The 16th century provençal apothecary and would-be doctor Michel de Nostredame carried off one of French history’s most successful career changes when, after decades of dabbling with herbal remedies and combating the plague prevalent in France, he re-invented himself under the name Nostradamus as a seer and prophet whose almanacs and books of prophecies are even today still regarded in some quarters as Holy Writ. In perhaps one of his less ambitious moments, however, he would have looked up at the hilltop village of Ménerbes, not far from his native St-Rémy-de-Provence, and pronounced: “it looks like a ship”. And so it does: perched along the hilltop rock spine, with its Citadelle in the stern, and in the bow the Château de Castellet, with the Mairie representing the superstructure in the middle, Ménerbes sails serenely above the colourful landscape of cherry orchards and vineyards on the edge of the Parc Régional Naturel du Luberon.
Another of the “plus beaux villages de France”, Ménerbes has its first historical mention in 1081 under the name “Menerba”, in honour of the gold-helmed Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva. There are however traces of prehistoric settlements from the paleolithic and calcolithic eras, with the Dolmen of Pichouno, one of only two such ancient stone structures in the Vaucluse, standing nearby along the road to Bonnieux, and one can find as well remnants of villas and cemeteries from Roman times.
It was during the religious wars of the 16th century that Ménerbes really makes the history books. At the time it was a loyal Papal fief, but after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, it was taken over and held for five years by a contingent of Huguenot Protestants, who had to endure a 15-month siege by Catholic forces. The story goes they were able to hold out for so long thanks to a network of underground tunnels and secret passageways to the outside, which enabled them to stock up on provisions. Nevertheless, after long months of bombardment, the besieged Protestants finally capitulated in December 1578, and in a glorious procession of flags and drums marched out of the town, declaring themselves undefeated.
Since then Ménerbes has been peaceful and quiet, at least until the publication in 1989 of Peter Mayle’s "A Year in Provence", which brought the delights of the provençal villagers’ way of life to millions of readers worldwide, and, it must have seemed, about half of those in coachloads to visit the village from which the book sprung. Nowadays, the crowds have gone, and visitors to Ménerbes can enjoy its fine old buildings and tranquil atmosphere in unhurried relaxation. The Château de Castellet was home to the Russian-French painter Nicolas de Staël; one of his marvellous series of small (6” x 9”) paintings of Ménerbes sold at auction in 2007 for £240,000, a very expensive and very beautiful postcard from home.
Picasso bought a house here for his mistress and muse Dora Marr, which has since been converted, appropriately, to an art gallery. Near the 17th century Horloge (clocktower), in the listed 18th century Hotel Astier, is the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, offering for sale local delicacies and AOC vintages, as well as wine-tasting workshops. The 14th century church has beautiful views of Mont-Ventoux and over the Luberon from its churchyard; it is usually locked but ask for the key at the Mairie. The 18th century chapel of Ste-Blaise has fine wood carvings and wrought-iron balustrades. For a lighter touch, visit the Museum of the Corkscrew, a few kilometres outside the village on the road to Cavaillon. There are around a thousand different corkscrews on display going back to the 1700s, and one is invited to join the ongoing debate as to whether the corkscrew was invented by the English or the French.
Ménerbes by Nicolas de Staël