The French Mistral Is One Crazy Wind

The relief palatable, the calm almost surreal, something is missing – the wind has stopped!

In southern France, the mistral is a strong wind that typically blows from the north or northwest. Mistral, the name for this wind means “masterly”, and in my opinion, it certainly lives up that reputation. The mistral typically blows hard, with gusts at times of up to 100 km/hour as it accelerates down the Rhone and Durance rivers towards the Mediterranean. The mistral typically brings with it a change to dry, cooler weather and clear blue skies. This can be a relief in the hot days of spring and early summer, or a curse in the later days of the fall as it can create chilly temperatures.

There are two French expressions, which this author believe to be accurate descriptors of the mistral “le vent qui rend fou” (the wind which makes you crazy) and “le vent des voleurs” (the wind of robbers). The mistral can blow for just a couple of days or even as long as a week. A strong mistral will typically send cafe patrons indoors and make golf games virtually unplayable. The beautiful plane trees of Provence, with their noisy, leafy canopies provide an excellent cover for robbers, as even dogs cannot hear their approach.

Like any wind, the mistral cannot be seen by the naked eye. Its’ presence is known only by the chilly gusts, and the crazed supremacy over man, beast and flora. In a strange way, you can almost see the rocky outcrops being formed by the sheer force of this unseen energy. The olive trees in Provence are typically pruned to keep them small in size, this makes for easier picking in the fall. It also allows the trees to hold on tight to their tiny buds as the wild wind tries to shake them loose. The mistral has impacted architecture in the region for centuries. The typical farmhouse or Mas was built to face south with its’ back to the wind. Church bell-towers have openings to allow the wind to pass through. Stone walls and interior courtyards are built for some minor relief. Even 3000 years ago, the stone dwellings called bories were constructed in a fashion so as to evade the wind.

Often the wind can bring some relief, to a hot, humid spell of weather. However, that brief respite is quickly forgotten as sleep becomes almost impossible for days on end. The wind can be a real menace at certain times of the year, when conditions are dry, and there is a risk of forest fire. We experienced our first mistral in October when exploring Provence on our bikes, it was a shock. That particular mistral was strong enough to nearly knock over both the bike and its’ rider. It certainly was cold enough to warrant jackets and in my case long gloves.

A traveller to Provence may get lucky during a short stay to miss the wind completely. Or they may experience the fully nasty force for days on end. Then one day dawns and something has clearly changed, there is a sense of peace. The olive and fruit trees can go back to producing their production cycles in the calm. The visitor can go back to exploring the glorious region.

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