Friday, April 26, 2013

The Beast of Provence

The summit of Mont Ventoux.
Beyond the tower is a chapel built in the 15th century.
The "Beast of Provence" (also known as the "Giant of Provence" or "Bald Mountain") is actually Mont Ventoux [Mount Windy] in Provence. You have probably seen it on television: it is a major part of the Tour de France. It is made challenging not only because it is the highest mountain in the region, but also because of the high winds near the summit.

Winds blow over 50 miles per hour for the majority of the year, and speeds of 200 miles per hour have been recorded. The road over the mountain is often closed due to wind conditions.

The history of the Beast has always included an aura of foreboding, not just because of the wind. Its limestone peak—which can be seen from miles away—allows only sparse vegetation to grow, and so "Bald Mountain" appears to be barren and imposing.

Today is the anniversary of Petrarch's (1304-1374) ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336. The writer claimed he was the first to do so since antiquity, even though his very own account mentioned meeting an old shepherd who had climbed it 50 years earlier. Petrarch has been cited as the first person to climb mountains for pleasure, incidentally creating "environmental writing" along the way by describing the surroundings and being inspired to introspection by them. (One of his musings at the peak is on his years of love for Laura.)

It is unlikely, however, that Petrarch was the first person to climb the mountain since antiquity—even besides the old shepherd. Jean Buridan (c.1300-1361) took a break from teaching at the University of Paris to climb the Beast, probably years before Petrarch. As for doing it "for pleasure": there are German writing from the 10th and 11th centuries about climbing mountains as a pastime.

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