The mistral is a strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows around the south of France through Provence and the Rhone Valley. Winds can reach 60 miles an hour or more and last for days at a time. To protect their beloved churches against these strong winds, communities install elaborate iron cages for their church bells. The wind can bluster through the open iron work so the bell isn’t knocked onto some unwitting resident’s head.
Every mistral bell is a bit different. Some towns have additional artwork, as in Comps-sur-Artuby, with a wooden French flag atop the bell. Note the mural showing a baker at the boulangerie/patisserie.
Gorges du Verdon, of course, is the “Grand Canyon” of France. It’s easy to understand how the wind could rush through this long, deep valley.
Even the tiniest towns have their bells. Rougon has a population of about 100 (up from 40 in 1975) although it may have been as big as 500 people when the bell was installed.
Why are these bells here? One theory (mine) is that blacksmiths no longer had horses to shoe, so they convinced their communities to fund other work in the form of these bells.
In some cases, the mistral bell is just next to a conventional bell tower. If the brick bell tower can survive, why was the mistral tower needed?
Wealthier towns, such as Nice, have their mistral bells integrated with other features: clocktowers, flags, domes.
In Avignon, once the papal residence, the mistral sits atop a tall Gothic tower.
In several spots in Provence we saw statues of Frédéric Mistral, a Provençal poet who lived from 1830 to 1914. It seemed certain that there would be a connection between the poet and this poetry of construction, but apparently not.
When I was trying to find information about mistral bells I ran across this note online from someone in Chicago:“Frederic Mistral and Peter Mayle both died in my garden.” Oh, no! On the one hand, what an unfortunate homeowner to have two famous people pass away in her garden. Was she feeding them foxglove? On the other hand, as I write this, Peter Mayle is 75 and alive. What gives? It turns out these are two varieties of roses. Frederic Mistral is a delicate pink while Peter Mayle is a deep pink.
Our personal experience with the mistral wind was in Saint-Tropez on the Mediterranean coast. The public parking lot was along a pier jutting into the ocean. The wind whipped up the sea and gave our car a lovely coat of salt, Michael too, on his walk back from parking. Interestingly, we had the bluest, clearest skies during this time, with views to the distant mountains. The mistral wind must drive away clouds and particulate in the air.
In contrast to the open structure keeping their bells from being harmed by the mistral winds, residents protect their homes with a thick-walled building style known as a mas, facing south for protection from the winds coming from the north. Our friends, the Youngs, told us that the mistral can last 1, 3 or 6 days and make people crazy.
We stayed in a mas in the Luberon. Our host also shared stories of the mistral, saying it could last 1, 3, 6, or even 9 days, which would surely drive a man mad. Maybe it was the mistral making us crazy enough to have an addiction for capturing photos of the mistral bells. We loved driving into towns, eyes glued to the skyline, looking for the distinctive shape. It’s hard to break the habit, even back in the U.S.