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A guide to the different winds in France and the areas they affect
The weather is one of the most common reasons given by Brits for holidaying in or moving to live in France. "It's sunnier" they say. (Generally true, even in the north of the country.) "It's warmer than Britain." (Also, generally true, and especially markedly so in the south of France.) Yes, France as a whole enjoys better weather than the UK. In the north-west and down the west coast, the Gulf Stream brings a very appealing mild climate, while in the south, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the sun shines from a brilliantly blue sky, kissing our skins to gold and raising spirits. Even the more centrally located regions such as Poitou-Charentes (Poitou-Charentes Property Guide) enjoy a high degree of sunshine for much of the year. The mountain peaks, snow-capped in winter, still seem bathed in sunshine more often than not, and in summer offer some of the sunniest and most delightful conditions imaginable. (Weather in France.)
However, there is another factor to the weather that affects France, and that is the winds that blow from east to west, from north to south, from south to north and west to east, sometimes, seemingly, all at once! There are winds that rattle around in corridors between mountains, winds that blast the Mediterranean shores and winds that bellow across the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes, in hot, high summer, the winds are soft and warm, and bring a pleasant relief from the overpowering heat, but in winter they can be devastating, icy cold and destructive.
We live with the winds that blow in our chosen areas, of course, we have no choice except to move, which most of us don't want to do, but "Oh this blooming wind, when will it stop?" is a commonly heard grumble. The winds that blow across France are often given names, a custom dating back to ancient times, and which personalises the winds, making them seem like old friends, or even, sometimes, enemies.
The best known wind of them all, one which is a household name even in Britain, where it does not blow, is the Mistral. The area most affected by this wind, whose name means "masterly", which indeed it is, is the otherwise golden land of Provence (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Property Guide), in the south-east of the country between the Alps (Alps property) and the Mediterranean Sea. Parts of eastern Languedoc (Languedoc-Roussillon Property Guide) can also feel its effects. The Mistral blows mostly in spring and winter, but it does occur at times throughout the year and can last for anything from a day to over a week. Wind speeds of up to 90 miles per hour have been recorded.
The Mistral wind comes in two forms, known as the Mistral Blanc, or White Mistral, and the Mistral Noir, the Black Wind. Additionally, you may become acquainted with a third Mistral, the Summer Mistral, but this wind has different origins from the more violent winds better known Blanc and Noir.
The Mistral Blanc is usually associated with brilliantly blue skies and dry, sunny conditions. Much as it is vilified by the inhabitants of Provence, it is actually the driving force behind the legendary sunny climate and azure skies enjoyed there, as its power clears the skies of clouds and dust and dries the atmosphere. It creates a luminous clarity to the air, bringing a pollution free environment and good health to the people, and inspiration to countless generations of artists.
The Mistral Noir is a different matter. Whereas the White Mistral is a dry wind, the Black Mistral brings rain and clouds. It is less common than the Mistral Blanc, and this is why the Mistral is generally believed to bring dry conditions.
The Summer Mistral originates in a different way from its brothers. It occurs when inland Provence experiences a thermal depression, caused by the summer hot earth. It affects only a small area and usually lasts for just a few hours, but can be a devastating accelerator of forest fires.
The Mistral can have its origins in the wind known as La Bise. A very hot, dry wind, it is called by this name at the beginning of its journey down through the Rhone valley, where it reaches Provence and becomes the Mistral.
The Mistral is such a feature of Provençal life that it has created many dominant architectural features such as bell towers of churches formed with open frames made of iron or iron grill work, specifically to allow the wind to pass through without damaging the structure. The traditional large Mas houses (Property in France - Types of houses in France), which belonged to wealthy landowners, were constructed to face south, not in an attempt to keep a sunny aspect, as in Britain, but to keep the Mistral away from the front door and behind the house. Even going back to some 400,000 years BC, the Mistral had a bearing on the population of Provence, and there is evidence to show that early man built his fireplaces protected by rock walls to prevent the Mistral from blowing them out or from spreading the fire beyond control.
The landscapes are also affected in another way, as even the trees and plants of the region have to cope with the Mistral. Rows of elegant cypress trees are not planted so much as a distinctive, decorative feature, but are grown to create barriers against the wind, while even smaller plants have to be chosen for their ability cope with extremely dry conditions. Fires are another problem in summer, as the strong winds blow across an already tinder dry land, spreading fires faster than man can quell the flames. The sun and the wind combine to create a very dry earth, and delicate, moisture loving plants are simply wind-whipped to death or frazzled by the heat.
The effects of the Mistral on Provençal life are also shown through popular culture, with a traditional Christmas crib figure, that of the shepherd, being depicted in the region as being bent almost double, battling against the might of the Mistral. The wind is also mentioned in many literary works.
The Mistral is created when the high pressure in the Atlantic meets the low pressure of the area round Genoa. Pulling in cold air from the north, the wind gains speed as it is pressed between the Cevennes Mountains of the Languedoc and the Alps (Rhône-Alpes Property Guide) of eastern France. The Rhone Valley forms a corridor down which the force of the Mistral can only grow, affecting the land from Lyon (Lyon Property Guide) to Marseille (Marseille Property Guide), and working its way south-east along the Côte-d'Azur.
There are, however, parts of Provence on the Mediterranean Coast that are fortunate enough not to suffer badly from the effects of the Mistral. Nice (Nice Property Guide), Cannes (Cannes Property Guide) and Monaco (Monaco Property Guide), on the French Riviera, have their own micro climates where the protective barrier of the Alps prevents the wind from having its effect on the climate, giving a much calmer, gentler weather throughout the year. Winters here are delightfully mild, with a marked absence of wind. (French Riviera Property - an insider's guide.)
The Languedoc, or Languedoc-Roussillon (Languedoc-Roussillon Property - an insider's guide), in the centre south of France, is the windiest region of them all. As mentioned previously, its eastern parts catch the westerly end of the Mistral, while the region as a whole is affected by an awesome collection of winds from all points of the compass. The Languedoc is often said to be one of France's sunniest regions, and this is indeed true, partly again due to the cleansing qualities of the wind upon the air.
The dominant wind of the Languedoc region is the Tramontane. The Tramontane is powerful, dry and cold, and blows from the north or the northwest. It gathers its speed and power in the same way as the Mistral does, passing through the narrow corridor between the Pyrénéan Mountains and the Massif Central, and being created by the meeting of the high pressure from the Atlantic with the low pressure of the Mediterranean in the Golfe de Lion.
The areas of France most affected by the Tramontane are the Languedoc Littoral, that is, the coastal areas of the Languedoc all the way along the west to Spain, and the inland areas of the Hérault (Hérault Property Guide), the Pyrénées-Orientales (Pyrénées-Orientales Property Guide) and the southern Aude (Aude Property Guide). In certain areas, notably the eastern Languedoc and the western regions of Provence, the Tramontane can merge with the Mistral.
The next most prevalent wind that blows in France is the Marin, or Marine Wind, and this is another which blows upon the coast of the Languedoc. The warm yet damp or wet conditions carried by the Marin bring cloud and rain, particularly to the hilly or mountainous areas inland. The coast suffers less from the wet weather of the Marin, for although it feels the wind, the clouds have often been dispersed before the Marin arrives at the sea.
Next on the list of the Languedoc's famous winds is the Cers, which affects the area of the Languedoc on the Mediterranean coast near to Narbonne (Narbonne Property Guide). Dry and cold in winter, the Cers becomes hot and dry in summer, and is created by the cool, damp air of the Atlantic being forced down from Toulouse (Toulouse Property Guide) through the plains of the Lauragais. Thus, it is the Aude that suffers most from this wind, as it travels from Toulouse to the sea. It is an interesting fact that the glorious sunsets often seen in this area, deep red and stunning to behold, are actually a harbinger of the Cers, so enjoy the sunset while it happens but batten down the hatches before you go to bed, the Cers is on the way!
Another famous wind is the Sirocco. The Sirocco focuses most of its attentions on North Africa, but its effects can sometimes be felt in south-western France, and certainly in Spain. The last of the major winds that hit the benighted Languedoc is the Levant. This one is hot and damp, and blows across the Mediterranean from the south-east. It also affects Provence.
It is known that the Mediterranean areas of France receive a lot of wind, and the Med areas are certainly the ones where the best known named winds blow, but most of France can find itself battered by strong winds at least a few times every year. Apart from the south, the windiest areas tend to be those near to the North Sea, where the North Wind comes whistling across the channel from the UK! The Atlantic Coast (The French Atlantic Coast from Biarritz to Southern Brittany) down the west of France, generally enjoys a less windy, mild climate, due to the Oceanic influences. This doesn't always hold true, however, as occasionally, as in January 2009, the south-west regions of France can find themselves in the eye of a real storm. This one, reaching hurricane-like proportions, destroyed trees, plants and even houses throughout the south-west, with the Landes (Landes Property Guide) being the worst hit.
It isn't just the moon that causes madness, or so they say in this part of the world. When we moved to the Languedoc we were warned against buying a house in the Lauragais (the plain that lies in the Aude department between Carcassonne (Carcassonne Property Guide) and the Montagne Noir) as we were told, "There is a wind there that drives men and horses mad." We didn't listen. "How bad can it be?" we thought. In fact, the house we bought, and in which we have lived in for some seven years at the time of writing, lies in what are known locally as "Les Collines du Vent." This, in case you are not aware, translates to "The Windy Hills".
Most of the time, the weather is magnificent, but when the wind blows there is not a storm peg ever created that can keep the washing on the line, nor a fixing made that can keep the rush roofing from blowing off the pergola. As for driving men and horses mad, well, we retain our sanity, although I would certainly not risk my life by taking the horses out for a ride in the hills when the wind is blowing!
The windiest areas sport windmills (French Mills), both of the old variety, once used to grind corn and other grains and which are now much in demand for renovation to desirable homes, and of the new variety, which generate electricity in a manner suited to an environmentally conscious age. Called Éolienne, these modern windmills are quite a feature of many areas of France, where the application of alternative energy is taken seriously. They offer an obvious clue to the status of the winds in the areas in which they exist, and therefore the advice to potential house buyers would be that if you don't like the wind, don't move to a windmill rich area!
Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.
Very interesting article. I think you also need to mention the Autan wind, however. It is the counterwind to the Tramontane and it is the most violent wind of the Toulouse area. It can blow for days at a time at 100km/h at its worst. It is especially violent in the Lauragais region.
This site gives you good background and readings on the two winds: http://www.vigilance-meteo.fr/fr/meteo/vents-regionaux/la-tramontane-et-lautan.html
More background at French wikipedia: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vent_d'autan
And lastly info on the Vent d'autan in the Lauragais: http://www.couleur-lauragais.fr/pages/journaux/1999/cl15/reportage.htm.
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