When we think of Provence, sun is pretty much the first thing that springs to mind, and lots and lots of it. And with good reason; Provence is the sunniest place in the whole of France with Aix-en-Provence and Toulon leading the way in the league tables. It is also incredibly hot in the summer, with several episodes of over 40 degree temperatures in recent memory and prolonged periods of intense heat from June to the end of September. There are also several periods of droughts (1988-1992 and 2003-2006 in more recent history), where people and agriculture suffer from extreme water-shortages. We’re lucky that vines are fairly drought resistant and can withstand a hot summer with little water.
Lately we have also witnessed another facet of Provence weather – very cold winters and episodes of intense rainfall. We had a good deal of snowfall in the Haut-Var every winter since our arrival, which appears to be a new phenomenon in such regularity. The fact that many houses here have no central heating, and that people and vehicles are ill prepared for extreme winters makes for a few chaotic days (even our neighbour had to abandon his car and walk to the village bar for his rosé breakfast that morning). All this is exacerbated by the fact that Provence is on the periphery of the electricity grid and prone to blackouts even on “normal” days. When the rain falls, by god does it fall; roads turn to rivers, walls get washed away and vineyards turn into paddy fields. We lived through the most incredible deluge on the 15th of June 2010, something that none of us, in spite of many rainy years in old Blighty, were prepared for. Nearby villages got washed away, cars were hanging in the trees and more than 25 people were killed. The fact that Provence is now an intensely built up place with little regard for soil erosion means that extreme rain produces more and more problematic results.
Lastly there is the Mistral, a wind that makes you feel intensely irritated, turns people into an awful drivers and chills you to the bone in winter, even when the actual temperatures are not that low. In Orange the Mistral blows an incredible 1 day out of 3, and even here in the Var, which is sheltered from the worst, we have lots and lots of windy days. This cold, dry wind usually causes a period of cloudless skies and luminous sunshine, which gives the mistral its reputation for making the sky especially clear. It also has the beneficial effect of drying the vines after heavy rainfall, thus preventing rot that might otherwise set in.
The mistral can reach speeds of more than ninety kilometers an hour and its average speed during the day can reach about fifty kilometers an hour, calming noticeably at night. The mistral usually blows during winter and spring, though it occurs in all seasons. It sometimes lasts only one or two days, frequently lasts several days, and sometimes lasts more than a week. They say even murder is forgiven after a week of mistral – and I can see why.
So, in resumé, when you’re sitting by the beach with a glass of Rosé in your hand you are not quite getting the whole picture of weather in Provence. We love it, but it can only be described as quite extreme. I came here thinking I wouldn’t need a down coat, wellies or Uggs and couldn’t have been more wrong, I have bought more weather related clothing here than either in Germany or the UK.