Mistral, a wind that shaped Provencal architecture
Mistral, the much loved and hated wind of Provence!
Most visitors to Provence, and indeed much of the Mediterranean, are usually entranced by the charming features of the local architecture, especially in the countryside.
Amazingly, Provence architectural style has very little to do with aesthetics, but much more to do with practical requirements!
Provencal buildings and roofs indeed need to withstand the fierce gusts of the Mistral wind and the relentless summer heat.
I can certainly testify to the strength and biting cold of the Mistral in Provence.
It is indeed a wind like no other!
It’s therefore quite understandable that, over the centuries, buildings have been designed in order to cope with its brutal force.
The Mistral usually develops as a cold front moving from the north, down through France.
Air piles up in the Alps before spilling over the mountain tops .
It then rushes as a freezing blast, down the Rhone Valley between the Alps and Cevennes.
The Mistral can blow continuously for several days.
It can also reach speeds of over 100km (62 miles).
Its power is really quite unbelievable.
Although, strongest and most frequent in winter, it can still cause much misery well into spring!
It is then usually accompanied by clear, fresh weather and plays a significant role in creating Provence’s otherwise sublime, climate.
The name ‘mistral’ is aptly derived in part from the Languedoc dialect meaning ‘masterly’.
So how has the Mistral impacted construction in Provence?
Farmhouses, or ‘mas’, have traditionally been built from locally available materials.
The golden stone walls, sometimes cemented together or rendered smooth with plaster, are designed to be strong and compact.
They retain warmth in the winter and keep buildings cool in the summer.
The distinctive clay tiled roofs are made of thick, red curved,terracotta.
They are often laid in a double or triple layer, set in mortar and protrude out beyond the wall in order to cover the main living areas and annexes.
Their interlocking design forms canals in order to allow rainwater to run down and drain off the roof.
The Romans introduced the decorative friezes that still adorn the underneath of the eaves.
Roofs normally have gentle slopes in order to prevent tiles sliding or blowing off in the Mistral.
Protruding stone chimneys are built low and squat to also prevent being damaged by the winds.
When you look at the local buildings, they are nearly always purposefully, southeast facing in order to minimize the Mistral’s impact.
For the same reason, windows are rarely added on the north walls to avoid the Mistral’s icy chill.
Windows are deliberately small in order to prevent the wind coming in, however, large enough to allow in sufficient light.
The distinctive shutters also originate from the need to shut out both the wind in winter and the heat in summer.
Medieval towns and perched villages are served by a huddle of cobbled streets, steps, alleys and archways.
Not only are these tiny, but they are also quite narrow.
This too was deliberate.
It indeed made them easier to protect and confused attacking soldiers!
Today, they remain as peaceful and quaint, reminders perhaps of more turbulent times.
The overall effect of all these architectural features helps Provence to remain an idyllic spot.
Provence is indeed set within its dramatic landscape, mountains falling down into the sea, communities still clinging to desolate hill tops, and an abundant countryside, overflowing with vineyards, fruit trees, olive groves, lavender and sunflowers.
It’s totally captivating!
Map of Provence