Europe's hottest place? According to one guide, the answer is Ibiza. Others award the title to Ayia Napa in Cyprus (indeed, one describes it as both the hottest and the coolest place in Europe). But most take an approach that has less to do with nightlife and more to do with average temperatures.

Europe's hottest place? According to one guide, the answer is Ibiza. Others award the title to Ayia Napa in Cyprus (indeed, one describes it as both the hottest and the coolest place in Europe). But most take an approach that has less to do with nightlife and more to do with average temperatures.

The University of Oregon nominates the Spanish city of Seville, familiar as "the frying pan of Europe" to anyone who has been there in August – the forecast for the coming week is a roasting 93F/34C. But the Columbia Encyclopedia and many other authorities support the rival claim of the ancient Andalucian town of Ecija, southwest of Cordoba.

"In mid-August it's so hot," reports the Rough Guide, "that the only possible strategy is to slink from one tiny shaded plaza to another." Lonely Planet says the town is known locally as "the frying pan of Andalucia" (presumably to distinguish it from the bigger, pan-European utensil of Seville).

The Cadogan Guide to Spain seeks to cool the debate: "Any Andalucian town can overheat you thoroughly on a typical summer's day and, if Ecija is a degree hotter and a little less breezy than most, only a born Andalucian could tell the difference." The authors are American, which could explain the next line: "Andalucians are the only people yet discovered who talk about the weather more than the English."

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A RIVAL bid, though, resides far to the north, just across the border in the Cerdagne region of France. Font Romeu is a resplendently decaying spa, 7,000 feet up in the Pyrenees. Since the old money moved out, young blood has pumped in: the town is popular with sportsmen and women preparing for big events because the air is thin, but clean, and there is plenty of sunshine. These attributes help explain the existence of the most extraordinary modern sight in the Pyrenees, the Four Solaire. That might sound like the name of a dodgy club in Ibiza or Ayia Napa, or a dodgier Anglo-French boy band – but it translates as "Solar Oven". The world's fanciest kitchen accessory helps scientists cook up high-temperature recipes.

The gleaming assemblage looks as mad and expensive as a failed Millennium lottery scheme. An array of giant mirrors has been strewn on the south-facing hillside below the town. These looking-glasses turn the place into a shiny wonderland. The sun's rays are focused on a single point where the temperature can rise to 3,500C. Out of the Spanish frying pans, and into a French fire that beats any boulangerie.

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AS WITH all-too-many Millennium projects in Britain, the Four Solaire has proved spectacularly unsuccessful in its intended purpose. By the time the final mirror was eased into position, it was clear that a passing cloud could cut the heat of Hades to the temperature of a lukewarm café crème. Physicists found they could achieve more reliable high temperatures elsewhere. So a half-baked research centre has become a first-rate tourist attraction, where visitors are treated to a litany of heroic failures by French scientists.

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THE BLAIRS will find the Four Solaire comfortably close to their 16th-century chateau at nearby St-Martin d'Oydes – if they manage to reach France in the first place.

The obvious flight for the Prime Minister and his family is on British Airways' subsidiary CityFlyer Express from Gatwick to Toulouse. From Downing Street, the West Sussex airport is much closer than Stansted, and Toulouse is handier for their holiday home in the Ariège. Better still, they would have demonstrated their support for European business, by flying in a British Aerospace 146 to the French city and taking in the superb tour of the Airbus factory in Toulouse.

Or they could let the environmentally friendly train take the strain, travelling almost to the chateau porte with changes in Paris and Toulouse. Instead, the first family are to fly in an American aircraft under the Irish flag to the French Pyrenees, taking a Ryanair flight from Stansted to Carcassonne.

The good news for the taxpayer is that, with the Downing Street entourage in tow, the total fare will be a fraction of that on BA or Air France. But if Ryanair decides to cancel the flight, the carrier reserves the unusual right to "refund all monies paid, without any further liability". They can whistle for the £2,800 per week that the chateau costs, because their arrangements are not covered by the Package Travel Regulations that protect people on inclusive holidays.

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ONE OF the finest walks in the Pyrenees begins close to the Four Solaire. The path to Spain starts in Planès – nothing to do with Boeings, but one of the loveliest villages in the Pyrenees, clustered around a tiny, exquisite and triangular Romanesque church.

After two hours' uphill hike you reach one of the most rustic mountain huts in Europe – the Refuge de l'Orry, a semi-detached shack adjoining a cowshed on a chilly, north-facing slope of the mountains.

The temperature was racing the sun downwards by the time I arrived. The two existing occupants valiantly tried to raise the temperature by igniting, then inhaling, a mildly mind-altering substance.

Despite their efforts, I shivered through the night in the fridge-freezer of Europe.

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SMOKING ONaircraft, as mentioned below, is still feasible. But smokers who take holidays in America feel like fugitives, confronted constantly with signs like this one in a bicycle shop in Williamsport, Maryland: "If we catch you smoking, we'll assume you're on fire and we'll take appropriate action."

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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