Living in the south of France is a beautiful thing. Except for the wind. It is so prevalent and powerful that it has a name: “Le Mistral.”
Residents of Uzes have a saying about Le Mistral:
“It sometimes lasts only one or two days, frequently lasts several days, and sometimes lasts more than a week.”
Let me know if you can figure out that prediction. From my brief experience in this part of France, I’ve learned it lasts more than a week. Having lived next to the Atlantic Ocean, I would describe it as a strong ocean breeze during hurricane season. The wind can be dry or wet in France, warm or cold. Sometimes, Le Mistral is so strong you feel it will knock you off your feet.
What is Le Mistral?
I know nothing about meteorology; however, I will paraphrase the description of the weather pattern to say that it occurs when the flow of air from north to south creates a current of cold air that picks up speed through the foothills of the Alps and Cevennes. It then spills into the Languedoc region of France, Provence, the Rhone Valley, and as far southeast as Sardinia and Corsica — sometimes as far as Africa. Wind speeds can reach more than 90 kilometers per hour.
Le Mistral winds generally blow from the north or northwest. At certain times, the mountains channel the airflow through pre-alpine valleys and along the Cote de Azur so that it blows from east to west. Winds that blow from the west bring air that is not so cold. It is generally followed by clear skies and warmer temperatures. This type of mistral usually blows for no more than one to three days. On the other hand, wind from the northeast is frigid, sometimes bringing heavy snow to low altitudes in the winter.
With these characteristics, Le Mistral is felt only in the west of Provence and as far as Montpellier, where I live.
One Sunday, I experienced a torrential rainstorm that lasted all day. The rest of the week was rainy and cold.
The excellent news about Le Mistral is that conditions brought about by the winter winds help make the year-round climate desirable — 2700 to 2900 hours of sunshine a year. During the summer — mostly July — the wind sweeps through the area around Provence and Uzes when the temperatures are hot. It is caused by a flow of air from the north toward the east, generally reflecting sunny skies — even when the surrounding areas may be cloudy. The summer winds can clear the sky in less than two hours, blowing away dust and pollution to make a gray day crystal clear.
Le Mistral: Van Gogh’s Inspiration?
Among other artists inspired by the Provence region’s beauty and the air’s clarity, Van Gogh seems to capture it all — and the wind. During my road trip to St. Rémy last summer, I hadn’t experienced Le Mistral. So, when visiting the asylum where he was self-imposed during his previous days, I was impressed by how this masterful artist mimicked the natural phenomena around him — the sunflowers, the starry night, and more. With this new insight, looking at Van Gogh’s work is fascinating. The effect of Le Mistral on his paintings — the wind, the clear skies — is undeniable.
Wheat Field with Cypresses
Starry Night, Van Gogh 1889
Rest Work, Van Gogh 1890 (Clear, calm sky)
Le Mistral and tradition
Evidence of Le Mistral was found in archeological remains from 400 BC. Ancient ruins in a now Nice area showed stone walls were erected on the northwest side of fire pits to keep the wind from extinguishing the fire.
The construction of farmhouses facing south helped residents minimize the effects of the wind. Roofing tiles and chimneys distinguish the rural landscapes, and towns mostly face south. Townhomes and buildings have small windows on the north side.
Roofs are gently sloped with sturdy tiles to endure the winds and rain of Le Mistral.
This early Provincial creche shows the shepherd boy holding his hat, fending off heavy winds.
Bell towers that hover over towns and villages were designed to filter the wind.
This particular bell tower is visible from my apartment terrace.
More signs of Le Mistral
The wind was ferocious the day I took pictures of the plane trees that line the roads near Uzes. Sometimes, I had to hold onto the side of a tree trunk to keep my balance.
It’s pretty evident that these trees have seen their share of Le Mistral … from the bare limbs on one side of the tree…
… to the abundance of foliage on one side.
Everything in sight seems to tilt with the wind and grow that way.
Imagine the storms this tree has weathered.
Revisiting the works of Van Gogh, I was amazed to see this familiar representation of Le Mistral. I am truly walking in his footsteps!
Le Mistral brings beautiful skyscrapers.
These are some fantastic views around Uzes that speak to the power of the wind. Photos were actually taken from the windows of my apartment. Perhaps bearing the wind is worth viewing how it brews up turmoil in the skies.