Location, Climate & Change
Everyone wants to imagine and remember Provence in it’s traditional, or some might say stereotypical state; slow paced farmers, sleepy fishing villages, ancient and eccentric peasantry, wailing cicadas and clear summer skies. However, Provence has always been a region of climatic diversity, changing populations and ever evolving cultures and cuisine.
The urban landscape of Marseille & Nice with Arab, Asian and African faces is as Provencal today as any wine or lavender featival in the rural reaches of the Vaucluse or Var. Throughout history, Provence has been a crossroads for new people & customs – Romans, Arabs, Spanish, Italians, sailors, invaders, missionaries, refugees and colonials, all have taken their turns arriving.
Because of the strategic location of Provence for transportation, war, migration and holidaymaking, new influences are always present. Most anything that moves around thewestern Mediterranean of Europe goes through or near Provence, it is the midway point around the arc of the coastline. Skirting south of the Alps and around to the edge of the Pyrennes, the Roman legions traveled to Spain and up to England through the region, immigrants came from the south came to settle and invaders, whether warriors or tourists came from the north to invade.
Western Europe is split in half with a north-south diagonal line running down the Rhone River to the Camargue Delta in Provence. The Camargue is the region of cowboys, rodeos, bullfighting, gypsies and vast swamp marshes bordered by the Mediterranean. It also represents an important stopover for migrating birds to and from Africa, as well as the famous white, wild horses of perfume commercials. To the east of the Camargue running to the border of Italy & Alps is Provence, west of the Delta running to the Spanish border & Pyrennes is the Languedoc, together these regions make up the Midi (or midday, i.e. full of sun) of France.
The climate of Provence is the one constant, in that it constantly changes and is very different according to altitude. Summer, is traditionally sunny, hot and dry with clear cool nights and by mid –August thunderstorms come through to announce the coming autumn and harvest season.
Relief from the heat can always come in the form of the Mistral, the cold wind of the north that starts blowing suddenly, sweeping down the Rhone River valley dropping temperatures 30 degrees. The wind is ceaseless and will go on maddeningly for days pounding shutters, spitting grit everywhere. In the heat of summer, its refreshing when it first arrives but more appreciated when it leaves. In the winter it’s never welcome.
Summer is the season most visitors see Provence, as in the blooming lavender fields of July in the blinding white sun & cerulian blue skies. For long stretches, the temperatures can run up to 100 degrees during the days, prompting hordes to rush to the beaches. The crowds are horrendous, but the combined colors of the Provencal sky and the Mediterranean azure are spectacular together and always offer some relief. By September the heat and sunlight decrease quickly, by mid-month snow can often be seen at the upper mountain reaches of the region.
In addition to the sea, Provence is also blessed with an abundance of ground water which may be its greatest defining feature agriculturally, and by implication culturally. Like California, the region is able to supply an impressive array of produce throughout the year because of it’s ample water & sun. Aside from irrigation, all the springs allow for human settlement with clean drinking, washing and water power for mills.
In nearly every town in Provence a gurgling fountain can be found in the main place along with a lavour for washing. While these fountains are most helpful for household needs they also act as cultural magnets for gathering, cooling off during the heat and the best possible sound to fall asleep to during a quiet country night. They’re also a Godsend for cyclists and hikers going crosscountry
Because of agriculture, population and the growth of tourism in Provence with pools, new holiday homes, campgrounds and resorts, there has been a drastic drop in the water tables. During Roman times Arles was a major port and there were much higher river water levels with boats sailing far up the now emaciated streams that trickle into the Rhone of today. Water is the life’s blood of the region and is vital to it’s survival.
Provence has changed greatly in the past 30 years, in the 70’s air conditiong was almost as rare as English speaking Procvencal, the train from Paris took 9 instead of 2.5 hours, appliances were all French and expensive (no chinese or imported!) and the EC and Euro were unimaginable — and there were many fewer tourists.
Of course there have been many other changes as well, but what is most remarkable is what has remained the same. Provence is a region where visitors and invaders have been a regular part of the diet. The same street markets have operated for hundreds of years but there are new faces, products and languages. Hey, wheat and tomatoes were new at one time. Rather than decry our loses over time, we might consider preserving the best of whats still around and remembering the rich, varied history of the region.