Sunday, October 28, 2012

Le Mistral

It's not only the British that love discussing the weather - while they ramble on and on about the rain, in Provence the infamous Le Mistral becomes the main topic of every conversation once it strikes with all of its might. This dry and cold wind originates in the Alps and Massif Central, bringing the bitingly cold air off the mountains to the Rhône Valley, rushing at speed reaching nudging 160km/h. It can do major damage to the crops, often brings about forest fires and sometimes affects people's frame of mind but on the good note, it pushes the bad weather towards the sea, leaving the sky luminous and pollution-free. That's why Provence boasts over 300 sunny days a year. Allegedly, on a really wind-lashed day from the top of Mont Ventoux, the region's highest mountain, it's possible to see all the way to Corsica, located more than 350 km southwest from the Provençal giant. However, this persistent myth hasn't been supported by concrete evidence, since it's impossible to stand on the top of Mont Ventoux when the Mistral blows.

Before coming to Provence I could hardly imagine the force of Mistral. The combination of clear blue sky coupled with torturous wind seemed impossible to exist... until I felt its effects on my own skin. Imagine peeling off your cardigan, lured by the glorious sunshine, opening the door and... the bitting cold immediately chills your bones and makes you wonder whether you're for sure in the south of France and not in Siberia. Even if you head out equipped in multiple layers, you'll have to try really hard to pick the right clothes to guard you from the force of Mistral. When it blows, the streets become deserted. It's so cold it effectively dissuades everybody from going out. The wisest thing to do is repose yourself in the comfort and coziness of your room and wait for three, six or nine days until Le Mistral subdues.

I've experienced Mistral before but it wasn't until couple of days ago that I got to know its knock-down force. Because of the direction it comes from, it's difficult to find many windows on the northern side of Provençal houses. However, my new room was of northern exposure. While in other rooms inside the house any howls were almost non-existing, the piercing scream heard from my room made me feel as if I was in the middle of the busiest multi-lane highway intersection, as if million kettles started buzzing over my head at the same time. I could hear the wind whistle trough every gap, shake the house, torture the branches of the trees, make wooden shutters bang against the walls and rattle all small objects standing on the shelves.

In Lagnes, in only three days, the temperature dropped almost 30 degrees. In the morning I could see the effects of the wind - tormented trees with almost bare branches, objects placed in front of the garage scattered in all directions. We were spared the worst results - in some nearby houses the roofs were torn off due to the powerful wind. Here Mistral blew only 130 km/h. In nearby Murs, its speed reached 160 km/h.

No matter how irritating Le Mistral is, it hugely figures in Provençal life and landscape; it's synonymous with the region as much as lavender, vin rosé, olive trees or herbs. It's because of Mistral that Provençal homes are protected by rows of tightly planted, twisting cypresses; that knotted olive trees don't reach very high, but stay low to the ground. Thanks to Mistral, Provence prides some of the finest wines in France - local vineyards are subjected to both intense heat and freezing wind that additionally blows away the worst grape-eating pests. Any time it starts blowing, you wish it away, but on the other hand, that's one of many elements that define this sunny region - after all, without Mistral, Provence wouldn't be Provence.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses (image courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org)

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