PARALLEL hedges in tidy rows, villages huddled together on leeward hillsides, and trees that appear to have lost all their leaves and branches on one side. These are features common to the landscape of Provence in southeast France, and the wind called the mistral had a hand in all of them.
The mistral ranks right alongside other famous winds, such as the foehn of the Alps, the pampero of South America, the chinook of the North American Rockies, the harmattan of northwest Africa, and the Euroaquilo mentioned in the Bible. (Acts 27:14) The name mistral comes from a Provençal word meaning “masterful.” True to its designation, it can blow at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour [200 km/hr].
The mistral was born from the never-ending “conflict” between high atmospheric pressure over central France and low pressure over the Mediterranean. Its great strength comes from what is called the mountain-gap effect. Channeled between the Alps and the Massif Central plateau, the mistral is strongest after emerging from the Donzère gorge, as if from a funnel.
In summertime the mistral drives away the clouds. During the winter, the mistral makes the cold seem unbearable, and it can cause late frosts in an otherwise temperate region. In any season the mistral is often blamed when the local inhabitants feel irritable.
But it is on the splendid cedar forest of Lubéron that the mistral gives free rein to its talent, sculpturing the trees, so that they resemble flags flying in the wind. On the other hand, the mistral will often fan forest fires during the dry season, thus destroying the fruits of its labor.
“Three, six, or nine days,” goes the old Provençal saying regarding how long the mistral will blow. But this masterful wind can blow for a much longer period than that. In 1965, for example, it blew for 23 days nonstop!
Man has learned to cope with the mistral. Parallel hedges protect the fields, and old village houses rarely have an opening to the north. Though its chilly winds can be quite discomforting, the mistral nevertheless can be viewed as a master landscape architect.