La Tramontane

I remember years ago hearing the Lerner and Loewe show tune They Call the Wind Maria and thinking “what a funny idea to name a wind!” Since then, I’ve come to realize that in Southern California there are the hot, wildfire-producing Santa Anas and that other strong currents of air have been given names around the world. And, well, after all, if we can label hurricanes and now even snowstorms, why not the wind? The South of France is home to two big ones: the mistral coming down the Rhone Valley from the Alps which I blogged about once from Provence and the tramontane which we’re getting to know intimately this trip.

The word tramontane itself, “across the mountains,” has been around for quite a while. And when I say “quite a while” I mean Marco Polo wrote about it in the 1200s! Other countries use the same term, or their version of it, for their own mountain currents. Our French tramontane refers to a cold, dry and sometimes violent wind. It comes down from the Pyrenees or between them and the mountains of the Massif Central. It blows through this area all year long, though not all the time. In summer it provides a welcome relief from the stifling heat. But in winter, let’s face it, it can be just plain chilling. At times it howls enough to make you wonder if the house can sustain the hurricane force or it might even wake you up at night. It’s such a part of life, though, that inhabitants are well-prepared for it and everything is pretty well anchored down.  Even the plants and trees seem to shrug it off.

Tales about the tramontane have even entered into local legend. Like the famous foehn in Switzerland, some folks think it causes moments of insanity which can be used to explain criminal behavior in court cases. Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, seems to have been a believer himself. In one of his poems he wrote that “The wind coming across the mountain will drive me crazy.” Mostly, though, it just causes mild discomfort. Like when we’re walking back from the grocery store with our hats ready to blow away and our bags which feel like kites about to take off. The plus side, of course, is that, while Languedoc-Roussillon is the windiest region of France, it’s also the sunniest. That gusty tramontane really has the ability to blow the clouds away. So that kind of trade-off, in my mind, is worth it.

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