aviv is summery while it’s still sweater weather in Barcelona.
In fact, I avoid Greek beach vacations in late-summer high season — not for the crowds, which are easily avoided by choosing one of the northern islands, but for the seawater that is so hot, it makes you feel like you’re soaking in tea.
The season’s glory is not just about temperature, however. What makes a Balkan spring truly wondrous is the sudden, brilliant way it bursts forth out of winter, an exuberant transformation Stravinsky would doubtless recognize.
Profusions of lilac trees scent Sofia and Skopje with a heady aroma, while pink and white blossoms blanket the countryside. In contrast to the medieval towns that define Italy and Spain, Eastern European cities, tend to be very green, with swaths of shady parkland and even forest preserved throughout the urban neighborhoods.
Never is this greenery more apparent, or more welcome, than just after the thaw. From Macedonia’s wide, unspoiled valleys, you can literally watch the snow recede on the mountains.
Each day, white patches give way to verdant forests; across Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, locals put away their skis in favor of picnic baskets and hiking boots. This is the time of year to book a stay at one of the region’s country spas, dunking in natural hot mineral springs and dining on strawberries and salads bursting with flavor.
Greece’s summer tourists find an arid, sunbaked landscape, brown and dusty against a deep-blue sea. It’s beautiful, of course, but the southern Balkans are a very different place in April. Along the highways, hillsides are awash in shades of green, yellow and pink — a kind of Mediterranean desert in bloom.
By May, the Greek island of Corfu gets just a handful of rainy days. The limpid Ionian coast also has just a handful of travelers wandering around — mostly retirees escaping Europe’s colder climes — so there’s no shortage of sand to lay your blanket on, and no better choice for a pre-season getaway.