Friday, March 6, 2009
People are always surprised when they come to Provence in the winter time, that it gets as cold as it does. There are days, in fact New Year's day a couple of years ago, when you can sit outside and bask in the sunshine in a t.shirt, but there are also days when the wind blows so bittingly cold, that it feels like Siberia. The wind of course is Le Mistral and it comes rushing down the Rhone from the snow capped Alps, bringing with it the freezing cold air of the mountains. Before I moved here, I had heard of le Mistral (how poetic to give a wind a name, in England we just have Easterly or North wind) but never quite understood how hugely it figures in the Provencal life and landscape. It is not until you live here that you realise why all the tips of the trees are bent, and why Van Gogh's landscape paintings of this area look like swirling kaleidoscopes; he was painting the effect of the Mistral on the countryside and it looks exactly like that. Obviously what he saw on the outside was mirroring what he was feeling on the inside and they do say the Mistral can make you go mad. In retrospect, it was probably not the best place for a painter with a tendency towards mental instability to spend his winter months. But then his pain has been a lot of other people's gain.
When the Mistral blows, no one goes out. The streets are empty and it becomes the topic of every conversation. The local people even have a saying as to how long it will last. It can blow for three days, six days nine or even twelve days (something like that anyway). The longer it blows obviously the more exasperated everybody gets. Its not all bad though, they say it blows away decay and disease and it is why the vines of the Rhone valley (Chateauneuf du Pape for one) don't succumb to mildew. And once the Mistral has gone, there is a great sense of calm and relief, the sun feels warm and everyone is happy again.