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G - 98 : Mistral - The Wind That Gave the Côte d'Azur its Towns

The French call it their crazy wind. Strong, cold and dry, it blows regularly down the Rhone Valley - except for the summer months. It bends the wind-breaking poplars the French farmers plant across its path and dries out my garden in the Ardèche. After two days of Mistral, I have to water plants and flowers. The wind sucks all the humidity from the soil.

Windbreaker Trees in the Camargue - they are all bent south by the powerful Mistral


The wind is a by-product of an European weather phenomenon when an anti-cyclone (high pressure system - blue) follows a cyclone (low pressure systems - red). Together, they suck cold – and thus dry - air from the polar region and pump it into a funnel between the Alps and the older Massif Central. The funnel accelerates the speed of the Mistral.

The Mistral is an European Weather Phenomenon - Similar to the Meltemi in Greece


The Mistral blows at about 15 knots in Lyon, but speed increases. It is 20 – 25 kn in the Ardèche (level of Montélimar) and 30 – 40 kn in the Rhone river delta. For a reason I do not understand yet, the speed increases further over the open sea and can reach 60 knots. On the Beaufort scale, wind speeds of > 60 kn are described as “whole gale” or “violent storm” which cause “exceptionally high waves – small and medium size ships might be for a time lost to view behind the waves”. Only hurricanes are stronger!

Wind Chart from Windy App - the Strength of the Mistral measured in Beauforts (Bf)


The Mistral does not stop at the Mediterranean shore but reaches Corsica, the northern part of Sardinia and the Baleares. Crossing these waters thus requires skills and is not for the faint hearted who only sail along the coast. The Mistral can build up within an hour and blow for two or three days. Its gale-like pattern means that the sails and the rigging are at risk if not properly handled. One single gale and a simultanous turn can rip the strongest sail. Experienced this last spring in the Bucket Regatta in Saint-Barthélémy when our boat lost its main sail in the middle of a turn. The wind speed was only 35 kn.


Some crazy sports sailors in Marseille wait impatiently for the Mistral. They love competition regattas in stormy weather. Their boats are light and need several crews to balance. They are also incredibly fast. Mistakes are not forgiven. The pilots race close to each other. But they know the wind and how much their boats can take. They constantly watch sail, sea, wave crests, own direction and the course of other boats to grasp the emerging wind pattern. It is an art and requires experience.

Replica of the Kyrenia Ship built around 400 BC


Was thinking of the Greek settlers from 2’700 years ago when they approached the French coast for the first time. The Mistral must have been frightening. Their ships were 15 – 20 meters long and far less sturdy than our sailboats today. Their sailing season was limited to June - September. The Greek sailors thus missed the most powerful Mistrals during fall and winter. But definitely not all. They had to hop from port to port to stay close enough to the shore to make landfall at any moment.

Greek Ports on the Ligurian Coast - added the Locations in Red manually - the Ports on the Italian Riviera were Ligurian Settlements which the Greek were allowed to use


Always wondered why there are so many more ancient Greek settlements on the French than on the Italian Riviera. I guess the reason must be the Mistral. Ligurians were mountain people and generally did not settle on the coast. On the Italian Riviera, the mountains drop straight into the sea thus there are a few Ligurian ports. Noli, Taggia, Andora, Imperia and Ventimiglia were Ligurian foundations which were known to the Greek sailors and where they probably had harbor rights.

The Sea on the Ligurian Coast can be extremely choppy


On the western end of Liguria, today’s French riviera, there were no such settlements. The Ligurian villages and small towns were inland. The Greeks thus had to create their own infrastructure and build ports which could support ships sheltering during bad weather. With no weather forecasts available, these ships often had to wait for days before it was safe to leave the harbor. As maritime traders, the Greek were masters in logistics. The foundation of Monaco, Nice, Antibes, Saint-Tropez (Athenopolis), Olbia, Toulon, Cassis, Saint-Blaise and Marseille is the best testimony. Marseille probably the best. Not being the most hospitable place, its port was large and could accommodate all the ships who had to wait before the 160 miles two days crossing to Agatha Tyche, today’s Agde near Béziers.

Greeks built Nicea next to the Port - Roman Cemenelum (Cimiez) in the Foreground was built on the Site of an old Ligurian Settlement


Am sure it never occurred to the Greek colonists that a few thousand years later their response to the Mistral would become the holiday infrastructure for millions of tourists. But that is how life is – we open the door to a new dimension and cannot imagine how many new doors there will be and what is behind them. A good case for permanent curiosity!

One of the nice side effects of the dry Mistral: many sunny Days in the Provence


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