The Mistral is a local wind which hurtles down the Rhone valley from the north, veering to north west by the time it gets to Marseille and coming from the west on the Cote d’Azur and over Corsica. It’s a strong, cold, normally dry, wind. As its name suggests (Mistral means masterly in the local language of Occitan), it’s fierce, with gusts sometimes reaching speeds of more than 100km (62 miles) per hour. It’s more frequent in spring and winter but can occur at any time of year. Legend has it that it blows for either 3, 6 or 9 days but it can just as easily blow for one day or one week. Legend also has it that it can induce madness.
The consolation of the Mistral is that it normally scours the sky and leaves the air crystal clear – an effect that is unique to Provence. Painters such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, de Stael, Gaugin, Picasso and Matisse all came to Provence for the special quality of the light. And it’s mostly thanks to the Mistral that Marseille has an average of 2800 hours of sunshine per year.
The Mistral is an integral part of Provence: next time you fly into Marseille airport or drive down the A7, look at the lines of thick, dark hedges of cypress trees going east to west to protect orchards and gardens; look at the traditional Provençal farmhouses, facing south with their backs firmly turned to the Mistral and as few openings as possible on the north side; and look up at the bell towers (campaniles) which are a part of so many Provençal villages – it is said that an open metal framework withstands the Mistral better than a stone structure.
And, if you’re in Provence at Christmas, amongst the traditional santons in the crèche you’ll see the shepherd, his coat blown wide open by the Mistral, holding firmly onto his hat with one hand.
So hold on to your hats and revel in the light.
Painting in the Mistral can drive a man mad…Wheat field with cypresses, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Enjoy the beautiful light of Provence when you stay in one of our hand-picked Provence vacation rentals.