To many fans of Peter Mayle's writing (A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence and others) the Luberon is the heart of Provence. To us, Provence is more than just the Luberon. Nevertheless, the region offers much of what defines Provence: hilltop villages, stone houses, vineyards, olive trees, the scent of herbs and a fierce Mistral.
What better village to begin a trek through the Luberon than Ménerbes, where Mayle lived and wrote his best sellers. No doubt, he chose a most attractive area to settle down. Approaching the village, you are already struck by the landscape of rough fields alternating with rolling vineyards, all against the backdrop of the stark Luberon mountains. Here and there a stone farmhouse peeks out of the brush. Some are practically in ruins, others very well tended with lavender-colored shutters. Our skepticism takes over, when we conclude that the better preserved ones must belong to an outsider. In any case, the landscape is wide and spectacular. On the early June morning of our visit we stopped to take a picture of a field, filled with poppies.
To our delight, we found the village itself to be as rough and authentic as its surroundings. The narrow alleys, the stone houses, the now crumbling walls all indicate a history of assault and defense. In the Middle Ages, Ménerbes, with only two access roads, was considered to be a town that could not be invaded. For that reason, the protestants chose it as their refuge in the 16th Century. The army of the French King beleaguered the village for a year and eventually the protestants had to give up, but not without important concessions as to their status.
Today, you can relive its turbulent history by wandering through the narrow streets, peeking over the crumbling ramparts with a splendid view towards the south and the north, admiring the old Citadelle, a fortress from the Middle Ages and rebuilt some 200 years ago. Above all, you can admire a village that despite its recent "claim to fame" has retained an admirable authenticity.
Finally, we come back to the subject of Peter Mayle. No doubt, he has put the Luberon villages, Ménerbes and Bonnieux in particular, on the map. At an earlier visit to the Luberon, some ten years ago, we found the region swamped with visitors. Even in October, hotels were booked solid. Cars with foreign plates filled every available space. Touring cars were all over the place.
This time, the village of Ménerbes seemed peaceful. Perhaps it was the time of the year, early June, perhaps it had to do with the fact that the best sellers have somewhat faded away. We had expected that the local merchants would have taken advantage of the notoriety. Surprisingly, there are just one or two boutiques and no reference to their famous author. Even the Café du Progrès, which features in his books, is as lame and as gruff as he described it, despite the few Provençal souvenirs in its window.
The fact that Picasso lived here has almost been forgotten.