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My Provence - Mistral, Wind of Wrath
It can blow for days, will chill your bones and can turn people insane.
I am talking about the Mistral, a fierce wind ruling over Provence.
That is also my Provence.
It can blow for days, will chill your bones and can turn people insane. I am talking about the Mistral, a fierce wind ruling over Provence.
The Mistral is a cold wind born on the Massif Central, the eroded remains of a massive volcanic range in the center of France, north of Provence. Mistral gushes down the Rhone River reaching as far as North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea - a pump flushing away any low-pressure system threatening Provence.
Locals in Provence never talk about the weather. No need as Provence is sunny 99% of the time. However, they will talk for hours about the Mistral.
They will tell you it blows for 3, 6, 9 or 12 days. They are convinced it comes in multiple of 3 days.
The Mistral can blow furiously in winter - till March. The rest of the year, it will cool you down in a very welcome way. It will also save your trip to Provence, as whenever it blows it will not rain.
At its worst, in winter, it will find its way - any available way - to chill your bones. No zipper ever protected me from the penetrating Mistral.
Generations of locals lived with the Mistral and developed proven methods to protect and shelter their property.
Traveling through Provence, you will notice heavy stones scattered on old tiled roofs. They are used for ballast to prevent uplift caused by Mistral. You will also notice fields bordered on the north side by large trees to prevent wind related erosion. Traditional houses have blind walls exposed to the north. Tightly planted cypresses are grown along exposed roads.
The Mistral is much more than its effect on nature; it drives locals insane, it dries the skin and cracks lips. It blows steady then comes in gusts.
The Mistral threatens trees that are not deep-rooted and cars can be pulled in the ditch. While walking, I remember being forced to a halt trying to resist its pressure.
Two years ago we planned a major renovation to our home in Provence. I should have started the work in October but the house was booked. By mid November when the house became available, it was too late as I wanted to be back in Canada for Christmas.
I started gutting the house in January. Then the Mistral started. According to locals, it was one of the worst they had seen in years. Everything froze in the house, including a radiator that exploded spraying the walls with black mud accumulated in the pipes after years of use.
I could not get enough protection, wearing sweaters over sweaters, wool hats and gloves and still freezing to death. The house offered little protection as I had a gaping hole in the wall I had opened to install a French door.
A few valves from the watering system froze in the garden. I was not ready to understand Provence might get cold in winter. I remember the Mistral toying with me while trying to carry gypsum boards in the house. I learned to hate the Mistral the same way locals do in winter.
The Mistral is fought. One fights to walk, to temper its effect, to prevent it from rushing through doorsills, stairways, vents and chimneys.
One gets tired fighting every second of the day. One gets tired of the dryness, its constant howling and its sudden gusting roar. Nights turn into nightmare as furious ghosts travel the sky, shake the house from roof to floor and rattle the loose tiles on the roof.
The Mistral never stops invading. It engulfs the narrow streets with a piercing scream. It engulfs the trees, bending each branch to its will.
Last spring, on market day - held each Friday in Carpentras - Elsa and I were walking in the packed streets toward a fruit store. Its owner is a colorful woman, very witty with multicolored hair ranging from blue to purple and pink. As usual, she was managing a large crowd in front of her store facing the town hall.
Each Friday she is allowed to push her store into the street. She then protects her goods and patrons with an awning. A gust of Mistral lifted the awning. Its heavy steel stiffener crashed down on the strawberry baskets, missing her head and that of a few customers by less than an inch. She disappeared under the awning. We were very concerned and ran to her to offer help. We were met by a loud "Sacre Mistral" (Damn Mistral). Lots of shoppers agreed. Life went on. Everyone is used to "Sacre Mistral". I told her she should fasten the awning to the wall but she went on with her business, concerned with the few minutes lost selling vegetables and claiming she was used to it.
The Mistral is soothing from spring to fall. Clearing the sky and the dampness of the summer days. The Mistral opens the horizon. It contributes to growing the best grapes and to keeping Provence sunny. On a hot summer day when the Mistral lifts, you will feel the need for a light sweater - a pleasant rest.
Elsa and I, it seems, are wind lovers. We live on a wind-swept plateau in Quebec, beside the highest working farm in all of Canada - on top of owning our place in Provence where the Mistral is king.
© Philippe Guerin, 2006
More on Provence - in My Provence - Tamed and Wild
I left Provence years ago. Settled in Quebec and forgot about Provence. Two years ago, I renovated our home in the heart of Provence and felt the area was reaching me deeply. Thus my need to share my experience and vision of Provence.
also traveled extensively for my work and have always tried to understand
the culture and people I visited. I never failed noticing that people
and places form a rich ecosystem. That is the core of my words.
can blow for days,