the Mistral wind
This is the seventh straight day that the cold Mistral wind has been blowing down the Rhône Valley. And when I say seven straight days, I mean every minute of every hour, for each one of those seven days. No respite. It hadn’t blown in Provence for a month or so, and now it’s back. And it’s out for revenge. The wind is maddening: it’s even said that women have used it as an excuse to kill their husbands…
The Mistral is a high pressure wind that blows down the Rhône Valley – north to south – rushing towards an area of low pressure around the Gulf of Genoa. It’s the predominant wind in Provence, blowing about a hundred days a year. The closer you are to the Rhône River, the stronger the wind. And here, in Avignon, it’s as close to the Rhône as you can get. An average wind speed may be 50km/h but gusts can easily reach 100km/h or more.
There is an advantage though: the high pressure wind means no rain. Of those hundred days of Mistral winds during the year, not one of them will be accompanied by rains. The clear-deep-blue-skies-without-a-single-cloud that are so evocative of Provence have the Mistral winds to thank, though I’m not really in the mood for thanking them right now. In the summer months, sure, they can be welcomed with a smile: the Mistral can be soothing, and can offer some cool relief from the heat. But not in the winter, which is when it tends to blow the most often, the coldest, and the strongest.
I’m an obsessive cyclist: I check the weather forecast several times a day, achingly waiting for a window of calm so that I can go out for a spin without worrying about getting stopped in my tracks by the winds, which I have; or without worrying about being thrown off my bike by the wind, which has also happened.
This past July 14th, the finish line of the day’s Tour de France stage was set for the summit of Mont Ventoux. Dutch camper vans had been stationed on the upper slopes for a week, ultra-fans seeking a strategic spot before race day, with a cooler full of beers. But At 1912m in altitude, high above Provence, Mont Ventoux is more exposed to the Mistral winds than any other place. France’s wind gust record was set here at 320 km/h. I’ve been blown off my feet twice on Ventoux while hiking, and blown off my bike within seconds from reaching the summit, the very first time I was going to complete the entire ascent without dismounting once. On the day before this year’s Ventoux stage – July 13th – the Tour de France television broadcast was posting pictures of amateur cyclists being blown off their bikes (and feet) near the summit. The above picture was taken on that day. Wind gusts were clocked at over 140km/h. The same violent winds were also in the forecast for the following day, race day. A quick decision was made to lower the finish line 6km down the mountain, to a forested area less exposed to the winds. No one argued.
Hiking in the winter is often beautiful in Provence. When the Mistral winds blow you need to choose the right location for the hike – areas less exposed to the winds – such as the south faces of Mont Ventoux, or in the Luberon. The sun stays low in the horizon, offering a beautifully soft light all day, great for picture taking. The air is cool and perfect for hiking, and you’ll have the trails to yourself.